For two decades, Bill Belichick has put the New England Patriots ahead of any single player on the roster. Virtually every veteran who contributed to the greatest dynasty in modern sports has been shipped out or allowed to leave once he was no longer useful or willing to contribute at the right price. Mike Vrabel was traded to the Chiefs. Randy Moss was shipped to the Vikings. Vince Wilfork finished up with the Texans. Adam Vinatieri had a whole second career with the Colts.
If there were going to be one exception to that rule, I always figured it would be star quarterback Tom Brady. Nobody ever referred to the Patriots dynasty as Belichick and Vinatieri or Belichick and McDaniels. Belichick and Brady were equals as (arguably) the best head coach and quarterback of all time. They were the two pillars of the Patriots dynasty, the two centerpieces everyone counted out before they came together for a legendary run in New England. The six championships the Patriots won belong equally to both of them.
On Tuesday morning, it became clear that the rules weren't different after all. After years of being lauded for taking less than market value to help the Patriots win, in August 2019, Brady decided it was time for a raise. The Patriots boosted his compensation from $15 million to $23 million and lowered his cap hit by $5.5 million. In the process, Brady got the Patriots to agree that they wouldn't franchise him in 2020.
The threat of the franchise tag would have limited Brady's leverage and likely led the Patriots to keep the best player in team history for at least one more season. Instead, when the two sides started to negotiate an extension, it appears that Belichick got that familiar feeling. Brady had an offer of $30 million per season on the table, and by all accounts, the Patriots weren't willing to compete. This moment was always going to come if Brady didn't retire after a Super Bowl victory, but when it did, I figured Belichick or Brady would blink. In the end, neither did.
Now, Brady is poised to become a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a combination that would have seemed impossible even a few months ago. (The signing became official on Friday morning.) There will be a time to discuss Brady's legacy, how it is impacted by the move and how the Patriots will account for his absence. Today is about Brady's new opportunity and what comes next for the new pairing of Brady and Bruce Arians.
Was Brady foolish to pick the Buccaneers? Should Tampa have gone for one of the other quarterbacks available? Can Brady be competitive and even compete for a Super Bowl with his new team? Let's run through what we know about this new marriage and get a sense of what to expect for Brady in Florida.
Let's play fact or fiction on Brady's performance
Even Brady would agree that he declined in 2019. I wrote about his decline in early December, and though a fair percentage of people (myself included) thought the Patriots would right the ship and figure out a sustainable offensive philosophy, it didn't happen. Brady put together one excellent game against the Bills, and the running game got going for one week against the Bengals, but the offense sputtered through season-ending losses to the Dolphins and Titans.
Given the endless chatter surrounding Brady's coming deal over the past few months, I've read and heard lots of examples of how and why Brady fell off in 2019. Let's run through a few of them to see if they caused the decline and are likely to continue in 2020.
Fact or fiction: His off-target rate was way too high
Brady has been known for his accuracy over the past decade, which is why his off-target rate of 21.7% last season was so disconcerting. That means that more than one out of every five of Brady's throws were either underthrown or overthrown, which was the third-highest rate in the league. Only Jameis Winston and Josh Allen posted higher off-target rates than the future Hall of Famer. This metric specifically excludes passes that were either thrown away under pressure or spikes to stop the clock, so the high off-target rate is a damning indictment of Brady's losing some measure of accuracy.
It was the highest off-target rate of Brady's career. If you look at his numbers over the past decade, though, you'll see it isn't a notable figure:
Indeed, Brady hasn't posted an above-average off-target rate since 2010. His worst mark came in 2013, when the Patriots were forced to start players such as Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Michael Hoomanawanui for eight or more games because of injuries. It was also a season in which Rob Gronkowski played only six games. Brady still managed to lead the league's third-highest scoring offense, and though it wasn't his best statistical season, the 36-year-old showed that he was far from finished.
My strong suspicion is that Brady uses these sorts of off-target throws to end plays without risking a sack or an interception. His interception and sack rates have been above average in each of his past 17 seasons as a starter. With Brady lacking faith in his non-Edelman receivers to make contested catches and 28.4% of his targets going to players who weren't on the Patriots the season before, he likely wanted to live and play for another down or another possession more often than he would've with Gronk in the fold.
