After quarterbacking the most dominant two decade stretch by any team in NFL history, Tom Brady will wear a uniform other than a Patriots uniform for the first time ever this season, with Brady choosing to sign with the Buccaneers as a free agent. In the NFL, it’s rare for a superstar player to finish his career with the same team he started with. After seeing Brett Favre in a Jets and Vikings uniform, Joe Montana in a Chiefs uniform, Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform, Jerry Rice in a Raiders and Seahawks uniform, Ed Reed in a Texans and Jets uniform and so on, you’d think seeing Tom Brady in a Buccaneers uniform wouldn’t be so surprising, but this one feels a little weirder. In two decades in New England, Brady won 6 Super Bowls, 9 AFC Championships, 3 regular season MVPs, 4 Super Bowl MVPs, and a ridiculous 76.9% of his games, while posting a winning record in every season he was the starter, so his departure is obviously a significant event for the league.
In some ways though, this shouldn’t be that surprising, beyond all the rumors throughout the year that Brady was considering other options. As impressive as Brady’s time in New England was, it was never going to end well. The idea that he was going to win the Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset was never realistic. This is the guy who famously said (now almost 6 years ago) that he wouldn’t retire until he sucked. If he had won the Super Bowl this year, he would have wanted another one. He was always going to keep playing until he wasn’t good enough. Meanwhile, his head coach Bill Belichick is famous for moving on a year early rather than a year late. This was never going to end well.
In some ways, this is about as well as it could have ended, with both sides parting ways amicably. We might not know the full story here for a while (or ever), but it doesn’t seem like there was a massive breakdown in Brady and Belichick’s personal relationship. Both sides, apparently mutually, agreed to move on for football reasons. The fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar deal the Buccaneers gave Brady is the kind of offer the Patriots would have matched if Belichick was confident Brady would remain a top flight quarterback for another two seasons and Brady’s decision to announce that he was leaving New England before announcing where he was going suggests that the Patriots’ offer never even made the final cut.
The Patriots offer might not have been significantly less annually in terms of money, but this was never fully about money (Brady hardly needs it) and it’s unlikely the Patriots’ offer included the guarantees and benefits of Tampa Bay’s, which fully guarantees his salary for 2021, gives him a full no trade clause, and allows him to become a free agent again in 2022, without the Buccaneers being able to franchise tag him. In other words, this contract gives Brady total security for two seasons while giving him complete control of his football future, something the Patriots likely didn’t offer him for his age 43 and 44 seasons. If there’s any solace in this for Patriots’ fans, it’s that the decision to part ways was in part Bill Belichick’s decision. He would have taken Brady back under the right conditions, but was never going to get into a bidding war if another team gave him a more favorable long-term situation.
Another thing for Patriots fans to take solace is in the fact that the version of Tom Brady they had for two decades was likely never coming back either way. Brady was still one of the better quarterbacks in the league last season, even if issues around him on the Patriots offense caused him to have an underwhelming statistical year, but he did show signs of slowing down, especially late in the season. Including playoffs, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a PFF grade higher than 80 the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season.
For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age and, going into his age 43 season, Brady is entering truly uncharted territory. Brady has certainly defied the odds before and a twilight years Tom Brady is still the best option the Buccaneers could have hoped for this off-season, but it’s understandable why Bill Belichick and the Patriots wouldn’t want to commit to him at the same level that the Buccaneers did. Belichick, never one to get sentimental, felt his team was better off going in another direction.
Belichick has made similar decisions countless times before and has mostly been proven right. As impressive as Brady’s tenure in New England was, much of it was enabled by Bill Belichick building and coaching up the rest of the roster, in spite of salary cap restraints. Brady didn’t have a great supporting cast on offense last year, but that was mostly due to injury, while their defense was one of the best in the league. Now comes the greatest challenge of Bill Belichick’s career, needing a quarterback for the first time in two decades. Assuming the Patriots’ offer to Brady was largely uncompetitive, Belichick likely has known for at least a few weeks that there was a good chance he’d be needing an alternative, so I would expect that he’s prepared for this.
