In case you weren’t already aware, I am a huge fan of Tom Brady. So fair warning that despite my efforts to remain impartial in writing this article, there was already existing bias. That said, I believe there are plenty of objective statistics that project Tampa Bay to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2020. While faithful Buccaneers fans are excited, and rightfully so, no one should discount a strong Chiefs team led by Patrick Mahomes, an almost-championship caliber 49ers squad returning with Kyle Shanahan at the helm, or an aggressive Ravens team led by last year’s MVP winner Lamar Jackson.
But nor should anyone count out the Buccaneers this coming season. Tampa Bay’s roster is balanced and full of incredibly talented skill position players on both sides of the ball. It’s not that far-fetched that such an offensive powerhouse combined with an unheralded defense, all led by a fired-up MVP candidate ready to prove that he’s not quite ready to go quietly into the sunset, is ready for a title run.
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Buccaneers: An Offensive Powerhouse?
Offensive success starts in the trenches with good blocking and offensive line play. This is even more true for a Bruce Arians-led offense that features vertical passing, requiring the quarterback to often hold the ball for longer periods of time while receivers get downfield. Even a future Hall of Fame quarterback can’t be expected to excel without adequate pass protection, but there’s reason for optimism here. Tampa Bay’s offensive line performed poorly overall in 2019, ranking 22nd in pass protection and 23rd in run blocking. But despite their shoddy performance on the season, the Buccaneers’ offensive line began improving late in the year.
Per Pro Football Focus’s (PFF) offensive line rankings following the 2019 regular season, Tampa Bay ranked seventh by the end of last year. Specifically, PFF graded both center Ryan Jensen and left guard Ali Marpet highly. ESPN’s pass block win rate metric, which measures which linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer, likewise graded Jensen as a top-10 center in the league and Marpet as a top-10 guard. Both players should continue providing outstanding pass protection for Brady on the interior of the offensive line in 2020.
Incidentally, Brady has been fairly elusive in the pocket against edge rushers but has historically struggled against interior pressure, which is why the Patriots focused on scheming to neutralize Aaron Donald en route to their win over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. With the interior line anchored by Jensen and Marpet and Donovan Smith playing adequately at left tackle, Tampa Bay wisely chose to part ways with their former 34-year-old right tackle, Demar Dotson after 2019. They drafted his replacement in Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to bolster the right side of the line, a player that Lance Zierlien compared to another Iowa product, former Packers standout tackle Bryan Bulaga.
If the offensive line can continue playing at a high level as they were towards the end of last season, giving Brady time to throw is already winning half the battle. But both Jameis Winston and Brady had ample time to throw last year, with both quarterbacks averaging around 2.5 seconds in the pocket, which ranked 12th and 13th, respectively. This suggests that Brady was inefficient in 2019 despite adequate pass protection. While true, the narrative that Brady has declined is not.
Is Brady Still Good?
A frequently-debated question this offseason has been whether Brady is physically still capable of efficiently executing Arians’ offense and maximizing its potential. Before we get into the weapons at Brady’s disposal in 2020, let’s first dispel the notion that Brady’s arm has declined, rendering him unable to complete deeper throws. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady ranked seventh-best in the NFL last year on passes of 20 or more air yards. He completed 43 percent of such pass attempts compared to the league average of 38 percent. Brady also had a 3.5 touchdown-to-interception ratio on passes of 20 or more air yards, which was his third-highest ratio since 2006.
His season-long deep ball accuracy becomes even more impressive given the fact that Julian Edelman, James White, Phillip Dorsett, Rex Burkhead, and Mohamed Sanu led the Patriots in receptions in 2019. In fact, per PFF, when New England had both Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon for the first three weeks of last season, Brady was the best quarterback in the league on throws of over 20 yards with an 88.9 percent accuracy rate and a 152.1 passer rating. How did the Patriots’ top receivers perform after Brown and Gordon left the team?
