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Tom Brady’s Return Gave Us Everything (Except A Well-Played Game)

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Hello from the other side … of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick reunion. Week 4 of the NFL season brought us the long-awaited and much-hyped return of Brady to New England — and it gave us a very loud doink that allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to leave Foxborough with a narrow win.

I’ll admit that I spent the last week rolling my eyes at the hype, thinking the Bucs would make easy work of the Patriots. And instead we got a back-and-forth, meme-filled affair. Were you guys surprised at how that game went down?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I thought the football was very bad in the first half and did not find the game particularly entertaining until late. I think the hype kind of infused what was a close but pretty poorly played game.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m shocked by how much the Bucs struggled to score. I know the rain was a factor. But it seemed like a combination of Brady pressing and Belichick being a master to the pupil. 

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah, for all the hype, it was not the prettiest game, with weather conditions obviously playing a role. But I was impressed that the Pats kept it as competitive as they did, right down nearly to the end.

New England’s defense played well, I thought, although this is how they have to play now. Grind it out, defend well and hope to squeak out enough points to win.

Salfino: It was actually a very boring game in terms of the plays that were made. The only interesting thing was the score.

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joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s a good summation, Mike. But good writing did come out of it, like this piece by Seth Wickersham on Brady and Belichick. 

The big news is that Brady and Belichick talked for 20 minutes after the game, and Brady may retire a Patriot.

sara.ziegler: That would really be something. He has to, right?

Salfino: I want Brady and Belichick to be on good terms. It was ugly during the week, but I’m glad things have worked out. Those guys are going to have to live the rest of their lives connected together. They only happen to be apart at the moment. It’s temporary.

neil: That would be in keeping with the spirit of last night. The fans gave Brady a standing ovation when he came out on the field, and then of course booed him once the game started.

Fan cognitive dissonance, but totally understandable.

sara.ziegler: I feel like that’s the right approach tbh. “We love you for what you did — now please fail.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: I loved the in-game quotes from fans, some talking about how watching Brady win was like seeing their ex get married. 

Salfino: I’m not a fan of booing, tbh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wait, what??

You’re from New York!

sara.ziegler: How……

Mac Jones landing and holding the ball on the ground

related: These Rookie QBs Are In A (Terrible) League Of Their Own Read more. »

Salfino: I know. I just don’t partake in booing. If you’re a fan of the team, it’s like booing your kids.

joshua.hermsmeyer: You boo players because you CAN’T boo your kids, Mike. 

Salfino: Did I feel like booing my kids at their soccer games? Of course I did. But did I? I did not.

sara.ziegler: Wowwwww

neil: To be fair, Mike is a fan of a team that boos its own fans.        

Salfino: True that.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Aside from this revelation about Mike, let’s talk about how the game wrapped up — we had yet another weird end-of-game scenario play out for us. Were you guys a fan of Belichick kicking the field goal with a minute left and down 2?

Salfino: No, that was horrible.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: Even if he makes it, there’s 59 seconds left, and Brady will win.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The models were all over the place. I don’t think the evidence, such as it is, has much to say on this one. If you average them, it says to go, though, and I think that’s probably right.

Salfino: I’m shocked the kick was that close. So maybe that justifies it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Now, there is the lighthouse theory

After previous games, Belichick had noted that kicking toward Gillette Stadium’s lighthouse is harder than away from it, and they were away. And if you make it, the Bucs would have to kick toward it. But I think all of this is a bridge too far. You don’t give the ball back to Tom Brady with a minute left. 

neil: Plus, Nick Folk has only made three kicks of 55 yards or longer in his entire career, and this one was in bad weather.

sara.ziegler: The weather was huge, and it did almost go in! But this is another example of what we’ve seen in big games so far this season: Even if you make it, you’re giving the ball back to someone who is pretty good at game-winning drives.

Would have been fun to see if Brady had yet another game-winner in him.

neil: Oh, yeah, I would have liked to see it!

Salfino: With four downs and a minute, I would have made Brady the favorite there.

neil: That ending was the one we were all hoping for.

Salfino: I was hoping for the ending of hearing about Mac Jones’s GPA.

neil: Jones’s GPA is the new “Ryan Fitzpatrick Went To Harvard.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: I had the game muted, but I saw you lost a bet with no one in particular regarding a fifth of gin, Mike.

