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Forget Bruce Arians: Antonio Brown Is The Problem For Tom Brady's Offense In Tampa Bay

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The top story in the NFL right now is COVID-19. It's really ruining the Ravens' entire operation, with reigning MVP Lamar Jackson being the league's biggest name yet to test positive. The Browns and the Broncos shut down their facilities. Colts star DeForest Buckner tested positive. Future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald will miss Sunday's game due to a positive test.

It's a problem. But it's also not particularly fun to talk about.

Seemingly as a result, what's become the biggest talking point in NFL land this week has been the blame game in Tampa Bay. With Tom Brady throwing a pair of hideous interceptions to lose Monday night's game against the Rams, head coach Bruce Arians has done the only thing he knows how to do: pour grease on the fire.

Despite making the playoffs in just two of his six season as an NFL head coach and despite having as many .500 or worse seasons as he does seasons better than .500 and despite a 1-2 career record in the postseason, Arians has seemingly enjoyed putting down Tom Brady whenever given the opportunity this year. From blaming Brady for Mike Evans running the wrong route in Week 1, to failing to accept even a shred of blame for the team's offensive struggles as recently as this week, Arians has had no issue passing the buck and pointing a finger at No. 12. While Brady has been responsible for a number of poor throws this year -- none worse than the picks on Monday -- the coach has no doubt gone a little overboard when publicly dumping on his quarterback.

And so, the football world and all the television and radio talk shows have discussed and debated a potential rift between Arians and Brady while trying to figure out exactly where to place blame.

But here's a novel idea that seemingly nobody else is thinking: Can't we pin the blame on Antonio Brown?

Sure, Brown is technically one of the best wide receivers in the world, and one of the best wide receivers in NFL history. Only a fool would try to discount what he did from 2011-18.

Yet if you look at the numbers for Brady and the offense prior to Brown's unnecessary arrival this season and compare them to the three games with Brown, the comparison is quite staggering.

Check it out.

Tom Brady, prior to Antonio Brown's 2020 debut
8 games, 6-2 record
204-for-308, 66.2%
2,189 yards, 7.1 Y/A, 274 Y/G
20 TDs, 4 INTs
103.1 passer rating
Team: 31 points per game

Tom Brady, since Antonio Brown's 2020 debut
3 games, 1-2 record
76-for-125, 60.8%
766 yards, 6.1 Y/A, 255 Y/G
5 TDs, 5 INTs
74.9 passer rating
Team: 24 points per game

Perhaps comparing eight games to three games is a case of poor statistical usage, you may say. So let's instead compare the three games prior to Brown's arrival and the three games after Brown's arrival.

Tom Brady, Weeks 6-8
3 games, 3-0 record
78-for-112, 69.6%
814 yards, 7.3 Y/A, 271 Y/G
8 TDs, 0 INTs
114.2 passer rating
Team: 36 points per game

Tom Brady, Weeks 9-11
3 games, 1-2 record
76-for-125, 60.8%
766 yards, 6.1 Y/A, 255 Y/G
5 TDs, 5 INTs
74.9 passer rating
Team: 24 points per game

Really, in the three games prior to Brown's debut, Brady looked as good as he had in years. The offense was rolling.

Then Brown arrived, and it's not as if the Buccaneers tried to seamlessly integrate him into the offense. The Bucs instead ran a number of plays designed solely for Brown, in the form of quick passes to the outside, or failed running plays, or designs where Brown is really the only option for Brady. On other plays, Brady has locked in on Brown and forced passes that would have been better off going somewhere else.

As a result, Brown has been targeted 26 times in three games. That number's gone up each week, from five targets vs. New Orleans, to eight targets vs. the Panthers, to 13 targets vs. the Rams.

The result has been the elimination of some receivers who had been reliable for Brady. Most notably, Scotty Miller has been targeted just four times since Brown's arrival, and zero passes were thrown his way vs. the Rams. Miller had previously averaged three receptions for 50 yards per game, and he had the best game of his career vs. the Raiders, just one week before Brown's arrival. Since that six-catch, 109-yard, one-touchdown performance, he has just two catches for 14 total yards.

He's been on the field for an average of just 14 offensive snaps per game since Brown arrived, after averaging 40 snaps per game over the first eight weeks of the year.

Rookie receiver Tyler Johnson had also carved out a role -- albeit a modest one -- in the offense. Johnson caught nine passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns from Weeks 5-8; he was targeted just once per game in Brown's first two contests with Tampa, and he wasn't targeted at all vs. the Rams.

He's taken just seven snaps per game over the last three weeks, after averaging 34 snaps per game in the previous four weeks.

Logically, one might say that the insertion of Brown over the likes of Scotty Miller or Tyler Johnson is an upgrade. That's understandable.

But real life NFL football is also not a video game, and the over-the-top effort to lean on Brown as much as they have has noticeably altered the way the Bucs' offense has functioned.

Of course, that's not to say it's been a total disaster. The 46-point showing vs. the Panthers was Tampa's highest-scoring performance of the season. Brown caught seven of the eight passes thrown his way that day, fitting right in line behind Chris Godwin (92 yards) and Mike Evans (77 yards) and ahead of Rob Gronkowski (51 yards) and Cameron Brate (31 yards) on the receiving chain.

That may have inspired Brady (and Byron Leftwich) to rely more on Brown vs. the Rams, when he produced a dismal 4.4 yards per target.

On the season Brady has a 68.9 passer rating when targeting Brown, and a 96.7 passer rating when targeting everyone else. Maybe the Bucs' bet on talent will pay off eventually, but thus far the addition has been a net negative. It's reflected somewhat in the statistics and the results, but the immeasurable impact of disrupting the flow of a functional system seems to be even greater.

The integration of Brown -- which, as far as we know, came at the urging of Brady, for whatever reason -- has been a bit bumpy. Outside of a bicycle-tossing, security-camera-destroying incident that came to light, Brown has yet to create any dreaded distractions off the field. But on the field, he's ostensibly distracted his quarterback from running the offense in the most efficient way possible. Go figure.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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