TAMPA ― There aren’t many wishes the Bucs wouldn’t grant Tom Brady, who has put a Lombardi Trophy in the case, fans in the seats and money in the owners’ pockets.
But player empowerment isn’t restricted to the seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
The autocratic rule of the NFL is becoming a thing of the past in this era of free agency, social media and athletes having a bigger say in their destinies and destinations.
“Whatever organization figures out how to best deal with the new era of player empowerment is going to have a large competitive advantage,” said Joe Banner, the president of the Eagles for 13 seasons, who also worked in the front offices of the Browns and Falcons.
“There is no obvious answer to this, but it requires focus and an organizational plan that includes the owner and everyone under him.”
While the major day-to-day decisions are still made by general manager Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians, there is no doubt Bucs players have a louder voice than some around the NFL.
Arians understands that the best teams are led from the locker room.
“There’s no doubt about it. Players win games, coaches lose them,” Arians said. “I’ve never seen a very good football team where a coach had to lead them. You know what I mean? I’ve never been on one, anyway.”
In fact, in his first meeting with the team each fall, Arians makes it clear he wants his players to grasp more control.
“The first day he said, ‘This isn’t my team. This is ya’ll’s team. I’m just the coach. This team will go how the vets go,’ and that’s something we really take to heart,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. “A lot of the decisions around the building definitely comes from us.’’
The Bucs have a veteran-laden roster, with 16 players age 30 or older. The list includes Pro Bowl players such as David, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Rob Gronkowski and Ryan Succop. Many have earned enough money to last several lifetimes, so their focus is on winning championships.
Egos exist, but they’ve been put aside for the pursuit of back-to-back championships.
“Our team knows it’s about winning,” Arians said. “It’s not about individual stats. It’s about winning ballgames and winning championships. ... That part of it makes it easy on me, because it’s more about managing coaches.”
But to hand players more power, you must be willing to lose some.
Due to the long season, Arians didn’t push back when veteran players — including Brady ― didn’t want to attend organized team activities.
Instead, they worked out remotely or joined Brady in passing camps at the Yankees training facility about a half-mile away.
Arians wanted rookies and some players fighting for the remaining few roster spots to attend the voluntary offseason workouts, and they did for the most part. He even struck a deal with Brady to hold the passing camp at the team’s headquarters so players’ salaries would be guaranteed if they sustained an injury.
“He’s definitely made it a comfortable environment to come in and talk to him if you’re having issues and stuff like that,” David said. “It’s open dialogue for everybody. That’s why I respect the coaching staff so much. The defensive coordinator, the coaches, the head coach, there’s open dialogue. It definitely makes it more comfortable.”
Of course, personnel decisions rest with Licht, his staff and Arians. But it would be naive to think Brady didn’t campaign to have the Bucs trade for the rights to Gronkowski or sign then-suspended receiver Antonio Brown.
Arians coached Brown with the Steelers, where he twice led the NFL in receptions and was a seven-time Pro Bowl player. But Brown had become a bad teammate in Pittsburgh. He got into spats with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He was benched by coach Mike Tomlin after missing a practice before the final game of the 2018 season.
The bad behavior continued after Brown was traded to the Raiders before the 2019 season. After a series of missteps — burning his feet during cryotherapy and racking up $54,000 in team fines — he was released.
Brady and Brown played only one game together in New England in 2019, but they formed an instant bond.
After serving an eight-game suspension in 2020 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, Brown was reinstated and Brady approached the Bucs about adding him to the roster. He was persistent and vowed to take responsibility for Brown, even inviting him to live in the mansion his family was renting from Derek Jeter.
The Bucs’ other receivers, such as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller, were willing to sacrifice targets and touchdowns if it would help the team win, and Arians consulted them first.
When Brown needed three more receptions to reach 45 for the season and earn a $250,000 performance bonus, Brady called a few shovel passes to make sure his buddy was taken care of. That doesn’t happen without the blessings of the coaching staff and front office.
The Bucs also embraced Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, providing him with office space at the team headquarters. Roughly half the players utilize TB12 and head to the facility located a mile away.
Earlier this week, after a spirited non-contact practice in the indoor facility grew too competitive, Arians asked his team if they wanted to practice in pads on Sunday. They said yes.
The Bucs face enormous pressure trying to defend their Super Bowl title. But they’ve been empowered to make some decisions and have been consulted in others. It’s a player-led team, and the results speak for themselves.
“I think our coaches put us in a great position to be successful,” Brady said. “Our personnel department, Jason, has done a great job. We have a lot of continuity. ... That’s really all you can ask for as players is to be in the position we’re in.”