Salfino: That was hyperbole! I don’t even drink. I didn’t think it was possible he would say it AGAIN.

Alabama is the Harvard of the Deep South.

joshua.hermsmeyer: And Sacramento State is the Harvard of the West.

neil: As someone who went to the MIT of the South … I have no comment.

Salfino: I majored in lunch at college.

sara.ziegler: Amazing, all of this.

But let’s talk about Jones — and not his grades.

Salfino: I give him a B for Boring. 

sara.ziegler: The conversation on the broadcast — and on Twitter — focused quite a bit on how well he played. But … did he? Should Pats fans be excited over this performance?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Of the first-round rookie QBs who have been pretty terrible all year but were decent this week — if not downright exciting — Jones is the most boring.

Justin Fields was better, IMO.

Salfino: Brady is 100 years old, but Jones plays like an old man.

neil: Jones had a Total QBR of 46. Only 2.5 percent of his attempts went 20 or more yards downfield. But he did complete a lot of short passes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

sara.ziegler: A big improvement from his 45.4 QBR last week

neil: Against a defense that is theoretically good but hasn’t necessarily looked as good so far this year. But in bad weather.

So overall, I guess it was the definition of a meh performance. Neither good nor bad.

Salfino: Jones will never drive the bus. He will ride the bus. So the Patriots better get some explosive skill players. They currently have none.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jones is young and mentally tough, and that’s what Belichick wants: someone he can berate and belittle to show the team that no one is above being destroyed in the service of winning.

Except the Patriots don’t win anymore. 

neil: It’s hard to consistently win when you score 17.8 points per game. (Granted, they are allowing only 17.5 PPG.)

Salfino: How do we know Jones is mentally tough? He had it so hard at Alabama?

sara.ziegler: High GPA = mental toughness, obviously.

neil: Something something Nick Saban something something Belichick.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Never forget that the two greatest coaches of all time in the NFL and college football were under one roof in Cleveland and were utterly average.

sara.ziegler: One of the great mysteries of coaching.

neil: Forget “running backs don’t matter” — is this the genesis of a “coaches don’t matter” galaxy brain take?

Salfino: There were extenuating circumstances, to be fair.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s more of an “it’s the QB, stupid” take.

neil: Vinny Testaverde was good! (With the 1998 Jets.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: haha

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Salfino: Eric Zeier, There Ain’t None Higher”

(I remember that sign.)

neil: Mike Tomczak, We’re On The Attack”

(presumably another sign)

But yes, Belichick’s Cleveland teams were generally good defensively and mediocre offensively. Which actually kind of describes the post-Brady Patriots, too.

Salfino: The 2021 Patriots are 0-3 at home and thus done. 

neil: They also have a -2 turnover differential. All of the familiar Brady-era Patriots hallmarks are not really holding up as well without him.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, they are 8-12 since Brady left. And if you want to say they would be even worse without Belichick, I won’t argue at all. But finding small edges really only works when your QB is generally excellent and not hemorrhaging win probability.

Salfino: Belichick created the perfect incubator for Brady and deserves credit for that because that made Brady’s career. But after all that time, Brady didn’t need an environment anymore. He became his own universe.

But now that I think about it, he did find the better, far more optimal environment in Tampa Bay.

neil: That’s a great point, Mike. Early career Brady was nothing overly special statistically, and those teams relied more on their defenses to win. But that experience led to Brady becoming the centerpiece of some truly ridiculous offenses later on (and then winning more). And by the end, he had outgrown the Patriots’ environment, as you said.

(It also helped that Tampa offered a much better supporting cast, which he could slide into and have instant success.)

sara.ziegler: I do wonder what, exactly, Belichick can create for Jones. But let’s move on from this game and talk about the other rookie QBs. Josh detailed last week how terrible the first-rounders had been in the first three weeks in the season, and each of the four who started in Week 3 had a better Total QBR in Week 4. (Interestingly, Jones made the smallest improvement, though he had the highest starting point.) Do we feel better about these rookies after this week? 

