TAMPA, Fla. -- Now that Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians realized his pipe-dream scenario, landing six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, it’s time to get to work on integrating him into the Bucs’ offense. Coaches and players aren't allowed to enter team facilities, and OTAs will likely be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some valuable brainstorming sessions.
Arians has always enjoyed a collaborative approach with his quarterbacks, which was one of the most appealing factors for Brady in choosing Tampa Bay. Arians lets his quarterback pick 15-20 first-and-10 plays and his favorite third-down plays when formulating a game plan, something Drew Stanton, who played for Arians in both Indianapolis and Arizona, said is rare. But with Brady’s 20 years of experience and championship résumé, they could take it a step further by making some additions to the playbook.
“[Offensive coordinator] Byron [Leftwich] and BA will be extremely receptive to input from Tom," Stanton said. "When I played for both of them, they did so many things to make whichever QB that was playing comfortable. BA gives his quarterbacks a lot of leeway and gives them ownership within the principles of his offense. It’s going to be exciting to watch.”
How will the Bucs best take advantage of Brady's strengths?
ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said, “If I was Bruce, I would incorporate the top play-action concepts, screens and the running back routes into the offense for Brady."
Fellow analyst and former Brady teammate Tedy Bruschi agreed: “There needs to be some sort of run game with elements of play-action.”
What could that look like? A Week 1 second-quarter connection between Brady and New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman last season offers a glimpse. (Graphics provided by NFL Next Gen Stats.)
“That could be Chris Godwin in Tampa,” Bowen said.
Brady might not be able to operate much with bootlegs and rollouts outside the pocket, but Dave Moore -- the Buccaneers Radio Network's color analyst who played for the Bucs for 14 seasons -- believes he can affect the play-action passing game with his intelligence and his pinpoint accuracy, such as making difficult throws across his body.
“I do like the play-actions where you’re focusing on one side of the field, but you have a guy that’s leaking across, or a back who you’re faking to who runs that swing route, so it’s almost like a throwback play-action,” Moore said. “You’re focusing and you’re flooding an area on one side of the field but then you always have that big one that you can get on the backside. That’s something that he sells well and I’d like to see them do that.”
“You make it look like you’re running a play-action one way ... and then you leak a guy out on the other side who you were initially faking it to or who was blocking initially or something, where it really strains the defense because you’re forcing them to cover the entire field.”
An area Bruschi believes Brady can most affect with the Bucs is the screen game.
“If there’s any blending of the systems, it’ll be the screen game,” Bruschi said. “I think Tom might push the screen game in terms of something he can use to confuse a rush.”
“In terms of the screen game, I think it’s just wide open for the Bucs,” Bruschi said. “I’m so excited to see that offense and that team play next year because of what it opened up. That’s something that, as an analyst, I don’t know how much many times I’ve been excited to see them offensively.”
With Brady, the Patriots operated one of the most dynamic short-passing games in the NFL. Coach Bill Belichick and his staff utilized a ton of misdirection that drew attention away from where the ball was going, and rather than just getting running backs open in the flat, everyone was involved -- running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.
“The screen’s a great weapon if you know how to use it," Moore said. "The play-action screens where you see in New England, where they’re faking one side and then screening back to the other side -- all of those things, they’re designed to confuse the eyes of the linebackers and the defensive backs. The misdirection, the hesitations, the play-actions -- all they’re doing is forcing these guys to check several things before they get into their drop rather than letting these guys playing flat out, full speed.”
Bowen believes it was less about play design with Brady in New England -- although the Patriots did have some very creative concepts -- and more about execution.
“He has mastered the footwork and timing of the screen game,” Bowen said.
Bruschi believes it will help the Bucs’ offensive line improve because Brady is so decisive with the football. The unit surrendered 47 sacks last season, one off from the most in the league.
“I know with Jameis [Winston], he did take a little bit longer with his decision-making," Moore said.
"You pump once and you pump twice and you’re indecisive in the pocket, and all a sudden, it’s a bad offensive line,” Bruschi said. “There’s gonna be a lot of times where the ball is out. The ball’s out. And they’ll know that. And I’m sure there were times where they didn’t know if Jameis knew when to get the ball out or he just didn’t, so you’re not seamless with your protections.”
The Bucs will need a more consistent run game for their screen game and play-action passing game to work.
“Our backs did a very good job in the pass game last year. Especially Rojo [Ronald Jones]," Arians said. "I thought he really excelled for the first time in the screen game. Dare [Ogunbowale] was pretty solid. But just using backs out of the backfield as wide receivers -- as primary receivers – that’s not Rojo’s deal. But hopefully we can find somebody like that who can compete with Dare on third down and become more of a wide receiver threat.”
Bowen believes the Buccaneers can address this in the 2020 NFL draft.
“They need a running back with receiving traits, [like] Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU, and possibly a true, slot wide receiver,” Bowen said.
Usage of tight end
Another area where Brady will likely excel is using the tight end in a vertical capacity. With Brady and Belichick, it wasn’t uncommon to see Rob Gronkowski out wide. There was a lot of action vertically, along the seam, whereas Arians utilizes the tight end more horizontally and lining up inside.
“O.J. Howard has to get involved, in my opinion. Run seams and crossers. [He] has the athletic traits to be a prime target for Brady,” Bowen said.
One play from the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII -- a slot fade from Brady to Gronkowski for a 29-yard gain -- illustrates what the Bucs should do. (Graphics provided by NFL Next Gen Stats.)
“This is a top Brady route," Bowen said. "Can mix with multiple personnel groupings. Two inside seams with Edelman (or a slot WR) on underneath crosser/option.”
“Nobody throws a vertical pass straight down the middle of the field with accuracy better than Tom Brady,” Moore said.
Nobody has completed more deep passes to tight ends than Brady. Since 2001, Brady has completed 75 passes of 20 or more air yards to tight ends -- the most in the league in that span, ahead of Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. Even in the past five years, he ranks No. 1 in that department.
“If you give him a 6-foot-5 Howard, or a 6-foot-5 Cameron Brate running vertical on a 6-foot-2 linebacker, that’s a win all day long,” Moore said. “The linebacker’s gonna have his back to the quarterback. He’s gonna be running vertical down the field, and Tom Brady’s made a living out of throwing it just on the tight end’s back shoulder or over his head.”