Such a different year playing in the NFL, which has been well-documented. Covering it is weird too. A two-day visit in Tampa was the first stop on an abbreviated camp tour for me—four camps in eight days. Then home to Brooklyn for a mandatory 14-day quarantine. No in-person interviews at team facilities. This was my routine Thursday: Watch practice at the Bucs 10 feet away from anyone else, then hustle back to room 416 of the Epicurean Hotel, 4.5 miles from the Bucs facility, to await phone and videoconference interviews. “Are you in a hotel room right now?” Brady, sounding surprised, asked me when I interviewed him Thursday afternoon. Yes, I said. “So different for everybody,” he said. “We’re trying to sort through it like you are.”
There’s a lot of the Brady story to sort through, watching him for two days. His arm, I thought, looked very good, better than it did late last season. Before getting to that, watch this short video from Thursday’s practice. NBC videographer Annie Koeblitz shot it, and when I was combing through her video Thursday night to see what I might have missed at practice, this 46-second piece of tape jumped out at me. It’s rare for me to make a piece of video an actual part of my column, but Koeblitz’s work is important to the Brady/Bucs acclimation story that I found in Tampa. It shows that Brady is doing a heck of a lot of coaching.
From the far sideline, Koeblitz and I were maybe 50 yards away from Brady as he ran through an obstacle-course-and-throw drill, and the sound isn’t pristine, but you should be able to hear Brady’s words. I’ll describe the scene. You see Rob Gronkowski (wow—there’s Gronk) catching a ball from Brady up the right seam and putting it away. Then the camera pans back to Brady maneuvering in and out of four padded dummies, simulating moving quickly in a crowded pocket. He emerged to loft a pass to tight end O.J. Howard up the left sideline. Then Brady called to Howard.
“Juice!” Brady called out. “Keep those shoulders square.”
Then Brady stood in place, pumping his arms like pistons, up and down.
“Right here!” Still pumping his arms. “Last minute . . . Catch it on your hip,” Brady said, with some garbled words in the middle.
I was dying to know what it all meant. I figured Howard wasn’t sprinting full-go, and maybe Brady was urging him to have better mechanics running. But last minute and catch it on your hip . . . What was that? So I got Howard on the phone and asked him.
“You hit it on the head,” Howard said. “That’s Tom coaching me. Tom’s been coaching a lot of guys one-on-one.
“When he says, ‘Shoulders square,’ if you watch me on film, and he watched me, watched me a lot, I’d be running a vertical route, not going as fast as I should have. That’s because I’d be running a vertical route, but I’d look back and it’d slow me down. He’d say, ‘Keep those shoulders square. Don’t slow down for me. Six, eight yards, pump your arms, sell it like a go route—I’ll get you the ball.”
Unpacking: In the 2017 draft, Howard was the best size-speed player of all. At 251 pounds, he ran a 4.51-second 40, and the Bucs made him their first-round pick. Three meh seasons and some bad habits later, here’s Howard at the crossroads, on a tight-end-rich team, the subject of trade rumors since the day Gronkowski came out of retirement to wear the pewter. But if a 4.51 guy is peeking back to the line all the time, he’s not going to be a 4.51 guy—he’s negating one of the best qualities any NFL tight end has. Catch it on your hip means, in essence, “Don’t worry—the ball’s going to be where only you can catch it.” (Howard should watch tape of ex-Brady faves Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell abusing the Falcons secondary with precision throws down the stretch in the Super Bowl comeback win over Atlanta. Relatively new receivers, in perfect sync with Brady. Cornerback Jalen Collins must still have nightmares over that fourth quarter and OT.)
Brady liked what he saw when Howard came to Tampa for QB/receiver workouts in May. And of all the great weapons Brady has here—it’s perhaps the best arsenal he’s ever had, and certainly since the 16-0 Randy Moss year in 2007—the one that looked the best in the two days I watched was Howard. Easy.
“When Tom does that,” Howard said of the coaching point, “it’s huge for me to hear. I worked on that all offseason, a bad habit I had to break. He puts it in my head every day. That’s what a true leader does. He does it in a humble way. So chill. That’s Tom Brady, one of the best to ever play our game, and every day he’s got something for me to make me better.”
