While it’s too soon to declare any flaws irreparable, the first Sunday of this odd NFL season offered a lesson that the coaches of Brady and all the aging, legendary quarterbacks should heed: Rely too heavily on these legends at your own risk.
In watching Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers, a message about restraint and purposeful usage became clear. Rodgers was the only member of this quartet to perform at his peak. It was incredible to see him throw for 364 yards and four touchdowns and prove to Green Bay, which drafted Jordan Love to be his eventual replacement, that his run is not over. The expectation shouldn’t be that Rodgers will throw for 4,600 yards and 40 touchdowns this season, but his explosive 2020 debut helps to frame our conversation appropriately: Building around post-prime quarterbacks doesn’t mean declaring they are incapable of leading their teams to special places. Their games haven’t evaporated. However, age drains their ability to play at their highest level for long periods.
To maximize what they have left, the solution is to create a philosophy and system that allows them to be a part of the offense, not the entire show. Instead of depending on transcendent play from the quarterbacks, it’s most prudent to put them in positions in which they can reflect the talent you’ve put around them, distribute the ball with good efficiency and save their remaining gas for the game’s most important moments.
This is what Sean Payton has done for the past several seasons with Brees, who is now 41. He hasn’t had one of his remarkable 5,000-yard seasons since 2016, but his numbers have remained impressive. Over the past three seasons, his passer rating has never been better. And the team around him keeps getting stronger and more complete, so much so that the Saints finished 5-0 last season when Brees was injured.
New Orleans has yet to return to the Super Bowl in this manner, but it has found a kind of consistency that would not exist if it tried to pretend Brees’s age wasn’t a factor. In the Saints’ 34-23 victory over the Bucs, Brees threw for just 160 yards, but he tossed two touchdown passes and didn’t commit a turnover. On the other side, Brady managed 239 passing yards and two touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions, including a pick-six.
Brady averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt. Star wide receiver Mike Evans, who played through a hamstring injury, caught just one pass. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is still shaking off the retirement cobwebs. So even though wide receiver Chris Godwin and tight end O.J. Howard played well — and Brady made a couple of perfect throws that resulted in pass-interference gains — the quarterback lacked the full collection of weaponry that is supposed to make Tampa such a great fit for him.
“We didn’t do anything that great on offense,” Brady told reporters afterward. “We made a few plays, but in the end, we’re all going to wish we had a lot of plays back. Certainly, I do.”
Give the Bucs time to get healthy and become a cohesive offense. It should happen. But in the meantime, Coach Bruce Arians should consider tweaking his pass-heavy approach and think deeper in general about how to get the best of Brady in 2020.
Brady has to function more like Brees. A similar approach helped Green Bay advance to the NFC championship game last season with Rodgers, who is much younger at 36. Rodgers was plenty uncomfortable with the offense of his new coach, Matt LaFleur, but he eventually bought in because the results were undeniable. Early in their second year together, there are signs that greater comfort could lead to more productivity.
Ask Brady to do too much, and you’ll be disappointed. The same can be said for the 38-year-old Rivers, who had two interceptions and made mistakes that belied his 363-yard performance in his losing debut with Indianapolis. A great quarterback, even at an advanced age, can still throw a team to a victory or two in any given season. But if playoff hopes depend on that happening regularly, well, good luck.
Looking at Brady, it’s not surprising that he struggled given his decline in the second half of his final season in New England. It was a convenient excuse to blame his average play on a lack of weapons. Now, lack of continuity is a valid factor, but it doesn’t capture it all. Brady can’t be Brady as consistently as he used to be. Nothing that happens in Tampa diminishes his greatness. If he can’t lead that franchise to glory, it doesn’t compel me to revisit his time with Bill Belichick and the Patriots to rewrite his story, either.
This is a new chapter, his greatest challenge in trying to live up to his standard. Failure makes him human. Success makes him all the more admirable. But this time, he is more needy than he has ever been. And the Bucs, who also showed extreme special teams issues and a defense that needs polishing, have a long way to go to provide sturdy support for their superstar quarterback.
“He looked like Tom Brady in practice all the time, so it’s kind of unusual to see that in a ballgame because they didn’t do things that we didn’t get ready for,” Arians told reporters Monday. “Everything they did, we thought we were ready for.”
Welcome to Brady’s new reality, a time that comes for all greats who dare defy aging, a sign that Father Time is growing impatient. It’s weird, even after last season’s troubles. For a game, it seldom felt like Brady was on the verge of doing something special. For the first time in almost 20 years, there was no zing to the experience. Brady looked closer to Jameis Winston-like with those multiple turnovers than the GOAT quarterback he truly is.
Well, at least he didn’t give an “Eat a W” speech before the game.