How does Tom Brady’s 2016 season compare to his other Super Bowl campaigns?
When Tom Brady made his first Super Bowl appearance, he was but a precocious young player, thrust into the difficult position of replacing a long-time franchise staple. Now, he stands, in many minds, as the greatest QB to ever play the game.
Sunday will mark Brady’s seventh Super Bowl trip as New England’s quarterback, spanning 16 years. How did Brady’s 2016 regular-season performance measure up to his previous six Super Bowl seasons? An attempt to rank them in order of how impressive they were, saving the best for last:
2003—Patriots finish 14–2, beat Panthers 32–29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII
(3,620 yards passing, 60.2% completion rate, 23 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 85.9 QB rating)
As a full-time starter, this season might have been the worst of Brady’s career. If nothing else, it began with the worst game on Brady’s NFL resume: a 31–0 shellacking at Buffalo, in which Brady threw four interceptions and finished with a career-low QB rating of 22.5.
The Patriots lost just one more game during the 2003 season, winning their final 12 plus all three in the playoffs. Brady was very good for much of that regular-season run—three TDs and no picks the week after losing to the Bills; a 350-yard, three-TD performance vs. Denver; eight TDs to no INTs in Weeks 15–17—but he did not consistently dominate like he’s done so many seasons since.
Backing him that year, too, was the league’s top-ranked scoring defense, a group that allowed fewer than 15 points per game and forced 41 turnovers. In five of New England’s 14 regular-season wins, its opponents scored six points or fewer (including three shutouts).
2001—Patriots finish 11–5, beat Rams 20–17 in Super Bowl XXXVI
(3,620 yards passing, 60.2% completion rate, 23 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 86.5 QB rating)
Was Brady’s 2001 season better than his ’03 season? Statistically, no, at least in most respects. Aside from his rookie season of 2000 and his injury-halted 2008, this was the lone year Brady failed to reach 3,000 yards passing or 20 TDs (he finished with 18, to 12 interceptions). He threw for just 189.6 yards per game and took 41 sacks.
Consider, though, the circumstances. Brady was not meant to be the starter in 2001, but found himself thrust into the spotlight when Drew Bledsoe suffered a Week 2 injury. To that point in his young career, Brady had attempted 10 regular-season passes, all coming in mop-up duty during a 2000 loss to the Lions. In this third start, he threw for 364 yards and two touchdowns to beat San Diego.
The ’01 Patriots did have an offensive balance the ’03 Patriots could not match—Antowain Smith rushed for 1,157 yards and 12 TDs in 2001. But it they also were not the defensive force in ’01 that they were in ’03. While Brady was not yet the Brady we now know, he did as well as anyone could have expected coming off the bench to lead a team that was far from perfect.
2004—Patriots finish 14–2, beat Eagles 24–21 in Super Bowl XXXIX
(3,692 yards passing, 60.8% completion rate, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 92.6 QB rating)
This may have been the season that Brady truly embarked on his path toward being one of the all-time greats. His TD percentage—the frequency with which a pass ends in a touchdown—rose, from 4.4% in 2003 to 5.9%. His yards per completion increased, too, from 6.9 to 7.8. Ditto yards…