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It bears repeating: This could be Tom Brady’s best year ever

The Bucs quarterback is the last to win back-to-back Super Bowls 17 years ago. Can he do it again?
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with his family as he hoists the Lombardi trophy after the Bucs' win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 in February at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with his family as he hoists the Lombardi trophy after the Bucs' win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 in February at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 3, 2021
Updated Sep. 3, 2021

TAMPA — John Madden says the busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame talk to each other at night.

But standing in the doorway of a green room behind the stage in Canton, Ohio, in August, a few legends of the game engaged in lively conversation.

Tom Brady chartered a private plane during the Bucs’ day off from training camp so that he could attend the induction ceremony of his biggest rival, Peyton Manning. A lock for this place whenever he retires, Brady was surrounded by men with gold jackets, including Manning, former Michigan teammate Charles Woodson and Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach.

“I don’t think it’s ever happened that a great quarterback could go to a team the first year and win a Super Bowl,” Staubach said. “I mean, only Tom Brady does that.”

“I’ll tell you what, he knows how to pick ’em,” Woodson said.

“That’s where he separates himself from the rest of us,” Staubach said.

“Your arm looks fantastic,” Staubach said to Brady. “‘You’re 43, 44 years old? You’re in great shape.”

Brady hadn’t been to Canton since his rookie year, when the Patriots played in the Hall of Fame Game, his first in the NFL. He offered a ride to Bucs coach Bruce Arians and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, both of whom coached Manning with the arch-rival Colts.

“I think as much as anything, he did it just so Bruce and I could watch Peyton go in (the Hall of Fame),” Christensen said. “And he knew this is probably the only way we could do it. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”

Brady smiled and thanked Staubach, who won two Super Bowl rings. Dozens of Hall of Fame players greeted each other, but Brady seemed to be the person everyone wanted to chat up.

Quite simply, nothing Brady had done during his unparalleled career topped what he pulled off in Tampa Bay last season.

He left New England after 20 seasons, coming to a Bucs team that had not reached the playoffs in 12 years. He learned a new offense and roster and won Super Bowl 55 during a pandemic with no offseason program or preseason games.

No NFL team has won back-to-back championships since Brady did it with the Patriots in 2003-04. But at 44, repeating is the only expectation and Brady is positioned to have one of the best years of his career.

To understand where Brady and the Bucs are headed, consider where they have been and how they got here.

Byron and Brady

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, left, and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, back, look on during a joint practice with the Tennessee Titans in August in Tampa.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, left, and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, back, look on during a joint practice with the Tennessee Titans in August in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

When offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich learned the Bucs might pursue Brady, he initially wondered what Brady had left in the tank.

After checking the tape, he knew his arm was as strong as ever.

“I didn’t think that he was too old, because I watched him throw it,” Leftwich said. “The tape told me, ‘Oh, no. He’s fine.’ To see it and when I really evaluated it, I felt good he would be okay here. I felt good about the guys up front, about how we would handle it. I felt good about the ways I could protect him with play-calling.

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“It’s not athleticism that prevents sacks. It’s knowing where to throw the football. If you’re in a tough spot, go down. Those things don’t have to be stressed to him, because he’s past that point of trying to be that young, wild man. He always gives you an opportunity to win the game.”

Leftwich is a rare commodity, a former NFL quarterback-turned offensive coordinator. He was the seventh overall pick of the Jaguars out of Marshall in 2003 and played 10 seasons, the last three as a backup to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

Leftwich is three years younger than Brady. But with only one full season of calling plays, there was a ton of pressure on him.

He knew Brady as a competitor and from casual social interactions in the past, but they had no real relationship until Brady arrived in Tampa. But the perception was that having to teach Brady a new offense, one that prioritizes stretching the field vertically with the passing game, might be a daunting challenge for Leftwich.

“No, I had Brady,” Leftwich said. “I’ve got Tom. I don’t see that. Man, I’m not worried about that. I played, so I don’t have that fear of failing. I truly believe in him and I truly believed in myself. I’m not wavering in the way I feel and how I feel about it, because I trust what I know, I trust what he knows.

“I remember when we first signed him, people were like, ‘Oh, you’ve got Brady.’ It was like, ‘You mean I’m supposed to feel nervous and scared that I’ve got Brady?’ That blew my mind. But it’s just the way some people make it. I was happy to have him. I couldn’t wait to get him on the grass.”

But there were some major bumps in the road.

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12), left, talks with tight end O.J. Howard (80) during a 2020 game against the Saints in New Orleans.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12), left, talks with tight end O.J. Howard (80) during a 2020 game against the Saints in New Orleans. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After throwing a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six in the season-opening loss at New Orleans, Brady drew some criticism from the unfailingly blunt Arians, who said one was a “bad throw” and the other a “bad read.”

It was shocking considering their relationship had just begun.

Brady handled the loss to well. He was disappointed, not discouraged.

But he wasn’t prepared for Leftwich to hand him the game plan for Carolina when he arrived at the training facility the following Monday morning without so much as having watched any tape of the Panthers.

“It’s just how I do,” Leftwich explained. “You can’t sleep when those things happen. This is close. We’re three or four plays away from having a huge day. I’m always over here at 3:30, 4 in the morning. Me and Coach (Tom) Moore and Coach (Todd) Bowles, we’re always in the building.

