Tom Brady: Master talent scout

Ian Boyd

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What's the main difference between Michael Jordan and his modern challengers LeBron James and Tom Brady? The latter two didn't allow the front office to limit their window at the tail end of their career.

Obviously Michael Jordan wasn't done dominating on the hardwood when he retired after his second consecutive three-peat. His franchise was done though, Jerry Krause wanted to strip the team apart and rebuild and MJ couldn't figure out how to manufacture more championship-contending contexts around him so he retired again.

LeBron James has left his franchise for a better situation three times now in his career. The first time he created the Heatles with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and went to the NBA Finals four consecutive times, winning twice. In his final season in Miami he realized Wade was becoming washed up and the Spurs were sagging hard off him anytime he didn't have the ball, so he bailed for Cleveland and directed the Cavs to trade the Andrew Wiggins pick for top-shooting big man Kevin Love. Four more NBA Finals appearances, one more championship. Kyrie Irving bailed on him in Cleveland and the Cav roster was falling apart so James bailed again, sucked it up for one bad year with the Lakers, and then directed a massive trade for Anthony Davis which has made the Lakers perennial favorites.

Tom Brady was able to lean on Bill Belichik and Ernie Adams for 17 years to keep the Patriot roster evolving and adapting in order to contend for championships. But the 2019 season ended with Brady throwing a pick-6 trying to carry a moribund offensive team against the Tennessee Titans. The 2018 Patriots had won the Super Bowl, defeating the Patrick Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs along the way along with the Sean McVay LA Rams, but then Gronk retired and most of the credit clearly belonged to Bill Belichik and the ever-evolving and playoff-savvy Patriot defense.

There were certainly questions over whether Brady would make a difference in Tampa Bay, even though the Bucs clearly had big time talent which was being thwarted by Jameis Winston's persistence on throwing as many interceptions as he possibly could (30 in 2019). It's clear now Brady picked out the perfect spot to keep contending for championships, much as LeBron did when heading back to strip-mine Cleveland or leaving for Los Angeles.

The 2019 Bucs were 23rd in offensive DVOA per Football Outsiders, held back primarily due to Winston's record-setting INT rate, and the defense was 6th in DVOA. This team was literally just steady leadership at quarterback away from having a chance to contend...and Tom Brady knew it.

From Bill Belichik to Todd Bowles

One area where I had questions though was defensive coordinator. Todd Bowles was destroyed by the Chiefs in the regular season and has a reputation for being an aggressive, blitzing defensive coordinator who'd effectively stockpiled pass-rushers on the Tampa Bay roster. Even with the Chiefs missing virtually the entire 2019 Championship O-line by the time this game was played, I argued it was a trap to try and beat them with pressure.

As I wrote up in the preview:

Two doors confront Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles

Behind door no. 1 is to follow a conventional strategy for beating a team like the Chiefs. Match up as best you can, mix your looks, and rush the passer with an exotic and carefully crafted blitz package. This is essentially what Brent Venables did to Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers in 2019, he played a 3-1-7 package which matched safeties and cornerbacks on all of the LSU wideouts and allowed them to bring multiple pressures without hanging some big slow linebacker out to dry against a receiver like Justin Jefferson.

It was brilliant and worked like a charm...until it didn’t. Eventually Burrow and LSU figured out what they were doing, saw they were still getting 1-on-1 matchups for J’Marr Chase, and exploited them. The final score wasn’t even really close.
The right answer, as I explained:

In my “space force” theory, the deep threat is the most important wide receiver, space force position. The Kansas City Chiefs have probably the most lethal deep threat passing game in NFL history because they combine 4.29 40 Tyreek Hill, who had 1276 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, with Patrick Mahomes. This is one of the fastest receivers we’ve ever watched play the game and the quarterback can hit him just about anywhere on the field whether he has a pocket to step into or not.

Stopping that is the most important component for a Bucs victory. Last season Hill was targeted 16 times and produced nine catches for 105 yards. Not terrible, but not great either.
My favorite blueprint for stopping a top offense is as follows. First, you double team the vertical threat and remove the danger of getting beat there. Secondly, you also send a “plus one” to whatever the secondary threat is from the offense. Finally, you play mano a mano on everything else.
I then explained how the "flyover defense" gave the Bucs the best chance to do this and suggested they might should play dime, even a 1-4-6 package with Ndamukong Suh flanked by Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett on the defensive line, Lavonte David and Devin White at inside-backer, and then a nickel defender and a middle safety in addition to the two starting safeties and cornerbacks.

Todd Bowles didn't do that, but what he did do was effectively match the strategic goals I laid out with a different personnel package. Here was Bowles' Bucs solution.

