Sink or swim: Bucs, Tampa are all in with Tom Brady

In a quest to get back to the playoffs and win another Super Bowl, Tampa Bay went all in on Tom Brady. But can the Buccaneers live up to the lofty expectations set by their new leader?

When he signed his contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March, Tom Brady talked to general manager Jason Licht. Six months later, a few things still stand out to Licht from that conversation.

The first is that Brady told him how many hours the Bucs had until they would play the regular-season opener, which was later announced to be against the New Orleans Saints. On that spring day, Brady’s debut as a Buc was roughly 4,270 hours away.

The second is that Brady wanted all the phone numbers of his new teammates. Immediately.

“I’ve got to get to work,” the quarterback said.

That day, Brady mentioned to Licht a couple things about which the GM needed no reminding. That the Bucs share a division with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, who are about to start their 14th season together. That also in the division are the Atlanta Falcons, where Matt Ryan has had the same coach, Dan Quinn, for six years. The Bucs, after all, had finished behind one or both of those teams in all but two of the last 17 seasons.

Brady might recognize the benefits of continuity better than any other person in the NFL. He had been with the New England Patriots for two decades, and in all that time, he never had to adjust to the whims of a new head coach or memorize the language of new playbook. And even as Brady anticipated the uphill climb he faced to get acclimated to his new team, he never could have imagined the additional obstacles a pandemic would put in his way.

Over at the golf course where Clyde Christensen plays, the Buccaneers quarterbacks coach had been having fun those spring days, as the rumors started swirling around town that Brady was interested in Tampa Bay. It was simply too much for his friends to believe. “Aw, come on, coach,” the golfers would say when Christensen told them he thought this might really happen. No one really took this flirtation seriously, the 64-year-old football lifer realized.

Christensen thought the Bucs and Brady were a good match all along, so he was hopeful, but for Bucs fans whose previous brush with quarterbacking immortality came when the team selected Steve Young first overall in the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft of USFL and CFL Players — only to trade him a few years later to San Francisco, where he became a Hall of Famer — the possible arrival of Brady seemed much too good to be true.

“I think everybody thought he was going to end up going back to New England,” Christensen said. “You know, ‘It’s just politics and he’ll end up back in New England and we’ll be heartbroken.’

Instead, Brady alighted on Tampa almost immediately after signing his contract, moving his family into Derek Jeter’s waterfront mansion — St. Jetersberg needs a new name — barging into unfamiliar homes in search of his new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, wandering into closed public parks looking for a place to throw in his own sprint to catch up.

Still, with the NFL consigned to virtual workouts as COVID-19 raged throughout the offseason, this world-turned-upside-down transaction felt surreal, those long-lensed shots of Brady gathered with a few receivers at a local high school field glimmering in the distance like a mirage.

Even now, the sight of the great Brady in a creamsicle practice jersey is jarring for a lot of people in the NFL. But the confirmation for everyone from local duffer to opposing defensive coordinator came in July, when a building-sized image of Brady went up on Raymond James Stadium. Brady is really a Buc.

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What this means for Brady may take a season to sort out, although the organizational urgency was made clear when the Bucs signed running back Leonard Fournette at the end of training camp. What it means for the Bucs can already be measured, if not in ticket sales that will be curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, then in the buzz that surrounds the team.

The banners on the façade of the stadium have long celebrated the team’s biggest stars, monuments without the marble. The faces of the franchise, though, have been mostly interchangeable since the era of Ronde Barber, John Lynch and Warren Sapp. Those were the halcyon days of the Bucs, which birthed an historically great defense and Tampa Bay’s lone Super Bowl championship.

The banners have continued to go up and come down, following the vagaries of player acquisition and performance, documenting the cycles of hope and disappointment more colorfully than any stat sheet could. For much of that span, the Bucs were football also-rans and they were frequently boring, too, the excitement more often surrounding the players who trained across the street, at the New York Yankees spring training facility. As a result, reporters were nearly as likely to mention the halftime Bananas Fosters served in the press box as anything good that happened on the field.

Christensen has a unique view of the town. He first started working in Tampa in 1996, as a member of Tony Dungy’s staff that eventually resurrected a moribund franchise and put in place the roster that, in the 2002 season, won Super Bowl XXXVII with Jon Gruden.

“This is a great football town,” Christensen said. “I was privileged to see it light up in the late 1990s, when it became a great place to play and be around football. Since Tom’s been here, I’ve seen that excitement start coming back into the picture. It’s a wake-up call for everybody. This has a chance to rock again real soon.”

It has been rocking at One Buccaneer Place and its virtual outposts since Brady signed. Head coach Bruce Arians had started to work on changing the culture in Tampa when he arrived last year and he says now that he could not have asked that team, which finished 7-9, to work any harder. The Bucs have two superb receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and a talented defense — and the addition of Fournette provides not just another weapon out of the backfield but another critical blocker for the quarterback. Still, Arians and Licht also knew what they needed to add if the Bucs were ever to re-ascend the NFC ladder and be a contender again, and it was more than just cutting down on the 30 interceptions Jameis Winston threw last season.