In terms of average separation between a pass-catcher and the nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion, NFL’s Next Gen Stats ranked Sanu 37th, Dorsett 61st, and Edelman 66th in the league. Their defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) rankings were poor as well, with Edelman, Dorsett, and Sanu ranking 55th, 56th, and 74th among wide receivers, respectively. It’s easy to imagine Brady’s offensive efficiency increasing when he upgrades from Edelman, Dorsett, Sanu, and White to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and O.J. Howard.
Treasure Trove of Offensive Weapons
The bevy of talented skill position players that Tampa Bay has assembled on offense is arguably the best group that Brady has ever played with, rivaling even the pass-catchers from his 2007 MVP season led by Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and Kevin Faulk. How do we even begin to dissect this 2020 group? Let’s start with the familiar face and former teammate from New England, Gronkowski, who is one of the most dominant tight ends in the history of the league, if not the most dominant.
Gronkowski has caught the most touchdown passes of any player that Brady has targeted, totaling 78 of Brady’s career 614 passing touchdowns, including playoffs. Moss is a distant second, having caught 39 touchdown passes from Brady. Brady has also been more efficient overall with Gronkowski on the field, as shown by the below splits.
Even though the soon-to-be 31-year-old Gronkowski is no longer as physically dominant as he once was, his 6’6 frame, subtleties as a route runner, and connection with Brady still make him a dangerous red-zone threat and a trusted target in key situations. During their tenure together in New England, opposing defenses were accustomed to double-teaming Gronkowski relentlessly near the goal line to force Brady to target others in the red zone, but that’s where Evans comes in.
With his 6’5 frame, Evans is every bit as dangerous in the red zone as Gronkowski, and opposing defenses will be hard-pressed to defend against both. Since entering the league in 2014, Evans has averaged over 1,200 receiving yards per year and has tied Randy Moss for the most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons by a wide receiver to start a career. Both a downfield threat and able to win contested catches, Evans totaled 67 receptions for 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns despite missing the final three games of the season with a hamstring injury. Evans ranked sixth in DYAR in 2019, considerably higher than any Patriots wide receiver.
As if fielding Gronkowski and Evans together weren’t already an embarrassment of riches, Brady will also have Godwin, who broke out last season to the tune of a career-high 86 receptions for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns. Godwin was PFF’s highest-graded wide receiver in 2019 and averaged 15.5 yards per reception despite missing the final two games of the season with a hamstring injury. And if you thought Evans was impressive, Godwin overshadowed even Evans, ranking as the second-best wide receiver in the league in DYAR behind only Michael Thomas.
Finally, there’s Howard, now the second-string tight end following Tampa Bay’s trade for Gronkowski. Howard is good enough to be a starter for the majority of NFL teams after coming out of Alabama in 2017 as a top-graded tight end prospect. He’s struggled to stay healthy and has been underutilized since entering the league, but Howard has shown flashes of dominance. PFF graded Howard as the second-best tight end in 2018, and his yards after the catch as well as his run-blocking will make him a major role player in two-tight end sets as well as a change of pace option to limit Gronkowski’s snaps.
Third-round rookie running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and incumbent Ronald Jones round out the starters, both of whom are capable pass-catchers out of the backfield. This doesn’t even take into account competent depth players like Cameron Brate and rookie wide receiver Tyler Johnson. The Buccaneers’ offense is loaded with talent and conceivably has a top-two offensive unit in the league rivaled only by the Chiefs, who have Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins, and now first-round rookie selection Clyde Edwards-Helaire. How is an opposing defense supposed to defend against Gronkowski, Howard, Evans, and Godwin with Brady at the helm? Well, opposing defenses probably won’t find much success in trying to defend against this lethal Tampa Bay offense. The only real concern for this offense might be injury risk.
No offense is complete without good coaching and scheme fit. Take for instance the stark contrast between Jared Goff‘s performances with Jeff Fisher at the helm vs. his production under the guidance of Sean McVay. Luckily, there are few worries for Brady and the Buccaneers.
