Is it really Super Bowl or bust for Tom Brady and the Bucs?

The Bucs quarterback won 11 games, helped end a playoff drought and fired 40 TD passes. Is that enough?
Published Jan. 9, 2021|Updated Jan. 9, 2021

LANDOVER, Md. — For Tom Brady, a successful season is one that ends with picking confetti out of his hair. For the Bucs, it’s winning 11 games and breaking a playoff drought that dated to 2007.

But which is boom and which is bust for Brady and the Bucs? That’s the playoff crossroads the Bucs arrive at in tonight’s NFC wild-card game against Washington.

Coach Bruce Arians didn’t stutter earlier this week when asked what would constitute a successful season.

“We’ll see how far this goes,” Arians said. “It won’t be (a success) if we don’t win this one (Saturday). Really, it’s not going to be if we don’t put rings on our fingers, because once you’re in the tournament, that’s what you’re playing for. We did enough to get here and it will not be satisfying unless we finish it.”

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At 43, Brady doesn’t have many seasons left to play. He is signed for 2021. Beyond that? Well, the six-time Super Bowl winner has said he would like to play until he’s 45, and who would doubt him at this point?

Brady has set the Bucs’ franchise record with 40 touchdown passes. That’s the most since he threw 50 in 2007. He passed for 4,633 yards in the regular season, which ranks second only to Jameis Winston’s 5,109 in 2019.

More than that, Brady brought belief and a blueprint on how to practice and prepare each week in order to make the postseason.

“I would say Super Bowl or bust every year,” former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. “Who has time, really, for successful seasons? Certainly not this team. They made moves to win this year. I would say the fact it resulted in a playoff spot for this crew would be a success. But the team won’t be looking at 11-5 as the ultimate success, no way.”

Almost from the time the Bucs pursued Brady, that has been the mentality of the entire organization.

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Arians is 68 and retired for health reasons once, so it’s reasonable to believe his window is closing as quickly as Brady’s. The Bucs also have built their roster to win now. Sure, they have a good young nucleus of players and added some future Pro Bowlers in rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

But they will have several key free agents to re-sign for 2021 with a reduced salary cap, a list that includes Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy.

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“It’s still about getting to the big game down there in their home stadium,” said Louis Riddick, the NFL analyst for ESPN. “Otherwise, what was the point of Tom going down there? What was the point of building this roster this way? Of course, they’re looking to the future as well with some of the young players. But for 2020, it was about getting to the big game. And if they don’t get there, there’s no question this is a letdown for this organization and this football team.”

Of course, a Super Bowl was never guaranteed. Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos at the end of his career and only won one Super Bowl despite going to two of them.

It’s interesting to note that Brady has never entered the postseason as a true wild card. The Bucs likely will have to win all three postseason games on the road to get to the Super Bowl.

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“I played 13 years in the NFL and I had one successful football season,” said ESPN’s Ryan Clark, who played in the NFL from 2003-14, on GetUp! “That’s the football season we ended being the last team with a win. That was it. That’s the years that count. The Super Bowl years.

“When you’re Tom Brady and you’ve been to the Super Bowl nine times and you’ve won six of them? That’s the expectation. That’s the expectation you start every year with. That’s the expectation he brought with him to Tampa Bay. And when you don’t do those things. You didn’t win. You failed.”

The Bucs were perennial playoff contenders under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. They appeared in the NFC Championship Game in the 1999 season and in 2002.

But it wasn’t until they won Super Bowl 37 over the Raiders that many of those players and coaches truly felt like they had accomplished something.

“There’s one winner at the end of the season and with as many resources as Tampa has invested in this season, a championship is the only payoff that matters,” said former Bucs defensive tackle Booger McFarland, who won Super Bowls with the Bucs and Colts. “...Fans may be satisfied but once you get in the tournament, it’s win or fail.”

Leave it to Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks to take a more panoramic view. He believes winning is a process that has to be learned, not force fed.

“The team has to learn how to win and change the culture for this young nucleus to understand the process of winning again,” he said. “Too many unknown factors in 2020 to say bust!”

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Is it Super Bowl or bust this season? It appears many think so. Brady and the Bucs wouldn’t have it any other way.