When I wrote about this a month ago, I listed Teddy Bridgewater and Philip Rivers as the top options to replace him, but they’ve both gone elsewhere. Former Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston is another name thrown around, but his turnover habits won’t mix well with Belichick, so I can’t imagine him taking a flyer on Winston. Andy Dalton was third on my list and could possibly be an option if the Bengals eventually end up releasing him, but another option has emerged with the Panthers signing Teddy Bridgewater and announcing Cam Newton is available in trade.
Newton was linked to the Bears before they ended up trading for Nick Foles, but with the Bears out of the running, it’s unclear which team would be willing to trade a draft pick for a quarterback coming off of a significant injury who is owed 19.1 million dollars this year, meaning it’s likely that Newton will eventually get released. If he does, you’d have to guess the Patriots would be the favorites to sign him. Other teams like the Jaguars and Chargers may be interested if he were to be available as a free agent, but the Patriots would obviously give Newton the best chance to win and to rehab his value long-term.
Newton would obviously be a very different kind of quarterback than the one Belichick has won with for the past two decades, but he’s never been locked in to one type of player at any position and taking a flyer on a 31-year-old former MVP that no one really seems to want after two injury plagued years would be a very Belichick move. Belichick has also expressed his admiration for Newton’s game on several occasions in the past and is 0-2 in his two matchups against Newton’s Panthers.
The Patriots also have 2019 4th round pick Jarrett Stidham and, while he may not be ready to start right away, the fact that the Patriots haven’t run out and added a quarterback already suggests that Belichick is at least somewhat confident going to Stidham if needed. Signing a higher risk, higher upside option like Newton with Stidham available in case of injuries or struggles would make more sense than a low upside option like Andy Dalton, even if Dalton’s abilities are more Brady-like than Newton’s.
Even without a quarterback firmly in place, the odds makers still seem confident in Belichick’s ability to put together a contender. The Patriots’ over/under for wins is 9.5, which is certainly less than the 11-14 wins they were routinely at with Brady, but only the Chiefs, Ravens, Saints, and 49ers have over/unders of 10 or more right now and the Patriots are still ahead of both the Buccaneers and division rival Bills, who are both at 8.5. With the Bills acquiring Stefon Diggs right around the same time as Brady left the Patriots, many expected the Bills would finally overtake the Patriots in the division, but the Patriots are still favored with even odds over the Bills (+140) in the division. In terms of winning the Super Bowl, the Patriots fall behind the Buccaneers, who are at 15 to 1, but they still have the 9th best odds at 22 to 1.
Unless Brady completely falls off a cliff, his addition should make the Buccaneers better, given who he is replacing. I would have said the same thing had the Buccaneers ended up with Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, or even Cam Newton instead this off-season. The Buccaneers finished last season 10th in first down rate differential at +2.22%, but went just 7-9 because of a -13 turnover margin. Jameis Winston, who was the first quarterback to throw 30 interceptions in a season since 1988, was the obvious culprit. Going from him to Tom Brady, who has just 29 interceptions in the past 4 seasons combined, will obviously go a long way towards solving their turnover problems, even if Brady’s best years are behind him.
It’s also not hard to see how this offense will finish better than the 13th they finished in first down rate in 2019 (36.92%), given that Brady will be throwing to weapons like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at wide receiver and OJ Howard and Cameron Brate at tight end, though their running game and offensive line play are question marks. On defense, they also ranked 13th last season, with a 34.70% first down rate allowed, a huge step up from the 30th ranked defense they had in 2018. Their defense was especially good down the stretch last season, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed from week 10 on, and are possibly an up and coming young group. With head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers are well coached on both sides of the ball. There’s a reason I thought the Buccaneers made the most sense of any non-Patriots option earlier this off-season. I just didn’t expect Brady to actually leave.
Tampa Bay is a legitimate contender if Brady can be even a top-12 quarterback this season, but they’re still behind the Saints in the division and may have a tougher time making the playoffs than the Patriots, even with as much uncertainty as the Patriots have right now, including a few key defensive departures. I’ll have a lot more on this in both team’s season previews later this off-season, as the rest of free agency and the draft shake out, but needless to say these are two of the more interesting teams to watch going into 2020.