Brad Johnson has a soft spot for the traditional NFL pocket passer. As well he should since he was one himself through 15 seasons and one Super Bowl victory with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 18 years ago.
"When you look at Super Bowl champions, the pocket passers have been the guy," said Johnson, who played seven seasons for the Vikings (1994-98, 2005-06).
"I mean honestly. [Patrick] Mahomes, I wouldn't consider him a pocket guy. He won it last year. But you go through all the other guys and usually the last guy standing has been a pocket guy. I mean I don't know. Russell Wilson, Steve Young, but I don't know, who else? Aaron Rodgers, pocket guy; Drew Brees, pocket guy; Peyton Manning, pocket guy. It's an interesting thing."
Yes, but for how much longer?
The classic pocket passer is a dying breed in a sport whose evolution has changed the position from the grassroots up through the college game and on to the NFL. Peyton and Eli Manning are gone. Philip Rivers just retired. Brees could follow soon. And Ben Roethlisberger might not be too far behind.
Of the 21 Super Bowls played this millennium, 19 have been won by traditional pocket passers. Wilson won the 2014 Super Bowl, beating Peyton Manning, and Mahomes won Super Bowl LIV when he rallied the Chiefs past the 49ers a year ago.
Now comes Super Bowl LV next Sunday in Tampa. The magical Mahomes — all of 25 years old — will shoot for a second straight Lombardi Trophy for the current wave of NextGen quarterbacks who've broken the chains of the buttoned-down NFL passing pocket. And who better to oppose him than 43-year-old Tom Brady, the most classic of all modern pocket passers and a big reason they've continued ball-hogging championships the past 20-plus years?
Brains of the operation
After six wins in nine Super Bowls with New England, Brady will go for a seventh ring in his first year with Tampa Bay. Brady has no intention to retire after this season, but, who knows, this very well could be the last stand for the traditional pocket passer on the game's grandest stage.
"I'm sure there are a lot of defensive coordinators in this league who would tell you they fear what [Cardinals quarterback] Kyler Murray does a lot more than Tom Brady because Kyler can run all over the place and make crazy plays," Johnson said. "But at the end of the day, the style he plays, I'd say Tom's still getting it done in the pocket."
Indeed. But how? At his age? In Year 1 of Bruce Arians' completely different system? With a pandemic wiping out the offseason? Are you kidding me?
"If you don't get caught up in just their styles, there's a similarity between Brady and Mahomes that the great ones have," Johnson said. "It's great decision-makers who process information quicker, who get through their reads quicker, who are extremely accurate, can anticipate throws, manipulate defenses with their eyes and then make clutch plays."
Mahomes ran 62 times for 308 yards (5.0) this year. Brady "ran" 30 times for 6 yards.
In Baltimore, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, a first for an NFL quarterback. As for Brady, well, it took him until his 19th season to reach 1,000 career yards rushing.
Yet Brady still has the ability to play faster than defenses that are getting faster, quicker and harder to block every season.
How? It starts with the speed of his brain.
"Tom gets rid of the ball so quick," Johnson said. "When he hits his last step, it's one hitch, no more than the second hitch, and that ball is gone. He knows exactly where he's going. I think he's every offensive lineman's best friend."
Brady and Arians got off to a slow start because Brady came from a dink-and-dunk attack into Arians' "no-risk-it-no-biscuit" vertical attack. But as Brady got more comfortable and insisted on more reliable check-down options, the Bucs' offense became one of the league's most efficient.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brady ranked fifth in deep-ball efficiency (throws of at least 20 yards) while leading the league in deep-ball yards and attempts. And yet, despite that deep-ball attack, Brady's average time to throw (2.42 seconds) still ranked sixth best and was better than his last two years in New England.
"Even the pocket passer has changed some," said Johnson, whose Super Bowl XXXVII victory came in January 2003. "I was the last quarterback to go the entire season and take every snap under center. [Jon] Gruden didn't know how to run the shotgun until a few years later. Both Tom and Mahomes run a lot of shotgun."
'Always on balance'
In last week's win at Green Bay, Brady converted his first six third-down throws for 141 yards, a touchdown and five first downs. Only once was he under center. And only once did he do anything but drop from 5 to 9 yards, step up and, boom, let it fly.
On a third-and-9 play, Brady's eyes never strayed from the deep middle as he slid to his left to avoid pressure before launching a 52-yard completion to Chris Godwin.
"With Tom, he is not athletic-looking when he does run trying to extend a play," Johnson said. "But he's extremely athletic in that 6-feet box in that pocket. His feet are always on balance and ready to strike with a throw.
"And he keeps his eyes down the field. He really doesn't look at the rush. That's a gift, too. Some guys, their eyes will drop when linemen are coming. He doesn't do that at all. That's an incredible gift."
There's another intangible Brady has that doesn't get enough recognition.
"The ability to sell the play fake," Johnson said. "Nobody uses the play fake better than Tampa Bay."
And, somehow, the Bucs do it effectively despite a running game that ranks only 28th in yards per game (94.9) and 25th in yards per attempt (4.12).
"That's because Tom makes [the play fake] look so real," Johnson said. "Same thing with Peyton Manning back in the day. They make the pass and the play-action all look exactly the same. Tom knows that's a big strength of his. Ducking his shoulders, getting a good play fake and holding the defenders that one extra second and then hitting those deep crossers."
Brady has said he wants to play until he's 45. But why stop there, eh?
"His arm, he could throw it another seven, eight years the way he's throwing it," Johnson said. "The biggest part of age, to me, is your legs. I don't think Tom's gained or lost a step at 43.
"I think it helps him that training camps aren't long anymore, that guys don't play much in preseason games anymore, that practices aren't as strenuous, and coaches aren't afraid to give guys days off now."
Johnson can't venture a guess to how long he thinks Brady will play.
"I mean he's playing the same game at 43 that he was playing at 28," Johnson said. "Plus, he brings accountability to the team. He gives everybody a belief that they're going to win. Whether you're a pocket passer or one of these other quarterbacks, another art to playing quarterback is having everyone believe in you."