It is impossible to microwave a championship in the NFL. Too much goes into it. It’s why many an off-season “winner” has blown apart in spectacular fashion: The Dream Team Eagles, the tanktastic Browns, countless editions of the Jets.
Flash-frying a title-worthy team is extra difficult this season, as the Tom Brady led Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed on Sunday. The reshaped Bucs were off the pace against the New Orleans Saints, beset by individual errors, sloppy penalties, a turnstile at left tackle, and a lack of speed.
It takes time for players to gel into a team, all the more so when you’re dealing with a batch of new arrivals – most notably Brady and Rob Gronkowski – who have had success playing their way.
Moving the ball looked hard for Brady for much of Sunday. It was similar to the feeling that hovered over the Patriots during Brady’s final stretch in New England. Everything felt a little off-beat. Staccato. A little slow. The Bucs finished the game with penalties totaling in excess of 100 yards, a classic sign of an out-of-sync side.
The Bucs hung in the game, by and large, thanks to their defense (a group that profiles as one of the five best in the league) and some baffling play-calling from the Saints. But there must have been a lingering sense of déjà vu for Brady, who watched this similar script play out throughout his final weeks with the Patriots.
This was always going to be the way. Brady and head coach Bruce Arians are trying to wed two contrasting styles. Brady brought elements of the Patriots blueprint with him to Tampa, but he pressed his old style onto Arians’ run-n-gun system.
Brady is betting on the Bucs’ ceiling. He’s betting on their personnel. This is not about Gronkowski, who was running on fumes against the Saints after a year away from the game and appeared to be held together by robot parts and Scotch Tape, nor is it about Leonard Fournette or LeSean McCoy, a pair of players whose reputation far outweighs their value to the team. This is about Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and OJ Howard, the young core who Brady is banking on to help him roll back the years.
There was always going to be teething problems. Brady, his new receivers and the offensive line are each learning each other’s idiosyncrasies. It’s the same with the coach, too: Arians is a coach famed for limiting his tight ends in the passing game; Brady is a quarterback who has spent the last decade ripping opponents apart over the middle of the field by targeting tight ends. It took until deep into the second-half for the Bucs to start to feature Gronkowski and Howard on Sunday – Gronkowski finished with just three targets; Howard with five.
There is no storyline we enjoy more than ‘the old guy’s still got it’. And Brady showed flashes of his old self: in command at the line of scrimmage, fairly efficient, willing to challenge all levels of the defense. Fearless. Worryingly for Tampa, the mistakes that crept into his game during that final year with the Patriots – the miscommunications, the inaccuracies, the turnovers – were still there, too.
That’s who Brady is these days, an above-average starter capable of a drive or two of magic but liable to miss wildly on a quick-out that costs the team six points.
It would have been unfair to expect the Bucs to gel fast, on offense at least. The ongoing pandemic has limited the team’s practice time and eliminated the mental and physical reps that preseason would have provided.
Still, when you sign a 43-year-old quarterback, you’re confessing that your championship window is 19 games – if you’re lucky. And so every aspect of the Brady-Arians relationship will be hyper-analyzed. The early returns weren’t great. But the building blocks of something are there, and it will be fun watching them try to figure it out.
Brady and the Bucs will have to be a slow-burn. And as Sunday showed, they have a long way to go.
Stat of the week
Cam Newton’s 75 rushing yards were the most by a Patriots quarterback since 1977.
Sunday offered the first look at the post-Brady era Patriots. It was different, but it was effective. “This is very efficient football and very easy football,” Tony Romo said on the broadcast of the Newton-led offense.
As expected, the Patriots shifted the focus of the offense from a timing, passing-based offense into one revolving around the run. Newton was efficient through the air (15-19, 155 yards) and a bulldozer on the ground – 75 yards and two touchdowns. The run and passing games worked in perfect sync, with 80% of the team’s passing plays featuring play-action and all but three dropbacks featuring some kind of pre-snap movement or motion.
