Figures who will shape 2020 NFL season: Bruce Arians has work to do if he wants to win with Tom Brady

Matt Harmon
·9 min read

In March of 2020, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play football left the only professional team he has ever known.

It feels like the shock of that came and went so fast, perhaps because there have been far more important global topics permeating sports.

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Have we all just now accepted Tom Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback? I know it’s still hard for me to see him in that uniform. It’s a challenge to imagine his brand of efficient, over-the-middle passing molding into their offense ... which was volatile but voluminous under Jameis Winston last year. Few think Brady is going to outright fall apart away from New England but him operating outside of the incubator of “The Patriot Way” is a total unknown. It’s going to be an adjustment.

Enter Bruce Arians, the man tasked with orchestrating a successful final act to the GOAT’s career.

While Tom Brady, fellow New England ex-pat Rob Gronkowski, and even established Tampa Bay stars like Chris Godwin or Mike Evans might take center stage attention amid this experiment, it will be Arians at the controls.

Head coach Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Head Coach Bruce Arians now has arguably the greatest QB of all time as his starter — but can he win with him? (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

How can Arians make this embarrassment of riches work?

The entire operation is quite a twist for Arians. He certainly couldn’t have foreseen being in this position a year and a half ago. The long-time coach seemingly retired from the profession after the 2017 season following a five-year run with the Arizona Cardinals. After health issues became a theme in his last two years in Arizona, it appeared Arians’ time in the league was at its end. Even while he was overcome with emotion during his final news conference as he detailed how much he’d miss the players and the ritual of kickoff, Arians said, “The tears you see are really tears of joy, peace.”

He sounded like a man willing to walk away. Clearly, he wasn’t.

Two years later, Arians was tempted out of retirement and took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coaching job. The gig had its appeals. Perhaps most importantly to Arians, the Bucs let him hire the largest coaching staff in the league at the time. He took it upon himself to fill it with minority and female coaches.

Arians gets it, noting that the lack of diversity in the head coaching ranks starts with the dearth of diversity in the pool of candidates. Making a play to flush that pond with candidates was a mission for Arians.

It was also widely known that Bruce Arians was a big believer in Jameis Winston’s talent. His vertically inclined nature as a passer fit Arians’ “No risk it, No biscuit” way of offense. He believed he could get him to the point where he was a high-quality starter. Then Winston played with way too much “risk it” in 2019 and the Buccaneers went in a different direction.

The first mission remains a priority. The second, the rehabilitation of Jameis Winston, is over. In its place, Arians has a new mission: Get this ragtag band a Super Bowl win. And quickly.

It’s hard to remember a more win-now operation than the current iteration of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have a 67-year-old head coach brought out of retirement, a soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback, and a Hall of Fame tight end who also left the comforts of a post-playing career. The trio represents the most storied and well-known figures of the current Bucs. And they’re all likely taking this football thing on a year-to-year basis. It would be a total upset if they’re all in the picture by the 2022 season. The “now” in win-now could not be any more clear.

It will be up to Arians to put together an offense that makes sense for all involved in order to quickly accomplish this goal. It’s going to be a fascinating exercise, especially given the unprecedented nature of this COVID-19 ravaged offseason. Unlike when he came to Tampa, his quarterback is not an ideal on-paper fit for the way Arians has always constructed offenses.

When Arians was play-caller and head coach in Arizona, Carson Palmer led the NFL with 2,923 air yards during the 2015 season. When Arians was the interim head coach and play-caller with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, Andrew Luck led all quarterbacks with 101 throws of 20-plus yards. So it was no surprise that Winston led all quarterbacks in air yards and deep throws (20-plus air yards) last season (per SportsRadar). His best offenses in recent years have all demanded the quarterback push the ball downfield.

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Does Arians expect the 2020 version of Tom Brady to replicate that style of play? Brady was 12th with 64 passes of 20-plus air yards in 2019. His catchable pass rate on those throws of 40.6 percent was middle of the pack among relevant starters, keeping company with the likes of Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers and Dwayne Haskins. Expecting Brady to be a deep passer like Palmer, Luck or even Winston were for Arians in recent years seems like a foolish exercise.