That’s going to be a huge issue for Brady and this group of receivers. Timing. Familiarity. Brady got rapped for holding informal throwing sessions with his receivers at a private school in Tampa in the pandemic, which was bemusing. Philip Rivers moved to Indianapolis in the spring and threw with his new receivers. MVP Lamar Jackson had spring sessions in south Florida with receivers both on and not on his team. But Brady got called out for it. “I think every quarterback and receiver combination, really throughout the league, they were throwing to some extent,” said tight end Cameron Brate. “I think we were the only ones who had a helicopter watching us throw. That was definitely a little bizarre. The spring is mostly about working out timing, timing on routes, getting comfortable with the different concepts you’re running. We were able to do all that this spring. We really don’t feel like we’re too behind the 8-ball right now.”
What’s different for Brady, besides everything, is the head coach. Bruce Arians is, well, he’s not Bill Belichick. Arians can bite heads off, but he’s a teaching pal to passers. He has coached Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston. And now Brady, the six-time Super Bowl winner. That’s a wealth of quarterback-coaching experience right there, and Brady is trying to learn from it.
Brady surprised me when he said: “It’s my 30th year of playing football, including high school, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had an offensive head coach. That provides something a little different for the quarterback.” Recently, Arians and Brady sat at the facility for three hours to talk plays. Not philosophy, just plays. Arians said: “Show me on the board what you love to do.” Brady, Arians said, has adopted most of the Bucs’ verbiage after knowing one offensive language for 20 years. Brady would bring up a play he liked, Arians told him the particulars of what it was called. “He said, ‘Oh cool,’ “ Arians said.
“Tom’s used to audibling so much and we haven’t asked our guys to audible that much in the last few years,” Arians continued. “Going back to [coaching] Peyton, he’d have three plays in the huddle. And he might run a fourth one, because he saw something he liked. Tom can do those types of things. We’ll give him those types of things to do but right now it’s just, Let’s get it all down pat, which he probably has 90 percent of it in the book right now in his mind.”
Arians is convinced—and has told Brady this—that he won’t have to worry about making the perfect decision on every pass-drop. Last season in New England, with a beat-up and lesser group of skill players, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had to scheme everything intricately to give a play a chance to work, and Brady had little margin for error. This year, Arians said, “It’s gonna be a lot easier for what we’re doing because I’m not gonna ask him to put us in the perfect play every play. He’s got two wide receivers that can beat anybody one on one and tight ends and, basically, if you read out our patterns, you’ll get to the right guy.”
Now for the narrative that follows Brady to Tampa: He doesn’t have the arm to fit Arians’ deep-passing scheme, and to make great downfield connections with star wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich sneered at those with that opinion.
“They’re not that smart,” Arians said. “The guy can make every throw. He threw a ball 60 yards the other day to [wide receiver] Scotty Miller that was on a dime. The thing about our offense is you throw it to the guy that’s open. If Tom [sees an open man deep], he takes the shot. If not, read it out. He and Peyton have that same characteristic. Like, I’m not gonna take a 50/50 shot when I got a 90 percent shot underneath.”
“People who say that don’t know our offense,” Leftwich said. “I know what we really do. Who he is, and as smart as he is . . . He’s done everything we ask our quarterbacks to do in this offense. I’m just telling you, he fits us extremely well.”
I’m pretty sure without the camera on, and without knowing his answer to this question would be parsed from Nantucket to the Pacific, Brady’s opinion of those who doubt his arm wouldn’t have been as diplomatic as this:
“Everybody’s got an opinion about a lot of different things. My opinion is the only one that matters to me. In the end, you can prove them wrong or prove them right. For me, I’ve got the opportunity to go out there and play and I’m going to make the most of it and do what I’ve always done. I’m just gonna have to go out there and do it. There are certainly no entitlements in football. You’ve got to earn it in football regardless of what you say or think, or what anyone says or thinks, it doesn’t matter because you get a chance to go out there and prove it. I never really put a lot of credence or credit into what . . . ”
“You know, I have a belief or confidence in myself, but I still have to go do it and prove it to myself too and I think that’s what motivates me and get me going each day. I don’t give a s— what happened yesterday, the day before. Today’s the day and that’s where you have to put your time and energy.”
