Let’s face it. The Bucs have never been a destination spot for free agents. No one has been clamoring to play in Tampa Bay, especially during the current 12-year playoff drought.
But that all changed quickly March 17, when reports surfaced that Tom Brady was about to sign with the Bucs.
The Bucs instantly went from pretender to contender. The night of the first Brady-to-Tampa reports, more than 2,000 fans waited in a virtual line for the opportunity to shop for season tickets. Three days later, when Brady’s deal became official — the ultimate pinch-me moment for most longtime Bucs fans — his Bucs jersey quickly became the top-selling item in the NFL online shop.
Brady recruited his favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, out of retirement. Veteran running back LeSean McCoy joined the flock to Tampa, citing that the opportunity to play with Brady played a major role in his decision to take a $1.05 million deal. And just over the weekend, as soon as the ink dried on running back Leonard Fournette’s contract, he was posting pictures with Brady on social media.
“It’s great for me," Fournette said. "I’m happy to be back there with one of the greatest — well, the greatest — to play this game. And I get to learn from him, too. My first two days here, I was sitting there talking to Tom about the defenses.”
With Brady in the fold, it’s Super Bowl or bust. Add in that Raymond James Stadium is hosting Super Bowl 55 — and no team has ever won it all in its home stadium — and the pressure is tremendous.
Still, Brady is 43 years old. While he has put no limit on how long he wants to play — his trainer has said Brady would like to play until he is 46 or 47 — his commitment to the Bucs is for just two seasons.
The Bucs are in win-now mode for 2020 and 2020 alone. The clock is ticking, and no one wants to stand in the way of Brady possibly earning a seventh championship ring.
“He has raised the expectations,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “Having a guy like Tom in here leading the team with the success he’s had in his career definitely raises the expectations that we have for ourselves. I wouldn’t say it’s about letting Tom down — we look at the expectations as a positive. We’re going to have more eyes on us — a chance to show the country who we are as players and as a team. I think it’s super exciting for us to have those expectations and it’s going to be a great opportunity.”
Brady’s arrival also changed the Bucs' identity. They didn’t just go from hapless to hopeful. Outside Tampa, the Bucs are seen as a group of unlikely mercenaries. They are like “create-a-team” mode in Madden. They’re a team you might have drafted in fantasy football. They’ve been called the Golden State Warriors of the NFL, only without the titles.
The hype train will not stop.
According to Caesar’s Palace, the Bucs are tied with the division rival Saints for the fourth-best odds of winning the Super Bowl.
“It feels good to have front office guys who are making all the right moves and putting us in position to be successful this year,” said Shaquil Barrett, who led the league in sacks last season. “And it’s just up to us to take advantage of it. But it is nice to have pretty much an amazing team on paper; we just got to put it together so we can make it be worthwhile, because it has been done before where teams had pretty much super teams and haven’t panned out. But we are working for ours and we know nothing is given and we’ve already been average for the past few years here, so we know we got to grind and get it.”
With so much uncertainty about the salary cap next season because of the pandemic, the Bucs may not be able to keep this team together. They told Barrett, a player they’d love to lock up, that they couldn’t offer a long-term deal because they didn’t know next year’s salary-cap restrictions. Barrett, insider linebacker Lavonte David and receiver Chris Godwin will become free agents in 2021. Gronkowski’s contract runs out, too.
The Bucs came into the offseason with more than $80 million in cap space, but after locking up the defensive front and Brady’s $25 million contract, that went quickly. And the team had to be creative with clearing cap space for signings like McCoy and Fournette. Receiver Mike Evans, who already has had his deal restructured several times, had it restructured yet again — his season salary was transferred into a signing bonus — to free up spending, so the Bucs will have to get creative again next offseason if they hope to retain several key players.
For now, the talk is about how much Brady is making the Bucs better. He’s a teacher on the field, coaching up his new teammates on the smallest nuances of the game. His quick release, his precision passing and his ability to read a defense bring out the best in the defense in practice.
“You’re practicing against Pro Bowl receivers, you’re practicing against a Hall of Fame quarterback, you can’t help but feel good about yourself,” cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross said. “If you do well against those guys, you can’t help but feel good about yourself going into game situations. I had a very similar situation like this happen to me when I was playing in Kansas City when Joe Montana came there. He gave us the boost that we needed to get over the top and end up getting to the championship game. It’s a very similar situation.”
In his first news conference as a Buc, Brady said he has a lot to prove with his new team and new teammates. Coach Bruce Arians is careful not to give this team too much credit, reminding them they have yet to accomplish anything, even with Brady.
“Guys that usually are riding on their laurels — it shows up on the practice tape (through) mental errors, penalties, those type of things,” Arians said. “This team hasn’t done anything, so they don’t really have any laurels to ride on other than what you guys write every day.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.