There was a moment early in the second half of Tom Brady’s Buccaneers debut when those murmurs we’d heard across social media starting last season began to creep about again. Brady flicked a pass toward receiver Justin Watson, whose out pattern carried him toward the sideline, seemingly wide open. But Brady’s pass sailed upfield, away from Watson’s route. Saints safety Janoris Jenkins perfectly timed his break on the throw, picking it off before sprinting 36 yards the other way to give New Orleans a 24-7 lead.
The “Brady’s washed” takes commenced. Loudly. Tampa Bay signed Brady—the 43-year-old six-time Super Bowl winner—this offseason to lead the franchise out of the cellar and straight into the upper echelon of Super Bowl contenders. The roster appears to be constructed for such expectations. Against a Super Bowl contender in the Saints, though, the Brady experiment did not get off to an ideal start. Tampa Bay lost, 34-23.
Almost as quickly as those concerns about Brady were presented, he engineered a three-play, 75-yard scoring drive (including a long pass interference call) capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard. The wave of criticism quickly subsided. However, even if that tide has calmed, it likely won’t go away completely. Tampa has surrounded Brady with a star-studded cast, an offensive upgrade from his situation in New England that was supposed to help the aging star capture whatever remains of his legendary skill. It didn’t appear to consistently make a difference on Sunday. There were several moments when Brady looked like the same declining passer who faded on his way out of New England last year.
Still, Brady wasn’t solely at fault for Sunday’s loss. The Bucs offensive line had a rough day containing the Saints pass rush (Brady was sacked three times) and committed two false start penalties. Tampa’s special teams didn’t help either. One of Ryan Succop’s field goal attempts was blocked and Mike Edwards muffed a kickoff late in the second half, spoiling any hopes of a comeback. Brady didn’t have much control over the Bucs’ self-inflicted wounds. But the things that he did have control of—like his accuracy on that intercepted throw to Watson—he didn’t consistently maximize. And there’s reason to be wary. Brady was brought in to be the anti–Jameis Winston, who threw a whopping 30 interceptions and a record seven pick-sixes last year. Considering Brady’s age, there were concerns about his fit in Bruce Arians’s aggressive passing game. He’s never thrown more than 14 picks in a single season, but already has two after one game, including the pick-six, which Arians plainly described to reporters after the game as a “bad decision.”
Concerns about ability are valid with any player 21 years into their career, but there were plenty of positive moments to suggest Brady might be able to outlast Father Time one more year. Despite his pocket being clogged for much of the game, he appeared comfortable maneuvering in it for stretches, displaying his trademark manipulation to create passing lanes. He showed trust in his receivers downfield, connecting with Chris Godwin on a handful of deep passes—one on which he avoided a sack by throwing a jumping fadeaway pass that hit Godwin in perfect stride.
Brady targeted Mike Evans—the intended target on his first interception—four times, but successfully found him only on a 2-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Brady’s best throw of the day might have been on Scotty Miller’s 37-yard reception in the fourth quarter. His rapport with his targets can stand to improve, but it flashed potential in spurts. Without a preseason, Brady and his army of pass catchers didn’t have a chance to get fully acquainted with one another. He still went 23-for-36 with 239 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Bucs were also facing a Saints squad that has won the NFC South the past three seasons and that many have tabbed as a potential Super Bowl contestant. There are 15 more games for the Bucs to prove that they’re capable of playing at that level. No amount of Brady’s yelling was going to get the Bucs to close the gap on New Orleans in one weekend. Arians was shocked at the amount of miscues and mental errors his team committed Sunday, but he doesn’t think that it’s any indication of how the team will play the rest of the season.
“The Saints didn’t do some of the things we did to ourselves,” Arians said. “We’ve gotta play better. There’s 16 games. We can win this division, without a doubt.”
There’s still plenty of time for the Bucs to get it together. Until they do, the murmurs of Brady’s decline will linger in the background. Time will tell if he can snuff out questions about his abilities before they get too loud.