Two decades ago, the notion of a quarterback playing into his 40s was absurd.
Now, here the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are, at 7-5 and trying to make a Super Bowl run with the certified G.O.A.T. at quarterback in 43-year-old Tom Brady. Had this been the ’90s, or even in the 2000s, Brady would have been long retired. Troglodyte defensive coordinators would have ensured it with barbaric gameplans designed to inflict punishment.
These days you can’t really do that anymore. Officials protect great quarterbacks, and it’s for the best. This is a passing game now, and the rule changes have allowed us to enjoy dynamic, evasive quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson, men who wouldn’t have held up physically in the past.
Brady isn’t dynamic or evasive like those guys, but we’re benefitting from the rules changes by watching him just the same. He’s the greatest quarterback of all time, and every accomplishment he reaches this year will only pad the resume that the next generation of great quarterbacks, led by Patrick Mahomes, will be taking aim at.
If you love football like I do, this dynamic matters.
If you love football like I do, it’s especially fun to watch, especially as legacies play out in real time.
Case in point: Mahomes-Brady IV.
Before the Bucs’ 27-24 loss to Kansas City on Sunday, Brady was 2-1 in his career against Mahomes, who, with another Super Bowl win in February, is on pace to match or top all of Brady’s key statistics during their first three seasons as a starter.
No one has as good of a chance of one day surpassing Brady as the G.O.A.T. as Mahomes, so yeah, watching him and Tyreek Hill go full-on “Captain Phillips” on the Bucs this past weekend was fun. Hill’s 269-yard effort will solidify him and Mahomes as the most electric quarterback-receiver deep-ball battery since Randall Cunningham to Randy Moss in 1998.
Yet, I still found myself wanting after the game, largely because the contest, for as good as it was, was also the continuation of a few maddening trends for Tampa’s offense. These shortcomings often show up against good teams and it’s no coincidence the Bucs’ five losses have come against teams with a combined 31-13 record.
Here Tampa is, with an opportunity to help Brady have a few more all-time moments, and man ... it’s hard not to feel like this rare opportunity to watch a legend in his 40s still accomplish great things isn’t being properly maximized,
Now, don’t get me wrong, Brady deserves some of the blame for the Bucs’ offensive struggles against good teams. He’s on pace to complete 64.8% of his passes for 4,400 yards, 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, but his arm velocity isn’t the same as it was in his prime, and Brady doesn’t move in the pocket and buy the extra second the same way he used to.
These days, opponents can affect Brady with pressure. His 49.8 passer rating under pressure is 30th in the NFL among qualified QBs, according to Pro Football Focus. This stuff tends to show up against the good teams on Tampa’s schedule.
So knowing all this, here are my questions:
Why does Brady, according to PFF, lead the NFL in dropbacks with 494 (and no, the fact the Bucs’ bye just happened this week isn’t a good enough excuse)?
Why are the Bucs not leaning more on the ground game and play-action, just like the Patriots did during Brady’s last few Super Bowl runs in New England?
Circumstances, like early deficits, can affect a team’s commitment to the run during the course of a game. But Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette are good backs, and the Bucs’ o-line has shown an ability to pave some lanes when Tampa commits to the run. Jones, for instance, is fourth in the NFL in yards (820) and yards per carry (5.1), but the Bucs rank only 23rd in rushing attempts.
Furthermore, Brady is tied for 17th in the NFL in play-action attempts with 88, but his 120.2 passer rating on such plays ranks fourth in the league. Yes, there’s lies, damn lies and statistics, but the stats back up what the eyes say: it feels like the Bucs aren’t leaning enough into what has worked for Brady in the recent past, which is protecting him with a ground game and giving him more play-action shots.
Also, there’s another aspect of Brady’s strengths that feels underutilized, and that’s the quick throws to the running backs. Whereas Brady used to torture defenses with throws to James White in New England, he hasn’t been able to sync with Jones and Fournette — who are both tied for fourth in the NFL among backs in drops with five apiece — in the same manner.
That’s something the Bucs could still live with, provided they were committed to getting production from them via the run game. Yet Tampa, whether it’s because game situations dictate it or the coaching staff and/or quarterback’s preference for throwing, doesn’t run it enough to do so.
I’m not going to assign blame to an individual for this. Only Brady, coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich know why the Bucs’ offense, in its current form, is crafted the way it is. Yes, its vertical nature is certainly reminiscent of Arians’ famed “no-risk it, no biscuit” style, but hey, maybe Brady, who recently pushed to sign troubled wideout Antonio Brown, wants to play this way, too. I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know: during a season in which there appears to be no clear NFC favorite, it’s a safe bet the NFC champion will have one of those “they just got hot at the right time” years. Maybe that will prove to be the Bucs, even if they don’t tweak the offense.
But my belief is that the Bucs, who are currently on a bye, can certainly improve their chances of getting to the Super Bowl by tweaking their offense and leaning more on the things Brady did in his later New England years.
Whatever it takes Tampa, please figure it out. After the inspired play in the Bucs-Chiefs showdown this past weekend, this football lover would love to see “Mahomes-Brady V: Winner Takes All” this February in the Super Bowl.
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