TAMPA — Tom Brady is taking a wide-open approach to distributing the ball this season. If you’re the guy who is least covered, he will find you.
Because Brady and the Bucs are loaded with pass catchers, he doesn’t have to force-feed one or two players but can run the offense like a point guard leading a break.
Brady is not only tops in the NFL this season with 1,767 passing yards, the Bucs are on pace to have three 1,000-yard receivers, led by Mike Evans (393 yards, four touchdowns), Chris Godwin (366 yards, two touchdowns) and Antonio Brown (325 yards, three touchdowns).
That doesn’t include tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 184 receiving yards and four touchdowns before fracturing his ribs in Week 3 against the Rams.
“That’s a great thing to have as a quarterback, to just try to read the play out and find the first guy that’s open and let him have it,” Brady said. “Sometimes you’re trying to force the ball to certain guys and you recognize that there’s certain players on the team that are head and shoulders above everyone else. I think we have a lot of really talented players, obviously, that have all made a lot of plays.”
Brady compared it to the confidence a point guard has passing to a teammate for a 3-pointer.
“It would be tough if you knew that if you kick it out there, he’s going to miss it,” he said. “You don’t really want to pass it out there. In this (Bucs) offense, I’ve just got to find the guy that’s got the winning route and I know that’s going to come down with (the ball), make the catch and make the play.”
The Bucs’ 45-17 win over the Dolphins on Sunday may have been the best game Brady has had throwing since arriving in Tampa Bay before last season.
And he did it with a banged-up thumb on his right (throwing) hand. With 4:11 remaining in the second quarter, Brady used play-action to running back Ronald Jones, then snapped his head around and fired a 12-yard strike to tight end Cameron Brate for a first down at the Miami 17-yard line.
But Brady struck his thumb on the helmet of Dolphins defensive lineman Christian Wilkins.
“I was aware of it,” Brady said. “The fact that it’s your throwing hand, there’s not many things that are that important to a quarterback, other than probably your right shoulder, your right elbow and your right hand. So any time you get banged on one of those, it could be an issue.”
Fortunately for Brady, it was not. Before the injury, he was 15-of-23 for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Afterward he went 15-of-18 for 182 yards and three scores.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was pleased with the production. He also knows it can get better.
“The coach in me sees the four plays where it didn’t go,” Leftwich said. “That’s the crazy part of it, to see what we left out there, to be honest with you. Because there was still something out there. We have a good group. We have a good group that puts the work in.
“They come to practice to make sure they’re in the right spot. They’re doing the right things. They show up. They love the responsibilities that they have. They take advantage of that. … There’s only one ball, so somebody is getting it. The only thing you can do is get open.”
For Brady, even with 21-plus seasons in the league, he has had to navigate a learning curve with the Bucs’ offense. Last season it wasn’t unusual for him to make a bad read here or a poor throw there.
After five weeks last season, Brady was coming off one of his poorest games, a 20-19 loss at Chicago on a Thursday night in which he forgot what down it was on the final drive.
“He has total understanding of it now,” coach Bruce Arians said. “When he’s saying things, there’s pictures now. I always say when a quarterback calls a play, he sees a picture. Last year there were just words (for Brady). Now there’s pictures, and he can think about coverage. He can put the whole thing together. And we’re talking about 1.5 seconds, two seconds, where all that has to happen. He can do that now.”
In addition to the wideouts, Brady has been able to rely more on the running backs for yards in the passing game. Leonard Fournette has emerged as a confident receiver and route runner, and the addition of Giovani Bernard gives Brady a sure-handed back on third down.
Brady’s ball distribution has been equitable, making it hard for a defense to roll coverage to any one receiver. In the 17 games since adding Brown last season, including the postseason, the receivers have been fairly even. Once again, Evans (80 catches, 1,230 yards, 14 touchdowns) leads the way, followed by Godwin (85 for 1,159 and eight touchdowns) and Brown (73 for 889, nine touchdowns).
Meanwhile, at 44, Brady is on pace to pass for more than 6,000 yards and 51 touchdowns, both of which would be career highs, albeit during a 17-game regular season.
“It’s been really fun,” Brady said. “I hope we keep playing like we did (Sunday). It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s one game, but I think we’re showing some improvement every week.”
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com or 727-709-5982. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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