2-4-5 nickel package with 2-man coverage most of the game and outside backers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul entrusted with maintaining lane discipline and keeping Mahomes in the pocket. Let him step up into defensive tackles Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh behind his patchwork offensive line, that was a much better outcome than Mahomes buying time and space behind it all. You can't limit Mahomes' range, his arm can hit anything, he's the anti-Tom Brady in that you'd rather keep him up in the pocket.

The two ultra-deep safeties took care of the Tyreek Hill issue, there was virtually never a snap in which he could line up to either side of the formation and not have a safety sitting on top of him. Hill finished the game with seven catches on 10 targets for 73 yards and no touchdowns.

But 2-man under from the 2-4-5 nickel package left another challenge, the Kansas City running game. I don't mean their literal running game, the Chiefs were never winning this game by running the football, I mean tight end Travis Kelce. The star tight end was targeted 15 times and caught 10 balls for 133 yards but no touchdowns. Good day at the office but without the explosive dimension from Hill, not enough to win the game. Here's a couple of snaps to illustrate the Buccaneer strategy against Kelce, both coming against the dreaded "Y-iso" formations which have helped turned Kelce and Rob Gronkowski into household names.


On this play the Chiefs create a Y-iso formation by motioning Hill to the opposite side before the snap as a decoy on a bubble screen. The Bucs hit Kelce at the line with Pierre-Paul and then again with linebacker Devin White before cornerback Jamel Dean arrived, but it wasn't enough here as Kelce found an opening for a first down.

The drive ended here:


Y-iso again, Dean matches Kelce with a safety over the top, (2-man coverage everywhere), and this time the pass-rush obliterates the KC O-line and Mahomes never has a chance to try and find Kelce or anyone else.

The game really hinged on three things for the Buc defense. First, successfully holding up in the seams in coverage with linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White, secondly containing Mahomes with a disciplined outside rush, and finally beating the KC line in large part with the defensive tackles generating a consistent push inside. You can afford to wait for the interior pass rush if you can clamp down in 2-man without the quarterback getting out of the pocket and torching you. I really wasn't sure if David and White were up for this against Kelce, but they held up just well enough.

This was the sort of defensive gameplan Bill Belichik would have had for this contest, Bowles stepped in for Brady's old counterpart.

Narrative takeaways for football

Two easy narratives from this game which are grievously followed center around Tampa Bay's success running the football and the effectiveness of their pass-rush. Their pass-rush was effective in large part because they didn't give Kansas City ANYTHING quick or easy. You can't beat 2-man coverage with quick shots on matchup problems, especially if the tight end is getting bumped at the line, you need longer developing plays or to run the football. This wasn't a triumph of the blitz or pressure package, this was about doing less with more and emphasizing coverage and denying space.

Similarly, Tampa Bay ran the football well and it certainly helped them but KC didn't lose this game for lack of possessions or chances on offense. They couldn't move the ball on the Bucs. It took Mahomes 49 pass attempts to reach 270 passing yards and a lot of late attempts to break five ypa. Running the football is useful for denying your opponent chances to get into a rhythm or chances to get extra possessions to wear out your defense and solve your gameplan. KC's only chance was to wear out the Buccaneer pass-rush and they didn't really make much progress there primarily because they couldn't get first downs, not because the Bucs ran the ball so well.

I'd argue the run game was important mostly for allowing a team with a 43-year old quarterback to sustain drives and get points on the board. Helpful, no doubt, but much less a key to the game than Bowles having the right defensive gameplan.

The obvious meta-narratives around this game are about Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady but I'm not sure there's much to say on either.

Mahomes was brilliant in this game and had at least three insane throws he pulled out of his wizard's hat which hit receivers in the hands or face and were dropped. They didn't lose because his receivers didn't expect those throws and failed to make the most of them, but it was still eye-catching to see and an easy way to demonstrate this game's outcome isn't a useful barometer of Mahomes' ability. It's not a good reflection of the Chiefs either, it's hard to win with a completely rebuilt offensive line missing four starters from your preseason depth chart.

My main takeaway with Brady was "wow, he picked the perfect place to keep doing his thing and winning titles." It was a very nice game for Brady, he's maintaining his physical effectiveness at insane ages in part with diet and in part with his understanding of the game and ability to see the field and get the ball out quickly. He extended his title contention window though by going to a team with Todd Bowles, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, recent first round picks of Devin White and Tristan Wirfs, and then old pal Rob Gronkowski coming out of retirement.

The main narrative I'd push from this game was the "stop the pass first" strategy is clearly dominating the NFL today and anyone insisting the run game is still the key ingredient simply doesn't want to see the truth.