“But I work better like that, and I’ve got to move on. You can’t waste time sulking. By the time I get off that plane from New Orleans, I’m already thinking about that (next) team.”

The Bucs also were aware Brady had a knee issue. He played last season with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee that required an inordinate amount of preparation and support.

“I don’t know if that’s a secret,” Christensen said. “I knew it right when we picked him up. He said, ‘Hey, I got a little something going on in my knee and I can manage it.’ I think one of the neat things about him is he didn’t tell everybody and didn’t remind you all the time, ‘Well, you know, I don’t feel great.’

“To not feel good and play this game is hard. It’s really hard. I think he knew at the beginning of the season, he said, ‘I have to manage this thing and next offseason, which is this offseason, I’ll get it fixed up.’”

What surprised Brady is that Leftwich did all the offensive game-planning. He ran the meetings. He was in charge with almost no help from Arians or the other assistants.

Brady predicted the Bucs would struggle early, but if they could stick together, things would get better during the second half of the season.

“One of the first things we said together is it’s going to take a while but we’ve got to win while we’re doing it,” Leftwich said. “We didn’t care, because we wanted to play good football at the end of the year.”

A big compromise

Bucs running back Ronald Jones II (27) takes a handoff from quarterback Tom Brady (12) during a game against the Minnesota Vikings in December in Tampa.
Bucs running back Ronald Jones II (27) takes a handoff from quarterback Tom Brady (12) during a game against the Minnesota Vikings in December in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Bucs were 6-2, including giving away a game in Chicago when Brady forgot what down it was. Then they lost three of their next four, including back-to-back games by a field goal to the Rams and Chiefs at home.

By the time they hit the bye week, they were a tired football team.

Brady needed to take a more active role in game-planning. Specifically, the Bucs needed a bigger commitment to the run game, more pre-snap motion and play-action — all staples of his offenses in New England.

“We got to around the Minnesota week and I’ll never forget, he was like, ‘I love it. I love it,’” Leftwich said. “It was the point where we got it. It was just tweaking. Same concept but just a different way. I tell people all the time: Offense is always about the quarterback. You think I’m going to bring Tom Brady here and do stuff he doesn’t want to do? I’m not a fool.

“I think he’s always been involved. But I think we started learning each other. The execution started happening more often.”

Bucs assistant head coach Harold Goodwin said rushing attempts increased from about 20 to 28 per game.

“Going into the playoffs, we needed to run the ball, especially with all the play-actions,” Goodwin said. I think it was a conscious decision by (Arians) and Byron.”

Prior to the bye week, the Bucs used pre-snap motion 39 percent of the time, which was one percent below the league average. After the bye, it increased to 59 percent, fourth in the NFL.

Brady’s best year ever?

Bucs running back Giovani Bernard (25) completes a reception on a pass from Tom Brady (12) during a preseason game against the Bengals in Tampa.
Bucs running back Giovani Bernard (25) completes a reception on a pass from Tom Brady (12) during a preseason game against the Bengals in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

There are more than a few reasons to expect Brady to be better in 2021: His familiarity with the offense, his teammates and the fact that he’s healthier.

By the same token, he couldn’t train for about seven weeks while recovering from knee surgery.

“It was a tough offseason in terms of rehab,” Brady told Sirius NFL radio. “But I feel like I’m really just now kind of feeling — not from a rehab standpoint but from a football standpoint — like ... my legs are feeling bouncy and ready to go. My arm’s feeling live.”

He also has a new weapon in running back Giovani Bernard. A year ago, Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette combined to drop seven passes. Bernard has 342 career receptions for 2,867 yards and 11 touchdowns and should allow Brady to take fewer hits while picking up more first downs.

Tight end O.J. Howard has recovered from a torn Achilles and Antonio Brown will be available for 17 games, not eight.

The defense is also ascending with a secondary that grew up in the playoffs, taking down Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes and not allowing a touchdown to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

“I really do think we’ll pick up where we left off, and that guy under center will set the tone for us because he’s going to try to be better this year than last year,” Christensen said.

Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates with quarterback Tom Brady (12) following a 30-yard touchdown reception during a game in January in Tampa.
Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates with quarterback Tom Brady (12) following a 30-yard touchdown reception during a game in January in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“I think he literally is going, ‘What a charmed, blessed, life. I’m going to run this thing all the way to the end. As long as I enjoy doing it.’ I don’t know anyone who had more fun than him last year. He had fun. Is it hard and a grind? Does he still get a kick out of playing football? Absolutely.”

Brady passed for 4,633 yards with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in the regular season, then added more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in the playoffs.

Staubach is right. Only Tom Brady does that. Only Brady could win his seventh Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa Bay and be favored the next year to win No. 8. How much longer can he do it? He says until he no longer plays well enough to win championships.

“I love physically to train and put myself in position to compete,” Brady said. “I love the mental aspect of the sport. I have a lot of fun doing it. It (brings) a lot of joy in my life. ... I have a great group of teammates, a great group of coaches. I’m really enjoying the camaraderie. And again, we get to play football so that brings us all a lot of joy.

“... I don’t think there is any aspect of me that believes what I’ve done last year means anything. I have to do it again this year.”

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