TAMPA — First prediction:
Crowds. Giant, glorious crowds. The type of crowds that used to show up regularly at Raymond James Stadium, but have gradually become as uncommon as winning seasons around here.
Thrills. Last-minute, hold-on-to-your-seats thrills. A defense that plays well enough to keep you in every game, and a quarterback savvy enough to make sure you don’t throw victories away.
Disappointment. Sweet, rueful disappointment. The type of disappointment borne not of anger but of epic expectations that ultimately prove to be unattainable.
Welcome to the fantasy edition of the Tom Brady story.
It would be a bold, exciting, semi-crazy decision. The Bucs will have decided to walk away from Jameis Winston, a former No. 1 pick and the reigning leader in NFL passing yards, to sign a quarterback who is nearly 17 years older.
What could possibly go wrong?
The move would have desperation written all over it, with cockiness scribbled on top. In essence, the Bucs would be betting they are a Super Bowl contender in 2020 with Brady as their quarterback. And they’d be willing to ante up the next 10 years of Winston’s career to prove it.
If they are right?
It would be the story of a generation. Nothing else would come close. Peyton Manning winning a Super Bowl in Denver was a big deal, but his career in Indianapolis was shorter and not as accomplished as Brady’s. Kurt Warner going from the Arena Football League to Super Bowl MVP in three years was incredible but didn’t carry the worldwide appeal of the Brady name.
No, this would be the stuff of NFL Films lore. It would be Brady proving that he, more than Bill Belichick, was the heart of the New England dynasty. It would be Bruce Arians and the Glazers setting a new standard for rolling the dice.
And there is some justification to believe it could happen if the Bucs pull off this deal. Tampa Bay was a playoff-caliber team in a lot of ways in 2020. The offense was third in the league in scoring, and the defense was in the top 10 in takeaways, sacks and run defense. So, yes, the Bucs were close.
And Brady is still a talented passer. He is one of a half-dozen quarterbacks to average more than 250 yards passing per game last season, while also keeping his interception rate below 1.5 percent. So, yes, he can still play.
But a lot of factors must turn out perfectly for this plan to work, even if they do get his name on a contract.
Arians would have to adjust his offense to fit Brady, because you don’t sign the NFL’s most prolific quarterback and expect him to change at age 42. That means quicker routes, shorter passes, fewer receivers and more blockers.
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It also means the defense would have to continue to grow. Did we see true improvement in the secondary at the end of 2019, or was that a mirage based on the schedule and time of the year?
Finally, Brady would have to be … Brady. It’s true he’s already won Super Bowls at age 37, 39 and 41. So he’s not that far removed from elite play. And his numbers were solid in 2019 despite having a lack of weapons around him on offense.
But the costs of time and age will eventually come due. And maybe they already have. It could be a sign of New England’s dwindling talent on offense, but Brady’s passer rating has dropped (from 112.2 to 102.8 to 97.7 to 88.0) in three successive seasons.
Brady has defied expectations for much of his career, but this would be a new standard even for him. Warren Moon, Steve DeBerg and Vinny Testaverde are the only quarterbacks in the modern era to have started games at age 43 or older. And Testaverde, who went 2-4 with Carolina in 2007, is the only one to win a game.
What all of that means is the Bucs would be banking on a lot of things coming together in a very short time frame and with an even shorter window of opportunity.
A 10-6 record and a playoff berth would be a nice change, but it would still be a disappointment. Pretty much anything short of an NFC Championship game would feel like the Bucs came up short in this winner-takes-all gamble.
Because none of this is happening in a vacuum. The Bucs will have made a choice to let Winston go if they sign Brady. They made a choice to prioritize Brady over Teddy Bridgewater in free agency. For that matter, they would have made a choice to sign a soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback when Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, both of whom are more than a decade younger, could have been had in trades.
The fear is that a career-ending stay in Tampa Bay could turn into a sad epilogue to his career.
But what if it’s the grand, final chapter in the Tom Brady story?