We heard it from the moment the Bucs signed Tom Brady, so it is no surprise at all that we’ve been inundated with it again now that the Bucs have lost three of four and hit a sizable bump in the road to the playoffs during the 2020 NFL season.
“Tom Brady and Bruce Arians can’t co-exist! Brady isn’t aggressive enough to play quarterback in this offense! He’s an underneath passer these days, he doesn’t have the arm strength anymore!”
And now, with the Bucs dropping three straight against winning teams, including back-to-back 27-24 games against the Rams and Chiefs, the national media pundits are at it again, spinning ridiculous narratives and catering to the lowest common denominator.
“Brady doesn’t like Arians! There’s friction there! He looks like he’s running someone else’s offense! Where are the ‘Brady plays’? Maybe Brady is just washed.”
If you’ve been around for any of the past negative Brady narratives, you’ve seen how this goes and you should know how much credence to give it. But this time it feels different, as Brady is in a new city with a new coach and a new way of doing things for the first time in his 21-year NFL career. It’s an extremely linear way of thinking, but blaming the marriage of Brady and Arians at the first sign of trouble is an easy path to go down, as it confirms the priors of most analysts and it’s the simplest explanation to concoct without doing the necessary leg work.
Unfortunately for them, confirmation bias is for cowards and ‘the necessary legwork’ is ya boy’s middle name, so it’s time to put an end to the false narrative and shed light on the real problems with this Bucs offense.
The Bucs don’t have a Brady and Arians problem. At all. The Bucs have an Arians and a creating a consistently successful offensive system in 2020 problem. And that would be true for absolutely any quarterback in the NFL that was playing for the Bucs this season (except for maybe Patrick Mahomes since rules don’t apply to him).
Now, this does NOT mean that everything about Arians’ offense can’t be successful in 2020, nor does it mean that there are not awesome components to an Arians offense. There absolutely are! This is NOT a terrible offensive system. It is also not an offensive system that is anywhere close to being what it can be in 2020, and that is the primary issue holding the Bucs talent-laden squad back from being 8-3 or 9-2 instead of 7-5. They are good, not great. But they can be great.
There is a perception around Bruce Arians that he is a quarterback whisperer – probably due to the fact that he co-authored a book with Lars Anderson titled…The Quarterback Whisperer. But the reality is that, while Arians has certainly had the benefit of working with some talented signal callers over his career in the NFL, the results for each passer have been mixed at best, and in the first year of his offense, most quarterbacks have struggled significantly.
Above is a statistical comparison of Brady’s 2020 season (projected out at its’ current rate over four more games) compared to every other quarterback in their first year under Bruce Arians system. I’ve included 2007 Ben Roethlisberger, but it should be noted that Arians offense was nothing like the one we see today, as it was extremely run heavy, and Roethlisberger threw only 404 passes all season long.
As you can see, Brady’s numbers are blowing away the competition as a first-year quarterback in Arians’ offense, posting considerably better marks in completion percentage, touchdowns, sacks, interceptions, total turnovers and EPA (Expected Points Added) than any of the three quarterbacks to play their first seasons under the more modern version of Arians’ offense.
While Brady’s 2020 projections stand out for being impressive numbers across the board, even in a vacuum, the rest of Arians’ quarterbacks have really underwhelmed, especially in their first season. While Ben Roethlisberger flourished in a more sheltered role in an older version of Arians offense and Andrew Luck had some highlight reel moments with a poor supporting cast as a rookie in 2012, the reality is that consistent, high-end play from the quarterback position is NOT something Arians has gotten over the course of his career. His offense has ALWAYS been marred by up-and-down play, largely due to the number of lower percentage throws and high risk endeavors associated with Arians’ passing attack.
When you are primarily a vertically-based offense, you live and die by the sword. You may truly live by it for awhile, posting a bunch of 40-point games, highlight reel plays and churning up yards with the best offenses in the NFL. But efficiency marks are typically down, and turnovers and sacks also come far too often to achieve the type of consistent, game-to-game, regardless-of-opponent offensive success that annual playoff competitors and winners tend to achieve.
