Over the last several years of Tom Brady’s Patriots tenure, an end-of-game ritual developed that combined impressive quarterbacking feats and a significant waste of paper and ink. Along with stats packages and play-by-play sheets, some dutiful Patriots staffer would print out stacks of paper listing every record Brady had broken during the game: regular-season wins, passing yards (postseason included), passing touchdowns (postseason included), game-winning drives, the total number of receivers to catch one of his touchdown passes, etc. For any other quarterback, these would be career-defining achievements. In Brady’s case, they often came and went without mention—most of those sheets of paper went into the recycling bin still hot from the printer. Frequently, Brady was breaking his own records; the new high-water marks said less about some new standard of achievement than they did about the passage of time. Sometimes, the new records were a little niche—one day, Brady set the record for most touchdown passes on the road; on another, he extended his record number of wins playing on Saturdays. Other times, the markers were less favorable but still served as evidence of Brady’s remarkable staying power. Last January, Brady lost his 11th playoff game, surpassing Dan Marino and moving into second place in NFL history, where he’s tied with Brett Favre.
As much as Brady’s career has been defined by winning, it’s also been defined by simply sticking around. He’s the trick candle of the NFL (or the league’s post-apocalyptic cockroach, depending, probably, on your relationship with the six states of New England and/or avocado ice cream or other TB12-inspired products), never quite snuffed out even when it seems the end is near. Predicting Brady’s obsolescence has become a favorite NFL parlor game in recent years. This is it, he’s really done this time has been posited so often, from the “On to Cincinnati” game to the drafting of Jimmy Garoppolo to losing to the Eagles in the Super Bowl to the pick-six to Logan Ryan that became Brady’s last throw as a member of the Patriots. At times, Brady’s first season in Tampa provided fodder for that sentiment. And yet, he’s still here, set to face the Saints in the divisional round on Sunday with a Buccaneers team that’s finally clicking. Is anyone really surprised?
In hindsight, perhaps it’s obvious that Brady would find a way to get his talented offense to perform at its best entering the playoffs, but Tampa Bay’s erratic play this season made that assumption difficult. According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers were the highest-variance team in the NFL in the regular season, which should make sense to anyone who watched them play. Tampa Bay shellacked the Packers but barely beat the Giants and lost to the Bears. They were 7-5 before their Week 13 bye, then won out to finish the regular season 11-5. Sunday’s matchup will be their third meeting with the Saints, and New Orleans will be going for the sweep. They first met in Week 1, when the Saints won 34-23 and the Buccaneers were clearly still getting to know each other. Their second meeting, in Week 9, was a 38-3 embarrassment, the kind of seemingly random debacle the Bucs were all too capable of committing and one that felt less forgivable halfway through the season. Some of Tampa Bay’s ups and downs were due to the inconsistent play of its defense, and some were due to the clumsy process of integrating Brady into an offense that’s more aggressive downfield than what he was used to, in a season with limited practice time and with a head coach in Bruce Arians who likes to stick to his system. What melding of styles did occur happened slowly; the Buccaneers lost two more games after the blowout to New Orleans and started to play more consistently only after their Week 13 bye.
Tampa Bay was always likely to finish the year considerably better than it started. Defenses tend to improve as the season goes on, and Brady, a noted stickler for how his receivers run routes and communicate with him, was always going to need time to get comfortable in his new setting. In the seven games since the Week 9 loss to the Saints, Brady has averaged 319 yards per game and thrown 20 touchdowns to five interceptions.
The Buccaneers needed to get to know Brady as well. Earlier in the season, Arians had resisted using motion and lots of play-action—two staples of the offense Brady ran with Josh McDaniels in New England—but he started incorporating both more often later in the season. Brady’s relentless positivity and Arians’s penchant for blunt criticism have made them seem like an odd couple just as much as the juxtaposition between Brady’s quick-passing game and Arians’s love of the deep ball, but the two have found some happy middle ground in how the offense is functioning late in the year, even if they still communicate it slightly differently.
“I’d say every week is getting a little bit better and a little bit more consistent, better communication,” Brady said of the offense last week. “We’re all understanding each other a little bit better each week. Football season is tough—there’s a lot of things to coordinate, there’s a lot of moving parts, different players and in and out, you’re running different schemes. But I think we’ve just tried to not take the foot off the gas pedal, tried to understand each other a little bit better each week, and try to put ourselves in a decent position.”
“We’ve got things now to where we don’t have to answer those questions: ‘Is it Tom’s offense or is it my offense?’” Arians said. “It’s the Bucs offense. It’s pretty damn good.”
It hasn’t always been. In the first nine weeks of the regular season, Brady took 67 play-action snaps and threw six touchdown passes to two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus. That rate of play-action usage was the third lowest in the NFL, behind Philip Rivers and Kirk Cousins. In that same span, Brady threw 14 touchdowns and five interceptions without play-action. In the seven games since, Brady has taken 58 snaps with play-action and thrown seven touchdowns and one interception on those plays; without play-action, he’s thrown 13 touchdowns and four picks. The rate at which the Buccaneers have been using play-action has increased only slightly, but the results are clear enough that the upward trend may continue.
What’s been more obvious is Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s willingness to use motion, pre-snap and otherwise. Jet motion has been a New England staple in recent seasons, but Arians hasn’t always deployed it enthusiastically. In December, Arians dismissed the benefits of motion by pointing out that another accomplished veteran quarterback he’s worked with, Peyton Manning, didn’t like it.
Bruce Arians on pre-snap motion pic.twitter.com/JYYKox0hRL— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) December 3, 2020
And yet, the Bucs have used motion more often since then, and it’s coincided with a hot streak to end the regular season.
Hi, yes!— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) December 30, 2020
If we're looking at overall motion (motion at snap and motion and set) they've been higher than they normally are last three weeks! pic.twitter.com/D4G3yDDPM6
Motion and play-action can help set up open deep shots, one of the areas in which Brady and the Buccaneers offense struggled earlier in the season. In Weeks 1 through 9, according to Pro Football Focus, Brady was 17-of-48 for 583 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception on throws of 20 or more air yards. From Week 10 onward, he’s completed 23-of-50 for 768 yards, 10 touchdowns, and three picks. He’s done this while also getting the ball out quicker—Brady has spent an average of 2.23 seconds in the pocket before each pass attempt since Week 10 after taking 2.43 seconds in Weeks 1-9, according to ESPN.
That’s critical against a unit like New Orleans’s defensive line, especially for a quarterback like Brady, whose play drops off significantly when pressured. The Buccaneers couldn’t compete with the Saints in the regular season, but their playoff meeting should be different not just because Brady has gotten used to the Bucs but because they have finally tailored some of what they do to fit his strengths, too. “We’re a better football team than the last time we played the Saints,” Arians said Saturday. The Buccaneers are still here, and so is Brady, still bending his circumstances to fit his will. You have to stick around a long time to lose that many playoff games.