Bruce Arians’ entire offensive approach can be summed up by his motto of “no risk it, no biscuit”. Jameis Winston‘s 2019 passing total of 5,109 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions seem to paint an accurate portrayal of this philosophy. While Winston’s turnovers were incredibly limiting and ultimately led to him taking a backup role with New Orleans this season, his overall production remains impressive. As a matter of fact, Arians has spawned productive offenses featuring his vertical passing concepts at various stops throughout his NFL coaching career. Here are how other starting-caliber quarterbacks have performed with his instruction.
The interception rates are definitely a concern, but outside of that, Arians has led many high-scoring offenses during his tenure on a number of teams. The argument that Brady will struggle in his first year learning Arians’s offense shouldn’t be a concern either. On top of Brady’s literal decades of experience, quarterbacks have performed admirably even in their inaugural seasons with Arians.
As shown in the chart above, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Carson Palmer all found success under Arians even in his first year with their respective teams. Again, the high interception totals are a bit disconcerting, but perhaps Brady is the perfect quarterback to maximize Arians’s aggressive offensive tendencies while minimizing the turnovers. Over the span of his 20 years in the league, Brady has sported an infinitesimal 1.8 percent interception rate. His low career interception rate ties for fourth in league history alongside Russell Wilson (Aaron Rodgers leads in this category with a career 1.4 percent interception rate). Brady’s safety with the ball tremendously offsets and strengthens one of Arians’s biggest schematic weaknesses.
An Unheralded Defense
Defense wins championships, but the Buccaneers were terrible on defense last year! But were they truly bad defensively, or did Winston’s 30 interceptions in 2019 place undue pressure on the defensive unit? Todd Bowles became the butt of many jokes during his time as the head coach of the Jets, but his defenses have performed quite well at various stops in his coaching career. Miami’s defense allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league during Bowles’s brief stint as interim head coach in 2011 following the firing of then head coach Tony Sparano. And during his time as defensive coordinator in Arizona with Arians, Bowles’s defense ranked seventh in points allowed in 2013 and fifth in points allowed in 2014.
Last season, Tampa Bay’s defense ranked fourth-worst in points allowed. But how much of this can be attributed to Winston’s turnovers? Well, quite a bit, as it turns out. Per Football Outsiders, The Buccaneers ranked dead last in line of scrimmage per drive (LOS/Dr) based on the average starting field position for opposing offenses. On average, opposing offenses began their scoring drives close to the 32-yard line. Despite this, Tampa Bay’s defense forced the seventh-most turnovers per drive (TO/Dr) and ranked 11th-best in drive success rate (DSR), which measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown.
The Buccaneers also allowed opponents the eight-fewest yards per drive in 2019. It would seem apparent that Tampa Bay’s defense played well despite having the handicap of opposing offenses receiving the ball with good field position, often due to turnovers by Winston. With Brady under center, the defensive unit’s job should get much easier. In addition to opposing offenses likely receiving the ball with worse field position in 2020, the Buccaneers’ offense generating leads would potentially force opposing quarterbacks to throw more to catch up and thus present more opportunities for turnovers. Bowles has an already-strong defensive unit to work with and should develop it further in 2020.
The pass defense starts with generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks up front. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett had that covered in 2019, leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks and forcing six fumbles, good for third-most in the league. Defensive linemen Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh contributed as well with the two combining for 11 sacks last season. That said, sack rates are often difficult to replicate year over year, even for elite players like J.J. Watt or Von Miller. Quarterback movement within the pocket can result in sacks for different players, which is why quarterback pressures can be a better predictive metric for sustained pass rush pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
In 2019, Barrett recorded 51 quarterback pressures, good for fourth in the league behind only T.J. Watt, Aaron Donald, and Joey Bosa. Pierre-Paul, Suh, and Vita Vea facilitated pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well, with Pierre-Paul and Suh recording 24 quarterback pressures apiece and Vea recording 22 quarterback pressures. Per ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric, which measures how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds of the snap, both Barrett and Vea ranked in the top 10 in the league at their respective positions. Vea was the 10th-best defensive tackle, and Barrett was the fifth-best edge defender.
