TAMPA, Fla. -- At the end of Wednesday’s training camp practice, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady found a leaping Scotty Miller -- a virtual unknown to most of the NFL last season -- in the back of the end zone on a post route for a touchdown. Miller raced over to Brady to celebrate.
“Good job, Scooter,” Brady said as the two high-fived before offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich joined in. On the first pass play of their first day in pads this week, Miller was on the receiving end of a jaw-dropping play-action deep pass -- one of the many “dimes” coach Bruce Arians alluded to Brady hitting each day.
Miller looks like a totally different player this year. He wasn’t active for the first two games last season before finishing with 13 catches for 200 receiving yards. Now he’s making some of the biggest plays of camp and building his case for the third receiver spot. Much of that goes back to No. 12 and the confidence he’s infusing in teammates.
“We built [up a bond] this offseason a little bit,” said Miller, one of several players who joined Brady at Berkeley Prep in Tampa for throwing sessions this summer. “We were working out, trying to get on the same page because we didn’t have the chance to do OTAs and stuff like that.”
Just one week into training camp, it appears that Brady is putting the Bucs’ offense -- particularly its strong cast of receivers -- in a good spot, even as the 43-year-old signal-caller transitions to his first new system in 20 years.
Ball placement and YAC
They’re still taking shots down the field in Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” offense, but those shots seem more selective and are sprinkled into a more dynamic screen and intermediate passing game, one that has evolved to favor what Brady does best: methodically dink and dunk and exploit matchups.
"We’re going to have to work as hard as we can and not waste any minutes of any day trying to get used to one another," Brady said. "[We need to] embrace the challenge and see it as an opportunity to see what we can become.”
His receivers are adjusting well so far. Brady's ball placement has looked consistent, which should result in more yards after the catch.
“He really does a good job of putting the ball in a spot where you have the opportunity to make plays and run after the catch,” tight end O.J. Howard said. “It allows the defender not to make a play on it.”
On one play, wide receiver Mike Evans -- known as a long strider and not necessarily for his work in the short passing game -- caught a quick pass underneath on the outside. He didn’t have to stop and squat to grab it, and his feet never stopped moving. This might not seem as important on shorter passes, but former starting quarterback Jameis Winston was intercepted 13 times last season on passes traveling 10 yards or fewer through the air. For Brady, the number was four.
“He’s just so accurate. He’s a technician,” Miller said of Brady. “Every ball is a perfect spiral and exactly where you want it as a receiver ... . He always knows where all the zones are, where all the openings are gonna be within the defense. So if you can be on the same page with him, you’ll find ways to get open and get the ball.”
Brady can open a new dimension of the Bucs' offense. The New England Patriots averaged 5.60 yards after the catch with Brady from 2001 to 2019 -- second in the league in that span. That wasn’t just because of shorter passes, on which it is easier to accumulate yards after the catch, as the Patriots' 11.66 yards per reception were eighth in the NFL. The Bucs averaged 4.52 yards after the catch per reception the past five seasons -- second-worst in the NFL.
Quick decisions and spreading the ball
Another area in which Brady impacts the Bucs’ passing game is the speed with which he gets rid of the ball. Early in camp, Brady attempted to hit running back LeSean McCoy with a jump pass, but McCoy couldn’t get his head around quickly enough because the ball came out so quickly. Evans also wasn’t ready on a throw.
Arians believes this has less to do with mechanics and more to do with decision-making. The past five seasons, Brady averaged 2.31 seconds in the pocket per play, versus Winston’s 2.43 seconds, which was 28th in the league. This stat doesn’t factor in the depth of a quarterback's drops, though; a five-step drop will mean getting the ball out much more quickly than a seven-step drop.
“Tom might process it a little bit quicker, so the ball comes out fast,” Arians said. “We’ve got to get our head around, and the guys know when they put their foot in the ground, the ball’s probably going to be there, so get your head around faster.”
So that happened 😮 pic.twitter.com/1qtCTFgJqY— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) August 23, 2020
Brady brings more than just confidence and fundamentals to the Bucs' receiving corps. He’s spreading the ball around to guys other than Pro Bowlers Evans and Chris Godwin. They accumulated nearly 57% of the Bucs' receiving touchdowns and more than 54% of their receiving yardage in 2019 before both suffered injuries that ended their seasons.
