TAMPA ― The calendar is circled on October 3. Not just because that’s the date Tom Brady will return to Gillette Stadium to play the New England Patriots. It also just happens to be Bruce Arians’ 69th birthday.
“I think there will be a little electricity, obviously, just looking at the sale of the tickets right now and what they’re going for,” the Bucs head coach said. “For me, it’s not like for Tom. It’s just another game against Bill (Belichick), and I have so much respect for them and their team. It’s going to mean a lot more because of Tom.”
Brady has talked about playing until he’s 45. As Arians nudges closer to becoming a septuagenarian, how much longer does he want to continue to coach?
“A couple people asked me that this summer,” the Super Bowl 55-winning coach said, “and I said, ‘Hey, I’m having too much fun right now. Maybe when it’s not fun anymore.’
“Part of it is, obviously, keeping the staff together. And those guys are going to get (head-coaching) jobs. I think both (offensive coordinator) Byron (Leftwich) and (defensive coordinator) Todd (Bowles) and hopefully (special teams coordinator) Keith (Armstrong) will all get a job. Watching these young coaches and grooming them and knowing this is an important year for them and trying to get those guys to grow and maybe step into those roles.”
One thing is clear. If the 41-year-old Leftwich, who did not get an interview for a head-coaching job last year, is snatched away following the 2021 season as expected, Arians says he does not want to return to calling plays again.
“I’d really like not to. I’d like to have the next guy ready,” Arians said. “And we’ll do a little bit of that in the preseason, letting other guys call plays, just to give them the feel for it.”
The Bucs have several candidates to call plays for Brady if and when that job becomes available, including quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and assistant head coach Harold Goodwin. But a name to watch is new assistant receivers coach Thad Lewis.
The former Duke quarterback, who played for eight NFL teams in as many seasons, joined the staff as a part of the Bill Walsh fellowship a year ago.
“Oh, man, he’s going to be star, just like Byron,” Arians said. “Former quarterback, Duke pedigree, but I mean, (eight) years in the league. He’s got a really good way of teaching, and he understands the game. What I like about him is he hangs with (veteran assistant) Tom Moore like a magnet, and he’s getting everything he can. I think he’s got a bright, bright future.”
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Of course, most of it is resting on the arm and rebuilt knee of Brady, who turns 44 in 10 days.
Brady played on a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee a year ago and has made a full recovery from surgery in February.
Health aside, Arians believes Brady will be better in 2021 because of the work done with Leftwich ironing out some bumps in the offense.
“I think there’s so much growth there that can happen,” Arians said. “Bryon and he have such a great relationship. We’re still doing some things, going back and watching last year, how it hits him. Different scenarios that we’ll practice more. Just getting it finer tuned, you know what I mean? The offense showed itself better those last eight games. We can score points, but I think we can be more efficient.
Arians credits Leftwich.
““It’s all Byron,” he said. “It was finding out what he was confident with in our offense and then just expanding it and expanding it.”
Arians got a glimpse of it in the mandatory minicamp. Most veterans had skipped the offseason, but they were precise enough in those final workouts in June to beat half the teams on their schedule.
“That two-minute drill was meticulous,” Arians said. “I said, ‘Wow.’ I got what I was hoping for giving them all the rest.”
If there is something that can defeat the Bucs in 2021, Arians says, it’s injuries. Or an outbreak of COVID-19.
Only three players missed a game due to the virus a year ago when there wasn’t a vaccine available.
“I think (it was) the commitment for the guys making the sacrifices and the families making the sacrifices to beat COVID,” Arians said. “I mean, it’s hard for 25-year-old guys to go to work and go home, and they did it. The commitment they made to each other. I think it was the big bond for all those guys coming back in free agency, too.”
This year, the NFL will make teams forfeit a game if an outbreak results in a cancellation.
Arians wouldn’t say how many Bucs players are vaccinated, but he believes it will be more than 85 percent by final cutdowns.
In the meantime, he says he will fine any unvaccinated player $14,000 on the spot for every time he isn’t wearing a mask or is breaking a protocol.
“We’re going to have a very serious conversation,” Arians said. “I don’t like fining players, but I’m not going to tell anybody to get a mask on. They’ll just get automatically hit with $14,000.
“A vaccinated player will get tested 14 times this year. An unvaccinated player will get tested 140.”
Arians knows how fleeting fame can be. In 2013, his Arizona Cardinals went 13-3 and lost in the NFC title game. The next year, they went 7-8-1.
“It’s just a matter of staying healthy,” Arians said. “You’re not going to win with third stringers. I’ve been down that road. We had a really, really good team in Arizona. We lose (running back) David Johnson, we lose (quarterback) Carson Palmer, we lose our tackle. You can’t control injuries. If they happen, they happen.
“We were very fortunate last year, and our training staff and sports science staff was terrific, and that had a lot to do with injury prevention.”
More than anything, Arians says the Bucs are looking forward to playing in front of sold-out stadiums again, especially Raymond James. He knows his team will be viewed as the hunted but believes it will approach the season as the hunter.
“It’s going to be fun going into different stadiums as the world champions,” he said.
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