Salfino: I’ll just throw this out here:

neil: Wilson was a lot better this week. I know that’s not saying much, but he was genuinely a lot better.

Salfino: We did know that Wilson could make the electric plays. The question was whether he could take the easy stuff that the defense gives him, and the jury is still out on that one. In a lot of ways, he’s like a rookie Josh Allen: an exceptional talent but an unknown when it comes to playing in structure. And of course, the Jets have to create a winning environment for him. I’d rather have the exceptional ability and worry about the basics.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Since Fields had the smallest sample and was climbing out of the deepest, darkest hole (1 net yard passing last week), I thought this week was a massive improvement for his outlook. His deep passes were elite in ball placement and timing. His athletic ability is apparent. He is a very exciting player.

Smash some easy buttons for him as he learns the game, and watch out.

Salfino: Totally agree on Fields. I give him a lot of credit. He was not asked to do much, but that feels like quibbling under the circumstances.

neil: Start No. 2 against a weak Lions defense at home is a better way to ease into things and start to build confidence.

Salfino: Absolutely. The Lions are allowing 9.0 net yards per attempt.

sara.ziegler: Much better than facing Myles Garrett.

neil: Right, doing well in start No. 1 on the road against Cleveland’s defense was a tough ask. 

Salfino: I was not impressed by Trey Lance, and that’s a controversial take if you believe Twitter. I don’t think it should be. I don’t know what those people were watching. This isn’t fantasy football — it’s reality.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the smart analysts are honest that Lance isn’t a passer yet. He has bad mechanics and no real sense of who to throw to in structure, but he’s super athletic and can make bad plays good.

Salfino: Lance throws 90 mph knuckleballs. The dude struggles to throw a spiral, and his passes are borderline uncatchable. I don’t think he’s remotely ready to be anything more than an emergency injury replacement. I’ll be shocked, not surprised, SHOCKED, if he plays well, assuming he has to play for two or three games.

sara.ziegler: You didn’t think his find of an extremely wide-open Deebo Samuel for a 76-yard touchdown signaled that he had arrived??

neil: Hey, he was missing some other throws we would classify as easy, Sara, so hitting that was no guarantee!

Salfino: He was woefully short on that throw, but Samuel had miles of space.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners have lost six straight home games. I think we should be questioning the sideline a little bit at this point.

Salfino: Jon Gruden is the coach we thought Kyle Shanahan would be?

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

You may be right!

Salfino: Think about it. Gruden is mocked, and what does Shanahan have over him? They share weaknesses in not being CEO coaches and being shaky with personnel.

Gruden is not worse in designing offense than Shanahan.

sara.ziegler: 🔥

The one rookie QB we didn’t talk about is Trevor Lawrence, who was markedly better this week by QBR. Are we coming around on him at all?

Salfino: Lawrence is too big to fail. Urban Meyer was even in a partying mood after that loss, seeing Lawrence.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Lawrence will grind out this year but, unlike Meyer, will have a long NFL career.

Salfino: That was all God’s plan, Josh.

I mean, of course Lawrence is good.

neil: Yeah, as long as Lawrence didn’t have a Ryan Leaf-style rookie implosion season, this year was kind of irrelevant in terms of the week-to-week results for him and the Jags. Even with some struggles earlier, nobody was really doubting his potential. It’s a bad situation, which is what we always throw No. 1 overall QBs into and watch them struggle.

Salfino: Wait, another Wilson bomb is coming in!

(Like Babe Ruth calling his shot.)

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Hero Ball: It’s great when it works

Salfino: Wilson can’t be boring. Don’t ask him to be.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I get whiplash with your Jets depression followed by absolute mania, Mike. It must be a heady time for you after the Jets held their first fourth-quarter lead of the year, immediately lost it, then squeaked by with a win.

Salfino: I was rooting for overtime, Josh. I don’t care if they win or not. Wilson is fun but far, FAR from a sure thing. He’s either going to be thrown out of the league or turn out great. No in-between.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m trying to imagine this probability distribution …

sara.ziegler: Gather ye last-second wins while ye may, Jets fans.

Salfino: Wilson needs to find a little of boring Jones to ground his game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Wilson-Jones Frankenstein.

sara.ziegler: That’s what we didn’t know we needed.

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Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.