Would you prefer Brady to have a low off-target rate, all things being equal? Of course. Do I think the off-target rate from 2019 is proof that he has slipped dramatically? Given how effective he was with a similar off-target rate in years past, I do not.
Fact or fiction: His receivers couldn't hold on to his passes
On the other hand, was one of the reasons Brady's numbers dropped off his receivers' dropping passes? We know he wasn't thrilled with his receiving corps, and 3.9% of his passes in 2019 were dropped, which was the seventh-highest rate in the league.
Both important and unimportant receivers didn't help Brady in 2019. Julian Edelman, who was targeted a whopping 156 times, posted a drop rate of 5.8%. (By ESPN's charting, his nine drops were two more than that of any other pass-catcher.) Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers and Josh Gordon were each over 4.3%. Matt LaCosse dropped two of his 19 targets, and the oft-frustrating Sony Michel dropped three of his 20 attempts, with two of those coming in the red zone.
There's a bigger conversation here about how much blame for drops should go to quarterbacks versus receivers and which sorts of passes are more likely to be dropped, but I'll save that for another day. (In terms of the year-to-year drop rate for quarterbacks and receivers, quarterbacks are actually more consistent than receivers, though neither is very predictive.) Brady's drop rate might have been high relative to the rest of the league, but it wasn't particularly notable for the 42-year-old. He has posted four drop rates of 5% or more over the past decade, including a 7.7% rate in 2010, when Gronkowski was a rookie and top wideout Wes Welker was coming off a torn ACL. Again, though the drops were a problem, they weren't enough to make us think Brady was losing it in previous seasons.
Fact or fiction: He struggled off play-action
For so many years, the Patriots were a problem for opposing teams off play-action. As ESPN analyst Matt Bowen is fond of noting, the Pats are one of the few teams in the league that commonly pull a guard to confuse linebackers as part of their play-action game. Of course, one of the most common targets off play-action was Gronkowski on a crossing route, and without Gronk as a blocker or a receiver, the play-action game declined in 2019.
Brady posted his worst passer rating of the past decade on play-action; although 93.8 isn't awful, the league-average passer rating for quarterbacks off play fakes was 105.5. He fell from 10th to 24th in passer rating on play-action. Just for reference, though, here's Brady's performance on play-action compared to that of another season from the recent past:
Season B is 2017, when Brady won MVP. His play-action performance that season was virtually identical to what we saw last season, and that was with 14 games from Gronkowski and a functional running game courtesy of Dion Lewis. The numbers were even closer before Week 17, when Brady threw a bizarre pick-six to Eric Rowe. Either way, Brady was about as good on play-action in 2019 as he was during his MVP season, so it wasn't as if play-action was dragging him down to mediocrity.
Fact or fiction: He couldn't make plays downfield
Some of these arguments were true, but not to such an extent that it should have driven a drastic decline in Brady's performance. I'm not sure this one is even true. The NFL's definition of deep passes is throws traveling 16 or more yards downfield. Brady posted a 97.6 passer rating on those throws, which was his fifth-best mark of the past decade and virtually identical to his deep passer rating from his MVP season in 2017 (96.2). He completed 40 such passes in 16 games, which is right in line with his average rate per full season. Even given the lack of a big-name receiver capable of stretching the field on the roster, he was his usual self on downfield passes last season.
Fact or fiction: He struggled in the red zone
This one's a fact. Brady posted his second-worst passer rating in the red zone of the past decade (91.3) in 2019. His QBR was just 20.5, which is less than half of his previous low of the decade, at 49.4, and the third-worst mark in the league. Only Andy Dalton and Mason Rudolph were worse. That's uncommonly bad for Brady, and it's a serious problem if it keeps up.
Of course, Brady sorely missed Gronk -- and the threat of Gronk -- in the red zone. Nearly half of his targets inside the 20 went to Edelman and James White, and he threw just seven passes to his tight ends. His average pass in the red zone traveled just 3.5 yards in the air, suggesting that he was frequently checking down against defenses who were able to cover his receivers in the end zone. This was also the lowest mark of his career and one of the lowest marks of the past decade.
At the same time, though, red zone performance is inconsistent from year to year. Brady should be better inside the 20 in 2020.
Jeff Darlington elaborates on how the Buccaneers have everything Tom Brady needs to succeed.
