Although it’s probably the 100th-most unthinkable thing to hit the world of sports this month, Tom Brady — generally regarded as history’s greatest quarterback — will start next season donning a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform, not his familiar New England Patriots gear. The terms of the deal are not immediately known, but it’s a good bet that Brady will be due to clear more than $23 million per year for the first time in his career, plus perhaps more say over the team around him.
Will Brady be worth it? Well, even in perhaps the worst full season of his career, Brady was a more efficient passer than Tampa Bay’s old starting QB, Jameis Winston. In fact, Bucs coach Bruce Arians will be going from the most interception-prone passer in the league last season (Winston was picked off on 4.8 percent of his throws, almost a full percentage point more than any other qualified QB) to one of the least INT-happy passers in NFL history. That alone could help unlock the full potential of an offense that ranked third in the league in scoring last season but also was the only team in the league with a turnover on more than 20 percent of its drives.
Supposedly, one of Brady’s biggest frustrations with his final year in New England was a lack of receiving weapons to target in the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, Antonio Brown’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint with the team early in the season, and Josh Gordon being waived. And it’s true that Brady’s options were among the worst in his career. To measure the quality of each receiving corps Brady was throwing to, I looked at the track records of his wide receivers and tight ends by their Approximate Value (AV).1 Specifically, I averaged the AV each Patriots receiver had produced over his previous three seasons, weighted by how many AV each had during the season in question. Last year’s Patriots had an average of 12.0, for instance, which was the lowest for any Brady team since 2013.
Brady’s weapons: inferior in 2019, better in 2020?
Top three pass-catchers by Approximate Value (AV) and quality of full receiving corps, measured by an average of each WR and TE’s AV over the previous three seasons, for each full season of Tom Brady’s career
|Season||Top 3 Weapons in corps||CORPS QUALITY|
|2001||Troy Brown, David Patten, Marc Edwards||11.6|
|2002||Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch||14.3|
|2003||Deion Branch, Troy Brown, David Givens||8.5|
|2004||David Givens, David Patten, Deion Branch||10.5|
|2005||Deion Branch, David Givens, Troy Brown||12.5|
|2006||Reche Caldwell, Ben Watson, Troy Brown||8.0|
|2007||Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte’ Stallworth||14.6|
|2009||Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Julian Edelman||25.1|
|2010||Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Aaron Hernandez||13.8|
|2011||Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez||18.8|
|2012||Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski||24.4|
|2013||Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson||8.9|
|2014||Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon LaFell||17.4|
|2015||Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman||19.5|
|2016||Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan||17.3|
|2017||Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola||20.5|
|2018||Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan||17.8|
|2019||Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers||12.0|
|2020*||Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, O.J. Howard||16.1|
If you project Tampa Bay’s current receiving corps — assuming free agent Breshad Perriman does not return to the team — you get an AV average of 16.1, which is a somewhat significant upgrade over the 2019 Patriots, and it’s a number in line with the quality of Brady’s receivers over the course of his career. And lest we wonder, there is a reasonable correlation (0.48) between Brady’s own AV in a season and the quality of his receiving corps according to this measure:
So by that standard, moving to Tampa Bay allowed Brady to upgrade his supporting cast, move to an offense that was already good and maybe even improve the weakest part of that offense thanks to his careful passing tendencies. So what’s not to like?
Well, aside from those ugly Bucs uniforms,2 there’s the fact that Brady turns 43 years old in August. As we said earlier, 2019 was probably the worst statistical season of Brady’s career; his efficiency numbers (relative to average) represented career lows, and his 11 AV was tied with 2003 for his lowest output in a full season. Yet Brady also enjoyed the best season ever by a QB age 42 or older, by a mile. The next-closest season to Brady’s 11 AV was Warren Moon’s 5 AV for the Seattle Seahawks (bet you forgot he played there!) at age 42 in 1998. Looking forward, only two QBs ever had even 1 point of AV in a season in their age-43 season or later, and both had been relegated to backup status by then.
In trying to be a full-time starter at 43 — much less trying to be a successful one, with Super Bowl aspirations — Brady is attempting something that’s never been done before in league history. Maybe that’s why he’s the GOAT; he gets to pull off things nobody else can. And he will have more to work with, most likely. But make no mistake, there’s also a nontrivial chance that Brady’s Bucs jersey ends up hanging alongside the likes of a Chargers Johnny Unitas and a Rams Joe Namath in the hall of strange career-ending stops for once-great players.