As for Lavonte David, he was rarely asked to rush the passer last season but contributed by finishing the season as the highest-graded coverage linebacker in the NFL. As a team, Tampa Bay’s defense ranked fourth last year in quarterback pressures and 11th in quarterback hurries. Barrett’s continued dominance up front in 2020 in tandem with David blanketing the middle of the field should anchor this defense in 2020. And if third-year standout Vea can continue to elevate his game while the others around him maintain a high level of play, this front seven could challenge for a spot as one of the best in the league.
The secondary is the weaker half of the Buccaneers’ pass defense, but even so, it’s an above-average unit with room for improvement. This unit failed to force many turnovers last year, recording just 12 interceptions on the season. Despite the low interception total though, cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean both ranked in the top 10 defenders in the league in passes defended. Davis ranked second behind only Stephon Gilmore with 19 passes defended, and Dean ranked seventh with 17 passes defended.
Safety play in 2019 was also mediocre at best, but the return of third-year safety Justin Evans from a foot injury and the addition of second-round rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. out of Minnesota this year should help address concerns at that position. Even with the secondary allowing the third-most passing yards per game last year, Tampa Bay’s pass defense was above average overall, ranking 12th in pass defense DVOA. If the pass rush stays strong, even a slight-improved secondary could give Tampa Bay a stifling pass defense.
Unlike their pass defense, which struggled at times last season, the Buccaneers’ run defense was the best in the league, allowing just 73.8 rushing yards per game in 2019. They allowed just 3.14 adjusted line yards and stuffed 29 percent of rushing attempts, both metrics ranking second-best in the league. Tampa Bay’s run defense also allowed just 0.81 second-level yards, best in the NFL. The combined metrics indicated that the Buccaneers’ defensive line won at the line of scrimmage, and in the rare cases where a runner broke free, their linebackers and secondary were exceptional in support at tackling and limiting opposing runners from gaining yards downfield.
Barrett again led this unit, recording 19 tackles for loss last season, second behind only Aaron Donald. David, Pierre-Paul, Nassib, and Suh added ten, nine, eight, and seven tackles for loss, respectively. Only three teams managed to rush for over 100 yards against Tampa Bay last year, and only one player rushed for over 100 yards against them (Chris Carson of the Seahawks in Week 9).
Though the pass defense is more important in this pass-first era of the NFL, a great run defense is still an integral piece of the puzzle. Opponents are unlikely to be able to run the clock in an attempt to keep Brady & co. off the field in 2020, and in the unlikely case that an opponents gets out to an early lead, it would be difficult for them to simply run out the clock. Ultimately, the run defense needs to maintain its high level of play from 2019, and the pass defense still has some work to do before developing into a truly elite unit. It’s uncertain whether the 2020 Buccaneers defense will be a Super Bowl-caliber unit, but the framework and potential are definitely there.
An MVP Run for Brady?
Winston Minus Turnovers
This is the point where we leave the safe waters of statistical analysis and set sail for the stormy seas of pure narrative and projection. A friend of mine, who shall remain unnamed to save him the embarrassment, gave me 100-to-1 odds on New England in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI. I’ve long been a subscriber to the notion to “never bet against Brady”, but that historic Super Bowl comeback for the ages etched the phrase into stone for many NFL fans.
Let’s revisit Winston’s 2019 passing totals of 5,109 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions. Those are impressive totals, minus the interceptions. It’s not hard to imagine these being MVP-caliber numbers with a slight increase in touchdowns and a major drop in interceptions, both of which can be accomplished by Brady given his track record of success. Furthermore, as the offseason has progressed, I’ve been buying more and more into the narrative that 2020 will kick off an offensive explosion for Brady, similar to how Peyton Manning’s incredible performances from 2012 to 2014 came following his transition to Denver.