Fact or fiction: He wasn't great against the blitz
This was true, but again, it wasn't really different from previous seasons. Brady posted a passer rating of 82.3 against the blitz. Although that was his worst mark of the past decade, his passer rating against the blitz was 84.3 in 2017 and 86.5 in 2018. And you might figure that he was pressured more frequently behind a struggling offensive line in 2019, but he was actually pressured at a much higher rate in 2018 (36.0%) than in 2019 (29.2%).
Fact or fiction: He struggled under pressure
This is more concerning. Brady posted a passer rating of 42.5 and a QBR of just 7.1 when pressured last season. Both marks were his worst of the past decade. Everyone struggles when they get pressured, but Brady ranked 28th in passer rating and 25th in QBR when he was bothered last season. He ranked 10th in passer rating and fifth in QBR against pressure in 2018.
Brady has had bad seasons against pressure before. In 2013, he posted a passer rating of 51.7 and an identical QBR of 7.1 against pressure. With Brady at an unprecedented age for high-level quarterback play, though, it's natural to be concerned about his ability to handle pass pressure. We know he has the experience and instincts to diagnose blitzes before the snap and work through his progressions quickly after getting the football. Great quarterbacks such as Brady can survive against pressure despite lacking foot speed by knowing where to step within the pocket to temporarily escape the rush. At some point, though, he's going to slow down to the point that he can't effectively move within the pocket. I'm not sure 2019 was that point, but we can't rule it out, either.
The problem, at the end of the day, wasn't that Brady was bad in the red zone or struggled under pressure or dealt with too many drops. The problem was all of those things. You can have one or two of those things happen and still have a great season. Dak Prescott's receivers had the league's highest drop percentage. Ryan Tannehill was 27th in passer rating in the red zone. But you can't survive struggling in each and every one of those areas to post a great season.
Of course, it's fair to wonder whether Brady's underlying performance and talent level slipped to the point that he was below average in each of those categories. We won't know for sure until we see him on the field in 2020, but my suspicion from watching him closely both before and after my article was published in December is still that he wasn't the primary person at fault. The Patriots went from a Hall of Famer at tight end to replacement-level play at the position, started a street free agent at left tackle for most of the season and a backup center for the entire campaign, and ended the year with both Edelman and Sanu -- nominally Brady's top two weapons -- playing through clearly limiting injuries. The old Brady might have been able to drag that motley crew through a long playoff run, but this was the worst group of talent around Brady we've seen since 2006, when the likes of Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel and a 35-year-old Troy Brown were his top wideouts.
Will things be better in 2020?
Brady is going to have better receiving weapons in Tampa Bay than he had in New England in 2019. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin covered up a lot of Winston's mistakes the past several seasons. Brady is a better decision-maker than Winston. Evans and Godwin are the type of receivers who make a quarterback feel comfortable throwing a 50-50 ball when nothing is developing. (They might have made Winston too comfortable.) Brady didn't have that guy in New England, even if he'll miss Julian Edelman's agility.
With rumors suggesting that Brady wants to play with Antonio Brown, the embattled former Steelers star could theoretically join the Bucs and serve as the closest thing to Edelman on the roster. Brown already lives outside Miami, though he's still under NFL investigation and could be subject to a suspension.
The possibility of Brown aside, I'd argue that Brady's upgrades at tight end might be even more significant. In Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, Brady has two big bodies who should serve as viable red zone targets. Brate seemed to build a connection with Winston in the red zone. Although Howard spent all of 2019 in Bruce Arians' doghouse, few tight ends in the league have his combination of size and speed. Brady is going from arguably the worst tight end situation in the league to one of the best. One of his most important tasks will be getting Howard on Arians' good side.
On the other hand, I would be worried about Tampa's ability to protect Brady from pressure on the edge. The interior of the Bucs' line -- center Ryan Jensen and guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa -- is one of the league's better groups. Marpet, in particular, is one of the most underrated players in the league, even by offensive lineman standards.
Tackle is another story. Donovan Smith has been average to below-average in his career, though 2019 was a competent season, with Smith ranking 30th among tackles in ESPN's pass block win rate metric. Right tackle Demar Dotson ranked 25th, but the longtime starter committed 10 penalties and was flagged five times for holding. Dotson is a free agent, and there's no obvious replacement for the 34-year-old lurking on the roster.