More than that, Newton looked comfortable and healthy. He may not quite have his old breakaway speed, but he remains as willing as ever to initiate contact and to serve as the team’s power runner. Few players could handle the pressure of replacing one half of the Brady-Belichick partnership. Newton is not only handling it, he’s embracing it. At this rate, with Newton’s injury history, it’s likely to be unsustainable. But it’s undeniably fun.
MVP of the week
Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks. Is this the year that Wilson finally gets the MVP award he deserves? The much-discussed ‘let Russ cook’ offense was out in full force in week one. Wilson responded with his now-standard excellence, explosive and efficient in equal measure.
Wilson completed 31 of 35 passes for 322 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, as the Seahawks went to Atlanta and started the season with a dominant 38-25 win.
Video of the week
This is the Browns faking a punt in their own half with a former rugby player nicknamed the “Scottish Hammer”. Jamie Gillan fumbled the ball, and it didn’t get much better for the Browns the rest of the way.
It was a rough day for new Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. Baker Mayfield never looked comfortable in Stefanski’s new offense. He was hitching throughout the first half, unsure whether to trust his eyes or instincts. On defense, the Browns were rolled by a Ravens side that, as usual, had everything clicking behind Lamar Jackson.
It’s a new regime, but watching the Browns continues to be a laborious experience. You know there’s talent on the field. And yet all you can think is football should not be this hard.
Quote of the week
“If the Washington Football Team name catches on and our fans embrace it then we would be happy to have it as our permanent name” – Dan Snyder in an email to the Wall Street Journal.
Dan Snyder rarely, if ever, has a good idea. In fact, the world is a brighter place when he does not speak. But, this isn’t his worst.
Coke. Twitter. Apple. Why not a sports team? Washington. Nothing else. As Justin Timberlake infamously retorted in The Social Network, “drop the ‘The.’ It’s cleaner.”
Washington, a team for all the city, perhaps the nation; you can see the marketing now. Whether a team in that city could achieve such unity is open for discussion.
Elsewhere around the league
— The Colts wanted to sign Philip Rivers in the offseason, and sign Philip Rivers in all his glory they did. The Colts were trailing by four with five minutes remaining and the length of the field to drive. As night follows day, Rivers threw a back-breaking interception. Rivers’ numbers over the last 10 years in the final six minutes of one-score games are awful: he has completed just 53% of his passes and has thrown nine touchdowns to 23(!) interceptions.
— An early entry for the silliest ejection of the season: Jamie Collins, in trying to demonstrate to an official how he was speared, wound up thumping his helmet into the official.
— Adam Gase is in the middle of what is becoming a truly dynastic run. The Jets hiring in 2019 was the worst move of the season; and bringing him back in 2020 was the single most franchise-wrecking move of 2020. Jets fans will already be looking ahead to next season after their team were rolled 27-17 by the Bills.
— Aaron Rodgers looks set to stick it to Packers management this season. Rodgers was calm and efficient in the early going against the Vikings and then caught fire in a way only Patrick Mahomes and Rodgers really can. He finished 32-44 with 364 yards and four touchdowns in leading the Packers to a 43-34 win over the Vikings. Put the quarterback controversy pieces on hold for now.
— A tough debut and loss for the No1 overall pick, Joe Burrow. It all looked so easy when he scampered for an opening touchdown early in his professional debut. But his Cincinnati Bengals picked first in the draft for a reason, and Burrow looks like he has plenty of learning to do as he missed a few open receivers for what would have been touchdowns. Still, he has more than enough talent to become a force in the league.
— Like the best bunkers, Gardner Minshew is tank proof. The Jaguars’ plans to position themselves for the No 1 pick in next year’s draft (most probably Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence) were dealt a blow by their budding second-year, almost-star. Minshew finished 19-20, throwing for 173 yards and three touchdowns, with a whole bunch of that production coming off-script.