Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady had his best season of long-pass completions (20 yards or more) in three years, when he was with the New England Patriots in 2017. Mark LoMoglio/Assoicated Press

Tom Brady didn’t seem like the greatest fit for Bruce Arians’ Long Balls “R” Us offense with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Not initially, anyway.

With Arians an acknowledged “no risk it, no biscuit” kind of coach, he’s always had a penchant for taking chances. So it’s no surprise he loves sending the football downfield almost at every turn.

But was that long ball offense really suited to a 43-year-old quarterback? That was one of the biggest question marks hanging over the marriage between Brady and the Buccaneers.

Did the quick-read, find-the-open receiver master still have the kind of arm needed to incorporate all the deep strikes Arians craved? Was his arm sound enough and strong enough for that type of air show?

Given what’s transpired, the question actually seems a little silly now.

While Brady struggled with his downfield game early, there were few NFL quarterbacks who did a better job at effectively heaving the ball downfield during the season.

Let’s just say, right on cue, he turned into a long-ball wizard.

According to Pro Football Focus, Brady completed 44 passes of 20 or more yards this season. Fourteen of those have gone for touchdowns, which was just two shy of his 2007 season with Randy Moss.

SiriusXM NFL radio host Solomon Wilcots, who is also a contributor at Pro Football Focus, said he wasn’t all that surprised by Brady’s transformation and long-ball prowess.

“He’s right around 9 or 10 yards per pass attempt, too, and that’s incredible,” said Wilcots, “but we had always said, by our standards at PFF, we didn’t believe Tom Brady had lost the long ball. His numbers were more triggered by the system, and not by any physical impediments. We always stood by that.”

In Tampa, Brady has a bounty of weapons, and plenty of guys who can go deep, be it Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown or Scotty Miller, who caught a 39-yard TD pass from Brady in the NFC championship game win over Green Bay.

With that kind of arsenal, Brady hasn’t been afraid to launch it.

According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has thrown the deep ball well in all directions. Throwing to the left side, he’s connected for five touchdowns, versus one interception. Throwing to the right, he produced six TDs and three picks.

He wasn’t quite as good between the numbers down the middle, landing three TDs and three picks on his downfield missiles.

“Some of the balls he threw last week … he was putting fire on some of those passes. But this is a done deal. That question has been answered,” said Wilcots. “He still has long-ball range, unlike Drew Brees. Tom can still sling it. He just didn’t have the players who could stretch the field in New England. He didn’t have the players who could win downfield. He didn’t have players who could win on contested balls. … The best they could do (in New England) was a dink-and-dunk offense.”

Flipping further through the stats, Brady’s best most-recent long ball season with the Patriots was 2017, when he had 45 completions of more than 20 yards. Those resulted in seven touchdowns. That year, Brady was throwing to Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola.

Other top seasons with the deep ball were 2007 (32 completions), with Moss, Donte Stallworth and that record-setting crew, 2012 (31) with Brandon Lloyd, Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch, and 2016 (38) with Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan, Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.

Brady’s success this season in the 20-plus-yard category was like a see-saw, down the first half, up the second half. It just took him a while to find a groove with his new cast.

It wasn’t until after coming back from the team’s bye week in Week 13 that Brady started to light it up deep.

What changed?

“He just kept working on it. Continuity with the guys (as well),” Arians said during a Zoom call. “Chris (Godwin) had been hurt, Mike (Evans) had been hurt. Scotty (Miller) had been out. AB was just starting to get into it. I think we were just starting to jell a little bit going into that bye week, and then just working on it during that bye week. And just continuing to throw more of them.”

Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich also allowed Brady to use more presnap motion, helping him find weaknesses in the defense.

Week 16 against the Lions, Brady went 6 for 8 on throws past 20 yards, with 174 yards and three scores.

Still, it’s a bit odd watching Brady chuck it deep as a regular part of the offense, as opposed to using the long ball as a novelty item in the repertoire.

But then again, it’s Brady. Anyone thinking he was just a system quarterback, or too old to effectively use the bomb, have been proven wrong.

After the NFC championship game, Miller said the players never had a doubt Brady would be able to adapt and connect deep, especially in the big moments: “When it’s all on the line, he’s gonna make the play.”


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