Tampa coach Bruce Arians offered more pointed public critiques of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady's performance throughout last week, something many close to Brady have come to expect, but something they bristle against as well.
Brady himself is not inclined to say anything in the media about the persistent negative assessments of his work by Arians, sources said, but it is clearly not going unnoticed and, in the estimation of several people close to the quarterback, is being done at least in part as a diversionary tactic to take attention away from the significant scheme and adjustment issues the offensive coaching staff have yet to correct. Several NFL execs and scouts who have scouted the Buccaneers have also concluded that the offense is fairly predictable and failing to play to the 43-year old quarterback's strengths, setting up an interesting final month of the regular season for the 7-4 team.
"Tom's a big boy, he can take it," said one source close to the quarterback. "It's a great way to deflect blame from Arians. Keep everybody asking about the quarterback so they don't focus on the limitations of the scheme or the lack of adjustments being made. Are they really grinding to find every way to make this work better or just blaming the quarterback? Are they grinding all night trying to find the answers?"
Brady has come under fire from Arians since the start of the season for his inaccuracy at times, failure to read the coverage properly and other mistakes. The veteran is accustomed to such scrutiny behind the scenes in team meetings from his time with Bill Belichick, but many around the league in the coaching and GM world are confused by the repeated public lashings of arguably the greatest player in NFL history who is nearing the end of his career.
If nothing else, Brady is a full-time student of the game and was accustomed to completely different game plans, points of emphasis and sweeping halftime adjustments when necessary in New England. But that has not been the case in Tampa, with any wholesale changes or critical rethinks of the offense very unlikely.
"This is BA's offense and it will always be BA's offense," said one longtime NFL assistant who knows Arians well. "He is who he is, and they do what they do. No risk it, no biscuit. Drop it back and let it go. At this stage of his career, I don't see that changing for anyone -- not even Tom Brady."
Conversations with those who have scouted the Bucs revealed a similar sentiment, with the reliance on multiple vertical routes and the deep ball -- despite that not being Brady's forte at this point in his career -- some predictable trends in play calling, a propensity to be stuck in second-and-long, the lack of a true pass-catching threat out of the backfield (a staple for Brady going back to his days with Kevin Faulk). Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is not an experienced and accomplished play caller, which is also a factor.
"That's not really a game-plan team," said one NFL exec. "They want to get their best players on the field as much as they can and try to throw it deep and beat you that way. There's kind of one way of doing things and if it works, it works. And if it doesn't, then you're (screwed). They aren't willing to try to reinvent themselves to win that particular game."
The Bucs lead the NFL with 27 dropbacks on attempts that travel 30 yards or more in the air, according to PFF (the NFL average is 16), wth Brady posting a brutal 46.4 rating on those passes. They also lead the NFL with 60 attempts that have traveled 20 yards or more (the NFL average is 40), despite Brady's QB rating being just 57.6 on such passes. Brady has attempted 13 passes to running backs -- slightly over the NFL average of 10 -- but the lack of a true "air back" has been obvious to opponents; The Bucs average just 2.62 yards per attempt to running backs, far and away worst in the NFL (the league average is 6.51 Y/A).
"Brady doesn't have that go-to guy in the screen game," said another exec who has scouted the Bucs. "That's a huge loss for him. You can rush four and play coverage and zone them up, and they make a play here and a play there but nothing consistent."
Indeed, Brady has attempted 284 passes into zone coverage, most in the NFL per PFF, with five touchdowns, five interceptions and a weak 85.7 rating, 20th in the NFL. The Bucs do not employ an emphasis on pre-snap motion and movement - many of the NFL's top offenses rely on it heavily - and while Brady excels in play action, with a 115 rating, the Bucs have just 89 dropbacks in play action this season, 25th most in the NFL.
Clearly, there are things the Bucs could do to alter the scope of the offense and alter the short and intermediate passing game, but it remains to be seen if they will. More fundamental roster and/or schematic changes may have to wait until 2021, and in the meantime, the Arians and Brady relationship bears monitoring with the fit between player and scheme less than stellar thus far.