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This Bucs season feels like waking up with a lottery ticket under your pillow

John Romano | Five months ago, Tampa Bay was staring at a rebuild. Now, Tom Brady is back and so are Super Bowl hopes.
Arriving football fans are reflected in a larger-than-life rendition of the Lombardi Trophy last September at Raymond James Stadium. Thirty-two teams began this day with hopes of winning the Lombardi. The Bucs, thanks to the return of Tom Brady, are one of only a handful that oddsmakers say have a legitimate shot of bringing the trophy home next February.
Arriving football fans are reflected in a larger-than-life rendition of the Lombardi Trophy last September at Raymond James Stadium. Thirty-two teams began this day with hopes of winning the Lombardi. The Bucs, thanks to the return of Tom Brady, are one of only a handful that oddsmakers say have a legitimate shot of bringing the trophy home next February. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 26|Updated Jul. 26

TAMPA — You might be worried about the Bucs defense. That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Jason Pierre-Paul is gone, and so is Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Whitehead. Lavonte David has a lot of mileage, and Devin White seemed to regress in 2021.

You might be worried about the coaching situation. That’s understandable, too. Todd Bowles is still unproven as a head coach, and Byron Leftwich is now flying solo as the offensive coordinator.

As Tampa Bay’s 2022 training camp is about to begin, you might dwell on a dozen other minor anxieties, complaints or imperfections.

Or … you can be euphoric.

Personally, I think that’s the way to go. The Bucs are Super Bowl contenders, and that feels like waking up with a lottery ticket under your pillow. Five months ago, Tom Brady was retired, the Bucs had multiple free agents on offense and the salary cap was bursting at the seams.

And now, somehow, they are Las Vegas darlings. Caesars and MGM both have Tampa Bay as the odds-on favorite to win the NFC. Betonline.ag has the Bucs as the team most likely to win a division title. Pro Football Focus lists the Bucs No. 2 behind Buffalo in its power rankings.

So, yeah, it’s important to appreciate this moment. To recognize this unexpected gift of a season.

Because, let’s face it, having a window of opportunity stay open this long does not often happen. At least, not around here.

Tampa Bay players celebrate their 31-9 win over the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. Can the Bucs get back to the big game this year?
Tampa Bay players celebrate their 31-9 win over the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. Can the Bucs get back to the big game this year? [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Bucs already have had their best two-year winning percentage (.727) in franchise history in 2020-21. They also won postseason games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever. To put it another way, the Bucs won six playoff games from 1976-2019. They won five in the past two years.

So, should you trust your heart to the hype?

Is it wise to have this much faith in a soon-to-be 45-year-old quarterback? In a head coach with a 24-40 record in his last stop with the Jets? In a lineup that could include seven new starters?

Yes, yes and yes.

I’m not saying there isn’t a decent possibility that this season goes sideways in a hurry. The schedule is pretty brutal and Brady cannot pull off this Dorian Gray impersonation forever.

But there are justifiable reasons for the optimism, and that’s due almost entirely to Brady’s return. He was the impetus for players like Ryan Jensen to re-sign and Russell Gage to come aboard. He also made it palatable for the Bucs to mortgage future salary caps in order to take one more shot at winning in 2022.

And that was absolutely the correct decision. The NFL record book is filled with examples of teams that placed too much faith in aging rosters to chase some misguided dream of confetti and parades. The Bucs of 2003-08 are a pretty good example of a franchise that deluded itself year after year.

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This is not the same thing. And if you need evidence, just consider what Brady is putting on the line.

Tom Brady said thumbs up to at least one more year with the Bucs.
Tom Brady said thumbs up to at least one more year with the Bucs. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

We’ve said it before, but Brady’s reputation in this game is inextricably tied to winning. He has had a 50-touchdown season and he has had a couple of 5,000-yard seasons, but it’s the Super Bowls and the 243 regular-season victories that set him apart from every other quarterback in NFL history.

He has had 20 years as a full-time starter, and his teams have finished with a winning record every single season. The last — and only — time he failed to make the playoffs as a starter was 2002.

So do you think Brady would put that legacy on the line if he did not think the Bucs had enough talent to have a legitimate shot at a January run?

He may have had his doubts about Tampa Bay earlier this year when he decided to retire — and it still seems entirely plausible that it was a ruse in order to leverage a trade elsewhere — but the Glazers and Bucs general manager Jason Licht made all the right moves to get Brady back for one more go-around.

And this does feel like the end of the line. Even if Brady decides to play in 2023, it seems almost certain that he will look for a new locale. And that’s fine. No hard feelings at all.

He may have used Tampa Bay as the escape route from New England that elevated him to otherworldly status in the NFL, but we’ve gotten more than we could have imagined in the bargain.

Brady brought respectability and relevance to a franchise that had very little of either.

And now, as a parting gift, he’s brought one more season of hope and glory.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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