Broncos Peyton Manning vs. Buccaneers Tom Brady
There are two major similarities that lead me to believe that as astonishing as the concept might be, we may have yet to see Brady’s best seasons from a pure statistical standpoint. First and foremost, both Brady and Manning are incredible competitors. Both have constantly striven to win championships, and both have been similarly doubted. Many wrote off Manning following his neck surgery and release from Indianapolis in 2011, and many have already written off Brady after declining statistically in 2019 and parting ways with New England. If anything, all these doubts voiced by the public and media-fueled first Manning and now Brady to disprove the belief that they are past their prime and should retire.
Moreover, Manning won games in his final season with the Colts in 2010 despite his lack of weapons, much like Brady did in his final season with the Patriots in 2019. Manning made do with a receiving corps led by a 32-year-old Reggie Wayne, an injured and 31-year-old Dallas Clark, and journeyman Pierre Garcon. And as discussed above, following Gronk’s initial retirement after the 2018 season, Brady finished out his final season with the Patriots throwing to an accomplished but 33-year-old Edelman and a running back as his secondary target with rookie N’Keal Harry inexperienced and injured for much of the year.
Both future Hall of Fame quarterbacks then upgraded to teams with massive levels of surrounding talent. Manning got Demaryius Thomas and elevated the play of Eric Decker in 2012, and in 2013, the Broncos added Wes Welker and dynamic rookie Julius Thomas to his already-strong array of weapons. Howard in Tampa Bay bears striking athletic similarities and strengths to Julius Thomas, and if anything, the combination of Evans, Godwin, and Gronkowski in 2020 overshadow even the combined talents of Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Decker, and Welker back in 2013. Incidentally, following the addition of Welker and Julius Thomas in 2013 is when Manning won his fifth and final regular season MVP award. With a tantalizing group of skilled pass-catchers at his disposal, Brady has immediate opportunity to replicate this 2007 MVP season.
Who is Tom Moore?
And finally, the presence of Tom Moore is an underrated factor in Brady’s MVP potential in 2020. Moore, a special senior offensive consultant to Arians in Tampa Bay, has a long history of success with elevating quarterback play as an offensive coordinator. Moore was instrumental in developing Peyton Manning into a future Hall of Fame quarterback after coaching him for 13 years in Indianapolis, beginning with Manning’s rookie season in 1998.
Moore also met with the Broncos in 2012 after they signed Manning. At that time, Moore convinced then head coach John Fox to allow Manning to essentially run the offense and do what he did best. As a result, Manning led a dominant Denver offense in 2012, 2013, and 2014, the likes of which the league had never before seen and has since been unmatched…for now. While Brady no doubt already had the freedom to call audibles at the line of scrimmage and was involved in designing plays with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels in New England, this could be a new level of coordination in designing a far less-conservative offense.
With Arians likely to follow a similar approach with Brady in Tampa Bay, Brady would plausibly be allowed to dictate how to best suit the offense to his strengths. And while team wins and a Super Bowl berth remain the primary goal, it’s not hard to imagine that Brady might be tempted to pad his already-impressive individual stats a bit given the recent rise of discussions as to whether Belichick is heavily responsible for his success. Given Arians’s strengths as an offensive play-caller combined with Brady’s talent and 20 years of experience reading defenses, I’d argue that it would even be an understatement to say that the sky’s the limit. The sky is not the limit. The limit does not exist.
Never Bet Against Brady
Like Brady, Patrick Mahomes has already won a regular-season MVP title, a Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl MVP title early in his career and is arguably the best quarterback in the league at this point. Mahomes could possibly have a case to rival Brady as the greatest quarterback of all time when it’s all said and done, but Brady isn’t ready to abdicate the throne just yet. So what if a 43-year-old quarterback has never won an MVP title or a Super Bowl? A 40-year-old quarterback had never won MVP prior to 2018, and a 41-year-old quarterback had never won a Super Bowl prior to Super Bowl LIII. Both are records held by Brady, who has built his career off of defying the odds and exceeding even the wildest expectations. Why on Earth would we start betting against Brady now?
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