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FAB 1. Brady And Gronk Effect In The Bucs Offense
The Buccaneers had the best offseason of any team in the NFL, landing the top prize in free agency, six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, who was the quarterback for New England for the past 20 years, as well luring former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to reunite with Brady in Tampa Bay. So what type of effect will Brady and Gronkowski have within Bruce Arians’ offense? Let’s take a look.
Expect Big Numbers For Bucs’ Passing Game
The offensive-minded Arians loves the passing game, as does his offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, a former NFL quarterback in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. With Arians landing the greatest quarterback of all-time in free agency, expect Brady to put up some big passing numbers in 2020, especially with a pair of Pro Bowl wide receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to throw to – in addition to Gronkowski..
Arians can talk about balance on offense and wanting to run the ball all he wants, but the truth is that Ronald Jones II, Dare Ogunbowale and rookies Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Raymond Calais, if he makes the team over T.J. Logan, aren’t the strength of this offense. Brady will throw the ball in Tampa Bay and throw it often.
Hopefully not 626 times like Jameis Winston did last year because the Bucs, who finished 7-9, were often trailing in games, but Brady will likely attempt at least 575 passes in 2020 if he stays healthy for all 16 games. He averaged 577 passes per season over the last decade in New England.
Wherever he’s been as a play-caller – or orchestrator of the offense – Arians has seen his quarterbacks put up big numbers in terms of yardage and/or touchdown passes in the first year of working with them. Here’s how the last four quarterbacks fared working with Arians in the first season.
2007: Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger – 3,154 yards with 32 TDs, 11 INTs
2012: Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck – 4,374 yards with 23 TDs, 18 INTs
2013: Arizona QB Carson Palmer – 4,274 yards with 24 TDs, 22 INTs
2019: Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston – 5,109 yards with 33 TDs, 30 INTs
Brady completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions last year without many weapons to throw to. He especially missed Gronkowski, who retired following the Patriots’ Super Bowl season in 2018.
With Gronkowski on the roster in 2018, Brady completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 4,355 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That’s 300 more yards, five more touchdowns and a significantly increased completion percentage with Gronkowski on the team as a target to throw to.
Gronkowski caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns while playing in 13 games in an injury-riddled 2018 season. The year before in 2017, Gronkowski was healthier and more productive with 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight TDs.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brady has yet to take part in a mini-camp or OTA at the AdventHealth Training Center nor has he been able to work with his new Tampa Bay wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. As a 20-year veteran, Brady should be able to pick up Arians’ offense quickly due to his experience, his renowned study habits and his high football I.Q., and he already has a strong chemistry with Gronkowski from their nine years together in New England.
I spoke with ESPN’s Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss this week about Brady and Gronkowski, and their expected impact and outlook in Tampa Bay, and he believes they will make a seamless transition to Arians’ offense despite the shortened NFL offseason, and Gronkowski coming out of retirement at age 31 after missing the 2018 season.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for them at all,” Reiss said. “One story stands out to me. It was when they played Pittsburgh in the season opener in 2015. They were coming off their Super Bowl win over the Seahawks and Gronk doesn’t play in any game that preseason. They were being very cautious in their approach because he’s so important and they didn’t want him getting hurt. Then they get to the first game and it was Brady to Gronk – three touchdown passes.
“Gronk had five catches for 94 yards and three TDs, and I remember after the game asking Brady, ‘How did you guys flip the switch? You hadn’t even played together in a game since the Super Bowl?’ He looked at me like, ‘Are you serious?’ He said he had more backlog with Gronk, and a lot of history together. I think that’s really important because no matter the system, to me it’s the feel and the chemistry between the two of them. Whatever the system, I feel like they will be able to adapt to it together.”
If Brady and Gronkowski stay healthy it’s not inconceivable to see Brady throw for 4,500 yards and over 30 touchdowns, with the five-time Pro Bowl tight end catching 50 passes for 700 yards and half a dozen touchdowns.
A Seamless Transition For Gronkowski In Tampa Bay
Arians loves to pass the ball down the middle of the field, targeting a team’s linebackers, safeties and nickel cornerback rather than always challenging an opponents’ top cover corner on the outside on a regular basis. That’s where Godwin, the team’s slot receiver, did most of his damage, catching 49 of his 86 passes for 853 yards of his receiving total of 1,333 yards, and scoring five of his nine touchdowns.
Gronkowksi worked the seam effectively for Brady and New England for a decade and should thrive in Arians’ offense, which often gets criticized for not using the tight end position enough in the passing game.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, out of Winston’s 5,190 passing yards, 2,750 of those yards came from the middle of the field in 2019. Winston threw 14 of his 33 touchdowns across the middle, but also saw 20 of his 30 interceptions come from that part of the field, too.
