TAMPA — The head coach is at fault. But that’s not the story.
The offensive coordinator suddenly looks like he’s in over his head, the young offensive linemen seem to be regressing, and the receivers can’t get a step on anyone. But those are just details.
When historians are asked one day to put the 2022 Bucs season in perspective, there is one narrative that will override every other:
What was Tom Brady thinking?
What was going through his mind when listening to improper overtures from the Dolphins? What was happening when he disappeared in the middle of training camp? What was the rationale for blowing off a walk-through to attend a wedding before the 20-18 loss to Pittsburgh?
Furthermore, what was Brady thinking when he ended his brief retirement?
That’s all anyone really cares about, isn’t it? The NFL is Tom Brady’s universe, and we are just star gazers waiting for a glimpse of something remarkable.
And, who knows, maybe we’ll still see it. There are months remaining to get things right, and who wants to bet against the most successful quarterback in history?
But, for the moment, this is looking like a sequel that should have never been made.
Brady’s numbers are solid, but underwhelming. The Bucs are 3-3, which is the first time Brady has been .500 this deep into a season in 10 years. And Tampa Bay’s offense has tumbled into the bottom half of the league after scoring more points than any other team during Brady’s first two seasons.
Even more damning is the perception.
Brady has always been the epitome of quarterback chic. A few degrees cooler than the rest. When he got angry, it was because he was a competitor. When he threw things, it was because he was fiery. When he took time off … wait, did he ever take time off before?
Anyway, the point is Brady’s reputation for success is unblemished. Twenty years as a starting quarterback, and 20 winning records. Nineteen playoff appearances. Ten Super Bowls and seven wins.
It’s only mid-October so it’s silly to say those standards are in jeopardy, but minor incidents are starting to become part of the Brady narrative.
He threw his helmet and smashed a tablet against New Orleans. He was fined for kicking Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett after a sack. He screamed at his offensive linemen on the sideline in Pittsburgh.
And something as simple as attending a wedding party for Patriots owner Robert Kraft 36 hours before the Steelers game has taken on oversized significance for a team that has scored 21 points or fewer in five of their six games.
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Suddenly, there are whispers about Brady’s commitment. Suddenly, his sideline tirades are looking selfish and immature. Suddenly, Dudley Do-Right is not so flawless.
Is that a fair evaluation? Not entirely.
A lot of these things happen during the course of a season, and most go unnoticed because no one other than Brady gets paparazzi-like attention.
It’s also true that offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has to answer for game plans that are looking less and less imaginative. And the offensive line would be a complete disaster if Brady didn’t get rid of the ball so quickly. And injuries, like it or not, have played a part in all of this.
But no one cares if the costume designer or makeup artist is overwhelmed in Hollywood. They only want to talk about how Brad Pitt looked old in his last movie.
The moment he changed his mind about retirement, this became Brady’s show. Bruce Arians, for whatever reason, stepped aside. Free agents decided to play here. Fans bought season tickets.
And if this season turns out to be a 17-game struggle just to make the playoffs, the onus will be on Brady no matter how everyone else performs. That’s largely true of most quarterbacks, but it’s inescapable when you leverage your onfield success for as many off-field ventures as Brady.
So, is Brady struggling in 2022? Head coach Todd Bowles essentially avoided that question on Monday. Instead, he said everyone in the building needed to get better.
The pity, potentially, is that Brady could have walked away after last season without any doubt that he was still an elite quarterback even at 44 years old.
Now, at 45, everything is being called into question. Is he getting rid of the ball too quickly to avoid hits? Has his accuracy suffered? Is he dumping the ball off too much? Are the Bucs limited in play-calling because of Brady’s lack of mobility? Are defenses no longer worried about getting beat deep?
It’s still too early in the season for definitive answers.
All we know for sure is the Bucs are a mediocre team in mid-October and Tom Brady is their quarterback. By itself, that is a damnable circumstance.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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