Suddenly centering a blueprint on a quarterback’s age-43 and age-44 seasons would not make sense for most teams. The Buccaneers being the one to try it, however, adds up after some curious choices led them to this point.
Tom Brady joining the franchise with the NFL’s second-longest playoff drought doubles as a tremendous scenario for the league. An off-the-radar team will launch an unprecedented experiment.
Excepting the six-year period from 1997-2002, which featured Tony Dungy overseeing one of the NFL’s best rebuilding projects and Jon Gruden pushing it past the finish line, the Bucs’ 44-season existence has not produced much success. This is the NFL’s only active franchise with a winning percentage below .400, coming in well below the second-worst team at .387.
Tampa Bay also lacks much in the way of quarterback tradition. The team traded Steve Young after two seasons; several subsequent first-round picks did not pan out in Tampa. Super Bowl starter Brad Johnson may be the Buccaneers' most successful passer; his success lasted barely two seasons. The Bucs have never seen one of their QBs invited to more than one Pro Bowl. Brady's tenure will provide peak Bucs relevance. They will assuredly receive their first home “Sunday Night Football” game since 2008.
Unusual decisions made this possible. Allowing Jameis Winston to become the first quarterback in the fifth-year option era (2011-present) to be a five-year starter on his rookie deal left the Bucs no short-term plan. Making Bruce Arians the oldest head coach ever hired, at 66, last year clouded Tampa Bay’s long-term future. Ownership giving GM Jason Licht a second contract extension –- as the Bucs have gone 34-62 under his watch -– may have doomed a rebuild anyway. Even the team’s uniform choices in this span have proved puzzling.
But along the way, the Bucs drafted Pro Bowl wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. And Florida lacks a state income tax. Brady moving to Tampa presents unprecedented possibilities for an organization accustomed to its central figures sitting through production meetings with Fox’s fourth- or fifth-string broadcast crews.
The Vikings acquiring Brett Favre just shy of his 40th birthday marks the closest modern facsimile to the Bucs’ maneuver, though the Chiefs’ 1993 trade for a 37-year-old Joe Montana resides in the ballpark. Both teams advanced to the conference championship round in Year 1 of those all-in endeavors. But with Brady turning 43 in August, this is miles beyond the usual road signs.
While the Giants’ trade for a 35-year-old Y.A. Tittle in 1961 led to three NFL Championship Game berths, the Broncos’ Peyton Manning move tops this transaction category. Denver coaxed four years out of Manning and saw him quickly re-establish his place atop the quarterback hierarchy. That time frame, however, allowed for multiple attempts at building an ideal roster. After the Broncos’ 2013 offensive superpower sputtered in Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver reloaded by signing several impact starters en route to Super Bowl 50. The Bucs will not have this luxury; Licht and Arians’ Brady blueprint must be rock-solid in 2020.
With Brady declining and already in uncharted territory, age-wise, the future Hall of Famer being an above-average quarterback in 2021 is far from certain. A team without a playoff appearance since 2007 and no postseason wins since Super Bowl XXXVII will be expected to surround Brady with a Super Bowl-caliber supporting cast.
Manning wooed free agents to Denver throughout his tenure, and Brady will have similar drawing power. The Buccaneers still hold $47 million-plus in cap space. Given their new reality, more spending will commence. Beyond a solid front-seven foundation, especially if the Bucs make good on their hope to re-sign Ndamukong Suh, avenues for additional improvement exist.
Pro Football Focus graded no Buccaneer safety higher than 60th at the position last season. The Bucs deployed DVOA’s 27th-ranked rushing attack and probably will add a back to pair with Ronald Jones.
Perhaps most importantly, Football Outsiders slotted Tampa Bay’s offensive line 22nd in sack rate and 23rd in adjusted line yards in 2019. Brady’s elite pocket mechanics will aid the Bucs’ pass protection, but the 21st-year veteran will need the kind of protection and run support he enjoyed for much of his Pats tenure. Successful slot receivers have also accompanied Brady throughout his career. The Bucs have an opening for a veteran No. 3 wideout.
The fit remains curious, with Arians perhaps the league’s foremost deep-passing enthusiast and Brady more of a mid-range artist. The Patriots also enjoyed nearly unmatched quarterback-offensive coordinator continuity; Brady worked with Josh McDaniels for 10 seasons. Tampa Bay's OC, ex-quarterback Byron Leftwich, was drafted three years after Brady. And with COVID-19 likely to eliminate the NFL’s offseason, Brady will face greater challenges assimilating with new weaponry in Arians' system.
A plan this brazen rarely surfaces, however, and should be admired in a league obsessed with draft capital and first-round quarterbacks. However, the NFC remains the stronger conference. The Bucs will need a loaded roster to enter the Super Bowl conversation. Banking on Brady to rediscover his 2017 MVP form at an age when only one quarterback –- Vinny Testaverde –- has started more than one game will be dicey.
Still, Brady’s decision will give the league another jolt –- when it may need one amid the coronavirus-marred year. Brady and Drew Brees will face off twice; Aaron Rodgers will match up with Brady for only the third time. The schedule rotation will allow for another Brady-Patrick Mahomes clash.
With Arians turning 70 after Brady’s two-year contract expires, the Bucs may have to start over in 2022. But rebooting after a re-invigoration on this level would be an acceptable future, even if Brady’s final football act fails to deliver a seventh championship. The Bucs are back on the grid, and the unusual decisions that made this happen can now be appreciated.