The 43-year-old Brady sounds like the 38 and 35 and 31-year-old Brady.
So the takeaway from the morning practice Thursday, a day for QB agility drills run by quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen (another former Manning mentor) and throwing from a messy pocket and sprinting right and left and throwing line drives to tight ends, was that Brady was throwing bullets. It felt oppressive—98 heat index—and after every drill, Brady took his helmet off and did a complete toweling-off of his head and arms. Who can like this weather? Brady’s point about it: “I feel like I mastered the cold weather because I’d, again, been up there [in New England] for so long and you know exactly how to do it. Here it’s a different type of inclement weather so it has its challenges because you sweat so much. But I’ll get used to that.”
The Bucs facility is a series of open fields with an indoor field, a few long spirals from Raymond James Stadium. Not much shade. On Friday, post-pick, the sun and humidity baked the place. As Todd Bowles sent extra rushers from different paths, Brady got in a groove. Back-shoulder cross to Mike Evans for 10 . . . checkdown to Evans for five or so . . . intermediate cross to O.J. Howard . . . a threaded eight-yard curl to Rob Gronkowski between two defensive backs . . . shallow cross to Cameron Brate . . . about an eight-yard out to Brate, whistled. Like a lot of his throws this morning—whistled.
“That’s probably the thing I was most surprised with,” Brate said of the fastballs. “I am a big fan of the game and kind of read up on different columns. I obviously saw the narrative, you know, Does Brady still have it? Can he still throw the ball at 43? Whatever. And, man, he can still sling it. All the work we did in the offseason, that’s kinda the one thing I was really most impressed with, his ability to throw the football. He can still spin it.”
Twice, Brady completed at least six in a row. After a deep overthrow in the end zone to little Scotty Miller from Bowling Green (the coaches love him), Howard ran a corner route on the left side, and about three yards deep in the end zone—I’m guessing Brady threw it about 28 yards—the arced pass dropped into the bucket of Howard’s waiting hands. Touchdown.
“That corner route felt good,” Howard said a couple hours later. “That was the very first route me and Tom worked on when we started throwing in May. He wanted to talk the exact details. Like, break at the half-yard line, keep it hot, and I’ll lay it in for you. Exactly what happened today. Poetry in motion.”
Later, Howard caught Brady’s other TD throw, an option route down the seam. “Tom gave me a look,” Howard said. Whatever it was, that’s the kind of non-verbal communication quarterback and receiver have to have under fire. Interesting that Howard’s got it with Brady already.
One last highlight: The 5-9 Miller, a blur with 4.33 speed, scratching and clawing his way into serious plans here two years removed from the Mid-American Conference, got a step on safety Jordan Whitehead running for the right pylon and Brady lofted a 48-yard sky job over the safety—right into a diving Miller’s hands. Great throw and catch. Looked like Miller was shaken up as he slow-jogged back upfield, but he wasn’t letting go of the ball. But he did give it up as he got back to midfield, where his mates were gathered. A minute or so later, Miller still looked like he was in discomfort. He walked a few yards away from the offensive group, took off his helmet, bent over slightly and unleashed a torrent of vomit on the ground.
That’s a five or 10-minute span young Scotty Miller won’t forget for a while.
“Overall a good start for our offense,” said Howard. Brady was crisp. I didn’t count, but it didn’t look like he took too many checkdowns. Those quick-throw timing routes—get the snap, whirl left, throw in an instant—were well-executed. He overthrew Gronkowski on a seam route late (looked like one of those Brady-to-Gronk seam completions that lifted the Patriots over the Chiefs in AFC title game 19 months ago), but no one’s too worried about the chemistry between two of the top 100 players of all time. As for Gronkowski: He looked good, in excellent football shape. It’s early. I’d expect the Bucs to conserve him through the season, maybe using him regularly in the red zone where he has flourished for so long.
