The Tom Brady-Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ marriage feels as much like a grift to sell TB12 products and Bucs apparel as a legitimate effort to win the Super Bowl in 2020.
That’s not the case, of course. But admit it: You’ve had the same suspicions. Brady may be the G.O.A.T, but he’s 43-years old and in the midst of a gradual-but-unmistakable decline. The Buccaneers were better than last year’s 7-9 record indicates, but nothing about their roster suggested that they were “one player away” from a championship, even if that player was the 2007 version of Brady.
And then there was Brady’s rush to expand his TB12 interests into Florida and trademark silly slogans like “Tompa Bay.” Shrewd business moves, to be sure, but imagine how it would have been perceived if Cam Newton opened a fashion boutique in Boston before he threw his first Patriots pass.
The 2020 Buccaneers are a potential Super Bowl contender, but they appear to be many other things as well: a marketing partnership, a vanity project for a fading legend, a stimulus package for sports talk shows during quarantine, and a prime example of how powerful men delude themselves about their infallibility. Yes, they should be pretty darn good. But if they aren’t good enough to reach the Super Bowl this year — and they don’t look like they are — then what’s the point?
How will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers season finish?
The Last Dance meets The Greatest Story Ever Told: Brady leads the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl championship and then ascends body-and-soul into heaven on an avocado-scented cloud.
It’s Christmas Day, Week 16. The 7-7 Buccaneers are facing the 7-7 Vikings with the final Wild Card berth on the line. Trailing by four points in the fourth quarter, Brady flinches to avoid Danielle Hunter and throws a wobbler that Harrison Smith turns into a game-clinching pick-six. Brady bows down Y.A. Tittle-style on the field in despair.
Old Man Brady (and friends)
Brady has declined in each of the following statistics in each of the last four years: yards-per-game, yards-per-attempt, completion percentage, touchdown rate, passer rating, and Football Outsiders DVOA. You can blame his receivers and other factors, but ask yourself if you would make the same arguments for any other aging quarterback.
Brady attempted 104 passes of 15-plus yards last season, completing 47.1% of them (11th in the NFL) for a rating of 101.5 (12th). It’s not that Brady is incapable of driving the ball deep, just that he needs to pick his spots. Buccaneers quarterbacks (mostly Jameis Winston) attempted 158 passes of 15-plus yards in 2019, so Brady will picking many more spots than he did in New England.
At least Brady won’t have to throw THAT deep. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans finished fourth and fifth in the NFL with 34 and 33 receptions on passes 10-20 yards downfield. Godwin also led the NFL with 342 yards after contact, more than the elusive Christian McCaffrey or rumbling George Kittle. Head coach Bruce Arians will likely build Brady’s offense around crisp intermediate passes that give his star receivers a chance to turn upfield.
In the trenches and on defense
Right tackle was the only hole in the Buccaneers offensive line in the offseason. The Buccaneers filled it by drafting Tristan Wirfs, one of the most athletic offensive line prospects ever to emerge from an Iowa program which produced the likes of Marshal Yanda, Bryan Bulaga, Brandon Scherff, Ross Verba, John Alt, Riley Reiff, Robert Gallery (a mega prospect who had a disappointing NFL career) and others. Wirfs won’t have the luxury of a learning curve. One hole in Brady’s protection is one hole too many.
The Buccaneers also have a defense, and it’s not bad. Shaquil Barrett led the NFL in sacks last year. Lavonte David may be the league’s best all-around linebacker in space: Opposing receivers caught just 55.8% of their passes with David in coverage. Ndamukong Suh adds another win-now veteran to the mix. And as for the secondary … hey, how about that Brady signing!
Per the resources at Fantasy Football Calculator, Leonard Fournette’s average draft position slowly slid through the third round much of August and landed at the top of the fourth round (37th pick or so) after his release by the Jaguars and signing by the Bucs.
Fournette fits as a fine RB2. He’s unlikely to have six 25-touch games like he did when the Jaguars force-fed him the ball last year, but he won’t have to resort to Marcus Allen reverse-the-field tactics after his guards bump into each other on a counter quite as often, either.
LeSean McCoy is a likely odd man out of the Bucs committee, though Ronald Jones and his frequent four-carry, nine-yard rushing lines could also vanish if the Bucs decide to keep the over-the-hill gang theme going. Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a tough thumper from Vanderbilt who won’t see the field if there’s any chance that he’ll whiff on a block when protecting Brady. Fournette rushed eight times for a loss of two yards and three touchdowns inside the five-yard line last year, so don’t assume he’s immune from getting leeched.
I’m seeing Rob Gronkowski ranked ahead of Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper, Noah Fant, and others in ADP. Given Gronk’s injury history and reports from training camp that his workload was limited, I’d rather draft a younger tight end and then keep an eye on O.J. Howard and/or Cameron Brate on the waiver wire.
Brady’s decline has been so gradual over the last three years, and he enjoys such Orwellian immunity from media criticism (especially in New England), that it’s easy to lose track of how far he has fallen. He was fading when he led the Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl victory two years ago against the Los Angeles Rams. He faded steadily as last season wore on and the Patriots schedule grew harder.
At his best, Brady is currently Kirk Cousins, able to use his experience to pick apart opponents from a clean pocket and win lots of games given a strong supporting cast like the one the Buccaneers have built with Godwin, Evans, Gronk, and others.
At his worst, he’s descending into Mitch Trubisky territory: fearful of pass rushers he used to sidestep, scattershot on passes he used to pinpoint. If the Buccaneers had signed someone like Cousins instead of Brady, the NFL world would have pointed and laughed (as many of us did when the Vikings acquired Cousins). The Brady experiment only appears to be less silly because we’re conditioned to think of Brady as immortal.
Feel free to give this preview the Old Takes Exposed treatment if the Buccaneers reach the Super Bowl. But anything short of that will be a disappointment that leaves the Buccaneers with no plan whatsoever moving forward beyond 2020, no quarterback of the future on the roster, an aging head coach unlikely to have the patience for rebuilding, and a roster now larded with Suh-Gronk-Shady types. It’s Super Bowl or bust for a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2007 or cracked .500 in four years and hopes signing Brady was the real-world equivalent of buffing your video game character with in-app purchases.
At least the Buccaneers acquired some new fans and the TB12 line attracted some new customers. Brady and the Bucs obviously want to win, so those could not really have been their primary goals. But they are this season’s only inevitable outcomes.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2020 Prediction
10-6, second place in the NFC South