MATT SANTOLERI: ADJUSTING TO TOM-PA BAY AND THE RAMIFICATIONS OF COVID-19
By MATT SANTOLERI
This week we got our first look at Tom Brady wearing his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey as the team released the promo photos on Twitter.
It was the first-time seeing Tom Brady sport a professional football team's jersey, other than the New England Patriots, since he was drafted to the league in April of 2000.
Seeing Brett Farve in a Vikings and Jets jersey, Manning in Broncos jersey, and closer to home for the San Mateo, CA native Brady, Joe Montana in a Kansas City Chiefs uniform, has prepared fans for that eventual day that the savior of the franchise might end their career somewhere else.
Even in the age of player movement and this built in knowledge of a sometimes-inevitable divorce, Brady was supposed to be different. After nine trips to the Super Bowl and six championships brought home to Foxboro, Massachusetts, Brady was supposed to leave on his own terms whenever that may be, with his next outfit being that gold jacket waiting for him in Canton.
Brady has defied the odds his entire career from being a 6th round draft choice, and the 6th QB taken in the 2000 NFL Draft, to being the oldest QB to ever lead their team to a Super Bowl Title in 2019 at the age of 41.
BRADY SAYS GOODBYE TO PATS
Brady saying goodbye to Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, Josh McDaniels, and one of his best friends in Julien Edelman, was just one more opportunity for Brady to leave Patriots nation with their jaws dropped and speechless. It surprised a lot of people, but it really should have been expected.
The writing has been on the wall that Belichick would outlast Brady in New England for sometime now. When the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014 it seemed like the heir apparent was in place and Brady would be hanging them up sooner rather than later. No one could have expected that Brady would take this as motivation and lead his team to two Super Bowl titles in 2014 and 2016, forcing the Patriots hand in moving on from someone in the QB room.
Belichick wanted that to be Brady, seeing Garoppolo as a worthy candidate to lead the next decade of Patriots success but Owner Robert Kraft nipped that in the bud.
Between the friction that was building up because of the pressures of sustained success, the trade rumors, the reluctance to pay Brady at the top of the market, and problems arising between Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady’s long time friend, trainer, and TB12 workout method co-founder, and management, the prospects of seeing Brady close out his career with New England slipped away.
The team prepared once again for life after Brady taking Jarret Stidham out of Auburn in the 4th round and between preseason and practice reps, apparently showing enough to inspire management to not really fight Brady’s departure.
WHY TAMPA BAY?
But why Tampa Bay and what about this landing spot made it the perfect place for Brady to close out the twilight of his career and put to bed all the arguments of him being a system QB under Belichick?
The $50 million in guaranteed money and the potential to max that out as $60 million with incentives can’t be overlooked. Brady has spent 20 years in the league and not a single one of them has he been the highest paid at his position.
This won’t be the case in 2020 either but his salary puts him in that top 10 if he maxes out on his incentives and helps to recoup the estimated $60 million in income he had forfeited over his time in New England by taking cut after cut allowing the team to allocate cap to different positions of need.
Money surely isn’t everything to Brady, but you can’t discount the feeling of not only being wanted but being compensated like the talent you know you are. Then comes the fit in Tampa Bay which many questioned because of the apparent decline in Brady’s downfield numbers and Air Raid system in which Bruce Arians, Head Coach of the Buccaneers, is known to favor.
Using the eye test, it did look like Brady lost a bit of juice on those downfield throws in 2019 but the numbers say otherwise. Brady posted a 97.6 passer rating on his deep balls in 2019 and completed about 40 of them last season which isn’t too far off from his career average.
He did all of this without having a true field stretcher on the team save for the one game Antonio Brown was on the roster. The truth is this just isn’t the part of Brady’s game that is a huge focus point as most of the Erhardt-Perkins offense he ran in New England is predicated on timing, rhythm, and short passing concepts that function out of multiple formations.
I suspect Arians will tailor his offense around Brady’s strengths more than forcing him to run the exact version of the Air Raid we saw Jameis Winston run in 2019 but I also expect Brady to function just fine attacking the seams and down the boundaries as the weapons he’s now surrounded with would surpass even the best skill position core he played with New England.
This leads me to the most tantalizing part of Brady’s move to Tampa Bay and why so many should be excited to see it in action.
RETURN OF THE GRONK
Not too long after Brady announced his move to Tampa Bay the rumblings that his long time favorite red zone target in Tight End Rob Gronkowski would be coming out of retirement to join him.
Who knows what the most dominant tight end in recent history has left in the tank after a year off and a career riddled with injuries, but it almost doesn’t matter as he’s just being added to an already stacked lineup of playmakers.
Wide Receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both broke 1,150 yds receiving and added 17 TD catches between the two of them in 2019. They also became only the third ever pair of receivers on the same team to average 89+ yds per game for the entire season becoming the first since 2000 when the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt did it.
