As a new NFL season unfolds, even amid the eerie throes of a pandemic that has games played mostly in empty stadiums, some constants remain which mark the signs of the opening of another American autumn.
And in the free agency era, that means players changing teams. Even at quarterback.
As Week 1 started this week, a number of teams featured signal-callers who had made their marks at other teams – and in a few of those cases, quite prolifically.
Heading into the season, the most intriguing developments had Tom Brady moving on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 20 successful seasons at the New England Patriots, who now look to Cam Newton to revive his own fortunes in taking their snaps.
Brady, playing on even at the ancient football age of 43, knows on-field success, having led the Patriots to nine Super Bowls and winning six of them since 2000. Getting into the NFL playoffs and ultimately to a Super Bowl is what coach Bruce Arians’ Buccaneers aspire to, and Arians figures that by tapping into Brady’s pedigree for winning, they can achieve exactly that.
However, if the Bucs’ Week 1 result is anything to go by, that goal is going to be a steady work in progress over the course of the season, and perhaps a greater one than what other Super Bowl contenders face.
Their 34-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome revealed a lot of the Bucs’ shortcomings which carried over from the 2019 season, particularly in a defence which had problems keeping the opposition off the scoreboard.
In that context, the only way that the addition of Brady can help the team is that he can do what predecessor Jameis Winston did not accomplish last year: win games by outscoring the other team, and not turning the ball over.
And as Brady has always held himself to a high standard, his statistics against the Saints would reflect that he himself possesses a lot of room for improvement. In addition to allowing a pick-six against him for the third game running, including in the Patriots’ opening-round playoff loss to Tennessee, that was one of two interceptions that he threw to go against two touchdown passes and going 23-for-36 and 239 yards.
Even without Brady’s pick-six to the Saints’ Janoris Jenkins on the first series of the third quarter with the Bucs only trailing by ten points at the time, Tampa Bay’s defence still allowed 27 points to be scored against them. Arians’ defence will have to improve at the same rate as Brady will have to click with his new teammates if the Bucs are to make the playoffs, en route to a Super Bowl – which, coincidentally, is scheduled for Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in February.
Meanwhile, the performance of Brady’s replacement in New England – Newton, the 2016 NFL MVP while with the Carolina Panthers, who released him following a string of injuries – suggests that the Patriots are going to be just fine.
In the Patriots’ 21-11 win over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium, it could be argued that Newton did just enough to help New England to win their opener.
If anything, Newton’s passing statistics would suggest that he was efficient, going 15-for-19 for just 155 yards – and no interceptions but no touchdowns, either.
But Newton, always respected as one of the NFL’s most mobile running threats from his position, ran for two touchdowns and 75 yards on 15 carries to pace the Patriots’ cause.
Whereas the styles of Brady and Newton show a marked contrast – a classic dropback pocket passer versus that of a mobile rollout thrower who is always a threat to run as well – the Patriots’ win revealed something much bigger: the flexibility of New England’s legendary coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to re-work a significant portion of the team’s playbook, even around a championship nucleus which has remained, to suit the strengths of Newton’s game.
Which is not to say that Newton cannot be relied upon to throw for 300-plus yards and multiple touchdowns for the Patriots to win football games, if required. Fact is, Newton may find winning an easier pathway with the Patriots than Brady will with the Buccaneers, based on the supporting cast around him on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
And moreover, as challenges to make tactical adjustments to their teams in light of the major personnel additions, Belichick has had to make fewer of those to the Patriots than Arians would have done for the Buccaneers. Therefore, the margin for error and risk-to-reward ratios would have been lower for the Bucs and Patriots, respectively.
It is a long season, so it will be interesting to see where Brady with Tampa Bay and Newton with New England stand in four months’ time. Chances are, especially with Brady’s penchant for success at a rate of high performance, that gulf will be greatly reduced after what Week 1 produced.