Brady was down two starting offensive linemen for most of 2019 in left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews, though the Pats were able to capably replace the latter with Ted Karras. They turned to street free agent Marshall Newhouse to replace Wynn with mixed results. Smith would likely be an upgrade on Newhouse, but a healthy Wynn is better than either player. Right now, the Bucs don't have anything of note at right tackle.
The fit for Brady in Tampa
My first instinct when I thought about Brady linking up with Arians was that it wouldn't be a great fit between quarterback and coach. Why? Let me explain in a table. This is where both Arians' offenses and Brady's Patriots have ranked in terms of average air yards per attempt going back to when Arians took over as Steelers offensive coordinator in 2007. In other words, we're looking at how far Brady's teams have thrown the football versus Arians' quarterbacks:
In nine of his past 11 seasons as the person in charge of the offense, Arians has led one of the three deepest passing attacks in football. Brady and the Patriots have ranked in the top 10 once in that time. Everyone reading this has seen Brady play quarterback. I think he's an adequate deep thrower at this point of his career, but it's hardly his game to throw the ball 10 yards downfield per attempt. Across a group of quarterbacks that includes Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton and Winston, Arians has instructed his quarterbacks to fire missiles downfield like no other coach in football. Arians is no risk it, no biscuit. Brady typically finds a way to get the biscuit without risking much at all.
Do I think Arians is going to hand Brady the 2019 Bucs playbook and tell him to go stretch his arm for the fall to come? No. He's too good of a coach for that. My suspicion is that we'll see some of the play-action concepts Brady loved in New England integrated into Arians' attack. The 67-year-old coach will install more quick game to play to Brady's strength of getting the ball out quickly and accurately to an open receiver.
Both the Patriots and the Buccaneers went with empty formations more than 100 times in 2019, which ranked among the top 10 teams in the league. Both Arians and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels asked their quarterback to make quick, accurate passes in those scenarios. Brady will be better there than Winston was in 2019. After all that, yes, I do think we'll see Brady take shots downfield more frequently with the Bucs than he did with New England. We won't see the McDaniels offense exported to Tampa or the Arians offense thrust upon Brady, but we'll see something that incorporates the strengths of both.
The Brady benefits
Brady changes the short- and long-term future of the Bucs franchise. Instantly, an organization that ranked 31st in home attendance percentage in 2019 can expect to see a run on season tickets. It will sell an unimaginable number of Brady jerseys as it launches new uniforms this year. If the new uniform doesn't incorporate the classic creamsicle design, the Bucs are also going to sell your dad and all of his friends retro Brady jerseys. The actual cash outlay for Brady is going to pay for itself in a heartbeat.
In the long term, even if Brady isn't around for long, the Buccaneers are going to attract national attention for the first time in nearly two decades. If Brady is able to make a deep playoff run or win a Super Bowl, this team is going to gain fans around the country who never would have paid attention to Tampa.
The Bucs should also be able to interest veteran free agents who want a shot at playing with the greatest quarterback of all time while they have the chance. There isn't a ton left in the free-agent market at Tampa's biggest remaining needs on offense, but as post-June 1 cuts pop up, this team should be in the lead for possible additions at running back and right tackle. I'd expect the Buccaneers to use the 14th pick of the draft on a solution at tackle if they can't find one earlier. Oft-penalized Seahawks tackle Germain Ifedi is the best available player left on the market at the position.
Defensive players won't get to play with Brady, but again, I would expect veterans to at least give this team a second look. Tampa used the franchise tag on Shaquil Barrett and re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul, but it needs to add a replacement for free agent Ndamukong Suh and rotation end Carl Nassib, who signed with the Raiders. The Bucs are suddenly one of the NFL's most appealing landing spots, owing to their location in income-tax-free Florida and the presence of Brady on the roster.
The fantasy impact
Fantasy managers who have Evans or Godwin in a league are likely licking their chops at the idea of swapping out the scattershot Winston for Brady. I wouldn't be so sure. For one, as I mentioned, I would expect Brady to be throwing downfield far less frequently than Winston did in 2019. Winston generated 6,341 air yards a season ago. Although Brady threw only 13 fewer attempts than his predecessor, those throws produced 4,371 air yards. There won't be as many big plays to go around for two of the league's most devastating downfield threats.
