Tom Brady made a decision last March familiar to plenty of other near retirees. He moved to Florida. That’s where he found something far more meaningful than taking up pickleball or running for condo board president: the ability to feel young again.
In his first season in Tampa Bay, Brady took the Buccaneers to their first playoff berth since 2007 and a wild-card round matchup against the Washington Football Team. He’s leading the hottest offense in the NFL—they averaged 37 points per game over the season’s final four weeks—and after years of diminishing play Brady has experienced a stunning rejuvenation.
Tom Brady the 43-year-old is playing like Tom Brady the 28-year-old just in time for the playoffs. That sound you hear is a giant gulp from the rest of the NFL.
“Every week is getting a little bit better,” Brady said this week.
He threw for 40 touchdowns this season, the second-most of his career. He passed for the fifth-most yards in his career. He performed in 2020 less like he did in 2019 and more like he did around 2005, and that’s not simply because he found a little extra pep in his step after becoming a snowbird. He didn’t just play better than he did in recent years. He played differently.
The team Brady chose in free agency was the one with the surrounding talent to reverse everything that had deteriorated in his game. He started throwing the ball deep again, targeting star receivers when he previously dumped it off to running backs and thriving behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.
It was nine long months ago that Brady broke up with the New England Patriots. He spent two decades there, won six Super Bowls and inflicted untold psychological damage on a generation of New York Jets fans.
Brady, though, had started to look like a shell of his former self by the time he finished his tenure there with a wild-card round loss to the Tennessee Titans. Time looked like it had finally caught up with him as he dinked and dunked his way through games more than ever. He threw the highest percentage of his passes in his entire career to his running backs in 2019. His average pass traveled just 7.1 yards past the line of scrimmage—the lowest of his career. His passer rating plummeted.
Yet it wasn’t just Brady’s play that had diminished. So had the talent around him. Rob Gronkowski, once the NFL’s most dominant tight end, retired. Wide receiver N’Keal Harry, the team’s first round pick in 2019, began the year on injured reserve. Josh Gordon, who once led the NFL in receiving yards and got a chance in New England after numerous substance abuse violations, got injured and was later waived. The Patriots were so desperate for help they signed Antonio Brown amid a flurry of concerning off-the-field issues, only to get rid of him after he played just one game with the team.
When he left them, it wasn’t hard to see what Brady saw in Tampa Bay: everything he didn’t have at the end of his tenure in New England.
The Buccaneers have an offensive minded coach, Bruce Arians, and an up-and-coming offensive coordinator in Byron Leftwich, who was once a first-round pick the same season Brady won his second Super Bowl. They also had an unmatched arsenal of weapons. No receiving tandem combined for more receiving yards in 2019 than Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. For good measure, Gronkowski came out of retirement and joined the party. Midway through this season, they even controversially added Brown after he served an eight-game suspension.
“I’ve watched this offense over a long period of time—with a lot of different quarterbacks—have a lot of success,” Brady said after signing with them. “It’s a great offense for the quarterback.”
Everything was new, even down to the offensive terminology he had to learn. There have been hiccups along the way, including a couple ugly blowouts against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. After the first of those, in the season’s opening week, Arians even made pointed remarks about Brady’s two interceptions. But what soon emerged was also a new Brady.
Brady’s average pass this season traveled 9.2 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to Stats LLC. That wasn’t just one of the highest figures in the entire league. It was 29% farther than his last season in New England. The last time his air yards reached that high was 2005.
This wasn’t the only way his play resembled that of his heyday. He threw the ball deeper because of the players he targeted. After throwing 27.1% of his passes to running backs a year ago—the highest rate for his career—he offloaded just 11.4% to backs this regular season, his second-ever lowest rate.
Evans and Godwin led the team in receiving yards, but then they were followed by Brady’s old pal. Gronkowski looked like a shell of his former self when he first returned to the field, totaling just 11 yards in the first two games of the year. By the end of the season, he racked up 623 yards and seven touchdowns, and he was especially critical for unlocking these parts of his game: Brady’s average pass to Gronkowski traveled 11.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, making him one of the premier vertical threats at tight end.
The advanced numbers backed up Brady’s resurgence, too. He ranked fifth among quarterbacks in expected points added per play, according to nflfastR, after placing 15th in 2019. Brady ranked first in that metric over the season’s final four weeks, which included a game against the Lions where he threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone.
That means Brady is heating up when the mere sight of him already makes the rest of the NFL shudder: the playoffs.
Write to Andrew Beaton at email@example.com
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