TAMPA — For the sake of the team, give the ball to Lenny.
For the safety of the quarterback and the balance of an offense, give the ball to RoJo.
For the sanity of a fanbase and the hope of another Super Bowl, give the ball to Gio.
The name on the jersey isn’t as important as the justification of the strategy. What you’re trying to do is make sure Tom Brady is still the healthiest 44-year-old football player on the planet in January.
For that reason, the Bucs need to continue handing the ball to running backs Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and Giovani Bernard as often as possible in the coming weeks.
If that means the Bucs are no longer leading the NFL in passing yards this season, then so be it. If it means they’re no longer scoring 40-plus points against bad teams, then so be it.
The only goal that matters this season is repeating as Super Bowl champions, and the only way that happens is if Brady gets through a 17-game regular season without any breaks, tears or sprains.
Now, this isn’t as easy as it seems. When you have a quarterback of Brady’s unique ability, the temptation to whip the ball around the field is great. In fact, no quarterback in the NFL has thrown more passes since the start of the 2020 season than Brady.
That’s great for highlight reels and memories, but it’s risky as heck.
In recent weeks, we’ve experienced life without Rob Gronkowski. And Lavonte David. And Jason Pierre-Paul. And just about every starter in the secondary.
Now, take a moment and try imagining life without Brady. Kind of feels like life without hope in the Tampa Bay huddle, doesn’t it?
This isn’t just me being overly cautious. There’s some indication that Brady had his own worries about the lack of a running game in September.
Through the first three weeks of the season, Bucs running backs were averaging 13 carries a game. Not to be snide, but Tennessee running back Derrick Henry can get that many carries in a quarter.
That might explain why Brady recently began meeting with the running backs and offensive linemen after practice on Friday afternoons to figure out how they could invigorate the ground game.
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“We’re doing anything we can to get better,” Brady said. “I think that’s the point. We’ve got to identify areas that we think need improvement and then we’ve got to put emphasis on it.”
Since the after-work sessions began, the running backs have averaged nearly 25 carries per games. Now, it’s probably fair to say that lesser opponents and game circumstances played a role in the increased rushing attack, but that does not mean Brady isn’t interested in emphasizing the running game.
It isn’t just his health that’s at stake, but the health of the offense. The more success the Bucs have running the ball, the more often they can utilize the play-action pass. That buys Brady more time in the pocket, it makes life easier on the offensive linemen and it allows receivers to run deeper routes.
The NFL may have turned into a passing league in the past 20 years, but that doesn’t mean the running game doesn’t still have a role. When the Bucs hit their stride in the playoffs last season their running backs went from averaging 20 carries a game in the regular season to 26 in the postseason.
There may occasionally be grumbling from the bleachers and the message boards about the number of times the Bucs run on first and 10 but it’s easy to forget how often those calls set up big passing plays later in the game.
“(It’s) not the number of times that you run it,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Just how you run it when you want to.”
Brady has an option to switch the play call from pass to run (and vice versa) on every single down so the idea that the Bucs have given twice as many carries to their running backs in the past three weeks is an indication that the quarterback is eager to see the running game succeed.
He hasn’t been sacked much (nine times in six games) or taken a lot of direct hits, but a lot of that has to do with how quickly Brady gets rid of the ball. And he’s been throwing underneath a lot more than 2020 — when he led the league in the average depth of his throws — which is another indication that Brady is not eager to take punishment in the pocket.
On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable that a middle-aged quarterback has thrown more passes than anyone in the NFL the past two seasons. On the other hand, it’s nuts.
There’s still a long way to go this season, and Brady’s health is Tampa Bay’s No. 1 concern.
For the sake of Super Bowl, give the ball to Lenny.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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