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Losing Tom Brady Is Unlikely To Doom The Patriots

Here we go again.

When news broke last May that Tom Brady would be suspended for four games for his role in the divisive Deflategate scandal, we scrambled to tell you what that meant for the Patriots and how it might affect their bottom line. In September, that suspension was vacated by a U.S. District Court judge in what we considered to be moderately good news for the Patriots. Then, on Monday morning, a split panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated that suspension, and we’re right back where we started. Pending further litigation, Brady will likely miss the first four games of the season, against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills.

So how worried should Pats fans be? Honestly, we don’t know. Our best guesses last year were that Brady was probably worth somewhere in the range of 5 points per game, or possibly about half a win every four games, and in the one season he missed the Patriots finished 11-5 – about one game below Brady’s career average. On the other hand, player value in the NFL is largely a mystery, and seeing Peyton Manning’s Colts implode (or possibly tank) after his 2011 neck injury, it would seem that the upper range of possible value for a top QB may be higher than we thought.

Thus, the range of possible outcomes runs from the Pats’ being a bit worse without Brady to their being utterly terrible. But with only four games, there are a pretty discrete number of outcomes. That is, the modest estimates would suggest that losing zero to one more games than usual is the most likely scenario, and the most drastic estimate possible can only produce a four-game swing.

Here’s what those scenarios would have produced in the previous years of Brady’s career, had he missed the first four games:

EFFECT ON PATRIOTS PLAYOFF POSITIONING
SEASON WINS RESULT ONE-LOSS COST POSSIBLE ARMAGEDDON COST
2015 12 Lost Conf Bye 4 Playoffs and bye
2014 12 Won SB Possible bye 2 Bye and home field
2013 12 Lost Conf Possible bye 4 Playoffs and bye
2012 12 Lost Conf Bye 2 Bye
2011 13 Lost SB Possible home field 3 Bye and home field
2010 14 Lost Div Nothing 3 Bye and home field
2009 10 Lost WC Possible playoffs 3 Playoffs
2008 11 Out Nothing 2 Playoffs and bye*
2007 16 Lost SB Nothing 4 Home field
2006 12 Lost Conf Nothing 3 Playoffs
2005 10 Lost Div Possible playoffs 2 Playoffs
2004 14 Won SB Nothing 4 Bye
2003 14 Won SB Possible home field 2 Bye and home field
2002 9 Out Nothing 3 Nothing
2001 11 Won SB Bye 3 Bye and home field*
What if Tom Brady missed four games every year?

*Includes games that Brady played only part of as possible losses if won and possible wins if lost

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The lefthand “cost” column assumes that the Patriots lost one more game in their first four than they did each year, and sees how it would have affected their playoff positioning. There were no seasons in which a single game would have necessarily cost them a playoff berth (though two in which they might have missed depending on tiebreakers). Two of the seasons when they won Super Bowls came when they had byes, which they might have lost without Brady.

The Armageddon scenario presumes that the Patriots would have lost every game that Brady actually won as a starter, and conversely, that they would have won every game in which Brady did not play if he had been available. To be extra cruel, I’ve assumed all tiebreakers went against them as well.

Unsurprisingly, this turns out a lot worse, as the Pats miss the playoffs in six of the 15 years they made it. However, it’s worth pointing out that they would NOT have missed the playoffs in any of the years when they actually won the Super Bowl. So if they were really on a Super Bowl trajectory this year, they may still have a fighting chance, even if Tom Brady is as good as his fans think.

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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