Tom Brady and the Bucs: a smashing success so far, but is it sustainable?

Brady is playing as well right now, at 43 years old, as he has in the past five years. It all comes down to protecting the quarterback

Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) prior to the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Photograph: Mark J Rebilas/USA Today Sports
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) prior to the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Photograph: Mark J Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Last modified on Fri 30 Oct 2020 15.17 GMT

The experiment has worked. That much is already true. Regardless of whether the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady go on to win the Super Bowl, the marriage has been a success.

Brady has raised the Bucs’ championship odds from nothing to something – which is the goal of the whole enterprise. While you only have to look at the rubble piling up in New England to see that Brady’s decision to ditch Foxborough for Florida has been validated.

Through seven weeks and one game, the Bucs top the NFL in overall DVOA (a measure of a team’s down-to-down efficiency with garbage time removed) thanks to Todd Bowles’ all swarming, free-blitzing defense and an offense that has steadily ticked up from concerning to encouraging to frightening.

In the two weeks since Brady’s moment of fourth-down senility, he has torched opposing defenses. Against the Packers and Raiders combined, Brady threw for 535 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions and completed 68% of his passes.

Brady is playing as well right now, at 43 years old, as he has in the past five years. Not as in he has reached a five-year peak, as in he is playing to the same level with the same style as he did in his final stretch with the Patriots. It was and is a different version of Brady. He’s no longer able to put a team on his back. But in Tampa, as in New England in 2018, he’s showing that he can raise a stellar supporting cast from being a good team into a championship-caliber one.

As much as any contender, the Bucs will go as their quarterback goes. The numbers are jarring. The recipe is out. When opposing defenses pressure Brady on 22% or more of his dropbacks, the Bucs offense crumbles and the team loses. When Brady isn’t pressured at that nearly-every-fourth-dropback rate, he has looked like the post-prime Brady who tacked on two Super Bowls to the end of his run in New England.

Here is how the opposing pressure rate has corresponded with Brady’s passer rating, the Bucs’ offensive output, and the game outcome so far this year, per ESPN Stats & Info:

  • New Orleans: 25% pressure rate; 78 passer rating; 34-23 loss

  • Chicago: 22.7% pressure rate; 86 passer rating; 20-19 loss

  • Green Bay: 14.8% pressure rate; 104 passer rating; 38-10 win

  • Denver: 14.6% pressure rate; 115 passer rating; 28-10 win

  • LA Chargers: 8.7% pressure rate; 117 passer rating; 38-31 win

  • Carolina: 8.6% pressure rate; 80 passer rating; 31-17 win

  • Las Vegas: 7% pressure rate; 127 passer rating; 45-20

All quarterbacks perform better when they have time compared to when they’re pressured. It’s baked into the game. But the best quarterbacks are able to rise above pressure and still perform at close to a league-average unpressured rate. At the peak-of-his-powers, Brady was near-enough immune to pressure. The games he did lose – the big games: the Super Bowls v the Giants; the AFC Championship in Denver – were almost always as a result of an excessive amount of pressure, but by and large, he would top the charts at the end of the season in accuracy under-fire. He wasn’t immune, but he was much better than the league-average.

That has shifted in recent years. More and more his game goes as the pass-rush goes.

Brady has never been, er, fleet of foot but he has always been defined by pocket mobility and anticipation. When pressured, he would slip and slide and bob and weave away from danger, and when needed, he would step into a big shot if it meant buying himself an extra second so that he could deliver the ball on time.

That changed in his final two years with the Patriots and has continued into this season. He has become averse to taking hits – understandable for a 43-year-old being hunted by pass-rushers who are sometimes half his age. If Brady feels like he is going to take a clean shot, he now bails on the entire play. He will live to play another down, another week. He’s not stepping into hits anymore, and more than ever he is feeling the rush once he has taken a shot early in a game.

It is a restricting style, but Brady can still be relentlessly efficient when given just enough protection.

It will take a collaborative effort. The Bucs’ offensive line is talented and the team’s run-game is good enough to help keep the offense unpredictable. But more than anything helping Brady will come down to the quarterback’s relationship with head coach Bruce Arians.

The uptick in Bucs output has corresponded with the team reverting back to some of the traditional Tom Brady concepts that he ran for two decades with the Patriots.

During the first couple of weeks of the season, the team was running more of Arians’ slow-developing concepts as the coach and quarterback looked to fuse their two styles into one. It never really meshed. Some of Arians’ staples still make up parts gameplan, but there has been more and more of Brady’s imprint on things. The concepts that he ran to such success in New England from 2007-2020 (the break from an old-school, run-first offense to a more modern system built around Brady’s arm) have become the backbone of Tampa’s offense.

Elements of the partnership are still all Arians. In New England, Brady’s offense was a lock to be top-five in the pre-snap motion/shift rankings; Brady and Belichick elevated pre-snap manipulation to an art form. Under Arians, however, Brady has shown a willingness to evolve. The Bucs currently rank second-bottom in the NFL in pre-snap movement.

The mind-meld has led Brady to take fewer sacks than past Arians disciples. He’s not holding onto the ball too long. He’s not forcing it downfield for downfield’s sake. Tampa Bay ranks eighth in ESPN’s pass block win rate and first in adjusted sack rate, a year after finishing 17th and 22nd in those measures. Brady’s quicker process has helped drive down sack numbers, particularly on deeper dropbacks – a core tenant of the Arians doctrine. Jameis Winston was dropped on 12% of “deep”, five-to-seven step dropbacks last season. So far, Brady has been dropped on zero such plays.

The old adage with Brady still holds true: Give him long enough – within a play or over the course of a game – and he will figure out any defense.

Good teams rush the quarterback, though. That’s the concern. The Bucs are gambling that the combination of their line and Brady can hold playoff-caliber defenses below the 22% pressure threshold. It’s a big ask. But it’s not implausible.

And even if that reality is only, say, 5%, that 5% represents better odds than the team had with Jameis Winston and likely represent better odds than Brady would have had if he stuck with this version of Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

Much of that is down to the Bucs’ defense. Menacing pass-rushers, quick linebackers, and, through the first seven weeks, the game’s top corner, Tampa’s defense has it all. They’re head and shoulders above the competition in DVOA, and in Todd Bowles, the former Jets head coach, they have a fearless defensive coordinator who has the welcome habit of calling up the perfect third-down call at the perfect time.

The defense is steady. It is close to carry-a-team-to-a-title good. It’s the offense and Brady that adds volatility (most good teams are typically working with the inverse).

In fact, with Brady, the Bucs are the most volatile team in the league (and they still have Antonio Brown to throw into the mix). They are the only ‘legitimate’ Super Bowl contender that needs a particular set of circumstances to go their way. But there are also only three or four other teams who can, as a whole, on both sides of the ball, scale the kind of heights that Brady’s Bucs can in any given matchup.

Protect Brady, and they win. It’s as simple and difficult as that.

So far, at least, the Brady-Bucs partnership is going as well as anyone in Tampa could have hoped for and those in New England feared.

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