Tom Brady has ticked a lot of boxes during his NFL career. Playing in Los Angeles is not one of them.
That changes on Sunday. The California-born seven-time Super Bowl champion will pitch his motion picture-worthy epic to Hollywood as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium. Should all go well, he might just consider booking a return trip for, say, around February, when the Lombardi Trophy comes to town.
Where Bruce Arians and the Bucs brandish their line-getting-over ring supplier, the Rams hope they have the same in Matthew Stafford, whose offseason arrival made Sean McVay the happiest man in the league.
So far so good for the tale of two quarterbacks raising the average age of the league’s far-too-early MVP candidates. While the NFL has become smitten by Justin Herbert’s arm strength, Kyler Murray’s pyrotechnics, the Josh Allen story, a ‘Hell, yeah!’ Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes’ perpetual genius, Brady and Stafford are back there wearing invisible ‘non-contact’ red jerseys leaving teams terrified to give them a yard, knowing full well they’ll snatch 10.
It’s telling that through the first two weeks of the season Brady has been blitzed just 19 times (15th) while Stafford has been blitzed 16 times (17th). On the occasions teams have dared to leave a receiver free, the progressions through reads have been too slick and the ball release too quick.
Brady has only been pressured on nine occasions (30th among starting quarterbacks) and on 10 per cent of drop backs (32nd), while being hurried just twice (31st); Stafford has been pressured seven times (32nd) and on 11.9 per cent of drop backs (30th), as well as being hurried just once.
The X’s and O’s count towards a lot. But as long as the pocket is clean, Brady and Stafford are bludgeoning defenses.
Sunday’s 48-25 win over the Atlanta Falcons extended Tampa’s streak of scoring 30-plus points to nine successive games, breaking a record previously held by the New England Patriots behind Brady, whose nine touchdowns through his first two outings are the most in his career. Having finished 24th in offensive efficiency last season, the Rams currently rank third behind Stafford while averaging 30.5 points per game (5th).
Much is rightly said about the consistency of the Bucs pass protection that played a defining role on the road to the Super Bowl, but it helps to have a quarterback who still manipulates the pocket and recognises when to climb or when to slide as good as anybody in the league.
Such was the nature of a COVID-disrupted offseason in 2020, teething problems were only natural through the opening weeks of the campaign. Brady was always going to be more comfortable, more dangerous this year having had time to properly personalise and model his offense with Byron Leftwich and Arians.
A star-studded Hollywood cast has cushioned the process, but this Bucs offense is functioning on a 44-year-old slinging the ball faster and further than biology might usually allow a 44-year-old to.
Brady is ranked third in the league in intended air yards with 771 so far this season, according to Pro Football Reference, thriving in the shot-taking Arians offense that tended to land Jameis Winston in trouble.
He is six touchdown passes away from having thrown more in his forties than Drew Brees (57), Brett Favre (41), Warren Moon (37) and Vinny Testaverde (24) combined. Brady currently sits on 154 – 13 shy of the 167 he threw during his twenties. It’s laughably impressive.
Peyton Manning holds the record for single-season touchdowns with 55. Brady, as early as it may be, is on course to obliterate that. The Florida sun-kissed ‘might actually play until he’s 50’ protagonist could also break the NFL record for career passing yardage in Week Four against, you guessed it, the Patriots.
How’s that for Hollywood?
“The guy throws it as good as anybody in the league still,” Stafford told reporters. “Coming out of the hand, he throws it great. Mechanically, he’s as sound as anybody. He’s on time. Great anticipation, ball placement, got a ton of spin, a ton of juice on it still, can throw it down the field.
“I think back to the playoff game in Green Bay, right before half, where he hits 10 down the sideline, I mean that’s a heave in Lambeau, drops in on ’em. So he can do it all. From the pocket, that guy’s as good as it gets.”
The precision-timing that fuelled Brady’s success in New England is what Stafford and his cannon have been greeted by.
Expectations are heightened, but football will be far kinder to the 33-year-old in LA.
McVay quite masterfully accentuated the strengths while limiting the limitations of Goff, serving as the perfect window-dresser whose smoke and mirrors would tee up the crossers, option routes, quick outs and overs tailored to an accurate intermediate passer. When it worked, it really worked.
And credit where it’s due. When it lands, Goff has a beautiful deep ball in his locker. It’s just not as good as that of Stafford.
Goff had four touchdowns and six interceptions on deep passes of 20-plus yards in 2020, compared to Stafford’s 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. That’s one, big, part of the upgrade.
Offensive production from the Detroit Lions would so often bank on Stafford connecting on a deep-shot to move the chains or digging out the side-arm throw or off-platform dagger while improvising in a collapsing pocket and with limited separation ahead of him.
The Rams have relaxed that reliance on him to strap an offense to his back and be the ‘hero’, the difference between Stafford and Jared Goff being that he could, if needed.
Everything is more calculated; everything is more incisive with McVay. And when the coverage is good or the protection falters, Stafford is significantly better than Goff at going off-script to negotiate an emergency.
The downfield bomb has been more a threat than a promise thus far, the Rams’ second-most 7.5 yards after catch per reception evidence of a seamless transition for Stafford. If the short and sweet chain-moving stuff comes up short, they know the haymaker is there.
Both Brady and Stafford orchestrated near-flawless touchdown-scoring opening drives in their respective wins over the Falcons and Indianapolis Colts at the weekend. It was art.
Stafford’s opening throw was a 16-yard connection to Robert Woods, the play-action distraction of Darrell Henderson combining with tight end Tyler Higbee’s out-route from a half-back position in giving safety Khari Willis happy feet, his eventual bite leaving Woods with inside leverage for an easy catch on the slant.
His second pass was a perfect demonstration of him gliding through his progressions, Cooper Kupp’s deep corner clearing the middle of the field for primary read Van Jefferson on an over-route, only for good coverage to prompt Stafford to switch his eyes left to a wide-open Henderson in the flat for a 23-yard catch-and-run.
The drive continued with Higbee leaving the edge rusher unblocked to join Henderson in dragging two linebackers into the flat while Kupp’s go route and Woods’ deep out opened up mid-field for Van Jefferson to haul in a 14-yard completion. Easy.
Tampa went down a similar unblocking route on their opening touchdown, Chris Godwin leaving Isaiah Oliver untouched on the blitz while trusting Brady to get the ball out and ensuring he is available to pull Deion Jones in underneath to leave Rob Gronkowski with a one-on-one mismatch against Duron Harmon.
A notable wrinkle to both has been the creative use of personnel, be it Higbee and Kupp lining up in the backfield for the Rams or a Cameron Brate sneak route as a disguised blocker luring a Foyesade Oluokun side-step marginal enough to open the window for a 17-yard pass to Antonio Brown.
Amid blistering unbeaten starts, there is still room for improvement. The Bucs have recorded a joint-most five turnovers and are tied for a league-most 22 penalties through the opening two games, while the Rams have only converted 55.56 per cent of red zone opportunities. Both are hot, without really hitting full stride yet.
Even better: Brady and Stafford will each find themselves up against one of the most daunting defensive units in the league come Sunday.
It’s a quarterback contest befitting of Hollywood.
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