On a lesser level, I noticed a few interesting throwback themes for Texas Longhorn fans. The winning strategy for Bowles mirrored an approach Charlie Strong took during parts of the 2016 matchup between Texas and Patrick Mahomes' Texas Tech. Texas started playing cover 2, rushing three, and spying Mahomes with Malik Jefferson so he couldn't just scramble and buy time forever to beat their coverages.

Additionally, the Bucs' winning strategy asked a lot of Ndamukong Suh and Lavonte David. The former executed a similar strategy and nearly upset Colt McCoy and the Texas Longhorns in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game, the following year Suh went pro and the Cornhuskers welcomed Lavonte David from the JUCO ranks as their new middle linebacker. It's sorta funny to see so much Nebraska defense in the Super Bowl, the program has hardly had a good reputation on that side of the ball since Bo Pellini was fired.

In other fun college football connections, the Buc defense started Auburn cornerbacks at both positions with Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean and their entire defense is basically a who's who of defensive stars from the last half-decade of college football with Vita Vea, Devin White, Antoine Winfield, and Jordan Whitehead all in there. Vea is the only defender on that list older than 25 (26), everyone else is 24 or younger (Devin White is 21!).

On the other side of the ball, Chris Godwin is 24, Tristan Wirfs is 22, and Mike Evans is 27. Brace yourself Mahomes and NFL fans, Brady vs Mahomes may be a trilogy fight or more.
 

sherf1

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Obviously under-rated how much Tampa's D line would dominate the beat up Chiefs OL.

Made a comment to my brother about how cool it was to see a guy like Mahomes literally have to try his hardest on every single snap just to survive. When the Cheifs are rolling it all looks so easy. His numbers were ugly but in terms of making crazy plays only 3-4 humans have ever been able to do it was very impressive, even if futile.
 

Ian Boyd

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Obviously under-rated how much Tampa's D line would dominate the beat up Chiefs OL.
That was my initial read on the game but then I talked myself into the chiefs working it out with the quick passing game unless Bowles played Uber conservative. He did so...it very much mattered.

Had he blitzed I bet they get some sacks but also get caught by Hill a few times and then who knows what happens.
 
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This is fantastic.

I admittedly don't love the NFL nearly as much as I should and don't pay as close attention as I should, but every year around this time I'm perplexed at the notion that Brady, despite not being #1 in virtually any individual statistic used in comparative analysis, is praised as the GOAT not only at his position but also over an entire sport. It's a very odd phenomen.

Brady being in another Super Bowl puzzled me though. So I researched if Todd Bowles was considered as good a DC as my perception of him is. Sure enough, he was.

Then I notice that PFF graded the Bucs offensive line as their #5 in 2020.
Couple that with the Bucs being elite against the run, and pretty darn good against the pass in 2020, and I realized that Tom Brady is simply a master at identifying coaching staffs, rosters and front offices that he can win with.

This piece was a joy to read and helped focus some of the points I was having a hard time articulating to my annoying friends that insist team accomplishment of Brady makes him a better individual than others.
 

Ian Boyd

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This piece was a joy to read and helped focus some of the points I was having a hard time articulating to my annoying friends that insist team accomplishment of Brady makes him a better individual than others.
Brady is a perfect test-case in how complicated this sort of thing really is.

Dude wins games for a lot of reasons, a LOT of reasons, and none of them are really flashy. The fact we use the word “athlete” for comparing his achievements across sports really clouds the picture because he’s not fast, doesn’t jump high, and makes the right pass more than he makes the sensational one.
 
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coach_bass

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I know hindsight is 20/20 but let’s replay the game here from halftime. Tampa is playing over the top and your OL is getting obliterated. What do you do? Here’s what I’m thinking and @Ian Boyd you can tell me if I’m way off base here but I’m just trying to think about possible adjustments (some of which are lofty considering the type of team Kansas City is and what they probably have practiced).

1.) Maybe running some 12 for extra edge protection? I would have loved to see some old school Ace Trey formations to see how the Bucs defended the nub side. Are the corners for Tampa bay good tacklers? Do the Chiefs even have a second TE? Lol.

2.) Maybe 21 personnel? If the brackets are taking away hill, and LB’s athleticism is essentially neutralizing Kelce, the only other option I can think of is to try to a favorable matchup for a RB in space. Was mahomes passing up underneath stuff looking for the big play? I know that’s been their MO but I couldn’t tell if there was actually anything available.

3.) Sprint outs? Or some bunch sets that chip the end? Or perhaps let Kelce get a free release? I did like the speed option type stuff and wish they could have been more creative with those with a crack block or using hill or hardman as a motion pitch guy. I know athleticism is a strength of TB’s LB but some sort of misdirection to get them flowing is something worth trying.