In 2019 this dynamic duo was putting up record breaking numbers with turbulent QB play while Brady saw the seventh highest drop rate in the NFL in New England, with a league leading nine of those drops coming from his most trusted weapon in Julien Edelman.
Tight Ends Cameron Brate and OJ Howard will surely be upgraded over the tight end corps he had in New England last year who combined for 37 catches. 419 yards and two touchdowns on an NFL low, 53 total targets.
Considering in only 13 games in 2018, Gronkowski saw 72 targets comes just his way, this just further shows how inept New England was in surrounding Brady with weapons that made him feel comfortable and how Tampa Bay and their 117 targets that went to Tight Ends last season, is better equipped from personnel department to maximize his strengths.
This should have been one of the hottest tickets in the NFL and the Bucs should have seen a sharp rise in attendance which saw them placed 31 out of 32 NFL franchises in home attendance percentage (The amount of tickets sold versus the maximum capacity of the stadium).
Unfortunately, it appears more and more likely that at the start of the NFL season at least, Raymond James Stadium will be as empty as all the other NFL stadiums in the country as the league deals with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The adjustment for fans to not be present in the parking lots tailgating and the stadiums cheering on their beloved franchises will be one that will take some time to get used to.
NHL and NBA fans are preparing themselves for what that may mean in the near future as those leagues are getting ramped back up to play under these guidelines and MLB fans are being left hopeless that season may happen at all as the MLB and MLBPA continue to fight for fair wages and safe environments.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
I don’t want to undermine what those leagues are going through or minimize the impact of the onsite fan experience but considering the largest stadium in those sports holds about half as many people as the smallest football stadium, the impact will surely be felt hardest by the NFL and its players.
In 2014 the Kansas City Chiefs fans set the Guinness Book of World Records mark for loudest fan base coming in at 142.2 decibels.
That’s louder than the deck of an aircraft carrier and to set the record they bested the ravaging fanbase of the Seattle Seahawks who refer to themselves as the “12th Man” who were recorded at 137.6 in 2013.
A raucous NBA, MLB, and NHL crowd might feel electric, but they just don’t hold a candle to an NFL stadium firing on all cylinders. The closest thing to it is the international crowds that big time soccer clubs like Manchester United of the EPL or Barcelona in La Liga in Spain.
This is quantifiable energy that these teams feed off of and can really build up a home field advantage that makes other teams make mistakes they wouldn’t in their own home stadiums. In the German Bundesliga soccer league, which has been operational with no fans in attendance, they saw “home field advantage” virtually disappear.
With fans in the stadiums before the COVID-19 pandemic that saw a break in play, home teams won nearly 43.3% of their matches.
Post break that number dipped to 21.7% as of June 9th with home teams winning only 10 of the 46 matches played since returning. Not only will this fundamentally change the financial impact of teams like Tampa Bay who made the splashy free-agent move of bringing in Tom Brady but this could eliminate what made playing in stadiums like Arrowhead in Kansas City and CenturyLink in Seattle so tough.
Here in Philadelphia, Doug Pederson has coached the Eagles to a 23-9 record in regular season games played at Lincoln Financial Field. When you consider they have made the playoffs at 9-7 in back to back years those home wins were absolutely crucial to the team’s success.
Carson Wentz and Nick Foles were obviously very talented QB’s, just like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson are for the Chiefs and Seahawks, but taking advantage of your home environment like these teams have, has increased the win totals which increase a teams chances to make it to the postseason.
Every game, regardless of travel will feel more like a neutral site game than anything else. While you could believe that talented teams will more than likely win out against inferior competition no matter where they play, the statistics of these leagues getting back to it are actually saying the opposite.
It's going to be interesting to see if this allows for even more parity across the league than we usually see especially in a season where an extra playoff team from both conferences will make it to the dance and one less postseason bye week is available at the top of the food chain.
THIS WILL BE A SEASON LIKE NO OTHER
This offseason is already geared up to be the toughest in league history with the elimination of most offseason activities for rookies and vets alike.
Reduced preseason seems inevitable too so that means less practices and game reps to win available roster spots and develop your team to be ready for the “ghost town” environment they will see on game day when things tentatively get kicked off in September.
From Brady in a Bucs jersey to no fans in the stands, 2020 will surely be a season unlike anything before. Just remember that we are all in this together.
You don’t have to spend your days looking in quarantine but abide by the simple COVID-19 courtesies like social distancing, washing your hands on a regular basis, avoiding touching your face, and wearing a mask or covering when applicable.
The ability to participate once again in parking lot tailgates and be that difference maker in your favorite team’s home field success rests in all of our hands.
That figurative together, turns into a literal together sooner rather than later if we work like a team. Not only are your family and neighbors counting on you, but your favorite football team is too. Let’s not let anyone down. *