TAMPA — It was last Wednesday evening, the first day of the new league year, when the Bucs called Tom Brady.
Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht was a scout with New England in 2000 and was in the draft room that year when the Patriots selected the quarterback out of Michigan in the sixth round, but he had no close personal relationship with Brady.
On this night, Licht spoke first, then it was Bucs coach Bruce Arians’ turn.
The conversation lasted about 90 minutes. Brady did a lot of the talking. In fact, the Bucs had gone in with a detailed plan and under the firm belief that they would have to make an aggressive sales pitch to have any chance of landing the six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Instead, Brady interviewed Licht and Arians as much as they asked questions of him.
His preparation, as usual, was next level. He knew all about Arians’ offense and was eager to operate it. He could recite, by position, the list of the Bucs’ offensive weapons. He was intrigued by the notion of having two Pro Bowl receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. He didn’t ask about them as players. He wanted to know, “Are they good guys?’’
The best, Licht assured.
It was clear that Brady had watched some Bucs game film because he was impressed how well their defense had played the last six games of the 2019 regular season under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the former Jets head coach.
It felt like Brady was recruiting the Bucs, and the 42-year-old spoke with a teenager’s enthusiasm.
He spoke a lot about winning, and it was obvious to Licht and Arians that Brady’s competitiveness burns white hot, and the three-time league MVP still thinks he has something to prove. Maybe to Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Maybe just to himself.
The Bucs appeared to check all the boxes. When they hung up the phone, Licht and Arians looked at each other incredulously, as if to say, “Wow, this is really happening.’’
Brady never talked about money. In fact, it was last on the list of priorities that his agent, Donald Yee, had to discuss when the Bucs called at noon Monday as the NFL’s free agent negotiating period began. Brady signed a fair deal: two years, $50 million guaranteed. He can earn another $9 million with performance incentives.
A physical was arranged with an independent doctor in New York, where Brady was with his 12-year-old son, Jack.
Brady never asked for control of the offense. He knew that Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and special assistant Tom Moore would collaborate with him on game plans. He didn’t ask for any specific players to join him. He didn’t even ask to wear No. 12, which for the moment belongs to Godwin.
In fact, there was only one request Brady had after he had signed: He wanted the phone numbers of all his new Bucs teammates.
This just doesn’t happen. Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, doesn’t leave the New England Patriots after 20 seasons and six championship rings.
And if he does, it’s not to join the Buccaneers, a franchise whose .387 winning percentage is the worst of any of the current major professional sports teams.
But it did happen, a bizarre convergence of just enough talent, timing and an iconic player looking for a new challenge and maybe an opportunity to win one more Super Bowl ring before he is done.
A lot of NFL teams probably thought Brady would never leave New England.
Even after Brady fought to become a free agent and for a clause in his contract that would prevent the Patriots from using the franchise tag on him after 2019, it didn’t seem likely that the greatest coach/quarterback pairing in the league would ever end.
But Belichick had always kept his professional relationships separate from his personal ones, and the list of aging players with big contracts that the coach has let go is long. Brady might have figured out a long time ago it could happen to him. That’s probably why he designed it so he could leave on his own terms.
The Bucs picked up on that vibe as well.
First, they had to make a decision on their own quarterback, Jameis Winston. It’s interesting that Licht hired Arians to improve the quarterback position, specifically the team’s No. 1 overall pick in 2015 out of Florida State. Instead, Arians might wind up doing so because his presence as coach enabled the Bucs to sign Brady.
Despite his turnovers, Winston had a chance to be the quarterback in 2020 until the final two games of last season. The Bucs were 7-7 and riding a four-game winning streak. They outplayed both the Texans and Falcons in the final two games, but Winston threw them both away. Fittingly, his final play was a pick six for a game-ending touchdown in an overtime loss at home to Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the Bucs scouting department was keeping close tabs on all potential free agent quarterbacks, including Brady.
They read how he was frustrated by the way the Patriots were playing. They heard the mic’d-up conversations Brady had on the sidelines about his receivers’ failure to gain separation.
It’s hard to get inside another man’s head, but Brady’s post after the death of Lakers great Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in January highlighted a carpe diem spirit.
“Who’s going to discard fear and love and hate,’’ Brady wrote on Instagram. “Who’s going to carry the load for the super hero he was? The answer is simple to me: ALL OF US. Decide to make the change in yourself. If there is anything that I have learned, and been inspired by, during this tragic event, it’s this: SEIZE THE DAY. That’s what Kobe always did. And that’s what he wanted for us, too.’’
Arians wanted to move on from Winston, and he wasn’t likely to change his mind.
At this year’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, Arians said he wasn’t sure who would actually make it to free agency, but the coach let it slip that there was one quarterback he would pick up the phone for: “Tom Brady,’’ he said.
There were other quarterbacks to consider as well, and Christensen did reports on all of them, even the ones that could be available by trade: Brady, the Saints’ Teddy Bridgewater, the Chargers’ Phillip Rivers. All were considered an upgrade over Winston, whose league-high 30 interceptions and five lost fumbles resulted in 112 points off turnovers last season.
When they watch tape of Brady, the Bucs see no discernible deterioration of skills. There’s life in his arm, and he still moves well enough to get out of harm’s way.
Brady signed his contract Friday morning and announced he was coming to the Bucs on Instagram. Free agents around the league have expressed in interest in joining him for one last Super Bowl run.
Licht and a few others have been working in their office at the AdventHealth Training Center, but social distancing has prevented him from really getting a feel for how excited Bucs fans are about Brady.
“Of all the reasons to be happy, that’s the No. 1 thing,’’ Licht said. “Just happy that during this time, what we’re all going through, there’s an escape, something for our fans to really, really be happy about.’’
Somehow, the Bucs — the Bucs! — managed to convince the greatest quarterback on the planet to be their quarterback.
“You could say I’m probably not going to be very popular this summer in New England where I go vacationing,’’ Licht said.