It turns out Brady’s skills were portable, and you have to appreciate that even as you envy his balmy ease. New place, new system, new receivers, amid a worldwide pandemic, on a Buccaneers team that hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2007? No problem. He has somehow transferred all of his cool languor and tempo to Tampa’s tourmaline shore, making football at 43 look like leisurely boating.
“You won’t catch me dead living in the Northeast again,” he said last week, and it sounded less like a gloat than the last word — no doubt making his slotted chin seem even more punchable to the New Englanders he abandoned for warmth.
Brady’s late-career move allows for a measurement of his personal impact on a team, separable from the 20 years of greatness with the mechanistic New England Patriots. Brady’s old colleague Julian Edelman once called him “the ultimate technician.” But that doesn’t come close to describing Brady’s eagle-winged effect on Tampa Bay.
Of all the dramatic quarterbacking in this tumultuous season — Kansas City’s breathtaking Patrick Mahomes attempting a Super Bowl repeat, Drew Brees’s sheer physical courage in New Orleans, Pittsburgh’s alternate dominance and foundering with Ben Roethlisberger — Brady has been as uplifting as any of them. The familiar old hypnotic rhythm he has reestablished with the Buccaneers, that deadly monotony in completing 66 percent of his passes, with 36 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, has partly obscured the sheer featedness of his feat in making the playoffs for a 12th straight season. You think, well, sure, he’s in the postseason again. Hasn’t he always been?
It was always hard to sort out New England’s dynastic traits from Brady’s personal ones, but with Tampa Bay, he has demonstrated that when the most prominent figure at the very top of an organization is the most exacting and hardest-practicing person in it, it’s tremendously influential.
“Players learn from players, and when you walk into that place and watch how Brady conducts his business, you know that’s how you do it in there,” Damon Huard, a backup from 2001 to 2003, once observed. As New York Giants Coach Joe Judge, who spent eight years in New England, said of Brady, “This guy, he set the tone of an entire organization.”
The most easily observable quality Brady has transferred to Tampa Bay is clean execution. During the Patriots’ run of nine Super Bowl appearances in 20 years, their hallmark was mistake-free football. They had fewer turnovers and committed fewer penalties than any team in the league. In 17 playoff games from 2011 to 2017, they incurred 25 percent fewer flags than their opponents. Think about that. They were fully one quarter better than their opponents when it came to game-killing mistakes. You achieve that only by practicing the most banal things cleanly to the point of perfectionism.
Last year, the Buccaneers led the NFL in penalties. This year? They’re one of the cleanest teams in the league, drawing the 10th-fewest flags. With Brady under center in the past 10 games, the offense has been flagged just 13 times, with 37 overall for the season for 402 yards. Last year at this stage, their offense had been whistled 54 times. That difference is roughly equivalent to an entire football field in yardage.
With Brady at the helm, New England hardly ever gave opponents easy breaks with interceptions, dropped handoffs or botched communications on routes, while preying on other teams’ mistakes. From 2001 to 2019, it had the fewest giveaways in the league — while also leading the league in scoring off takeaways. This was worth a thousand points, literally: Brady’s offense pounced for 1,013 points off opponents’ turnovers.
The Buccaneers, of course, were the worst turnover team in the league last season, with Jameis Winston’s 30 interceptions, plus 11 fumbles. As Coach Bruce Arians remarked, when you give up a league-leading 41 turnovers, “you’re not going anywhere. You’re going home.”
This season, Brady didn’t throw an interception in the month of December. The Buccaneers’ plus-7 turnover differential is tied for fifth best in the league with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Maybe the most interesting and directly attributable Brady effect is that the Buccaneers have won three games in which they were trailing in the fourth quarter, including that scorching affair against Atlanta two weeks ago when he brought them back from 17 points down. It’s his highest number of fourth-quarter comebacks since 2013. And that’s a menacing trend from him at this time of year.
This is not a murky stat, hard to break out. It’s simply who Brady is as an all-time great. Twelve times in playoff games, Brady led the Patriots on last-minute drives to win in the fourth quarter or overtime, somehow conjuring comeback victories out of what seemed like losing circumstances. That’s double the number of any other quarterback in NFL history.
Of course, every NFL club’s performance from week to week is a complex organism, with shifting components and various players acting as difference-makers in multiple facets. But that only makes Brady’s sameness, his ability to sustain his performance and raise others to the same standard, regardless of where he is or whom he’s with, all the more monumental.
He might have looked like an overripe diva clinging to the spotlight a little too long in Tampa. Instead, he’s so regularly, routinely great that we have sunk into a numb taking-for-grantedness. Don’t let him lull you.