“He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.” — Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar
“Don’t think — it can only hurt the ballclub.” — Crash Davis, Bull Durham
The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, but here in the deepest-blue region of the country, the jubilation is tempered with anxiety. We are none of us confident of victory. The arrogant, haughty, overconfident Patriots fan of old, or at least the last decade, is an endangered species. They started disappearing en masse on February 3, 2008, when the Patriots’ high-flying 2007 season ended with a whimper in a shocking Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, 17– 14.
Every season since has led to further worry. The 2008 season ended with an 11–5 record, but no playoff berth as the Patriots lost Tom Brady for the campaign in the first game. The 2009 season ended in a crushing loss to the Baltimore Ravens in a game where the Patriots never had a lead. The 2010 playoffs ended in even more brutal fashion with a lopsided divisional-series loss to the archrival New York Jets only a month after crushing them, 45–3, on Monday Night Football.
As a lifelong red-blooded New Englander, I do not hide my deep and abiding man-crush on Tom Brady, the first true Boston sports hero since Larry Bird. So it pains me deeply to write that the future Hall of Fame quarterback is the common denominator in each of the losses above.
In the Super Bowl against the Giants, New England had less than 100 passing yards in the first half, and Brady looked tentative all night. He started the Ravens game with a fumble, a three-and-out, and two interceptions, finishing with a dismal QB rating of 49.1. For context, Brady’s career QB rating is 96.4, fourth-best in NFL history. On January 17, 2011, USA Today covered the game against the Jets with the headline, “Patriots’ loss shines light on Tom Brady’s playoff woes.” The Boston Herald noted that Brady’s vision of the field and open receivers seemed to shrink during the game.
This year, the Patriots ended the regular season with a 13-3 record and once again had Wildcard Weekend off. Against the Denver Broncos in second-round action, Brady had the kind of game we remember from the glory days. With 26 of 34 passing for 363 yards and an NFL-record 6 touchdowns, Brady recorded an unworldly QB rating of 137.6. The highest possible is 158.3 and anything over 125 is considered spectacular.
This may have been more a reflection of the deficiencies of the Denver team than a renaissance for the New England quarterback. The very next week, against the much stouter Ravens defense, Brady struggled. He recorded no passing touchdowns, two interceptions, and an anemic 239 passing yards, finishing with a disappointing QB rating of 57.5.
How did one of the greatest clutch big-game performers ever to play become a playoff mediocrity? Maybe even a liability.
The theories echo through every office building, worksite, and sports bar in New England. The lines to sports talk stations are perpetually jammed with callers needing to speak their minds on what happened to Number 12.
“He’s gone soft. Gisele domesticated him. Defenses have learned to confuse him. He wilts under the blitz. Brady is too afraid of taking a hit since his knee injury. We should never have let (assistant coaches) Weiss and Crennel leave.”
Maybe science offers a better explanation.
Think: When did Brady start to struggle? When history was on the line. When he was on the verge of the only 19–0 season ever, while breaking every major passing record.
Brady is a student of the game and apprentice to the Great Hooded One, arguably the NFL’s most comprehensive historian. Brady knows more than the rest of us what that fourth championship ring will truly mean: immortality. The fourth ring places him on par with his childhood hero Joe Montana as a champion. The rest of his career — the MVPs, the passing records, the 16–0 2007 season — surpasses Montana and Brady becomes the Greatest of All Time.
Brady has become too distracted by what postseason success means to his legacy to just let go and play the game. He is thinking too much. A great athlete displays unconscious competence, which is high performance achieved by reflex without thinking. This is what all of those thousands of hours of practice achieve, moving action from conscious though to reflex, but outside thoughts disrupt the flow of unconscious muscle memory.
Let’s examine a case report from Psychology Today. An expert trap shooter, who routinely hits 22 of each 25 traps released, noted that he had gotten to 24 for 24 shooting on over 20 occasions in his life. Not once had he hit the target to shoot a perfect 25 for 25. “Every single time when I reach my last shot, I switch from not even thinking about hitting the target to repeatedly telling myself, ‘Don’t miss. Don’t miss.’”
This means Brady isn’t looking flustered and missing receivers because defenses have adjusted and are hitting him. Nor has he gotten soft. Soft, easily rattled quarterbacks don’t have 13–3 and 14–2 regular seasons, as Brady has these past two years.
He is slow to check receivers because the distraction of becoming the Greatest of All Time has basically switched his decision-making process from automatic to manual. Rather than scanning the field and absorbing the needed information, he has moved to conscious thought: “Option 1? No. Option 2? No. Option 3? Maybe.” By then the passing pocket is collapsing and Brady really is facing pressure, maybe even being sacked.
The Great Hooded One has taken notice. Bill Belichick had Brady take a knee — twice!!! — in the final minute of the first half of the most recent Ravens game rather than run a play. Clearly, he did not want to risk Brady making a poor passing decision in a hurry-up offense.
If I could do anything to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl (and don’t put it past me), I would have a sports psychologist move in with Brady and the supermodel missus. They could talk at great length, reminding the quarterback that he has already met every goal he has set for himself. That he is already among football royalty. That he has nothing further to prove to anyone else. That Montana already concedes Brady’s greatness. Remind him that football is a game he has mastered and to trust his instincts, letting his inner Brady shine through.
After all, Brady’s playoff woes are a problem that just a little lack of thought will solve.