Patriots

Dr. Flynn: There’s little doubt Tom Brady is dealing with a physical issue, but that doesn’t explain everything

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(Adam Richins for BSJ)

An interesting back and forth between NFL Network's Mike Giardi and Tom Brady on Brady's health this week...

Giardi: You’re gonna love this question, Tom. There's been a lot of discussion about you on the sidelines not only with the new shoes but also doing some jogging, especially in the second half which is something that veteran observers of Tom Brady have not witnessed very often. Just curious what was going on there?

Brady: Nothing just .., no, I felt good. I don’t think the white shoes are going to make it this week though. They’re going to put those things back to bed. They’re not making the cut for this game so I’m back to my dark-colored shoes.

Giardi: And, while I’ve got you, you talk about things that you needed to improve from last week. Was some of that mechanical? It looked at times like … I mean, you’re obviously a tactician when it comes to that stuff, so, did you get a little screwy up with the mechanics?

Brady: You know those are always important. You know, I wish they were perfect every week. And I do think sometimes you get a little off and you’ve got to just go back to the fundamentals and, you know, study some mechanics and stuff like that. So, I try to focus on that every week, some weeks a little more than others, but you know it’s a game of skill it’s game of technique it’s…you know, if you’re a golfer, you know not every shot goes150 yards for me at least. Not even for the pro golfers. Every jump shot doesn’t go in. It just doesn’t happen like that. So sometimes passing the football is a little like that too. There are some days where you feel like man everywhere you’re aiming it’s just going and then sometimes the timing is a little bit off, decisiveness is a little bit off. It could be mental, it could be physical. But all of those things play a factor and you just try to get back to the spot where you really feel like you’re most confident. So, but it wasn’t…yeah.

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The regular season is over and lately, Tom Brady hasn’t looked like himself. His performance over the past month has been erratic — a good play, drive, or game followed by overthrown balls, broken mechanics, and miscues. Everyone wants to find a reason why. It must be the elbow, or fledgling receivers who can’t follow routes. Brady’s in new cleats — maybe it’s his legs. We’re all searching for a cause because few want to face the thought that this could be it. Brady is another year older and his contract expires at the final whistle of the Patriots’ next loss or world championship. With every blip in the lulling sound of the Brady performance baseline, we grab the paddles from the crash cart and are ready to shock.

Yeah, I’m just going to grab those paddles from you. This isn’t an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

Brady’s performance is not flatlining. What I see in games is that Brady is generally not moving as confidently in the pocket now as he was at the beginning of the season. His footwork looks tighter and his typically balanced mechanics and quick release are not regularly present. He hasn’t looked “off” in every game, though. He was better against the Bills just a few weeks ago. This is not a case of Brady falling off a cliff.

Injuries are likely contributing to Brady’s performance issues. Reports surfaced in early December that Brady is dealing with throwing elbow tendonitis and he has been on and off of the injury report with a throwing elbow injury. After a direct blow from an opponent’s helmet against the Chiefs a few weeks ago, Brady’s elbow was wrapped in ice for the post-game presser. He described the issue as “a new injury … this isn’t the old elbow.” So the shaking out of the arm after throws could be attributed to tendonitis that was compounded for a few weeks by a bad bruise. A throwing elbow injury like this can lead to some of the inconsistent accuracy and short to mid-range power we’ve seen over the past month or so. But that’s not the whole story. It doesn’t explain footwork issues.

Brady is a creature of habit. He doesn’t just decide to change cleats in December to be trendy. He has tried two new pairs of cleats in the past month. Neither new pair appears to be very different — still the clunkier, more supportive style of turf shoe that I make my kids wear - but I suspect there is some subtle difference. If Brady is managing a foot issue, it could potentially be helped with the addition of better padding or more rigid support or more room in the toe box. Brady was listed with a toe issue on the injury report in week 14, so it could it be the same issue. A toe injury, in particular an injury to the big toe on the back foot, could interfere with footwork and prevent him from pushing off to transfer power from his back to front foot during the throwing motion.

Then again, so could a lot of things. It is late December. Only 12 teams are left standing and some of them, the Patriots included, are standing only with the assistance of crutches and a good tape job. Brady is likely dealing with more than we know about. He got a new brace for his lead leg this season. Over 10 years out from knee ligament reconstruction, maybe that’s bugging him a bit. Brady files those things under “it’s December in the NFL.”

When I look at Tom Brady’s mechanics, demeanor (including shaking out his arm and jogging on the sidelines), and inconsistent performance over the past few weeks, I can’t help but think that they’re not explained by his physical health alone.

I went back and watched every pass that Brady made in an NFL game this season. Almost everything I’ve written about — inconsistency in his mechanics and shying away from pressure — is in response to a direct comparison between Brady this September/October to Brady this December.

All of the passes were in the post-Gronk era. I think that we can all agree that a lot has changed for the Patriots’ offense since September. Let’s start with his offensive line. Veteran starting center, David Andrews, went to IR with pulmonary emboli. While Ted Karras has filled Andrews’ shoes well, he was out for a few weeks with an injury of his own. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn was on IR for over 2 months with a toe injury and has been playing catch-up ever since. Marcus Cannon has been hobbled by an ankle injury. In the running game, fullback James Develin went to IR with a neck injury. On the receiving end, Josh Gordon is gone. For better or for worse, there is no Antonio Brown. Matt LaCosse has shown that he can be a tight end threat, but has had difficulty staying healthy with an apparent high ankle injury followed by a knee sprain. And the biggest issue of them all — Brady’s favorite target, Julian Edelman, has been overused and is a shell of himself on the field with very painful rib, shoulder, and knee injuries. That’s a lot of inconsistency on offense. Typically, in spite of injuries, the Patriots’ offense gels and improves as the season goes on — not the case this time around.

The more that I watch, the more I am convinced that this can’t just be a physical thing. A lacerated throwing thumb or obvious knee sprain has not held Tom Brady back in the past when the playoffs rolled around. Week 17 was a playoff-like game for the Patriots, so if this was purely a physical issue, what gives? Like most things in life, Brady’s uncharacteristically erratic performance is likely a combination of both physical and mental issues. It is easy to understand how a foot or knee injury could slow down footwork and decrease confidence in the pocket. A painful elbow could intermittently affect accuracy. On top of both of those factors, a receiving group that sometimes struggles to get separation or run the correct route coupled with a few bad games by the offensive line could slow down a quarterback’s decision-making time. All of these things are inextricably linked.

There is no doubt that Brady is dealing with some physical issues that could impact his play. The good news is that Brady has shown us before that he can manage playing through pain. If he can clear any of the mental fog that came between him and his best game last weekend, and the rest of the offense responds, we could be in for a great bounce-back performance from the quarterback this week.

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Dr. Jessica Flynn is a sports medicine physician at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, MA. She writes about injuries in professional sports on her blog, DocFlynn.com. You can follow her on Twitter @jessdeede.

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