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Tom Brady and the Art of Reinvention

The NFL’s most successful quarterback went to Tampa in search of a new challenge

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tom Brady was looking for a change of scenery, so like any well-to-do Northeasterner nearing retirement, he set his sights on Florida. It was a shocking development when the six-time Super Bowl winner left the Patriots for the Buccaneers in March. When he was joined by the newly unretired tight end Rob Gronkowski, it became clear Tampa Bay was having a moment. Today, The Ringer is breaking down all things Bucs, from Brady’s learning curve with a new team to the great Gronk revival, and whether a moribund franchise can resurrect itself with Brady at the helm.

In 1992, Tom Brady began throwing dozens of routes—mostly curls, outs, and fades—with his receivers after football practices as a sophomore at Serra High School in San Mateo, California.

He was a talented player and also a product of his environment. As a 4-year-old, he’d watched 49ers quarterback Joe Montana throw “The Catch” to Dwight Clark at Candlestick Park. Those San Francisco teams and Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense influenced Brady and his high school team. They also revolutionized the NFL by emphasizing what would later be at the center of football’s future offensive innovations, especially high-volume passing. Long before Brady joined the Patriots, his training as a passer had already begun to mirror where NFL offenses were headed. He’s been a master adapter in the NFL. After signing with the Buccaneers in March, he’ll need to adapt once again, but he’ll do so from a foundation that he’s been developing since he was a teenager.

Brady spent such a long time with the Patriots and enjoyed such organizational consistency that it’s easy to forget all the subtle adjustments he made over the years as teammates changed and schemes evolved. His switching teams marks a new start and a new head coach—Bruce Arians, who runs a different style of offense that Brady will have to learn. But throughout his development as a quarterback, back to his earliest days, he’s absorbed knowledge that will benefit him anywhere within a pass-heavy league. That foundation will support him in Tampa, just like it did in New England.

Rather than being a radical change, Brady’s adjustment to a new offense will be more like a musician learning to play in a new time signature than going from cello to trombone. Brady is starting fresh in Tampa, but he isn’t starting over.

“With Tommy as a sophomore, we were throwing like 30, 40 times per game,” John Kirby, Brady’s teammate at Serra High School and one of his favorite targets, told me. “We were one of the first passing offenses in our area at that lower level that ran 30, 40 pass plays just out of a simple two-wide-receiver set.”

At that time, most high school offenses did a lot more running, quarterbacks did a lot more handing off, and receivers did a lot more blocking. But Serra’s JV coach, Bob Vinal, installed an offense that relied heavily on the passing game and tasked Brady and Kirby with refining it, which they continued to do when they joined the varsity team coached by Tom MacKenzie.

For about an hour before or after most practices, Brady, Kirby, and another teammate would work on throws and timing together. They’d repeatedly run the curls, outs, and fades that were staple throws in Serra’s offense, Kirby said. Brady’s work ethic has been mythologized plenty, but beyond the benefits of muscle memory, he was trained in an offense well ahead of its time, one that prepared him for where he, and the NFL, were heading.

Football Outsiders has tracked quarterbacks by routes thrown since 2016. In each of the four seasons for which there’s data, the two most popular routes targeted in the NFL were curls and outs. With the exception of last year, Brady’s DVOA rating has generally been several points above league average on those throws.

That alone doesn’t mean much—above league average isn’t exactly the Brady standard. He’s been below average throwing dig routes, comebacks, and wide receiver screens. What stands out is how Brady’s staple throws—the ones he honed during extra throwing sessions in high school—are the league’s staples, too.

In the years Football Outsiders sampled, NFL teams threw the most curl routes (an average of 2,470 passes per year), followed by out routes or quick outs (1,935), then slants (1,251), digs (1,150), receiver screens (1,003), drags (921), go or fly routes (684), posts (601), comebacks (479), seams (451), and fades (453). If you reverse-engineered a training program for passing in today’s NFL, you could do worse than what Brady was up to in the early ’90s.

“His favorite throws in high school were definitely curls and outs. That was the majority of what a lot of our passing offense was,” Kirby said.

Kirby said one of Brady’s best passes in high school came when he hit Kirby on a curl route against Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa. Serra’s curls were deeper than most high school offenses would have used, Kirby said, with the receiver coming back at around 17 yards. When Kirby was nearly at the top of the route, Brady threw the ball.

“Before I even turned around, I could hear it coming,” Kirby said. “I could hear it in the air like pshhh, so I knew he let it go.”

Kirby planted and turned, and the ball was right there, practically in his face mask.

It’s a play that takes accuracy and timing, the kind of play any quarterback today would want to be especially good at running.

Brady has often said he doesn’t think about working certain parts of the field more than others. “Football to me is about throwing the ball to the guy who’s open,” he said this spring in his first press conference as a Buccaneer.

Perhaps some of that is due to having so many different receivers in a 20-year career. Or that he’s always adapted his skill set to the schematic changes Bill Belichick implemented as the Patriots offense reinvented itself several times. Whatever the reason, Brady doesn’t need to enforce his preferences on an offense, because most NFL offenses are made up of his preferences to begin with.

How much is a player a product of his environment? As a high school sophomore, Brady was a fan of one of the most innovative offenses in NFL history, and he was throwing 30-plus times per game for his own team when most of his peers weren’t coming close to that output.

It wasn’t as if Vinal looked at his roster and figured he had the next Joe Montana. He and many of his players rooted for the 49ers every week and had reverently watched Walsh’s high-volume, efficient passing offenses win Super Bowls. Clearly, some of those concepts trickled down.

“That’s a testament to Coach Vinal,” Kirby said. “He was really ahead of the times. He was already incorporating a lot of those West Coast concepts that Bill Walsh did with backs out of the backfield, swing routes to the tailback, a lot of short slants, hitches, all the West Coast stuff.