Last season against New Orleans -- one of the teams to beat in the NFC South -- the Saints’ defense eliminated both Godwin and Evans, and the Bucs didn’t have many answers beyond getting the ball to tight end Cameron Brate. The Bucs' defense did that in Wednesday’s practice.
“A couple times they went double-double -- doubled Mike and Chris -- and we have to find the other guys,” Arians said. “Tom’s really good at finding that.”
Brady has a track record of spreading the ball around, which can be seen by the number of passes thrown in practices to Evans, Miller, Godwin, Justin Watson and Cyril Grayson, tight ends Howard, Brate and Rob Gronkowski, and running backs McCoy and Ronald Jones.
Brady believes there’s no such thing as "dead routes," which isn’t the case with every offense. With Brady, even receivers who are covered can be targeted.
“Never give up on your route, and always be ready even if you’re covered,” said Gronkowski, who won three Super Bowls with Brady. “If everyone’s covered, Tom’s going to find an area to throw the ball to where you can go up and make the play and not have the defender make a play. So always be ready for the ball in any place where you can make a catch."
The details that are important to Brady
Brady has a track record of coaching his receivers on everything from where they should be in their routes against different coverages -- routes vary between man and zone defenses -- to how to anticipate his throws. He also likes to read body language. He needs indicators of when receivers are going to make their breaks so he can get his timing down.
“When it comes to routes, he’s very detailed in how he wants us to run certain routes to protect the throw,” Evans said. “If we’re running an out breaking route, the DB can cut it. So you have to shave the route down. Just normal football stuff like that. He just harps on it more than others."
“One of the big things he harps on is just keep your arms pumping as a receiver so the defensive back never knows if you’re gonna shut it down or take it over the top,” Miller said. “I would say just little things like that."
Brady has provided a heavy amount of input to the coaching staff, something wide receivers coach Kevin Garver said he has been receptive to, as most players already view Brady as essentially another coach on the field. That’s part of the collaboration that made coming to Tampa appealing to Brady.
"Tom has been around a long time, seen a lot of defenses, a lot of different receivers, played with some great receivers," Garver said. "He has some ideas of certain things as it relates to routes. Some of those things we collaborate on, whether it’s him and Byron [Leftwich] and then Byron passing the message on to me, or Tom and I having conversations about where he sees things and where he wants receivers to be.”
Deception and play-action
Then there’s the way Brady manipulates defenses with his eyes. Winston sometimes telegraphed his throws by fixing his eyes on his target, whereas Brady is savvier at looking off safeties, which can get defenders out of position and give receivers more space.
The same applies to the way he sells his play-action and pump-fakes. Brady’s 5,320 passing yards on play-action passes over the past five seasons are second in the NFL behind that of Matt Ryan, showing that Brady can get chunk plays when he gets receivers one-on-one.
“It’s just hard for a deep safety to try to read him because he’s just so locked in, trying to use different things to get a safety off leverage,” second-year safety Mike Edwards said. “Play-actions -- he’s big on play-actions -- it’s hard to find out where the ball is. He’s real good at it. He places the ball where it needs to be, where only the receiver can get it.”
Although Brady brings many attributes that should enhance the Bucs’ offense -- even in the twilight of his career -- the Bucs’ receiving corps will undoubtedly bolster his performance as he vies for a seventh Super Bowl ring. One of the issues he experienced with the Patriots last season was that he didn’t have enough weapons. When teams took away James White and Julian Edelman last season, the Patriots' passing game was grounded. Plus, Brady's 16 dropped pass attempts to wide receivers last season were the most in the NFL. The past three seasons, he has had 40 drops, tied with Derek Carr for second in the NFL and just behind Philip Rivers, with 41.
Brady hasn’t had a receiver with Evans’ catch radius since Randy Moss. He has never had a big, physical receiver in the slot such as Godwin, who competes for the ball and seldom drops a pass. Watson continues to make plays over the middle in traffic. In Miller, Brady has elite downfield speed. Plus, he has arguably one of the league’s most talented trios of tight ends in Gronkowski, Howard and Brate.
“It’s a good, hard-working group,” Brady said of his targets. “Really smart players, and it’s going to be up to all of us to come together and to see how we can make it all work.”