We’ve all been here before. Tom Brady’s in another Super Bowl. It’s been a whole two years. If you thought Super Bowl talking points get tiring over the span of a two week period, how about when this is the 10th time the starting quarterback has been there?

When that’s the case, you have to find what’s changed over the years. And one thing that’s definitely changed over the years with Brady is his deep ball. Gone are the days where he can hit Randy Moss in stride 40 yards downfield, and we’re seeing a lot more of those loopy drop-in-the-bucket throws that don’t have the zip but have a certain aesthetic pleasure to them. How has this age-driven adjustment affected him?

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At Sports Info Solutions, we track throws in three categories based on their trajectory, where Level 1 is a throw on a line, Level 2 is an up-and-down throw (usually over the LBs but in front of the DBs), and Level 3 is a high-arc pass that’s usually reserved mainly for deep balls (what we’ll call “launched”). Here’s how those types break down by depth of throw.

Those Level 3 throws featured heavily in Brady’s up-and-down performance in the NFC Championship, where he ran the gamut between dimes and crimes. He completed his first three such throws (including the touchdown to Mike Evans in the first quarter) but of his next six, only his half-ending touchdown to Scotty Miller was completed, while three were either intercepted or nearly intercepted. 

In 2020, on throws past the line of scrimmage, Brady launched the ball high in the air more than anyone.

Most Launched Throws per Pass Attempt, 2020
Throws past LOS only. Minimum 200 total attempts.

PlayerLaunched Throw %
Tom Brady14%
Russell Wilson13%
Aaron Rodgers13%
Nick Foles12%
Kyler Murray11%
Derek Carr11%

As you can tell from the graph above, the trajectory types generally align with throw depth, although there’s some overlap in spots, and that’s where individual differences tend to exist. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the 20-30 yard range. That range has about a 50/50 mix of up-and-down throws and launched throws, which means that either an up-and-down or launched trajectory would be viable across the full range. 

Even acknowledging that we’ve only tracked this data since Brady turned 40—we’d probably see an even bigger trend if we looked at his whole career—he’s greatly increased how often he airs it out. While it looks great when it works, in general, he’s been average on those launched throws.

Tom Brady’s Launched Throws, Among Throws 20-30 Yards Downfield

SeasonPercent of ThrowsOn-Target%*
201827%36%
201941%53%
202051%45%

*Average: 46%

Overall, launched throws are a worse proposition than throws with a little more zip on them at that key distance range. That’s mostly because those throws tend to be less accurate. That said, beyond inaccuracy, there isn’t as much downside as you’d think. The logical risks that might exist related to the defense’s ability to react to the throw—whether it’s the safety coming over (we’ll call it “Second Defender” below), more plays made by the defense, or reduced yards after the catch—don’t materialize in general.

All Other QBs on Throws 20-30 Yards Downfield by Trajectory, 2018-20

Throw TypeOn-Target%Second Defender %INT%YAC/REPA/A
Up-and-Down61%10%5%5.90.43
Launched46%8%5%6.30.12

Despite allowing more safety help and throwing more interceptions on his launched throws, Brady’s results overall in terms of accuracy and EPA per attempt are at best similar to the rest of the NFL. And when it’s Tom Brady, it’s disappointing to be merely average.

Tom Brady on Throws 20-30 Yards Downfield by Trajectory, 2018-20

Throw TypeOn-Target%Second Defender %INT%YAC/REPA/A
Up-and-Down63%7%4%3.60.37
Launched46%19%11%5.40.07

The Final Word

Tom Brady showed the best and worst of his current form in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, particularly when it comes to the deep ball. He’s become more and more reliant on launching the ball high in the air for deeper throws, and while he’s right around average on those throws, there’s a cost in terms of accuracy if you aren’t zipping it in there. Having an elite group of pass-catchers to make plays at the catch point can help balance things out a bit, but he’ll be playing with fire as he tries to stave off Father Time again next Sunday night.

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