Why Tom Brady Can Experience a Revival in Tampa Bay in 2020

The NFL is going to be different in 2020. Very different. Very, very different.

But, wait. There's more.

Okay, so it's basically the same thing, but when we got news that Tom Brady was really leaving the New England Patriots, it just felt surreal. Even though we knew it was a possibility, it just never fully felt like it was going to happen -- despite the reports.

But that's our new reality, and Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.

Man. What exactly does that mean?

Brady in Decline?

There have been some who have written off Brady many times by now, and while it's true that his passing efficiency has not always put him in the top tier of elite passers each season, he has been steadily above the NFL average in our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which adjusts for variables such as down and distance to see which player is adding or subtracting actual points from the NFL scoreboard over a full season.

Passing NEP/
Drop back

In fact, 2019 was the only year over his past 10 where he fell shy of the NFL average in Passing NEP per drop back (expected points added per play) or Passing Success Rate (the percentage of his plays that increased expected scoring). And even then, he was still roughly league average in those numbers.

If he's actually on a clear, total decline, it'd be a pretty precipitous, immediate, and abrupt drop. Of course, at his elevated age, there's more reason to be concerned that the dip is real.

Interestingly, the 0.16-point drop in his Passing NEP per drop back number wasn't the biggest decline in this 10-year sample: it was actually a decline of 0.18 points per drop back from 2012 to 2013, his worst season over the past decade prior to 2019.

Among 470 passers with 200-plus drop backs in consecutive seasons since 2000, Brady's 0.16-point step back ranks as the 59th-largest decrease we've seen. His 2013 drop off ranked 55th.

What does history show here after such big declines? Well, we've got 72 passers who experienced a per-play decline of at least 0.10 points year over year and who played at least 100 drop backs the following season.

Of those 72, only 7 (9.7%) declined for a second straight year, so we can probably assume Brady will hover back up toward the NFL average in 2020 just based on history.

Plus, 48 (66.7%) jumped back up by at least 0.20 points per drop back. That is again a great sign for an improved season from Brady in 2020.

But hold up a sec. It's actually pretty natural to expect a correction here. After all, that's generally how these things go mathematically.

More importantly, we're looking -- generally -- at quarterbacks good enough to see 200 plays or more in consecutive seasons and still get at least 100 drop backs after a huge dud.

So what's the typical output level the year after a big decline? Of these 72 relevant quarterbacks, 40 of them (55.6%) ranked 20th or worse the following year in Passing NEP per drop back. That means Brady could see an upward trajectory in his efficiency but still not be an elite passer.

Just 24 of them (33.3%) returned top-12 seasons. Brady, of course, did just that in 2014 when he ranked fifth in Passing NEP per drop back. That's when he was a spritely 37 years old. Now, he'll be 43 (with some great weapons -- more on that in a second).

What if we look just at the stud passers in this sample? Seems a little unfair, but don't forget that Brady was still fairly good in 2019 -- at least hovering near the league average.

Let's revisit the sample of quarterbacks with declines of at least 0.10 points from year to year but who still performed positively in the NEP column in their down years (i.e. removing guys such as Trent Edwards and Tim Couch, who went from barely relevant to terrible and instead look at the Brady types who went from top-12 to top-20 or so).

Now, we see 13 of 23 qualified quarterbacks (56.5%) returning to top-12 status and actually 8 of them (34.8%) returning to a top-six season.

Sure, it's a small sample, but it's not common that we see huge downswings from great passers. That's where we are with Brady.

The Fit With Tampa Bay

Brady will be throwing to new targets in Tampa, primarily Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

That may seem like a weird fit. Evans (15.1) ranked seventh in average target depth among 80 receivers with at least 50 targets in 2019, via Godwin (10.2) was a more middling option, ranking 45th in this sample.

Brady (7.5) ranked 31st in average target depth among 42 passers with at least 100 attempts. Not great for the downfield attack, yeah? Well, Brady actually had really interesting aDOT splits this season. From Weeks 1 through 5, his average target depth was 7.8 yards. From Weeks 6 through 11, it was 6.5, basically the league low.

Then he finished out the season at 8.3 with single-game marks of 10.4, 10.6, 6.9, 5.2, 5.1, and 10.5. We have still seen him push the ball downfield a bit -- even as recently as Week 17.

In all, however, his downfield attempt rate (percentage of passes traveling at least 16 yards) was 14.5% in the regular season, ranking him 37th among 42 qualified passers. His adjusted yards per attempt on those passes was 11.4, ranking him a more promising 17th.

In 2018, Brady threw deep on 17.2% of his passes, ranking him 20th in the NFL, and his adjusted yards per attempt on those (12.4) ranked him 13th. Just like we saw with the overall data, Brady may not be the NFL's best passer in 2019, but he sure can still be a top-12 type option.

Especially if he finds his rapport with Evans and Godwin this season.

The Bottom Line

Brady's drop off suggests that a correction is coming in the positive sense, so at worst, we're looking at around league-average performance. We have a ton of variables here with his new team, but with the weapons at his disposal, it's pretty reasonable to expect Brady to be roughly as good as he was this last year -- at worst.

The Buccaneers can currently be found at +2600 to win the Super Bowl on FanDuel Sportsbook.

Just how far back up the quarterback ladder Brady climbs in 2020 will go a long way in determining just how good a bet that is. If we've learned anything over the years, it's never a good bet to count out Brady.