Tom Brady is going to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ve said that sentence out loud to myself more than a dozen times in the past few hours, and it still sounds weird as hell. Less than 12 hours after Brady announced that he wouldn’t be returning to the Patriots, ESPN’s Adam Schefter—in a dual report with his colleague Jeff Darlington—tweeted that Brady intended to sign with the Bucs. Hard as it may be to process the image of Brady in that atrocious digital clock uniform, the decision—for both parties—isn’t all that surprising when you dig into the details.
From Brady’s perspective, the Bucs have a lot to offer—financially and on the field. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Brady’s deal is worth about $30 million a year, which means that after playing at a discount for years in New England, the greatest quarterback of all time will finally have a salary in the same ballpark as Kirk Cousins’s. Money likely isn’t Brady’s first priority at this point. Not with $235 million banked in career earnings and an ultrasuccessful wife who’s worth more than $400 million. His asking price at this point was likely more about respect than the paycheck. And by offering Brady a deal near the top of the market, Tampa Bay proved it was serious about bringing him aboard.
After hitting the requisite price point, selling Brady on the Bucs’ supporting cast couldn’t have been hard. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are arguably the top wide-receiver duo in the NFL. Brady had a great rapport with Julian Edelman, but both of Tampa Bay’s guys are more talented than any Patriots wideout since Randy Moss. Evans is the sort of physically imposing target whom Brady didn’t have on the outside in New England, and Godwin proved last season that he’s one of the best young talents in the sport—at any position. O.J. Howard went missing in Tampa Bay’s offense last season, but Brady’s history with tight ends suggests that he’s the right guy to rejuvenate the former first-round pick’s career. Evans, Godwin, a revived Howard, and no. 2 tight end Cameron Brate would form the best pass-catching group Brady’s had in a long time. The concern now is whether Brady is the right quarterback to properly utilize all those weapons.
The system that Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich brought to Tampa Bay is designed to push the ball downfield. Jameis Winston finished second in the NFL last season with 10.5 average air yards per target. Some of that stems from his aggressive—and often reckless—playing style, but Arians has favored a high-octane vertical passing game for his entire career. Winston’s mind-set just happened to fit that approach. At this point in his career, Brady doesn’t seem to fit that style of offense. New England’s passing game in recent years consisted mainly of underneath passes, quick-game throws and screens to running backs, and play-action concepts designed to attack the middle of the field. Asking Brady, who’s 42, to consistently pump go routes outside the numbers and rip 20-yard deep digs into traffic probably isn’t the best idea. Luckily, Arians is smart enough to understand that.
During his time as a play-caller, Arians made a conscious effort to elicit input and feedback from his quarterbacks. Guys like Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, and Ben Roethlisberger had plenty of say when it came to weekly game plans and play menus. With Brady, I’d assume that partnership will extend to the entire offense. Communication will be key as Brady and the Bucs staff shape the offense to his preferences, but the guys in that room have collectively seen enough football to build a system that works. Along with Arians and his 26 years of NFL experience, Leftwich has 10 years as an NFL quarterback under his belt, and Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen has coached in the league for more than two decades. That group will construct a system that puts Brady and their considerable pass-catching talent in the best possible position. It will likely involve some substantial changes to the scheme that Arians has run in recent years, but it also doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul. Godwin was a dynamic underneath receiver last season and should be able to thrive with Brady under center. The route structures may be different, but both Arians and Brady favor a heavy amount of play-action. And even though he’s struggled on throws down the field for the past two seasons, Brady was a willing and able deep passer in 2017 when Brandin Cooks was stretching the field for New England. We won’t see quite as many downfield throws by Tampa Bay this season, but Brady should be a bit more aggressive with more schemed shots in the game plan. It may not be a seamless fit, but there was plenty to like about the Bucs from Brady’s point of view.
Tampa Bay’s desire to land Brady also isn’t hard to figure out. From a business perspective, signing the best quarterback of all time gives the franchise instant relevance and visibility. With Brady, the Bucs are more interesting than they’ve been in about two decades. About three hours after Schefter’s report, the online queue for season tickets grew to more than 5,000 people. Speaking on NFL Network this afternoon, Cris Collinsworth said that if Brady signed in Tampa Bay, Sunday Night Football would be making multiple trips to Florida this fall. A splash move like this requires ownership’s blessing, and I’m guessing it wasn’t hard to convince the Glazers that paying Brady would be in their best interest.
The move also tracks on the football side. Even after using the franchise tag on pass rusher Shaq Barrett and extending Jason Pierre-Paul, the Bucs still have a massive amount of cap space. Even if the cap hits on Brady’s deal are evenly distributed, Tampa Bay would be able to comfortably fit a $30 million charge onto its budget this year. The $30 million in annual value may seem like a lot of cash for a soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback, but the Bucs seem to think that Brady fits their timeline. And I don’t really blame them.
Tampa Bay is closer to contention than it may appear from the outside. The 2017 and 2018 Bucs defense was an abject disaster under former coordinator Mike Smith but took a huge step forward with Todd Bowles in charge last season. After finishing 31st and 30th, respectively, in 2017 and 2018, Tampa ranked 12th in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA last season. Defensive performance tends to be volatile from season to season, but certain parts of the Bucs roster on that side of the ball played pretty well with Bowles in charge. Rookie third-round corner Jamel Dean already looks like a steal, and second-year cornerback Carlton Davis took significant strides in the new scheme. Barrett piled up a league-best 19.5 sacks, and while he likely won’t approach that number this season, Barrett and Pierre-Paul make for a frightening pair coming off the edge. Combined with ascending defensive tackle Vita Vea, former no. 5 pick Devin White, and the perpetually underrated Lavonte David, the Bucs have a rock-solid core that should give Brady’s offense some cushion.
Tampa Bay isn’t going to field the high-flying, high-scoring unit that it has in recent years, but the move to Brady indicates they don’t want to. When Winston was on, the Bucs’ passing game could be thrilling, but Arians and general manager Jason Licht had clearly spent enough time on the Jameis coaster. Winston threw more interceptions last season (30) than Brady has thrown over the past four seasons combined (29). The Bucs offense may be less explosive in 2020, but it’s almost certain to be more consistent too. Rolling with Brady indicates that the Bucs believe reliable quarterback play is what separates them from the contending teams in the NFC. And we’re about to find out if they’re right.
Betting on a 43-year-old quarterback comes with considerable risk. Even when that quarterback is the best to ever do it. But Arians is 67 and has substantial influence on the team’s personnel. If the Bucs were going to move on from Winston, Arians couldn’t have been too excited about the prospect of drafting a quarterback early and shepherding his development—especially with the rest of Tampa Bay’s roster primed to compete right now. It might seem like an odd marriage on its face, but after taking stock of their options, both Brady and the Bucs came to the reasonable conclusion that this was the best path forward. Tom Brady is the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And somehow, that kind of feels right.