Buccaneers HC Bruce Arians has perfect response to those doubting Tom Brady can still throw the deep ball

When Tom Brady decided to leave New England for the first time in an NFL career that began in 2000, he was turning down a chance to play out his entire career with one team, which meant that when he picked the Buccaneers as his destination in free agency, he was suddenly tasked with learning a brand new offensive system after spending two decades with the Patriots and Bill Belichick and most of those two decades with Josh McDaniels as his offensive coordinator. Now, Brady is off to Tampa Bay, where in a offseason that is likely to be shortened, he’ll be asked to master a Bruce Arians offense that is known for its deep drops and downfield shots. 

The question of Brady’s fit in his system hasn’t escaped Arians. He just rejects the initial premise of the question. He thinks Brady, who is known for getting the ball out quickly underneath, can throw the heck out of the deep ball too.

“I think the perception is just wrong,” Arians said Wednesday, per ESPN. “I thought his deep ball was outstanding last year. Through their play-action game, they hit a lot of deep balls. And our quarterback — I thought he put it as good as anybody — throw it to the guy who’s open.”

Let’s investigate. In 2019, the least effective season of Brady’s career since the early 2000s, he seldom threw the ball downfield. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brady averaged only 7.6 air yards per attempt, the 12th lowest average among quarterbacks. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering the cast of playmakers that surrounded Brady this past season. Phillip Dorsett was probably Brady’s best option downfield. However, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Brady still completed 43 percent of his passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, which ranked seventh among quarterbacks. Furthermore, Brady also threw seven deep touchdowns, his most in almost 15 years.

“He can make every throw,” Arians said. “He can do everything we want to do in our offense.”

The question now becomes, can Brady maintain that level of efficiency in an Arians offense that asks its quarterbacks to throw deeper more frequently than Brady is used to? It’s worth noting that as recently as 2017, Brady averaged 9.0 air yards per attempt, the 12th highest average among quarterbacks, per NFL Next Gen Stats. In that season, Brady completed 66.3 percent of his passes and threw for 4,577 yards, 32 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He ranked first in DYAR, second in DVOA, and fourth in total QBR. It should come as no surprise to hear that Brady had Gronk for 14 games and Brandin Cooks for 16 games in that season.

That last part is important, because Brady is suddenly going from having Phillip Dorsett as his deep option and Ben Watson as his tight end to having Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate. Supporting casts matter.

As does the system. Arians is known for getting the most out of his quarterbacks not named Jameis Winston, from Ben Roethlisberger to Carson Palmer. But while he’s also known for requiring his quarterbacks to take shots downfield, Arians pushed back against the notion that throwing deep is the only thing he asks of his signal callers.

“We do have reads that start deep and come in short, but I’ve had a couple quarterbacks that just keep looking deep — they won’t throw the checkdown,” Arians said. “[Offensive consultant] Tom Moore has the best saying in the world: ‘You don’t go broke putting money in the bank. Take the damn checkdown.’

“We don’t have to teach Tom that. But I think the freedom of looking downfield on certain routes and in certain situations, when the matchup’s perfect — take it, don’t be afraid to take it — some quarterbacks are afraid to take it. I’m not looking for a ‘checkdown Charlie’ quarterback.”

In 2019, Winston finished with the league’s second-highest average intended air yards (10.5). He also led the league in passing yards (5,109) and ranked second in touchdown passes (33). The problem was, he also threw 30 interceptions, seven of which went the other way for a touchdown. So, when Arians says “I’ve had a couple quarterbacks that just keep looking deep — they won’t throw the checkdown,” he’s probably talking about Winston, who remains unsigned

In Brady, Arians has a quarterback who won’t turn the ball over nearly as much. Brady hasn’t thrown 30 interceptions over the past four seasons … combined. He’ll take the checkdowns that Arians is talking about. And let’s not forget that with Arians in Arizona, when Palmer wasn’t bombing the ball downfield, he was hitting David Johnson underneath. Neither Brady nor Arians are opposed to using running backs as outlets in the passing game. 

Still, there are questions that remain unanswered. How will Brady hold up behind an offensive line that ranked 22nd in pass protection (according to Football Outsiders)? While Brady did throw the ball downfield frequently as recently as 2017, that was three years ago, when Brady wasn’t really showing signs of aging. If Arians asks Brady to throw downfield more than Brady did in New England, how well or poorly has his deep ball aged now that he’s 42 (he’ll be 43 when the season kicks off)? Finally, how will Brady mesh with his new teammates in an offseason defined by a pandemic that might not allow teams much time to actually practice in person? Those are all worthwhile questions, but they’re questions that won’t be answered until the upcoming season kicks off. 

In the meantime, it’s difficult to imagine this Buccaneers offense not working. Arians isn’t a dumb coach. He’ll probably make the necessary modifications to his offense to fit Brady’s needs. And Brady isn’t a dumb quarterback. It was three years ago that he said he has “the answers to the test now.” He’ll probably pick up Arians’ offense with ease.

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