TAMPA — At the midway point of a 17-week season, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is putting together a historic performance worthy of league MVP honors.
When you consider that he is 44 years old, it’s unlikely another player is going to grab the GOAT by the horns and pass him.
Somehow, quarterbacks such as the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, the Rams’ Matthew Stafford and the Bills’ Josh Allen are mentioned more frequently for MVP honors.
But Brady’s production is off the charts. At his current pace, Brady could own most NFL single-season records. Granted, the extra game will help. But even without it, he may be having the best season of his illustrious career.
If he continues to produce at this rate, Brady should break Payton Manning’s passing yards record of 5,477 by about 154. One mark Brady will have to step on the gas to get is Manning’s 55 touchdown passes with the Denver Broncos in 2013.
Brady is only pace to throw for 53 touchdowns, which should top his personal mark of 50 in 2007. He enters the second half with 25 touchdown passes and five interceptions and has thrown four or more TD passes in five games. At that pace, he could break Manning’s single-season record of nine four-TD passing games in 2013.
Of course, Brady has an embarrassment of weapons. But a couple of his favorite targets — tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Antonio Brown — have missed a combined six games.
The Bucs are in decent shape with a 6-2 record. Heading into the bye last season, they were 7-5 and had lost three of their last four games.
The schedule will turn in the Bucs’ favor when they return to play at Washington Nov. 14. They only have two games remaining against teams that currently have a winning record, and both are at Raymond James Stadium — Dec. 12 against the Bills and Dec. 19 vs. the Saints.
Brady is the team’s MVP, but there’s lots of room for improvement in other areas.
Most disappointing player
The easy answer is Ronald Jones, the Bucs’ leading rusher with 978 yards in 14 games last season before COVID-19 and a quad injury created an opportunity to Leonard Fournette. Of course, while Jones played his way into the doghouse with a fumble and missed pass protection, Fournette established himself as a three-down back.
But let’s eliminate Jones from this conversation simply because his lack of production (194 yards rushing, 1 touchdown) this season has as much to do with Fournette’s improvement as Jones’ poor play.
Perhaps no player has seen as steep of a decline in performance as linebacker Devin White. That may be because he set the bar so high in his second season.
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In 2020, White was second on the team with nine sacks, 16 quarterback hits and 15 tackles for loss. What he did in the postseason was even more amazing. He had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Entering this season, White appeared to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. But with a secondary weakened by injury and fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David missing a few games with an ankle injury, White has had more pass-coverage responsibilities. While he still leads the team with 61 tackles, he has only one tackle for loss and no sacks. At the same point last year, he had seven tackles for loss and five sacks.
What’s more, White has hurt his team with penalties, including three personal fouls in a 36-27 loss Oct. 31 at New Orleans.
“I’m just going keep being me,” White said. “I’m a fiery guy. I’m a guy who likes to talk. But obviously, I’ve got to look to the ground when I’m talking to a player so I can save a penalty for my team. At the end of the day, it’s all about the team. I’ve still got to play with passion and have an edge when I’m out there.”
Most improved player
Jamel Dean did not start very well this season. He was the Bucs’ third cornerback behind Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting, but injuries to those two players thrust him into a critical role.
At first, Dean didn’t seem ready for it. The Cowboys completed 5 of 8 passes for 61 yards against him in the season opener.
But since then, he has really settled in despite playing through some injuries. Quarterbacks have completed only 13 of 34 attempts for 138 yards, nearly half coming in the opener. He has two interceptions for a quarterback passer rating against him of 28.8.
Dean’s confidence builds each week despite a rotating cast in the secondary. Imagine how good he could be when his teammates come back.
With apologies to Richard Sherman, Dee Delaney, Ross Cockrell and Pierre Desir, Dean has sort of held this secondary together along with safety Jordan Whitehead.
Player Bucs need back this side of Davis
Wide receiver Antonio Brown was off to a terrific start before suffering an ankle injury in a win Oct. 14 at Philadelphia.
The chemistry between him and Brady is a little clairvoyant, and Brown gives the Bucs something they can’t find anywhere else. He’s a player who knows how to find the open space when the play breaks down. He ad-libbed his touchdown in the Super Bowl. He sealed the win over the Eagles, running through the zone on a scramble play and pulling in a 27-yard reception on third down that allowed the Bucs to run out the clock.
At 33, he has a suddenness to him that fellow receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin sometimes lack in tight spaces.
As Brady says, the game is about scoring points. The Bucs are 5-0 in games Brown plays and 1-2 in those he has missed. That’s not a coincidence. His 29 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns is a big reason for the team’s quick start.
Areas where the Bucs must improve
After melting down in a Week 5 loss at Chicago a year ago, Bucs players made a concerted effort to eliminate penalties. The next week in a win over Green Bay, Tampa Bay was not flagged for only the second time in franchise history. In fact, it became the least-penalized team for the remainder of the season.
Not only did the Bucs commit 11 penalties for 99 yards in their loss Oct. 31 at New Orleans, it led to six first downs and included three illegal hits on the quarterback, something they had been warned about prior to the game.
Finally, the Bucs’ pass rush must get going. Not just the rush; the sack numbers need to pile up, too.
A year ago, Tampa Bay was fourth in the league with 48 sacks. After eight games, the Bucs have only 17. Shaquil Barrett leads the club with 5-1/2, and there’s no question the injuries in the secondary have had an impact, since coverage and pressure go hand-in-hand. More reps for rookie Joe Tryon may help the situation in the second half.
“I think the most important thing is, we’ve just got to get healthy,” White said. “I mean, we’ve only lost two games.”
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