Tom Brady officially ended his illustrious New England Patriots career on Friday when he officially signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That move creates tremendous excitement in Florida as well as considerable uncertainty in New England. Brady’s stature creates ripple effects, but he’s still leaving a 12-4 squad for a 7-9 one. Does this move make sense? What can we predict from both squads in 2020?
All statistics from pro-football-reference.com unless otherwise noted
The 2019 Buccaneers
Casual fans may be surprised to learn the Bucs finished the 2019 season third in the league in points and yards and the league’s #1 passing offense in total yards. They finished 29th in points allowed, suggesting their problems were more on that side of the ball. Things aren’t that simple, however. Quarterback Jameis Winston made headlines for throwing a whopping 30 interceptions, including seven returned for touchdowns.
Jameis’ interceptions made the Buccaneers defense look worse in three different ways. One, the seven pick-sixes he threw added 40-something points to the team’s points allowed. Two, they put the Tampa defense on the field for more drives by the opponent; no defense faced more opponent drives than Tampa Bay’s 192, about 15 more than the league average. Three, the turnovers put Buccaneers opponents in good field position; the average start of the 31.3 yardline ranked third-best in the league. On a per-drive basis, the Bucs defense starts to look much better than the 29th scoring rank. They were 17th in points per drive and sixth in yards per drive. There’s reason to believe that with fewer turnovers, they might have been above-average.
Note also that the higher number of drives also applies to Tampa Bay’s offense; they had 193 drives, again first in the league. While they ranked third in points and yards, their ranks of ninth in points per drive and 11th in yards per drive don’t look quite as impressive.
The Case for Brady
In contrast to Winston, Brady famously excels at hanging on to the football. He threw only eight interceptions in 2019, and his 16-game average since 2007 is only nine picks. For much of the past decade (with the notable exception of 2019), Brady’s care with the football has propped up defenses that struggled at times with stopping opponents. In 2017, I wrote about how New England’s offensive excellence helped a defense that allowed the second-most yards per drive finish as a top-five scoring D. The Patriots defense has ranked the same or better in points allowed than yards allowed every year of Brady’s career; five times they finished top 10 in scoring defense and 20th or worse in total defense.
Barring a total dropoff (more on that in a minute), Brady is going to make the Buccaneers defense look a lot better; fewer points off turnovers, better field position, fewer drives. Note that this may not translate into gaudy passing numbers for Brady or Tampa Bay’s receivers. With the most drives in the league, Winston led the NFL in pass attempts (626) and yards (5,109). Even if Brady is every bit as efficient (and Winston averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, fifth in the NFL, when he wasn’t throwing the ball to the other team), fantasy numbers for Mike Evans and Chris Godwin may suffer some, just from lack of volume.
But What if Brady is Washed?
As noted above, Winston ranked fifth in the NFL with 8.2 yards per attempt. Tom Brady? 27th, at 6.6. Ouch. That figure was Brady’s lowest total since 2002. Brady’s 60.8 completion rate was his lowest since 2013; his 24 touchdowns his lowest since 2003. Statistically, 2019 might have been the worst season of Brady’s career. At 42, that’s pretty concerning.
Much of that dropoff, however, can be attributed to a suspect supporting cast. Rob Gronkowski retired before the season, and the trio that replaced him—39-year-old Ben Watson, journeyman Matt LaCosse, and seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo—failed to impress. Josh Gordon lasted only six games before being IR’d and released. Antonio Brown didn’t even make it that long, cut for off-field issues after one game. First-round pick N’Keal Harry started the year on IR and was disastrously inefficient upon return; his 4.4 yards per target ranked last among NFL WR. Out of desperation, the team traded a second round pick for Mohamed Sanu, who had 10 catches for 81 yards in his second game but then suffered an ankle injury that required offseason surgery. He topped out at three catches and 35 yards afterwards.
The canary in the coal mine is Phillip Dorsett, who joined the team in 2017 and served as the team’s fourth receiver in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, he was the not only the team’s #2 receiver, he finished second among Patriots skill players in snaps. He finished eighth in snaps in 2017 and sixth in 2018; there’s no clearer sign of the lack of skill depth in 2020 than Dorsett’s expanded role.
In addition to the skill player problems, center David Andrews missed the entire year with blood clots in his lungs, left tackle Isaiah Wynn missed eight games with turf toe, and two different Patriots fullbacks wound up on injured reserve: James Develin and Jakob Johnson. The run offense predictably struggled, ranking 25th in the NFL with 3.8 yard per carry.
Brady’s clearly going to a better place, with two 1,000-yard receivers in Evans and Godwin, two quality tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, and a fine interior offensive line of Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, and Alex Cappa. There are questions at tackle, third-down back, and third receiver, but that’s nothing compared to what Brady dealt with in 2019—or what the Patriots face going forward.