“That’s what we were running pass-wise because that was pretty much the only pass offense available then. We were running all sorts of stuff. You’d see something in the Niner game and all of a sudden we’d be running it.”

Proximity is a strong influence. Kids across the United States started wearing blue jeans in the 1950s because Marlon Brando and James Dean wore them, but Hollywood knew denim because it had been worn on California ranches for decades. In the NFL, Brady led one of the most explosive offenses in league history—the 2007 Patriots—and has participated in the league’s passing boom in the last decade, which has been spurred on by rules changes that have benefitted offenses. But throwing the ball a lot and focusing on those timing routes—the curls and the outs that are so hard to defend when executed well? Brady grew up down the street from that.

When Brady signed with Tampa, he agreed with Arians and general manager Jason Licht that he would learn the Buccaneers offense with its existing verbiage. Better for Brady to adapt than for him to import a new language for the rest of the offense and returning players.

Right away, it was a sign that Brady felt he could adjust to fit the scheme already in place. That would mean getting used to the downfield aggressiveness of Arians’s offense. Over the last two years, Brady’s average depth of target was only 8.4 yards according to Pro Football Focus. By comparison, his predecessor Jameis Winston has never played a season where his average depth of target has been less than 10.8 yards down the field. Fitting that system would require Brady to emphasize parts of the field he hasn’t in the last two years.

In 2017, though, when the Patriots offense featured Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan as legitimate deep threats, Brady’s average depth of target was 10.2 yards. In conversations with coaches and players that year, it came up more than once that Brady loves throwing deep, even if it hasn’t been key to Patriots offenses in years when their best receivers have been possession receivers like Julian Edelman. In 2017, PFF’s target probability model estimated that Brady was supposed to throw 10 yards or more downfield 278 times that season but did so 292 times, suggesting that Brady was actually eager to push the offense vertically.

He’ll be encouraged to do so in Tampa. Receiver Mike Evans averaged 17.3 yards per catch last season and ranks only behind Julio Jones on all vertical routes over the last four seasons, according to PFF. Brady’s also been reunited with tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom he’s dominated with on go routes in the past. He’s already made a downfield connection with receiver Scotty Miller, a 2019 sixth-round draft pick who ran a 4.36 40-yard dash, in practice, which Arians cited as a reason to sneer at anyone speculating Brady can’t sling it anymore.

“They’re not that smart,” Arians told Peter King in August. “The guy can make every throw. He threw a ball 60 yards the other day to [wide receiver] Scotty Miller that was on a dime.”

The Buccaneers don’t have to throw the deep ball all the time. Brady can work the middle of the field with multiple tight end sets using Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and Gronkowski, a familiar concept from several of his Patriots offenses. Receiver Chris Godwin’s route tree isn’t as deep as Evans’s, and Brady can emphasize working underneath and throwing to him and running back Ronald Jones.

Tampa may need to focus on these kinds of plays if Brady’s arm strength has diminished as he’s gotten older. Brady’s low yardage per attempt last season had a lot to do with the skill position players he was working with in New England, but at 43, whether or not he’s in physical decline will have to be borne out over the course of a new season. Whatever adjustments he makes won’t matter if he no longer has the physical tools to take advantage of the playmakers around him, but the adjustments themselves shouldn’t be a problem. Adaptation is one of Brady’s greatest strengths.

The 2007 Patriots season is probably the best evidence of Brady’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances. That year, New England’s offense popularized the slot receiver, became the first in NFL history to run the majority of its pass plays from the shotgun, and used three-, four-, and five-receiver sets liberally and effectively. It was a drastic shift away from the defensive-minded football the Patriots played in Brady’s earlier seasons with the team, but he felt unleashed.

In his episode of the Apple TV+ docuseries Greatness Code, Brady says he thinks his high-water-mark game was a 56-10 win against the Bills in ’07. It’s not a surprising pick in the sense that Brady threw for 373 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, and completed 79.5 percent of his passes while the Patriots offense scored on seven consecutive drives. It’s only surprising in the sense that it was a regular-season Bills game.

“I don’t think many people would ever think about that game when they think about my career,” Brady said. “I don’t think people would go, ‘Man, that Sunday night Buffalo Bills game, that was the one.’ But for me, when I think about it—and I’ve got this big catalog of games—I think, ‘Yep, that was the one.’”

Remember that throw Kirby heard go pshhh in his ear before turning to catch it? Keep that in mind and consider this throw, which Brady thinks of as one of his very best. In that 2007 Bills game, Brady and the Patriots had a third-and-2 in the second quarter. Donté Stallworth ran a curl and, when Stallworth was nearing the top of the route, Brady looked at the 19 on the back of his jersey and threw. When Stallworth curled around, the ball hit him right in the hands.

“You feel like at that point you can’t do wrong,” Brady said.

That Patriots offense was historic that season because they did things that hadn’t been done before in the NFL. Brady, however, was making plays that mirrored ones he’d made in high school. He was the right quarterback to run that offense and to mold himself to its changes because he was born of an earlier era of offensive innovation, one that simply asked quarterbacks to throw often and precisely.

The West Coast offense has been adapted as it’s been passed down through Walsh’s coaching tree so much that it’s become more of a general set of principles found across the league. At its core, its lasting impact on the NFL has been emphasizing efficient passes that require good timing. Brady will need to make adjustments to play well in Tampa, but he didn’t succeed all those years in New England because he was the right quarterback for the Patriots offense; he succeeded because he was the right quarterback for NFL offenses. Brady started building that foundation long before he could point out Foxborough on a map, so how much of this is really so new?