TAMPA — We have reached the end of a season, and that is disappointing.
But as a stadium grew suddenly silent and an opposing team rushed onto the field to celebrate, it felt as if we may have come to the end of something far more haunting.
Have we passed the expiration date of reasonable hope and expectations for these Bucs? Have we already reached the end of an era that was as exhilarating as any this franchise has known?
More to the point, is this to be our final memory of Tom Brady in Tampa Bay?
If so, it was a fitting finale. Even if a frantic comeback fell short in the 30-27 loss to the Rams. Even if Brady walked away without a pause, wave or look backward.
So did the quarterback ever take a moment during Sunday’s game to consider the possibility that it might be his final time on a field as a player?
“No,” he said later, “I was thinking about winning.”
And that, more than anything, may determine whether Brady returns for the 2022 season. Brady’s career has always been defined more by victories than numbers, and the wins could be harder to come by for a team with 10 starters heading to free agency and with limited room under the salary cap.
Is it better for Brady to walk away after a 13-win season when he led the NFL in passing yards at age 44, or will he risk the possibility of missing the playoffs as a healthy starter for the first time since 2002?
“A lot of these guys are on the last year of their contracts,” said linebacker Lavonte David. “I was the last one to walk in (the locker room). Seeing the look in everybody’s eyes it was like, ‘This is a tough one.’ You hate to go out in such a manner.”
How did the Bucs go out?
Haphazardly. Recklessly. At times, foolishly.
Look, there is no shame in losing to a fabulously talented Rams team, especially with receiver Chris Godwin and tackle Tristan Wirfs out of the lineup with injuries. But the Bucs did themselves no favors by committing so many penalties and making so many unforced errors on both sides of the ball.
The pass rush rarely got to Rams quarterback Matt Stafford and the Bucs secondary looked clueless on too many plays. Cooper Kupp was wide open on a broken coverage that went for a 70-yard touchdown in the second quarter and then — inexplicably — was allowed to run straight past safety Antoine Winfield Jr. for a 44-yard reception to set up Matt Gay’s game-winning field goal on the final play.
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Brady, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically off-target on a lot of throws, although that may have had to do with the number of times the Rams defensive linemen were barreling down on him in the backfield. Even so, he finished with 329 yards passing and hit Mike Evans with a picture-perfect 55-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter that will fit nicely beside all his other remarkable comebacks.
But the truth is this was more of a Los Angeles collapse than a Tampa Bay rally. And when the Rams had to make plays in the final minute, the Bucs made it easy for them.
In a way, this game highlighted everything you have come to appreciate, and occasionally curse, about a Bucs team that revels in the idea of being more daring and less introspective than most.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles gambled with a six-man rush in the final seconds even though Stafford was the NFL’s best against blitzes. The result was the 44-yarder to Kupp.
“Never second guess,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said.
There is no way to paint this season as a success, even if the Bucs had a franchise-high 13 victories. Even if they were a minute away from another NFC Championship Game.
They had already set the bar high with a Super Bowl title last season and they made it clear that it was the lone goal this season after bringing 22 starters back to the huddle.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fond memories of a team that kept winning even as player after player landed in the trainer’s room. And it doesn’t mean there weren’t individual successes and impressive victories along the way.
What it means is that Arians, Brady and the rest of these guys changed the culture, the level of accountability and the expectations for a franchise during this two-year run.
It worked in 2020 and came up a little short this year.
“You build relationships with guys and to see them go out the way we did … some people are going to have to move on,” David said. “It’s going to be tough because this is the most tight locker room I have ever been around with the greatest chemistry.”
This team came together quickly and might fall apart the same way. But along the way, they had the best two-year run Tampa Bay has ever known.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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