All in all It’s really difficult when Tampa bay’s front is whipping you upfront and the backend is keeping the lid on. I’m just spitballing because I haven’t had a chance to rewatch but you would think they would have had to find a way to manufacture a running game not only to possibly bring the safeties down but to potentially create some LB false steps for the intermediate to open up. Easier said they done right considering Kansas City is not a run downhill type team and while I love Andy Reid’s ability to call an effective screen pass all the way back to his time in Philly, he is notorious for abandoning the run game at a moments notice. Just some thoughts and like always I look forward to the different thoughts and perspectives.
 

Ian Boyd

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I know hindsight is 20/20 but let’s replay the game here from halftime. Tampa is playing over the top and your OL is getting obliterated. What do you do? Here’s what I’m thinking and @Ian Boyd you can tell me if I’m way off base here but I’m just trying to think about possible adjustments (some of which are lofty considering the type of team Kansas City is and what they probably have practiced).

1.) Maybe running some 12 for extra edge protection? I would have loved to see some old school Ace Trey formations to see how the Bucs defended the nub side. Are the corners for Tampa bay good tacklers? Do the Chiefs even have a second TE? Lol.

2.) Maybe 21 personnel? If the brackets are taking away hill, and LB’s athleticism is essentially neutralizing Kelce, the only other option I can think of is to try to a favorable matchup for a RB in space. Was mahomes passing up underneath stuff looking for the big play? I know that’s been their MO but I couldn’t tell if there was actually anything available.

3.) Sprint outs? Or some bunch sets that chip the end? Or perhaps let Kelce get a free release? I did like the speed option type stuff and wish they could have been more creative with those with a crack block or using hill or hardman as a motion pitch guy. I know athleticism is a strength of TB’s LB but some sort of misdirection to get them flowing is something worth trying.

All in all It’s really difficult when Tampa bay’s front is whipping you upfront and the backend is keeping the lid on. I’m just spitballing because I haven’t had a chance to rewatch but you would think they would have had to find a way to manufacture a running game not only to possibly bring the safeties down but to potentially create some LB false steps for the intermediate to open up. Easier said they done right considering Kansas City is not a run downhill type team and while I love Andy Reid’s ability to call an effective screen pass all the way back to his time in Philly, he is notorious for abandoning the run game at a moments notice. Just some thoughts and like always I look forward to the different thoughts and perspectives.
The chiefs went to the super bowl because of their dropback passing game. If you try to change your entire offense at halftime to win that game, I mean you’re basically already beat.

Fundamentally, Tampa Bay was the stronger team if KC couldn’t block 4 and Bowles was committed to the right gameplan. KC was just beat.
 

coach_bass

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The chiefs went to the super bowl because of their dropback passing game. If you try to change your entire offense at halftime to win that game, I mean you’re basically already beat.

Fundamentally, Tampa Bay was the stronger team if KC couldn’t block 4 and Bowles was committed to the right gameplan. KC was just beat.
Yea I get that and it’s easy to say this is what could have worked after the fact. I’m just curious why they didn’t assume they might have trouble blocking with the OTs being out? Surely at some point in the preparation they discussed the possibility of the pass rush being a problem and Tampa being able to play over the top. KC used 5 man protection on 92% of dropbacks (48 of 52). It does you no good to drop back at all if you’re QB is getting killed on every play. Like you said, perhaps they didn’t account for Kelce getting clamped down too.
 

Ian Boyd

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Yea I get that and it’s easy to say this is what could have worked after the fact. I’m just curious why they didn’t assume they might have trouble blocking with the OTs being out? Surely at some point in the preparation they discussed the possibility of the pass rush being a problem and Tampa being able to play over the top. KC used 5 man protection on 92% of dropbacks (48 of 52). It does you no good to drop back at all if you’re QB is getting killed on every play. Like you said, perhaps they didn’t account for Kelce getting clamped down too.
I don't see there being all that much they could do about it. Bring in more people to protect and you have fewer to try and get open against 2-man. Downsizing gives you less space and puts more emphasis in the trenches where you're whipped.

Running back was the key. They needed that guy to be ready to torch Devin White with routes or keep them going with the run game, probably the former. CEH wasn't ready.
 
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system poster

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This is fantastic.

I admittedly don't love the NFL nearly as much as I should and don't pay as close attention as I should, but every year around this time I'm perplexed at the notion that Brady, despite not being #1 in virtually any individual statistic used in comparative analysis, is praised as the GOAT not only at his position but also over an entire sport. It's a very odd phenomen.
There was a several year period where Brady was no doubt a top two or three quarterback in the NFL in terms of individual statistics, performance, eyeball test, etc. but he didn't win any titles in that period, mostly because of bad luck.