Opinion: Buccaneers-Packers showdown might cast Tom Brady in mismatch vs. red-hot Aaron Rodgers

It seems a bit odd to consider that 43-year-old Tom Brady, the oldest active player in the NFL, is going through some growing pains. For all of those Super Bowl rings, sophisticated game plans and cat-and-mouse experiences against blitz packages over two decades, you might think it’s age-old automatic.

Then ponder that Brady – so often as clutch as they come with games on the line, but now transitioning to life as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer – was last seen on a field in Chicago thinking it was third down when it was fourth down. In crunchtime.

“I feel like he’s thinking too much,” suspects Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. “Anytime you’re overthinking, some of the details go by the wayside. We say to ourselves, ‘It’s Tom Brady. He’s going to pick it up.’ It’s just not that easy. No matter how good you are.”

Aaron Rodgers can relate. The Green Bay Packers quarterback is sizzling now, rolling into the marquee matchup at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday with an undefeated team (4-0) while playing at a level reminiscent of his record-breaking, NFL MVP season in 2011. But a year ago, Rodgers was in a somewhat similar situation to what we’re seeing with Brady – searching for rhythm in a new offense.

“Early last year, Aaron, to me, didn’t look real comfortable,” Warner, an NFL Network analyst, told USA TODAY Sports. “It didn’t seem like a fit, like, ‘I got this.’ That’s where I feel Tom is right now. Tom’s out of sorts. I see him holding the ball, trying to force it, late on throws. That’s not Tom’s history.”

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Of course, Brady’s history is about winning big. That was the idea when the Bucs signed him to a two-year, $50 million contract in March. Maybe the flow that Rodgers, 36, has in his second year playing in coach Matt LaFleur’s scheme adds to the hope that Brady will ultimately catch fire in coach Bruce Arians’ system. Brady has never denied that it would take some time. But the inconsistencies can’t be easy to digest for a man eager to prove that he can have success away from Bill Belichick.

“The reality is that we just haven’t had a lot of time together, so we’re trying to make up for it,” Brady said during a Zoom press conference this week.

Timing can be so tricky. Brady just so happened to make his great escape from the New England Patriots this year, when the world has been spinning with the COVID-19 pandemic. That wiped out thousands of reps on the practice field during the offseason, as Arians, flanked by offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, pledged to mesh Brady’s strengths into a scheme known for a heavy dose of downfield passing. In the loss at Chicago, by the way, the woes included Brady going 0-for-6 on deep passes.

“Tom’s a year behind,” Warner contends, “kind of like Aaron was last year.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, left, and ex-New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speak after a Patriots-Packers game in 2018.

Then there’s the timing of this matchup against Rodgers. Sunday will mark just the third time that these legends have met (Brady 1, Rodgers 1) and for all of the anticipation, the man with six Super Bowl crowns might be cast in a mismatch.

At least that’s what the numbers suggest. Rodgers, second in the NFL to Russell Wilson with a 128.4 passer rating, has thrown 13 touchdown passes and zero picks.

It’s no wonder that Arians tipped a hat to the quarterback-coach dynamic, mindful of the speculative buzz last year that suggested discontent between Rodgers and LaFleur.

“He looks very, very happy playing and it looks like the marriage has worked out pretty good from last year to this year,” Arians said, via The Wisconsin State Journal. “Matt and him have a great relationship and it’s showing on the field.”

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LaFleur points to more familiarity with the scheme and offseason dialogue (even without the many on-field sessions wiped out by the pandemic) as key factors. Warner sees this showing up with Rodgers’ exceptional play in the pocket.

“Last year,” Warner said, “he was trying to be the ‘special’ Aaron Rodgers.”

Funny, but even in an “off” year, Rodgers threw for more than 4,000 yards, had just four picks and led his team to the NFC title game after a 13-3 regular-season finish. Yet Warner’s point was that Rodgers relied too much on his uncanny ability to make so much out of broken plays.

“Aaron can run around and make plays,” Warner said. “So, the numbers are always going to look good. He can get out and ad-lib. The problem with Tom is that he’s stuck trying to make it work within the structure of the offense.”

No, scrambles wouldn’t rank among Brady’s signature traits. But winning is. In New England, Brady epitomized the minimal-mistake brand of a Bill Belichick-coached operation. Yet Brady’s transition to the Bucs has been more challenged by the self-inflicted blunders that Arians grumbled about this week.

In a season when penalties across the league have dipped to the lowest levels in at least five years, the Bucs are tied with the Cardinals with an NFL-high 42 infractions (including a questionable and pivotal roughing-the-passer call on Shaquil Barrett at Chicago). New England, by the way, has committed a league-low 11 penalties.

The Bucs also rank in the lower quartile in the NFL with seven giveaways, including pick-sixes on two of Brady’s four interceptions. Green Bay, on the other hand, has scored at least 30 points in each game and is the first team in NFL history to post at least 150 points with no turnovers in their first four games.

Brady will need plenty of help to get the best of Rodgers this time around. That would include a dominant performance Tampa Bay’s No. 2-ranked defense. And ample protection from an O-line, including the members that Brady chewed out on the sideline at Chicago.

He needs to bring A-game, too. It might take a shootout to beat Rodgers.

“You can’t make a lot of mistakes,” Brady said. “I’m not defending Aaron. We’ve got a whole defense that is doing that. From my standpoint, what does that mean? I can play a role in that by doing our job on offense so that a guy like that doesn’t have his offense on the field trying to score points. You just can’t give guys like that extra opportunities because they make you pay.”

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