Because Tom Brady has accomplished so many remarkable things on the football field, he might have been placed on too high of a pedestal in 2009, when it was widely believed he could recover from his knee injury and return to his brilliant form. However, Brady struggled when it mattered most, yielding a major question heading into 2010: Can Tom Brady be better in the fourth quarter?
Not that anyone would blame him for it, but perhaps it was Brady's own doing in regard to those high expectations. He rallied the Patriots from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit in the season opener against the Bills, completing 11-of-13 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns to lift New England to a 25-24 victory. See? It was like he hadn’t even left, let alone shredded his knee.
But Brady only led one game-winning drive all season, which set a career low (including the playoffs, and discounting the lost year of 2008). He struggled mightily in the fourth quarter in 2009, particularly with the game on the line. After the Buffalo game, Brady had four opportunities to drive the Patriots to a late win — Week 2 against the Jets, Week 5 against the Broncos, Week 13 against the Dolphins and Week 17 against the Texans.
In those four penultimate drives, Brady was a combined 3-for-10 for 25 yards, two interceptions, one fumble and no touchdowns. That doesn’t include Brady's miserable fourth-quarter interception during an earlier drive in Miami, either.
All four of those games were also on the road, and there were definite character issues that plagued the Patriots away from Gillette Stadium last season, too. But, while those defeats weren’t squarely on Brady's shoulders, it's worth wondering if he just didn’t have the gas to compete late in games due to his recovery process. Clearly, he wasn’t the same guy who had orchestrated 29 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
By the time the Patriots open the season against the Bengals, Brady will be two full years removed from his left knee injury, and he'll be better conditioned for those late-game situations. In 2009 late-and-close situations, which are defined as games that are within eight points in the fourth quarter, Brady completed just 37-of-69 passes (53.6 percent) for 313 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Yikes.
There could be other factors that led to the decline in those numbers — no continuity with the third receiver, guys just didn’t step up, better crunch-time coverage on Randy Moss and Wes Welker — or maybe it was just a crazy coincidence.
However, it's impossible to ignore the most significant facts. Brady was coming off of the most devastating injury of his career, and he was at his worst in the fourth quarter on a consistent level for the first time ever.
Will Brady be better in 2010, or is this the start of a downward trend? His overall body of work suggests his 2009 fourth-quarter struggles were just a blip, and he'll be back on his game next season.
NESN.com will be answering one Patriots question every day until July 24.
Wednesday, June 23: How will the Patriots generate a pass rush?
Friday, June 25: Will there be a consistent effort to run the football?