“We can do things smarter, and Tom brings the accountability factor that is different, holding guys accountable on and off the field,” Arians said. “I compare it to Arizona. When I came in there, they had a heck of a defense, but they had been through eight quarterbacks. We traded for Carson Palmer and it legitimized the entire organization because we had a legitimate quarterback.”

The difference showed up almost immediately in Tampa, in the de facto OTAs Brady organized himself. Christensen estimates that without the three months of offseason workouts and minicamps, Brady missed out on as many as 1,500 snaps with his new teammates and hours of casual conversation and film review with coaches about concepts and plays. Despite competing against each other for nearly 20 years, Brady and Christensen did not know each other. Christensen’s grandkids — raised to love the Colts, for whom Christensen coached during the Peyton Manning years — wondered why the Bucs wanted someone from the hated Patriots anyway.

“I’m having to reprogram my grandkids and my kids and my wife,” Christensen said. “I told [Brady], ‘I don’t understand why I didn’t like you for 20 years. You’re a really nice guy.’ “

But the virus also meant Brady and his new teammates were in town more because there was simply no other place to go. So, they went to a field. Forbidden from being involved, Licht tracked them the way every other interested observer did — via social media and local news reports. What began with just a few teammates joining Brady grew with each session, even as the players’ union was advising all its members practicing together to avoid the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. Brady, maskless, kept going.

The hiccups were of the starstruck kind. Licht is still struck by the effect Brady has on teammates, who were stunned when the future Hall of Fame quarterback walked up and introduced himself as if everyone did not know that he was, in fact, Tom Brady. He had made it clear to the Bucs brain trust that he did not want to be anointed a team leader, that he wanted to earn it. Licht, who was on the New England personnel staff when Brady was drafted there, laughs a little at that.

“OK, you’re Tom Brady, you’re going to be talked about with the likes of Jordan and Gretzky as the greatest in your sport,” Licht said of the six-time Super Bowl champion who was unsurprisingly named a team captain on Tuesday. “He’s very good at being a regular guy, despite who he is.”

Tight end Cameron Brate said the first time Brady texted and asked to FaceTime, Brate initially checked with Evans and Godwin to make sure it wasn’t a prank, and that Brady was actually trying to reach him. Needless to say, Brate was soon part of the workouts.

“That’s part of what you buy is the leadership, is the mindset, is the pro — that’s huge,” Christensen said. “You’ve got Tom Brady calling these young guys and saying, ‘I’d like to throw this afternoon.’ They are not saying, ‘Well, I was going to go to the beach.’ That might happen with some other quarterbacks in the league, that you had other plans.”

When players finally reported for training camp in late July, the coaches noticed something else — the receivers were in superb condition, especially considering all team-monitored workouts had been virtual and coaches were hearing from some of their peers around the league that some guys were slower to get in shape. Brady had put his receivers through their paces — they had run a lot of routes before camp even opened.

Nobody doubted what kind of shape Brady would be in, since he famously has his own wellness-based business. The drop-off in the Patriots’ offensive production last season, which resulted in Brady’s obvious dissatisfaction even after victories, was chalked up to both the elbow and foot injuries he reportedly played through and the underwhelming cast of playmakers around him. It was lost on nobody, least of all Brady, that the Patriots’ defense and special teams had carried the team through some games on the way to a 12-4 record.

Still, given Brady’s advanced age — the QB just turned 43 last month — it was fair to wonder if there was drop-off in arm strength, particularly because Arians has a fondness for downfield throws and the Bucs have the receivers to execute them. As Tampa Bay prepared for free agency, Christensen studied every throw Brady made for the last four years in New England and made his report to Arians and Licht. He saw no deterioration in Brady’s arm.

“If he’s lost anything with his arm, I’d like to have seen it before,” Christensen said. “I’d question anyone’s quarterback knowledge who questioned whether he has lost something with his arm. [The Patriots] might not have been as good passing the ball, receiving-wise, but it wasn’t [because of Brady’s] skills and arm strength.”

Brady has made no secret of how much of a learning curve he is on in Tampa. Christensen can relate. He says he still accidentally uses terminology from the Colts playbook when at Bucs practice, even though he left Indianapolis after the 2015 season. The instinct is to believe Brady is so skilled that he can be dropped in anywhere and will mask any stumbles. That is true, to some degree — Brady can make any throw he has to and there is no defense he has not seen before.

But Christensen said the difficulty of what Brady is doing should not be underestimated, and making him comfortable — with his receivers, with the play calls, with the protections, with how Leftwich calls plays, with every aspect of an experience that is entirely new — was the focus of camp. Most teams use the same verbiage. The problem is they use it to mean different plays. So, Brady first had to unlearn what he called things in New England — that’s the hard part — and then learn the Buccaneers’ offensive terminology.

After the first practice, Brady told Christensen he had a flub. “He said it’s probably been 20 years since he flat out messed up a call in the huddle,” the coach said.

