Thanks to the messy saga that was Deflategate, Tom Brady played only 12 games during the 2016 season. Those 12 games, though, were among the most efficient of his 17-year career.
Brady completed 67.4 percent of his passes, the second-best mark of his career. He averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, the third-best mark of his career. His passer rating of 112.2 was the second-best mark of his career, as was his QBR of 83.0 (though QBR only goes back to 2006). Brady threw a touchdown pass on 6.5 percent of his attempts, the fourth-best mark of his career. He threw an interception on a career-low 0.5 percent of his pass attempts. The Patriots' 11-1 record in his starts marked the second-best season winning percentage of his career.
His best season in all but one of those categories was 2007, when he completed 68.9 percent of his passes, averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, threw a touchdown pass on 8.7 percent of his attempts, had a passer rating of 117.2 and a QBR of 88.2, and led the Patriots to a 16-0 regular-season record. The Patriots also set the all-time scoring record, though the mark was later broken by Peyton Manning's 2013 Denver Broncos squad.
With their moves this offseason, the Patriots put Brady in position to have yet another sparkling season at the age of 40 -- one where if all goes as well as possible, they might be able to challenge the scoring record yet again. In Brady's 15 games (including the playoffs) last season, the Patriots scored 464 points. Extrapolated over 16 games, that's 495 points, which would be tied for the 21st-best scoring season of all time. On a per-game basis, it would leave the Patriots seven points per game short of the 2013 Broncos.
Weapons in place
So, how can the Patriots manufacture an extra touchdown per game this season? It starts with personnel.
First of all, Brady will be in the lineup right from the jump rather than starting four games into the season, which will help keep the entire team in rhythm. Rob Gronkowski seems likely to miss at least a game (he always does), but he played in only eight games last season. That's the second-lowest total of his career. He has played at least 11 games in five of his seven seasons and at least 15 in four of them. He's coming off another season-ending injury, but the Pats just re-worked his deal to make him the highest-paid tight end in the league (if he hits his incentives), so they seem to think he's going to be ready to go by the start of the season. They should get more than eight games from him this time around. He has never scored fewer than 10 touchdowns in a season when he has hit that 11-game mark.
It's not just Gronk that figures to be healthier. Dion Lewis missed the first nine games while recovering from a torn ACL suffered midway through the 2015 season. It took him a few more weeks to ramp up to a full workload.
The Pats built the remainder of their running back corps in a way that should amplify Brady's skill at throwing to players coming out of the backfield. James White, now the all-time record holder for most catches in a Super Bowl (and who Brady himself said should have won Super Bowl MVP), is back on board. Rex Burkhead, formerly of the Bengals, is now with the Pats as well. The Bengals ran a pass play 64 percent of the time he was on the field over the past three years, per Pro Football Focus. Mike Gillislee is in line to take on the power running role that used to belong to LeGarrette Blount, but considering his career high is 101 carries, the Pats seem likely to lean on the pass-catchers much more heavily.
There has never been anybody better than Brady at identifying before the snap which player will come open quickest, then getting the ball in his hands and letting him go to work. Three of his four running backs now excel in that situation, and they're not the only ones on the roster for whom that's true.
There were 81 wide receivers that were on the field for at least 550 snaps last season. Each of the Patriots' top three receivers (Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and the newly acquired Brandin Cooks) is among them. None of them ranked lower than 30th in yards after contact per reception. Hogan was seventh, Edelman 25th and Cooks 30th.
Edelman and Brady practically have a mind-meld on short option routes -- he has averaged at least six catches and 66 yards per game and has at least a 62 percent catch rate in each of the past four seasons. Hogan's first season with the team was a great success, as he led the NFL with 17.9 yards per reception. Cooks fits the profile of a Brady-type wideout in that he's short, quick and shifty, but he also has the kind of deep-threat speed this team hasn't had since the heyday of Randy Moss. He had 11 catches on throws 20 yards or more down the field last season, sixth most in the NFL. Brady's deep ball looked better last season than it had in years. Only Matt Ryan had a better passer rating on passes of 20-plus yards. There's still room in the rotation for the emerging Malcolm Mitchell -- 32 catches for 401 yards and four scores as a rookie -- as well as Danny Amendola, newly acquired slot man Andrew Hawkins, or both.
Sure, Brady lost Martellus Bennett after just one year, but the Pats acquired Dwayne Allen to replace him. Allen has been threatening to break out in Indianapolis for years, if only Andrew Luck didn't need him to stay in and block so often (21 percent of pass plays) because the offensive line was so bad. As it is, he scored 14 touchdowns in Luck's past two healthy seasons. Bennett had seven scores last year as Gronkowski's understudy and fill-in starter. Allen doesn't quite have the same skill set, but he's still a dangerous weapon.
Brady has had better high-end options in his career (Moss and Wes Welker in '07 were about as good as it gets), but he has never had a group of weapons this deep. More weapons on the field just means wide passing lanes for Brady, which means even more efficiency. If they keep completing their passes, the Pats can even speed up the pace a bit, allowing them to run even more plays. They snapped the ball every 27.51 seconds last season, per Football Outsiders, making them only the 15th-fastest outfit in the league. The Saints were almost a second and a half faster, just by way of example. If they ramp it up a notch, they can put even more points on the board.
Another factor that points toward more scoring for the Patriots next season is their performance in context-neutral factors that would goose a team's scoring. New England was one of only four teams that didn't get a single defensive or special teams touchdown in 2016. The average was 2.4 per team, which was down from 3.5 the year before and 3.3 the year before that. If we assume the three-year average of 3.1 per team, that's an extra 21 points right there.
New England also coincidentally had unusually below-average special teams in 2016, including one of the least efficient seasons of Stephen Gostkowski's career. One of the best kickers in the league ranked only average in conversion rate on both extra points and field goals, leaving an extra 4-6 points on the field with his substandard performance. The Pats also converted only two of their five two-point conversions, a below-average rate by about nine percent. The Patriots' average of 6.9 yards per punt return ranked 25th in the NFL, and their average kick return of 18.7 yards ranked 27th. Even average performances in those areas next season would lead to a boost in scoring, and above-average performances could goose the point totals even more.
Then there's the schedule. The Patriots face only four teams that finished in the top 10 in defensive DVOA last season, while they have seven games against teams that finished 21st or worse. The quality of defenses obviously changes from season to season, but it's not like the Jets, Bills, Dolphins or Saints had some major influx of difference-making defensive talent that is going to disrupt the New England machine.
Is it a guarantee the Patriots will approach or challenge for the scoring title next season? Of course not. Only one team in NFL history has topped 600 points, and it took arguably the greatest quarterback season ever for them to get there. But Brady has played at or near that level before, and he was as good as ever last season. He now has a full season and a whole host of weapons designed to make his job even easier. If anyone's going to make a run at it, it's these guys.