When Tom Brady successfully convinced the Buccaneers they needed to add wide receiver Antonio Brown at midseason, it was seen as a low-risk, high-reward insurance acquisition given the team’s injury issues at wide receiver.
So much for Brown being a luxury move for an offense highly talented at the skill position — he turned out to be an absolute necessity for Brady to deliver Super Bowl-caliber quarterback play again for his new team. Without AB, the Bucs wouldn’t be spelling GOAT for the 2021 NFL playoffs.
Early in the season, as Brady was adjusting to his new teammates, there was some dysfunction tied to a lack of established chemistry and some undisciplined play. He had a stretch without wide receiver Chris Godwin and the Bucs were learning how to incorporate long-time favorite tight end Rob Gronkowski into the passing offense. To get by, Brady relied on the big body of Mike Evans and the big-play ability of Scotty Miller, with support from a much-improved running game featuring mostly Ronald Jones.
Tampa Bay’s passing attack was still pretty good without Brown. But after the initial adjustment period of Brady figuring how to best get Brown the ball into the flow of the offense in November, the Bucs’ explosive experiment has turned into a smashing success.
For the first time since he had a then-single season record 50 touchdown passes in 2007 as a much younger Patriots QB, Brady threw for 40 TDs in a season. His yards per attempt (7.6) were a full yard better than his final season in New England. His play mirrored his MVP-level 2017 season in terms of blending high passing volume (289.6 yards per game) and high passing efficiency (102.2 rating).
In some respects, Brady’s first season with the Buccaneers was symmetrical. He had 20 TDs in the first eight games, and 20 more in the final eight games. He started 6-2 and ended 5-3.
In games 1-8 without Brown, Brady completed 66.2 percent of his passes, averaging 273.6 yards per game. He was at 7.1 yards per passing attempt with a 103.1 rating. In games 9-16 with Brown, Brady completed 65.2 percent of his passes, averaging 305.5 yards per game. He jumped up to 8.1 yards per passing attempt with a slightly lower 101.2 rating.
There’s no question Brady was forcing the ball to Brown to get him involved early, almost to justify a good reason for signing him. The lowest point was the Monday night loss to the Rams in Week 11, when 13 Brown targets added up to only 8 catches for 57 yards.
Brown, however, was a different receiver when he was looked at more as a co-go-to guy with Evans and Godwin. He scored all four of his Bucs’ regular-season TDs in the final three games. During the final four games of the season in December and January, with Brown in a total familiar Steelers-like groove, Brady completed 69.1 percent of his passes, averaging 333.3 yards per game. He shot up to 9.8 yards per attempt with a 126.9 rating with 12 TDs to only one INT.
Because of that hot finish, Brady ended up with 9.1 intended air yards per attempt, also known as average depth of target. For those who thought the GOAT’s arm was cooked, that was No. 1 in the league, just ahead of passing yardage leader Deshaun Watson.
Why was Brown so integral to reviving Brady as a downfield passer? His versatility and route-running. Before Brown arrived, Evans was more of a big red zone target for Brady than field-stretcher. Godwin was their exclusive best slot option. Brady made do early with Miller essentially playing Brown’s outside role in the 11 personnel coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich prefer.
So much for the Bucs’ being a mostly two-tight end set with Brady, as they once might have suggested early in the offseason. They had at least three wide receivers on the field more than 61 percent of the time. The Bucs might have gone in a different direction had O.J. Howard stayed healthy. But as good as Cameron Brate has been for this team, it didn’t make sense to force the issue with 12 personnel, with him out there with Gronkowski most of the time.
Brady needed an upgrade from Miller in getting open quickly on the outside with occasional home-run ability. Once Brown looked like the Steelers’ Brown and demanded coverage attention, it was hard for teams to also contain Evans. Brown also became more interchangeable with Godwin on intermediate routes, as a dangerous alternative in the slot in some sets.
Strangely, it’s been Gronkowski becoming the situational luxury target for Brady because of well the three wide receivers starting to play well off each other when playing together. In essence, Godwin and Brown give Brady two better Julian Edelmans, while Gronk is still Gronk, and Evans is the most daunting size/speed outside threat he’s had since Randy Moss in ’07.
What’s happened is a perfect blend of Brady’s quick release and surgical precision in the short-to-intermediate passing game and the right elements of Arians and Leftwich’s “no risk-it, no biscuit” mentality. Brown has become more crucial as Brady hasn’t a James White-like reliable target out of the backfield, as that’s neither the forte of Jones nor Leonard Fournette.
Brady knew Brown still had plenty of juice on the field even with a short time with him in New England at the beginning of last season. He also had the vision of knowing how important Brown’s skill set would be in Arians’ offense, lifting his play along with that of Evans, Godwin and Gronkowski.
Since picking the Bucs as his second team, Brady has pushed all the right buttons in his latest GOAT comeback tour. Dialing up Brown has proved to be the final turbo boost he needed, one that could rocket him and his team back into a Super Bowl.
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