Rick Stroud: This, too, shall pass for Bucs’ Tom Brady

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TAMPA, Fla. — Mike Evans stood in the corner of the end zone during practice one Friday with his feet planted and both arms pumping, pausing only to catch pass after pass thrown slightly behind him from quarterback Tom Brady.

“We caught 50 back shoulders,” Evans said.

Two days later against Carolina, Brady saw the Panthers in zone coverage and signaled to Evans to run a stutter and go against cornerback Donte Jackson.

Brady pumped faked to Evans, but Jackson didn’t bite. That’s when Brady threw a back-shoulder pass to the Pro Bowl receiver, who caught it at the 3-yard line and took one stride to the goal line for a touchdown.

“It was the same ball in the game,” Evans said. “It was cool getting that from the practice field to the game.”

These days, it’s a victory when Evans and Brady can be working from the same playbook, much less the same page.

When the Bucs signed Brady, they wanted him to pack up all the tools he had used during his career at New England and bring them to Tampa Bay. The precision. The passion. The sideline stares.

Everything but the offense. That was the only thing the Bucs weren’t willing to accept from Brady’s 20-year career with the Patriots.

As a result, there’s no real timetable for Brady’s mastery of coach Bruce Arians’ playbook in Tampa Bay.

“I’ve said before that at times it looks like he’s a guy running somebody else’s offense,” quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. “Each week, each day, it gets closer to him running his offense. Our offense. All of our offense.

“I think I get the privilege of seeing there’s stretches of practice where you go, ‘This is really, really going to be good.’ I believe that with all my heart. I don’t know that it’s (happening) this Sunday, I don’t know if it’s this month.”

Or, dare we say, even this year.


Matt Cassel is one of the few men who knows what it must feel like to be Brady.

In the 2008 season opener, Brady tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, ending his 128-game starting streak.

Cassel took over at quarterback and steered the Patriots to an 11-5 record, but they failed to reach the playoffs. He parlayed his success into a starting job with the Chiefs the next year.

“When a new quarterback comes to town like Tom, I’ve done this before obviously multiple times in my career, you have to embrace the fact it’s a new system,” Cassel said. “Even when you’re the guy, it’s hard to go in and go, ‘This is what I like and this is what I want to do and everybody has to adjust to me.’ What you have to do is say, ‘I’m going to work my a– off, learn the checks and route combinations and make little tweaks here and there. …

“Bruce Arians had a lot of success in his career. You don’t want to come immediately just because you’ve been signed and step on people’s toes and say, ‘No, this is what we’re doing.’ It’s the wrong approach.”

Arians’ thinking went like this: he had just spent 2019 installing his offense, which finished first in the league in passing. Asking a couple dozen Bucs players to learn the scheme and terminology that evolved for Brady over two decades with the Patriots wouldn’t just be problematic, it became impossible after the onset of the pandemic that wiped out offseason workouts and preseason games.

“Really, there’s no way to go in and tell those guys that they’ve had, within five weeks we’re changing everything,” Cassel said. “Tom is smart enough to figure out what system they’re running and how to adapt from there.”

The improvement from Week 1, when Brady threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, in a 34-23 loss at New Orleans, to last Sunday’s win over Carolina was significant.

Brady passed for nearly 198 yards and a touchdown in spotting the Bucs a 21-0 halftime lead over the Panthers. He was headed for a big passing day until a handful of dropped passes combined with an overthrow to Rob Gronkowski that was intercepted. He finished 6-of-12 passing for 19 yards in the second half.

Even so, it was encouraging.

Need proof? Against the Saints, Brady’s first interception was the result of Evans incorrectly reading the coverage and breaking off a route.

Last Sunday, the Bucs got roughly the same look, and this time Evans and Brady were in synch. Evans read Cover 2 and bent the route inside. Brady threw a dart 25 yards that cleared the linebacker’s hand by an inch and split the safeties, resulting in a 50-yard gain.

“It was extremely similar, and it’s football, right?” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “It’s the teachings, the lessons week in and week out. That goes to show you how close every play is in this league. It was a perfect example. We all smiled on the sideline because I knew we obviously got better in the week.”


While Brady, 43, has faced some doubters, not many are questioning his arm strength the way they are with the Saints’ Drew Brees, 41.

“I think the one (Brady) threw down the middle there in the two deep to Mike, that thing was a frozen rope,” Christensen said. “There were a couple of those in training camp where you just go, ‘Wow.’ ”

But there are fundamental differences in the offensive philosophy between Arians and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Brady always has made good use of his running backs in the passing game. But in the Week 1 loss, Bucs running backs caught four passes for 32 yards.

Last week, 11 of Brady’s 23 completions went to running backs LeSean McCoy (five for 26 yards), Leonard Fournette (four for 13 yards) and Ronald Jones (two for 4 yards).

But Brady’s only throw to Gronkowski sailed high and was intercepted. In fact, Brady has only targeted Gronk four times in two games and he has two receptions for 11 yards.

It’s hard to imagine Brady helped talk Gronkowski out of retirement to be utilized primarily as a run blocker. But Arians’ offense has rarely featured a tight end in the passing game, despite the logjam he has at that position.

Leftwich says Gronk’s time will come. “The least of my worries is the ball finding Gronk,” he said.

Brady will get another shot at Denver to operate Arians’ offense, and there are bound to be more hiccups along the way.

“It’s just the way it is and you can’t replicate live game-time reps,” Brady said. “You’ve got to just do it on the practice field. … Unfortunately, when (a mistake) happens in the game you’ve got to really take those to heart, try to learn from them and try to improve them. But I love working with our group of receivers, our tight ends. We’re off to a decent start. We’ve got to build on it and try to make as many improvements as quickly as possible.”

So how long will it take for Brady to look like Brady in this offense?

“I don’t know but I’m not betting against him, I’ll tell you that much,” Cassel said.


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