TAMPA — Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference:
Is it the Tampa Bay offensive line that is protecting Tom Brady’s backside, or is it Brady protecting the offensive’s line’s reputation?
It was natural to be reminded of the synergy between quarterback and blockers during Brady’s one-off appearance in the preseason on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
The first unit looked mostly sharp and efficient during its lone 66-yard drive for a field goal on the opening possession against the Colts. Brady was 6-of-8 for a modest 44 yards but, more importantly, was never touched by a defensive player during his four minutes on the field.
Does that mean the offensive line did its job? Yes, for the most part.
But does it also mean Brady is a master at getting rid of the ball? Absolutely.
Of Brady’s nine pass attempts (including a penalty) more than half were thrown within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That doesn’t mean the offense didn’t take its shots. Brady threw two balls 16 yards downfield — an incompletion to Mike Evans on the left, and a completed pass to Julio Jones on the right.
Mostly, however, the drive pointed out the difference between Brady’s style when compared to the rest of the NFL’s quarterbacks.
Broadcasters love to point out a quarterback who is standing in the pocket and clearly going through his progression of receivers on any given play. And that is impressive.
But Brady’s progression is usually done at the line of scrimmage. He surveys the defense and often decides where a pass is going before the ball is ever hiked.
That’s how you get a pair of stats as incongruous as this:
The Bucs led the NFL in pass attempts by a fairly wide margin in 2021. Yet they also led the league in fewest sacks allowed. They were, literally, twice as good as the average NFL team when it came to avoiding sacks.
You do not get those type of numbers without obvious talent on the offensive line, but the role of the quarterback is also critical in that equation.
Naturally, much of Brady’s success can be attributed to big-time passes he’s made in the past two decades, but it’s also important to recognize the negative plays — the sacks and hurried interceptions — that he has avoided.
Which brings us to the question of the season:
Is this current version of the offensive line good enough to win a Super Bowl? Or, to put it another way, is Brady savvy enough to survive a young, somewhat untested, offensive line?
The Bucs are replacing all three interior linemen — the center and two guards — due to injury, retirement and free agency. They are likely starting the season with rookie Luke Goedeke at left guard and converted tackle Robert Hainsey debuting as an NFL center.
They both did well enough in their first game action with Brady on Saturday night, but that was only one drive and the Colts were not looking to blitz. It’s like the difference between taking a driver’s license test on an off-road course and spending 30 minutes on U.S. 19 at rush hour.
The Bucs seem quietly confident in Hainsey and Goedeke, and the team has had a pretty good track record of finding and developing young offensive linemen in recent seasons.
So, okay, with Brady’s ability to get passes off in an average of 2.4 seconds it’s probably safe to assume this offensive line will be sufficient in pass protection.
But what about the running game? And what happens if there is another injury?
When Hainsey left Saturday night’s game with a rolled ankle in the first quarter, you could almost sense the collective rise in blood pressure in Tampa Bay.
Coach Todd Bowles said Sunday that he did not yet have medical updates on Hainsey or Nick Leverett, who left with a shoulder injury, but general manager Jason Licht said during the broadcast Saturday night he was optimistic Hainsey did not have a major injury.
“I know we can’t afford any more (injuries),” Bowles said Sunday afternoon. “So hopefully the tests come back right with these two and we’ll be okay, but we definitely can’t afford any more.”
Bowles said the Bucs would monitor waiver wires this week with an eye toward finding more depth on the offensive line.
The first major move the Bucs made when Brady called off his retirement in the spring was to re-sign center Ryan Jensen to a three-year, $39 million deal. Now Jensen is hurt, and Hainsey came out of the final preseason game with a limp.
It’s not ideal, but it’s also nothing Brady hasn’t seen before. His 10 Super Bowl appearances have come with six different starting centers.
“It’s the amazing thing about football,” Brady told reporters Saturday night in Indianapolis. “You think you are really set and then, all of the sudden, that third guard position isn’t that important until one of the first two get hurt. That’s just the way football is.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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