That’s probably why Arians hasn’t been an annual playoff winner at any point in his seven years as a head coach. He’s been to the postseason just twice and has only won a single playoff game, on Larry Fitzgerald’s amazing overtime YAC effort in the Packers Hail Mary game during Arians time in Arizona. Arians is a head coach that has done some really good things for quarterbacks in his career, cultivating Ben Roethlisberger into more than a game manager over the course of his time in Pittsburgh, getting high-end plays out of Andrew Luck as a rookie, even when the consistency wasn’t there, and putting Carson Palmer in position to have one of the best quarterback seasons in recent memory in 2015, by far the best season any quarterback has ever had in an Arians offense (until 2020, at least).
These are the best statistical seasons a quarterback has ever had under Arians in his 16 years as an offensive coordinator or as a head coach. You can see that Brady’s numbers are right up there with Palmer’s amazing 2015 season, one of three Pro Bowl years for Palmer in his career.
But that hasn’t been the norm with quarterbacks in Arians career, despite the fact that he’s coached many good ones. The glory didn’t last long with Palmer either, as he tailed off over each of the next two seasons, the Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs either year, and the veteran quarterback retired with 25 turnovers and 62 sacks in his last 23 games under Arians.
Those are three critical areas of quarterback play that offenses must achieve and sustain to have continual success in the NFL, and Arians offenses have always struggled with all three. Obviously there are ranges to these failures – Jameis Winston threw 25 of his 30 interceptions on throws that traveled under 20 yards in the air, including 12 on throws under ten yards in the air. He had struggles as a quarterback that extended well beyond an Arians offense that asks for a lot from their signal caller.
But in 2020, Brady is playing about as well as can be expected in 16 years of examining quarterback play in a Bruce Arians’ offense. He’s taken far better care of the football than most Arians’ quarterbacks, his all-time great pocket presence has been critical in keeping sack totals WAY under the totals of former Arians’ quarterbacks and Brady’s raw and adjusted completion percentages show a more accurate passer that is more consistently making the smart throw rather than the risky one that might work out 25 percent of the time, but more often than not is a bad process to follow in order to achieve peak success as an offense.
Brady also has the Bucs offense converting red zone trips into touchdowns at over a 71 percent clip, almost seven full percentile points above where they were a year ago. In fact, no Arians offense ever before has even sniffed what Tampa Bay is doing in the red zone this season, not at any point in his 16 years as an offensive shot caller. Brady has been absolutely deadly in the red area, with 23 touchdowns and zero turnovers.
Yes, through 12 games we have seen a little bit less explosive version of Arians’ offense than we’ve seen in years past. There are a few reasons for that, which I’ll touch on quickly, but first we need to understand that Brady is still throwing more deep balls (20+ yards in the air) than any quarterback in the NFL this year (65), and he’s completed the third-most amount of said passes as well (22). Yes, his accuracy has been good, not great over the past month after a torrid first seven weeks of the season, but he’s been highly aggressive and the Bucs have been one of the biggest splash play teams in the NFL this season as a result.
The vast majority of the Bucs deep ball incompletions have come from miscommunications, not due to accuracy issues or even drops, of which there have been four. I’ve written about this recently, as well as the fact that the Rams and Saints specifically deployed their defenses to take away the deep ball, which Arians kept dialing up anyway. Brady went 0-11 on deep passes in those two games against a ton of two-deep coverages. If you take out those two contests, Brady’s adjusted completion percentage on passes of 20+ yards would be over 46 percent, one of the better marks in the league.
My point isn’t to discount the two games Brady has really struggled in, but to instead show that the larger sample size suggests a quarterback that has shown good accuracy with the deep ball when it’s there, which is important for an Arians offense. In fact, Brady has done essentially everything critical to an Arians offense far better than his predecessors in this system, and it still hasn’t been enough.
But the problems don’t have anything to do with Brady not being able to fit into Arians’ offense. As we’ve just demonstrated, he’s fitting into Arians offense as well as any quarterback ever has, in fact far better than almost every season an Arians quarterback has ever had!
The Bucs don’t have a Brady-Arians problem, they have an Arians problem, but one that can easily be fixed if he’ll change his approach and adapt to three principles that are critical to offensive success in the NFL in 2020.
First, the Bucs HAVE to utilize play-action far more than they currently do. Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner wrote an awesome article on the Bucs offense that every Tampa Bay fan should read. One part especially stood out for how egregious the Bucs ignorance of the importance of play-action passing has been this season.
