TAMPA ― The Bucs are 100 percent vaccinated, and yes, that means quarterback Tom Brady.
In fact, Brady confirmed he had COVID-19 in February, shortly after the Super Bowl 55 championship boat parade.
But while vaccinated, the Bucs aren’t totally immune to the virus or the results of the looser protocols in the NFL.
This year, vaccinated players are permitted to leave their hotels on the road and visit with family.
Four Bucs players already have gone on the reserve/COVID-19 list: kicker Ryan Succop, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and offensive linemen Nick Leverett and Earl Watford.
Before they could win the Super Bowl, the Bucs had to beat the virus. Teams battling COVID-19 was among the topics Brady discussed one-on-one with me. He thinks it will be a bigger story in 2021.
“You guys beat COVID last year. It’s still around. You’ve had it?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” Brady said.
“And I think it’s going to be challenging this year,” he continued. “I actually think it’s going to play more of a factor this year than last year, just because of the way what we’re doing now and what the stadium is going to look like and what the travel is going to look like and the people in the building and the fans.
“It’s not like last year, although we’re getting tested like last year. It’s going to be, I definitely think guys are going to be out at different points and we’ve just got to deal with it.”
Among the last players to get vaccinated was running back Leonard Fournette. Of course, it’s still a personal choice and Brady hasn’t been walking around sticking shoulders.
But when the quarterback who helped put a Super Bowl ring on your finger has had COVID-19 and is vaccinated, it may be a good idea to fall in line behind him.
The Bucs only had two real incidents of COVID-19 that cost players games last season. Ronald Jones missed games against Atlanta and Detroit, while Devin White was out for the season finale against Atlanta and the first playoff game at Washington.
Furthermore, coach Bruce Arians is there to enforce all the protocols. In many ways, that was one of Arians’ biggest contributions.
“He did an unbelievable job keeping this thing together during COVID,” quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. “He didn’t compromise, and it ended up being one of the huge advantages because we didn’t have any dips because of COVID, largely because of him. He had zero tolerance for cutting corners on the COVID protocol.
“He dog-cussed them. If he thought there was any slack whatsoever in us taking that thing for granted or letting down our guard, he snapped the team back to attention.”
Darden will get his spotlight
If you want to know where the Bucs can make the most improvement, it’s special teams.
The Bucs allowed 10.3 yards per punt return last season while averaging 5.9. They averaged 21.8 yards per kickoff return while allowing 33.6 yards, worst in the NFL.
They are putting their faith in rookie Jaelon Darden as the primary punt returner against the Cowboys Thursday.
Speed kills, and special teams coach Keith Armstrong said that is the thing the receiver from North Texas will bring to the Bucs’ return game.
“Wow, he’s sudden,” Armstrong said. “The speed. But sudden and the lateral quickness. He can make the first, the second and maybe even the third man miss. He does a really good job. He catches the ball well. You would’ve loved to have seen him manage some situations.”
That includes knowing when not to field the punt and communicating to your blockers to get away from the football.
“We either caught it, returned it or you fair caught it,” Armstrong said of the preseason. “He did a good job in plus-50 (yard line) situations. You never really saw him catching it at the 2, the classic rookie stuff which you’re like, ‘Okay, when is it coming, because you know it’s coming?’ You would’ve loved to have seen that happen already.
“But the things that you haven’t seen is when he’s had the ball on the first bounce and had to field it. Do I field this ball, the short punt, or do I take it off the second bounce? We really don’t field the ball off the second bounce. Just managing the game back there as the punt returner is where he’s going to grow, and the only way to do that is to put him out there and you’ve got to go through it.”
Are Saints the team to beat in the NFC?
The Bucs have another carrot to chase while defending their Super Bowl title. New Orleans has won the NFC South four years in a row and will try to do so again with former Buc Jameis Winston at quarterback.
In fact, and it’s been said by several people, the Saints may have won the Super Bowl last season if the Bucs hadn’t knocked them off.
“A great team that I say if they beat us, they win the Super Bowl,” Bucs linebacker Devin White said, “because it was that great of a team.”
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