There’s still some concern with Brady himself. He’ll be 43 when the season starts, and the list of 43-year-old successful quarterbacks is non-existent. Probably the biggest concern is nagging injury. In each of the last four seasons, Brady has dealt with some kind of ailment, never causing him to miss time, but contributing (along with New England winter weather) to a performance dropoff in the latter parts of the season. In 2019, Bill Belichick admitted that “Tom hasn’t been able to do a lot” in practice some weeks because of a right elbow injury. September Tom Brady should still be very effective. December / January Tom Brady is a wildcard.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians is fond of saying, “No risk it, no biscuit,” to explain his predilection for the deep passing game. Winston certainly embraced that philosophy, leading the NFL in Air Yards with 6,486. Brady finished comfortably behind Winston with 4,652, ninth in the league. That’s still probably more downfield passing than those who criticize Brady for “dink-and-dunk” would expect. And when he had legitimate downfield weapons, such as when Brandin Cooks was on the team, he threw deep even more, ranking second in the NFL in Air Yards in 2017 with 5,265. Brady may have lost a little arm strength over the years, but he’s going to look more effective throwing deep to Evans, Godwin, and Howard.
There’s also a terminology question. Brady has spent his entire career running the Erhardt-Perkins offense, while Arians comes from the Don Coryell school. Arians will have to strike the right balance between Brady’s comfort level and that of his teammates.
That may be complicated by an offseason still in limbo with the COVID-19 pandemic. Brady will undoubtedly dedicate himself to boning up on the playbook, but if offseason activities are curtailed, it will cut down on the time Brady has to implement that book learning on the field and establish chemistry with his teammates. He’s shown the ability to sync with new receivers rapidly in the past (Cooks, Gordon, Brown, Randy Moss, Wes Welker), but joining a new squad will be a challenge on a level he’s never faced before.
There are definitely more question marks than there would be if Brady stayed in New England or landed with a Patriots disciple like Mike Vrabel or Matt Patricia. But history tells us that we bet against #12 at our peril.
What About the Pats?
If Brady faces a lot of questions for 2020, his old teammates face even more. As of today, Brady’s replacement is fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham, who excelled in the 2019 preseason (4 TDs to 1 INT, second-in-preseason 731 passing yards) but played sparingly his rookie season (only four pass attempts). There are veteran options potentially available, such as Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, and Winston, but the Patriots have limited cap space.
Whoever winds up quarterbacking the Patriots, he faces the receiver challenges that Brady did in 2019. Sanu will likely be more effective after ankle surgery, and mainstay Julian Edelman remains, but both those players are on the wrong side of 30. Rookies Harry and Jakobi Meyers figure to improve, but neither is a sure thing. The only addition has been Damiere Byrd, a diminutive speedster with 44 career catches. The tight end group, a disaster in 2019, has added no one, unless you count fullback / H-back Dan Vitale, who has 15 catches in four seasons. The passing game figured to struggle again in 2020 even with Brady; with Stidham also uncertain, the floor is bottomless.
Accordingly, the Patriots figure to rely on the running game. The popular notion is that they found an identity as a power run team down the stretch of their Super Bowl run two years ago. That’s overblown—they also threw well in their best offensive performances, and their run game was more high-volume than dominant—but there’s no doubt that the team has invested in the ground game. They’ve retained an expensive guard tandem in Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, extended Andrews and right tackle Marcus Cannon, and used a first-round pick on Wynn. They further supplemented the OL with additional picks and trades. They’ve also added to their running back stable, with a first-round pick on Sony Michel, a third on Damien Harris, and modest contracts for receiving back James White and jack-of-all-trades Rex Burkhead. Along with Vitale, they return Develin and Johnson, giving them three options at fullback. Even Harry and Sanu, two huge receivers with blocking skill, factor into the run game. As noted above, that did not translate to run game success in 2019
This past season saw several teams excel on the ground: the regular-season-dominant Baltimore Ravens, the exotic smashmouth Tennessee Titans, and the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. Each of those teams, however, saw its playoff run come up short when it fell behind and struggled throwing the ball. And the Patriots don’t have a dynamic talent like Lamar Jackson or Derrick Henry to key the ground game. For that reason, Newton intrigues me as a quarterback fit in New England. His health is a major question mark, but he’s a unique talent throwing and running, and a red zone weapon with his size, power, and athleticism.
Most likely, however, it’s Stidham, and a hope that the run game, the NFL’s top defense from a year ago, and just enough passing game production can carry the day. That will likely be enough some weeks but not others. It’s understandable why an aging Brady eschewed signing on for another year of low-scoring rock fights. In the hands of a lesser coach, I’d be pretty bearish, but like with Brady, I’m not going to count Bill Belichick out.