Brady has thrived throwing down the middle of the field, earning PFF grades of 90.6 on throws within 10 yards, 93.4 within 20 yards and 83.5 on middle throws beyond 20 yards in 2018 with Gronkowksi on the team. Even without the talented tight end last year, Brady was able to earn grades of 75.4 on middle throws less than 10 yards, 91.9 on throws from 10-20 yards and 91.7 on throws beyond 20 yards.
By comparison, Winston struggled throwing across the middle effectively underneath, earning a PFF grade of 44.1 on throws less than 10 yards, but improving to 78.5 on middle throws between 10-20 yards and had an outstanding grade of 95.1 on middle throws beyond 20 yards.
In his final season in New England, Gronkowski caught 35 of his 47 passes for 504 yards out of his 682 and caught one of his three touchdowns down the seam.
“The seam route was the biggest one, and when you think back to the last connection they had it was against the Rams in the Super Bowl up the left seam,” Reiss said. “It set up the only touchdown in the game. If you go back and watch that throw – are you kidding me? And then the catch – Gronk has these huge mitts. The seam route was definitely the one – and if you ask anyone in New England those were often times ‘hold your breath’ plays.”
Godwin and Gronkowski working the middle of the field together will create some double trouble for safeties in coverage, and it should create more one-on-one coverages on the outside that Evans can exploit. But Gronkowski working the seam routes against linebackers underneath and safeties over the top does come with some peril for a tight end that has suffered a plethora of injuries over the years.
“Gronk had been through so much physically with the back, the forearm, the knee – anytime he was going up the seam there was a vulnerability to him with that route,” Reiss said. “But they just created some phenomenal connections on those plays. The thing with Gronkowski is that he’s legitimately open even when he’s covered. No matter what offense you are in, and that’s so powerful. In addition to the system, what else is going to help Gronk is that surface [at Raymond James Stadium]. That natural grass is going to be a little softer for him – and the weather will help him, too.”
Brady Has An All-Time Arsenal To Work With
While Brady should have an instant connection with Gronkowski, the six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback will also have a slew of other weapons to throw to in Tampa Bay, starting with a pair of Pro Bowl receivers in Evans and Godwin, each topping 1,000 receiving yards in 2019. According to Reiss, the only time Brady had a similar arsenal in New England was back in the 2007 season when the Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season, only to lose to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
“I think the one that would come to mind was the 2007 season when they were undefeated and it was Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Ben Watson and Laurence Maroney was the running back,” Reiss said. “He was a first-round pick. You knew on the first day of training camp it was going to be special because Tom was so fired up. He and Randy just put on a show. That was one of the craziest, special moments ever for me.”
The 30-year old Moss caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and a career-high 23 touchdowns in 2007, which was his first season in New England. Welker worked the slot that season, and led the team with 112 catches for 1,175 yards and eight TDs.
“Tom was so excited to have a player the caliber of Randy, and I think in fairness to Randy there is nobody in the discussion now that could measure up to him – the full body of work,” Reiss said. “Wes in the slot was pretty special. That would be the year, but I sort of like what I’m seeing down there in Tampa Bay with some of those pieces if everyone stays healthy.”
Brady’s receiving corps last year was lackluster compared to the arsenal he had to work with in 2007 at age 30. The Patriots failed to land wide receiver Adam Humphries or tight end Jared Cook, who was sought after to be the replacement for Gronkowski, in free agency. The trade for Mohamed Sanu was a bust due to an injury he suffered – likewise for first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry, whose rookie season was stymied by injuries. Free agent signings Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon were short-lived, and therefore ineffective.
Julian Edelman caught 100 passes for 1,117 yards and six touchdowns, but the Patriots didn’t have another receiver even top 400 yards in 2019. That lack of production led some to question whether Brady’s play was slipping at age 42. Reiss disputes that notion.
“I lean more towards the lack of weapons, and it’s tied to trust,” Reiss said. “That was one of the things that stood out to me during that Howard Stern interview. Tom said, ‘If I don’t trust you, I’m not going to throw you the ball.’ There were more times this past season where he was dumping the ball off or throwing it away, and I don’t want to say that it was in fear, because that’s disrespectful. It wasn’t in fear because he doesn’t fear anything. It was reflective to what he was saying about a lack of trust. He didn’t go in feeling good with what they had, and I think that more than anything affected his performance in my view.”
Brady completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 4,806 yards with a career-high and league-high 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2007. Is it possible that Brady could a similar-type season in Tampa Bay with Evans, Godwin, Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate to throw to?
As Reiss told me, don’t bet against Brady.
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