“Easily the most glaring is his usage of play action. Palmer utilized play-action fakes on 20% of his dropbacks in 2015 — a figure identical to the league-wide average. Brady has been in a similar range this season at 18.6%, but the league-wide average has shot up to 25.6%.
The benefits of play action are demonstrably massive — the league-wide yards per attempt average goes from 7.2 without it to 8.6 with it, and the average passer rating jumps by over 10 points. Even Brady has gone from a 115.1 passer rating and 9.3 yards per attempt with play-action this year to a 90.2 passer rating and 6.2 yards per attempt without it.”
The Bucs utilize play-action at the third-lowest rate in the NFL (out of 37 quarterbacks), despite the fact that Brady has the fourth-highest passer rating in the league on play-action passes. Almost every quarterback in the NFL is more accurate, more explosive and has a better passer rating on play-action passes than non play-action passes, yet the Bucs aren’t looking at those league-wide results and altering course. The data has been there for years, but Arians and Leftwich have not changed despite ample opportunity.
Another area where the Bucs must alter their current path as an offense is calling more pass plays on first downs. This could be a criticism of Byron Leftwich more than Arians, but by Week 12 the head coach should have stepped in and rectified the issue. Again, Renner is all over it.
“Almost every explosive offense around the league has realized that first down is no longer a running down. Except for the Bucs, that is: They still are a “balanced” attack on first down, passing only 50.6% of the time in the first three quarters of the game (so as not to skew stats by blowouts where they’re either running out the clock or passing to catch up). Compare that to teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs at 66.9% or the Seattle Seahawks at 60.9%, who are doing everything to put their elite quarterbacks in a favorable position to make plays.
When you combine that with how effective the Bucs have been on those early-down runs, it becomes obvious why they’ve made moving the ball look like a chore even with an elite collection of talent. They own the third-worst rushing success rate on first down of any team in the NFL (28.0%), yet they continue to establish it.”
I wrote about the Bucs putrid first down strategy over a week ago, and it comes largely due to a run-first approach that has consistently put the Bucs in poor second and third down situations, while also making them far more predictable to play against.
A vertical-based offense that hunts big passing plays, yet is constantly running and failing on first down and playing from second and third-and-long? Hmmm, I wonder what type of coverage I should play against them to take away long gains in those spots. If you’re looking for a key reason why Brady’s yards per attempt aren’t as high as the Bucs would like them to be, there’s a big part of your answer.
The third and final thing Arians offense must do a better job of is planning for pressure from other teams. Over the course of his career, every NFL team has tried to blitz or pressure Brady as an act of desperation, but in New England that strategy hardly ever worked because the Patriots and Brady had such an elite plan for getting the ball out when under pressure. That’s true of the vast majority of successful offenses in the NFL today, but it hasn’t been true of the Bucs most of the season.
Against the Saints, there were no outlets for Brady when New Orleans sent pressure or got home off games up front, as Arians grew impatient and dialed up tons of vertical route combinations, chasing a 21-point play. Against Los Angeles, Arians and Leftwich stubbornly called for deep ball after deep ball, and Brady put too many balls in harm’s way despite pressure up front and a Rams defense that has allowed less big plays down the field than any defense in the NFL this season. In this week’s Bucs Briefing, I wrote in-depth about the Bucs lack of hot route awareness against the Chiefs blitz-happy defense, and how it ultimately doomed their offense on the second Brady interception of the day.
Talking heads on TV will say “Arians need to do this or that to his offense in order to make it best for Tom Brady”. Stop this. Say this instead: Arians needs to do this or that to his offense in order to make it best for anyone. Tom Brady, Jameis Winston, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, it doesn’t matter. Arians offense would be a better unit, especially given the direction the NFL has gone offensively and defensively over the past 3-4 years, if they ran more play-action, passed more on first down and had a better plan for getting high percentage completions against pressure, forcing teams to a different strategy defensively as the game went on.
The problem isn’t that Bruce Arians needs to change aspects of his offense for Tom Brady, it’s that Bruce Arians needs to change aspects of his offense – period. For anybody. Three straight seasons without a winning record or a playoff appearance, should have taught Arians that something needs to change. As long as he stubbornly clings to the past in an ever-changing league, this Bucs offense won’t be as good as it can be, and that doesn’t have anything to do with who is quarterbacking it.