The big question about the skill-player group: Is O.J. Howard available? Answer: No, not over Tom Brady’s dead body. The Bucs are keeping him, barring a ridiculous offer which I doubt would be forthcoming with his lack of production. The brass has noticed a different Howard, an excited player with a more positive aura. Who wouldn’t want to play with Brady? I’d bet Howard plays the most snaps of the tight ends, with Brate maybe a few more than Gronkowski; but that’s just a guess. With the athleticism and speed of Howard, the reliability of Brate and the multiple weaponry in Gronkowski’s toolbox, I won’t be surprised to see Brady take advantage of the intermediate threats all three of those guys are. He’s always loved throwing to the tight end, and why wouldn’t he if he’s got three very good ones? But as Arians says, this offense calls for the quarterback to take some shots while prioritizing the open man. So we’ll see.
So the news is good in the middle of August, in Tom Brady’s first steps outside the Belichick bubble. But honestly, if Brady didn’t look good on Aug. 14, there’d be major cause for concern. It’s how he’ll look on Dec. 14 that’s the question. Will his 43-year-old TB12-ed body with all the perfect ingredients therein look this good in four months? As Bill Parcells is fond of saying, They don’t sell insurance for that kind of stuff.
“It definitely, at this age, has its challenges,” Brady said. “I just have to be so diligent with how I take care of myself. There’s really not a lot of room for error. All the pliability treatments I get, they’re daily. The way I work out, I have to be conscious of that. I have to eat the right things. Gotta stay hydrated. . . . . I probably never could get away with fast food and things like that. Maybe you think you can, but in the end, I think those things always catch up to you.
“I’ve had a belief that, for a long period of time, this is what my goal would be and I think over the years my routine and process for taking care of my body has gotten better and better. That’s really allowed me to get to this point where I feel like I have a lot of knowledge. I still physically feel like I can throw the football well and get the job done. Again, I’ve got to work hard at it. It’s not like there’s anything easy about football in general and certainly in your forties it gets tougher than when you were in your thirties.”
But a full season, at 43, at the Brady level. Can he do it?
“How’d I look today out there at practice?” he said, with a laugh.
More Brady: “I feel really good. I think my arm is strong and is good and is as in-shape as it has ever been. I think every offense demands some different things and everybody has a different belief on how to move the ball downfield and score points. Again, being in one place and you have that familiarity, which is why I think continuity in the NFL is so important. When you look at Sean Payton and Drew Brees, they’re so on the same page with their belief of how to do that, it provides them with a lot of margin of error. In a really condensed format that we have, we’re really trying to get on the same page—myself, Byron [Leftwich], BA [Bruce Arians]—trying to really understand each other. They obviously know how I’ve done things; I’m trying to understand how they do things so that it can be as efficient as possible.”
“Are you happy?” I asked.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “That’s a good word.”
Brady said there were about 20 factors he considered, weighted in importance, that he wouldn’t name. “When I added it up, Tampa seemed like it was a great opportunity,” he said. “I am so happy with the decision I made.”
He spent a minute or so praising the Patriots, and saying he left on great terms, and had great regard for them.
“I made a decision to do something different,” he said. “It was a very thoughtful decision. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. Really since the moment I got here they’ve embraced me. They’ve embraced me with the opportunity to go and lead the team—that’s a big responsibility for me.”
For now, all good on the southern front for Brady and the Bucs. There’s no reason he can’t play well with these weapons, and there’s no reason the Bucs can’t contend for one of the seven playoff spots in the NFC—other than the pandemic, and the Bucs being in the middle of an American COVID hotspot, and the unknown of Brady trying to be the oldest starting quarterback ever to lead a team to the postseason. Being around the Bucs for a couple of days, I think you won’t have the problem of not enough touches to go around, because they’re just so worn down by losing, and losing in some ugly, walk-off ways late. Now there’s a quarterback who won’t stand for that, if it ever started to bubble up. If the early chemistry experiment on offense works, this is going to be an exciting team to watch. And, I predict, a playoff team.