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Ancient Brady + broken receivers = NFL’s top offense in Tampa Bay

John Romano | No offense put as many touchdowns on the scoreboard as the Bucs did in 2021, despite an ever-changing lineup of skill players.
It wasn't always the no-risk-it, no-biscuit offensive style that Bruce Arians prefers, but the Bucs head coach and quarterback Tom Brady still managed to lead the NFL in passing yards with a revolving door of players at skill positions.
It wasn't always the no-risk-it, no-biscuit offensive style that Bruce Arians prefers, but the Bucs head coach and quarterback Tom Brady still managed to lead the NFL in passing yards with a revolving door of players at skill positions. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 15

TAMPA — Imagine the regular season as a journey. A vacation, if you will.

You start off with all kinds of hopes and plans. The caravan is gassed up and the schedule stretches out ahead like an invitation to better days.

And then your tight end breaks down.

And a receiver goes missing.

Before you know it, there are leaks in the backfield and more warning lights in the passing game. And every town you visit seems more hostile than the last.

Imagine all of that.

And then imagine having the top-scoring offense in the league.

That’s what the Bucs pulled off this season. This broken-down, high-mileage unit scored more points than any offense in the NFL, which is a first for Tampa Bay as a franchise.

(As a team, Dallas scored more points in 2021, but the Cowboys got nine touchdowns from their defense and special teams. In an offense-to-offense comparison, the Bucs outscored Dallas by 30 points.)

Since Bruce Arians arrived as head coach in 2019, the Bucs have found the end zone more than any team in the NFL, averaging 29.8 points a game in 49 regular-season games.

“I think that’s been our motto since we got here. We’re going to score points,” Arians said. “Don’t know who’s going to do it or how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to get points on the board.”

What’s interesting is how the Bucs pulled it off in 2021. While they began the year with their best offense ever on paper, that group was intact for only two games. Between injuries/suspension, the Bucs were without Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette and Mike Evans for 23 starts, which is about one-third of their combined availability.

They talked a lot about the next-man-up philosophy, but the truth is the gameplan had to be constantly adjusted. You may have a player stepping into the slot receiver’s role, but that does not mean his skill set or experience is the same as the guy he’s replacing.

“You think there’s a lot of Chris (Godwin’s) and AB’s out there? There’s not a lot of them out there on the planet,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “You don’t ask (replacements) to be them. You ask them to be themselves and be the best version of themselves. Then, it’s my job to know what they can do well and put them in position to have success. I’m asking guys to be who they are.”

What emerged seemed to be a blending of Arians’ high-risk passing game with a more ball-control approach. Tom Brady led the NFL in passing yards with a career-high 5,316 yards, but he got there a little differently than he did his first season in Tampa Bay.

Brady’s average yards per game was his best in a decade at 312.7, but his average completion dropped to one of the lowest of his career at 11.0 yards. It’s the lowest average completion rate for an Arians offense in his nine seasons as a head coach. For comparison’s sake, Jameis Winston led the NFL with an average completion of 13.4 yards in his one season in the Arians offense in 2019.

The point is that the Bucs were throwing the ball more than ever in 2021 but, beginning around Week 5, Brady began checking down to shorter routes.

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In other words, the results were closer to what New Orleans used to get when Drew Brees was in his prime and completing a high percentage of shorter passes.

“It’s evolved a lot. A lot of guys have gotten different snaps,” Brady said. “You just look at the running backs on the roster, look at the receivers on the roster; a lot of guys have come and gone.

“You’ve just got to do the best you can do, show up for work every day, try to work with everybody, throw to everybody, communicate with everybody — we’re all in the same meetings — and build up some trust over the course of the season. And when guys get their opportunity, they’ve got to take advantage.”

It’s a fascinating glimpse of the real-time adjustments Brady and the Bucs had to make while bringing new players onto the roster in mid-season.

Arians suggested it also spoke to Brady’s comfort level in his second season with the offense, after beginning the 2020 season with a limited training camp and no preseason games due to the pandemic.

“I think Tom has a much better feel this year than last,” Arians said. “And once he figures you out, you’re in trouble.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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