If Arians dials back the vertical routes, it’s not necessarily the worst news for the wide receivers. Both Chris Godwin and even Mike Evans are capable of thriving in all areas of the field. Godwin excelled on nearly every route last year, but Reception Perception would show he was awesome on digs and slants:

Such in-breaking patterns will be perfect for the current iteration of Brady. It may surprise some folks, but while Evans was a stellar performer on nines, posts and corners (all deep routes) he was also sharp on slants and curls in Reception Perception as well. He can add more of those patterns to his portfolio to adjust to Brady’s game. Additionally, Evans and Godwin’s year-in, year-out contested-catch prowess will help erase accuracy issues Brady showed in 2019 as his arm talent began to wane. Evans checked in with an 87 percent contested catch rate in Reception Perception and Godwin with an 84.2 percent mark, both in the top 10 among over 50 receivers sampled last year.

Arians has already shown he’s willing to let Brady call some of the shots in the pursuit of one last ring for all involved. The head coach said that it was Brady who pulled the strings to get Gronkowski to Tampa, while Arians himself stepped aside. This coming from a coach who has famously never featured the tight end position. That might be a bigger sign that Arians will mold his offense around Brady than we’re giving it credit.

Will Brady fight off the ghosts?

While the air yards stats and the fit of the wide receivers will naturally get more attention, they might not be the biggest hurdle. In previous years, Arians’ offenses have also asked the quarterback to hold onto the ball, take deeper drops and look for those downfield opportunities. It has invited more pressure for those quarterbacks. Winston (47) was one of the most sacked passers in the NFL last year.

Let’s be clear: That would be a nightmare for Brady. Surprisingly poor offensive line play was a big factor in Brady’s poor statistical season. He ranked dead last with a 34.9 percent catchable pass rate under pressure, among quarterbacks to start eight-plus games last year. He also threw the ball away a league-high 40 times, killing drives and tanking possessions off the board at the first hint of trouble. Former Patriots teammate Randy Moss recently went on record with this as a huge concern for the new-look Bucs.

Indeed, this is Tampa’s biggest worry. There’s plenty that can be done to get Godwin and Evans in positions to succeed with even a compromised version of Brady. But if it falls apart at the line, none of it will matter.

The Bucs traded up for Tristian Wirfs of Iowa to plug a massive hole at one of the tackle spots. However, this is still likely to be a below-average pass protection group, especially since it’s tough to imagine a rookie immediately becoming a high-quality starter at that position in the coronavirus-truncated offseason.

The solution to the pressure problem might well be another tweak from Arians. It will be up to him and Byron Leftwich to design plays that get the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly. Last season, Brady had a 2.58-second time to throw. That can’t be the norm for 2020 and in fact, it was the longest time to throw of any season for Brady in almost a decade. Anything over 2.5 seconds is an outlier for Brady:

2018 - 2.45 seconds

2017 - 2.56 seconds

2016 - 2.39 seconds

2015 - 2.26 seconds

2014 - 2.34 seconds

2013 - 2.39 seconds

2012 - 2.42 seconds

2011 - 2.47 seconds

Again, this is a possible solution but it’s no guarantee. What is a total lock is that Bruce Arians has a lot of work to do. Much of that work will require introspection and tweaks to some of the wrinkles that weren’t just present in an offense that fantasy managers loved in 2019, but have been staples of his successful attacks over the years. The Gronk acquisition and his utter deference to Brady in the move was a sign that Arians is up for the adjustment. But it doesn’t change the reality of the workload.

You need to consider that when deciding to invest in this Bucs offense at any level. This is an impressive collection of talent, no doubt, but you’re betting on Arians and co. figuring out a lot in an extremely small window.

If the 2020 or 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are to accomplish their goal of winning a championship while rolling out a strong offense, it will be at the hands of a fabulous coaching job by Bruce Arians. That’s why the eccentric coach will once again be one of the key characters in the story of the season.

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