“You’re going back a very long time in my career to really have to put the mental energy in like I did,” Brady told reporters early in camp. “I have to work at it pretty hard physically still. I put a lot of time and energy into making sure I’m feeling good in order to perform at my best, but mentally I think that’s been the thing that’s obviously had its challenges. I think you couple that with the coronavirus situation and it became even more difficult. I think conversations we probably would’ve had in April, we’re having now.”

The meticulousness is familiar to anyone who has tracked Brady’s career. On the first day they met, Brady showed Christensen pictures from his phone of him throwing the ball, instructing his coach to bring to his attention if he saw his head start to tilt to his left. If his head starts to tilt outside of his left knee, Brady told Christensen, it means he’s tired or straining and that can lead to bad throws. He told Christensen to listen to his cadence. To Christensen’s amusement, Brady loves the individual portion of practice. He likes the drills. He likes to throw a football. Arians calls him a piranha — a label he also gave Peyton Manning — because there is no amount of information that is too much for him to consume.

And, even as the new guy, Brady has quickly become like a coach on the field, repeatedly pulling teammates aside to discuss throws, whether they are in the middle of practice or not.

“It could seem like the perfect pass, a great ball, everything seems spot on, but if he doesn’t feel it’s 100 percent crisp, exactly where the ball should be placed, if you weren’t efficient at the top of your route, you’re going to run it again until you really perfect it,” Brate said. “He kind of has a way of circling everything back to football. Whether you’re having a meal with him or talking about whatever, he’ll just bring it back to football.”

What has not escaped the notice of Licht and Arians is the air of confidence Brady confers on the team. They both use the word “swagger” to describe how players move during practice. There is no wasted time, no extraneous moves. Everything is crisp and efficient and with an air the Bucs simply have not had in years. Licht does not want that to be cast as a knock on Winston, but this is how much different the level is right now in Tampa. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles observed after practice one day that Brady even throws good incompletions, meaning if the intended receiver can’t catch it, nobody else can either.

The intended receivers the Bucs have, though, have delighted Brady, Christensen said. With Evans and Godwin joining Brate, O.J. Howard and Rob Gronkowski — and with the late addition of Fournette, who caught 76 passes for 522 yards last season — Brady might have his best set of targets since Randy Moss joined the Patriots in 2007. Christensen compares Brady at the early practices this summer to his five grandchildren on Christmas morning, excitedly tearing open each toy to see what they can do.

Leftwich admitted late in camp that he didn’t know what kind of offense the Bucs would run, because they were still figuring out what Brady was comfortable with, but at a simulated game held on Aug. 28 at Raymond James Stadium, Brady was noticeably sharp in his passes.

“As you watched Peyton do it, those two receivers they had at the end of his career — he had some record-setting years with those cats,” Christensen said, referring to the Denver duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. “They were rolling. I do know that was one of the things that was attractive to Tom; he mentioned a couple of times watching Peyton do it in Denver was interesting to him. We have a really fine 1 and 1A. He’s mentioned that a lot.”

The question that remains is whether, like Manning, Brady’s once-unimaginable foray to a new team makes it an instant contender, as the Patriots were every year with Brady.

Tampa Bay faces greater competition in the NFC South than the Patriots did in the AFC East — there was simply never a quarterback the caliber of Brees or even Ryan in the division when Brady was with the Patriots. And the NFC has, for several years, seemed to have more championship-caliber teams with top quarterbacks than the AFC, presenting more layers for the Buccaneers to get through to earn a trip to Super Bowl LV in their own town.

Even so, NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah thinks the Bucs are contenders because of their defense. Jeremiah’s concerns are about the offensive line and Brady’s ability to maintain his performance in the second half of the season, when the hits accumulate and nagging injuries take a toll. Still, Jeremiah figures, the Bucs should be in every game. And, even at this late-career stage, there aren’t too many other quarterbacks in the league with a better resume than Brady’s when a game is on the line.

Expectations, however, should be tempered, at least initially. With no preseason games, the opening weeks of the season are likely to be ragged for most teams, particularly ones that had offseason upheaval. Christensen said it would be “ridiculous” to think the offense will be as smooth as it should be when the season starts for the Bucs on Sunday against the Saints.

“New Orleans will be a huge first game, but with no preseason games and a new system, to think that’s going to be December type of football, I don’t think any of the teams will be, but certainly not folks who have a new quarterback or a rookie quarterback,” Christensen said. “We’ll see the level of play go up and keep improving week after week as you feel better about it.”

Licht muses that it’s OK to be excited about the future, because the past doesn’t mind. Manning’s spin through Denver is a frequent reference point for those watching Brady’s immersion into Tampa, although the situations are not entirely parallel. The Broncos already had a long history of sustained success, something which has largely eluded the Bucs, who have gone a dozen years without a playoff appearance.

Success in Tampa would allow Brady to make an impact on the Bucs that might even exceed what Manning did in Denver. He could walk away having raised the standard for two franchises, making even a brief stay in Florida’s Gulf Coast anything but fleeting.

“If we’re fortunate enough to put rings on our fingers, that lasts for a long time,” Arians said. “It shows a way of doing things here that young people can learn from — how to come to work, the way a super pro does it.”

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista.

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