Montana finished in a Chiefs jersey. Jordan retired as a Wizard. Gretzky went out in New York. And now it appears Tom Brady will spend the final years of his professional career playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I repeat: Tom Brady, he of six Super Bowl, New England Patriots fame, is departing the most successful team in modern NFL history and is all but certain to move his operation to Tampa, Florida, in order to join a team with the NFL’s third-worst record over the past decade. The Patriots went 125-35 between 2010 and 2019, winning three Super Bowls: The Buccaneers: 59-101, with zero playoff appearances.
Brady leaving the Patriots to join the Bucs is as much about lifestyle as anything else. Tampa’s coach, Bruce Arians, is famed for his laidback, there’s-more-to-life-than-football style. He drinks beers in the parking lots with the players and their families after games. He threatens to fire coaches if they miss a dance recital or ballgame or a family member’s birthday. “Those years don’t come back,” Arians famously said.
Arians certainly does not reflect the ruthless, win at all costs Patriot Way. For Brady, a man soon-to-be in his mid-40s, the family stuff starts to matter a whole lot more.
There are football reasons for the switch, too. The Bucs have one of the best two-man receiving tandems in the sport: Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. There is also a chance Antonio Brown joins the group. He and Brady have remained in close contact, and Brown worked under Arians back in his Pittsburgh days. And you can chuck into that mix tight end OJ Howard, who is as physically gifted as any at his position in the sport, though he fell victim to Arians’ scheme – which almost vehemently opposes the use of tight-ends as pass-catchers – in the coach’s first season in Tampa.
The Bucs were impressive on both sides of the ball last season, despite Jameis Winston tossing 30 interceptions. In fact, it’s likely that Brady surveyed the landscape and sought out the best possible defense rather than offense when making his decision. The Bucs defense finished fifth in DVOA last season. The other two Brady suitors? The Raiders, 31st; the Chargers, 21st.
The fit between coach and quarterback remains iffy. Arians is known as a fun-n-gun coach, someone who wants his quarterbacks to make long throws. When his offenses have been at their best – first in Pittsburgh and then in Arizona – it’s been when he’s had a strong-armed quarterback who could throw the ball deep down the field outside the numbers, often supplemented with a sound running game.
That’s not Brady. He is a rhythm player: hit the back foot, get the ball out. Everything he does is about precision and timing. In New England, Brady was also the master of pre-snap manipulation. He controlled everything and the Patriots ran everything: two-back sets, spread-sets, motions, shifts, fullbacks, h-backs. The Patriots align players anywhere and everywhere. Players’ roles shift on a week-to-week, concept-to-concept basis. Wide receivers become ball-carriers, and they shift between inside and perimeter positions. Running backs are used as a deep threat in the passing game. It was a complex, all-encompassing system.
And it all flowed through Brady. He digested each morsel of information and made sure the team used the best play possible against whichever look a defense presented. Indeed, the Patriots system was always at its best when Brady was able to jump into the no-huddle, marshaling things alone at the line of scrimmage.
None of that fits the Arians philosophy. The coach is more rigid, more reliant on a core set of plays, with far less pre-snap motion, which typically helps a quarterback identify what a defense is trying to do. Over the past decade, Brady’s Patriots have hovered around the 20% motion mark. The Bucs under Arians: 6%.
Adjustments flow both ways. Will Arians let Brady bring the New England blueprint with him? Will Brady welcome a shift away from a system that puts so much focus on his decision-making and timing rather than letting him just go out there and rip it?
Remember: Brady will be 43 by the time the new season starts. His arm remains as strong as it’s been since the early 2010s, but, barring a wild 2007 run, throwing the ball vertically has never been his biggest strength. Will Arians be happy running a system reliant on precise, underneath routes? If it works, you would think so.
But it remains an essential question the pair must figure out together. Taking deep dropbacks would be a recipe for disaster. Tampa Bay’s offensive-line ranks anywhere from solid to good by most metrics. They finished 22nd in adjusted sack rate and 16th in pressure rate. But even those numbers were slightly inflated by Winston’s, umm, ability to go off-script, break a play, and avoid sacks.
Tampa’s group has talent, most notably inside. But they’re a group built for an Arians offense, not a Brady one. They maul people in the run-game then set deep in the passing game.
The shift to Brady couldn’t be more radical. Brady isn’t utterly immobile, but he’s not exactly mobile either. He’s a pocket shuffler. Others bob and weave like a boxer, keeping a play alive until they scamper away or find an open teammate. Brady likes to adjust the radar of a pass-rusher by a fraction. At high speed, it feels like a world of difference. They can see still him. It looks like he’s in the same spot, but for some reason, he’s now out of range. It is exceptionally effective, but only to a point. Brady has noticeably become gun-shy in the past two seasons, chucking the ball into the dirt or throwing it away in order to avoid big hits. There were times last season where he was inching closer to the fossil most quarterbacks become at the very end.
But Brady is still good. That’s important to note. Is he the Brady of old? No. But he still ranks as a league-average starter, one with a rolodex of football information stored in his brain. Wriggle his way into the post-season, and with the weapons, he has on the perimeter and a frisky Bucs defense, he would have a shot. That, along with a new challenge and a less pressurized environment, was probably what he was looking for.
None of his other options were great. In Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders, he would have found a better schematic fit and someone who shares his football psychopathy. It wouldn’t have been all that much fun, though. The Los Angeles Chargers, meanwhile, are a rotating morass of mediocrity and the little brother in a city that’s yet to prove it has an appetite for professional football. In Tampa, Brady has found the best of some not-great situations. Arians is smart enough to step back or push, depending on what is needed.
This move was about ego and joy. About respect. About credit, and how we, as a collective, apportion it between Brady and Belichick. Now, they will both go it alone, albeit at the back-end of their careers. Maybe Brady won’t win a Lombardi, but as a steady hand on a team with a bunch of young talent, he will surely have some fun.