TAMPA — When Tom Brady ended his retirement and announced he was returning to the Bucs for a third season, the expectation was Super Bowl rings and boat parades.
Instead, any Lombardi Trophy tossing seems unlikely and the only thing in danger of sinking is the team’s playoff chances.
The Bucs are 5-6 and host the Saints, a team that has held Tampa Bay to a total of three points in their last two meetings at Raymond James Stadium.
Brady refuses to accept that the story of the Bucs’ season is mostly written.
“We’ve got six games and everything will be determined by what we do going forward and I think that’s important for all of us to realize,” he said. “Every team faces different adversities and we’ve faced quite a few in different ways. ... No one likes the fact we’re 5-6. Believe me, we’re not celebrating any of that.”
Following Monday night’s game, the Bucs travel to San Francisco, then host the Bengals. It’s not hard to envision four straight losses and a dent in Brady’s sterling legacy.
How did the Bucs get here? How has what surely will be Brady’s final season in Tampa Bay ― if not the last of his 23-year career — turned into such a mess?
Before the Bucs try to right the ship, here’s where the leaks began.
Brady and personal time off
No one can begin to know how much emotional currency Brady spent while undergoing a very public divorce.
The split with his wife of 13 years, Gisele Bundchen, appeared amicable, and their children rightfully became the primary concern. Brady took 10 days off in the middle of training camp for personal reasons.
While his experience provides a personal cheat code, the way Brady prepares for a season ― physically and mentally with an emphasis on practice reps ― was interrupted.
About a month ago, recognizing he was out of sync with receiver Mike Evans and others, Brady requested the team revisit competitive, one-on-one passing drills.
Under head coach Todd Bowles, Brady didn’t expect to lead the NFL in passing attempts the way he did last season with 719. But here he is with 470 attempts to lead the NFL through 13 weeks. All this with a shoulder injury and banged-up ring finger on his throwing hand.
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No one earns more respect than Brady, who at 45 defies all norms of aging. But he has missed throws, too, and has gotten rid of the football more quickly than ever because he doesn’t seem to trust his protection. Brady says he’d rather lose games than be out with an injury. But it’s hard to make plays downfield if they don’t have a chance to develop.
Injuries and a flaw in roster building
Guard Ali Marpet retired at 28. Guard Alex Cappa was lost to the Bengals in free agency. Center Ryan Jensen sustained a significant knee injury the second day of training camp. Now tackle Tristan Wirfs (ankle) is out three to four weeks.
The Bucs had to turn to mostly young, inexperienced linemen to replace them.
Center Robert Hainsey played only 31 snaps as a rookie in 2021. The Bucs started rookie guard Luke Goedeke instead of veteran Nick Leverett the first seven games with mixed results.
The Bucs’ free-agent class consisted of players such as receiver Julio Jones, defensive end Akiem Hicks, safety Logan Ryan and tight end Kyle Rudolph. They have mostly been injured, unproductive or both. The oldest roster in the NFL showed its age immediately. And by going this route, the Bucs are $42 million over the salary cap for 2023.
Backing up those vets are mostly rookies and second-year players. There’s a cost in the salary cap era. Jones, Hicks, Ryan and even receiver Russell Gage have combined to miss 24 games. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett is lost for the season. Rudolph rarely plays. That has put a big load on rookies such as tight end Cade Otton, defensive end Logan Hall and others.
With Brady resigned to throwing short passes to avoid hits, the Bucs lack explosive plays. They struggle in third-down, short-yardage and red-zone situations. Receiver Mike Evans has only three touchdowns when he had 10 through 11 games a year ago.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s play-calling has been questioned by other staffers. Bowles, meanwhile, is a defensive head coach who trusts that side of the ball more. His clock mismanagement as time wound down in regulation in Cleveland showed that he didn’t trust Brady not to make a mistake (even though Brady has only two picks in 470 attempts).
The Bucs lost to a rookie quarterback with the Steelers (5-7) and undermanned Carolina (4-8) after they had traded away running back Christian McCaffrey.
If 5-6 becomes 5-9, no one is safe on this coaching staff.
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