While Brady did make a ton of throws in 2019, I wouldn't expect the Bucs to have as many opportunities to throw the ball this season. Owing to Winston's aggressiveness and the effectiveness of the defense, Tampa was able to rack up 194 meaningful possessions. That was four more than any other team recorded and 19 more than the league average of 173. The Patriots, who struggled on offense and had a dominant defense, ran 185 possessions, the third-highest mark in the league.
Assuming that the Bucs are more efficient with Brady at the helm and run longer drives, I would expect Tampa's possession total to regress toward the mean in 2020. If the Bucs are winning in the fourth quarter, they'll also likely run the ball more frequently than they did in 2019, which would mean fewer chances for the top two wideouts. Evans and Godwin were garbage-time monsters in fantasy, but the Bucs shouldn't be trying to catch up as frequently this season. In addition, just five of Winston's 33 touchdown passes in the previous season went to tight ends; expect that number to increase with Brady.
Can the Bucs win in 2020?
Yes, the Buccaneers are capable of winning a Super Bowl with Brady. Although they finished 29th in points allowed last season, they were the fifth-best defense in football by DVOA. Tampa faced the league's toughest slate of opposing offenses, inherited the worst average starting field position from Winston and was forced to defend 189 meaningful possessions, which was tied for the most of any team. Winston also threw seven pick-sixes, which count against the scoring defense. Brady has thrown six pick-sixes in the past 10 years, though his final pass in a Patriots uniform was a pick-six to Logan Ryan.
By DVOA, the Bucs were an excellent defense with a below-average offense and terrible special teams. Their place-kicking took a big step forward last season with the addition of Matt Gay, but the rookie was still below average. Tampa also struggled to return kicks or punts effectively, with T.J. Logan struggling in both roles. This is a quiet place for this team to try to improve its roster in the weeks and months to come.
Brady's division will certainly be tougher with Tampa Bay. The Bills gave the Patriots a couple of scares last season, but the Dolphins were tanking, and the Jets might as well have been. The Panthers appear to be in the middle of a transitional period in Year 1 of the Matt Rhule era, but the Saints were the fourth-best team in football in 2019 and virtually identical to the Patriots. They were a comfortably better team than the Bucs, and I'm not sure Brady is enough to make up the difference. The Falcons, even given their defensive woes, are a more dangerous threat than the Jets or Dolphins were a year ago.
Tampa also will get eight games against the NFC North and AFC West, including a home game against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. If Brady can push the offense into the top 10 and avoid leaving the defense in compromising situations week after week with Winston-style takeaways, the Bucs should be good enough to overcome some defensive regression and make the playoffs. They project somewhere in the 10-6 range in 2020.
Why I love this deal
In general, any time you can add a starting-caliber quarterback without needing to give up significant draft capital, it's going to be a good move. The absolute worst-case scenario is something like the Brock Osweiler situation in Houston a few years ago, and the Texans were able to get out of that situation by using draft capital after one disastrous season. The Bucs will forego a compensatory pick for losing Suh by signing Brady, but the top quarterback on their roster before Wednesday was Ryan Griffin.
It's fair to expect Brady to be diminished from the guy he was five years ago or even two years ago. It's also impossible to separate how much Brady has declined from how much the infrastructure around him fell off in 2019. There's no data on what a 43-year-old starting quarterback is supposed to look or age like. Brady could drop off precipitously and be unplayable by the end of the season. He also could take another step forward and look like the guy who was good enough to win a Super Bowl 14 months ago.
Putting yourself in Arians' shoes, though, was there an option without flaws on the market? Winston is a roller coaster with seemingly no end. Ryan Tannehill never made it to the market. Philip Rivers also slipped during the second half of 2019. Teddy Bridgewater's only effective reps since he suffered a serious knee injury came in what amounts to quarterback paradise with the Saints. Andy Dalton's résumé as a difference-maker amounts to one season with a great line and great weapons in 2015. Every other veteran available profiled as a borderline starter, and as a guy who turns 68 in October, Arians doesn't have time to develop a rookie quarterback. It wasn't clear that the Bucs would even be in position to draft one at No. 14.
Of the quarterbacks who were available to the Buccaneers, Brady had the highest short-term floor and ceiling. For whatever off-field benefits Brady will offer the Bucs, no free-agent signing is going to move his team closer to a Super Bowl than Brady with the Bucs. Even if it fails miserably, this team had a chance to sign the greatest quarterback of all time to fill an enormous position of need on its roster.