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If the Bucs are honest with themselves, firing Byron Leftwich is just the beginning

John Romano | With Tom Brady likely heading out the door, Tampa Bay needs to stop chasing the past and focus on a new future.
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 20

TAMPA — Todd Bowles arrived at a painful decision Thursday morning. It won’t be the last.

Firing Byron Leftwich — along with several other dismissals and suspicious-sounding retirements — was not just a simple personnel decision. It was an necessary break with the past.

And I’m guessing there will be other, equally painful, calls to come. Calls that won’t be greeted so cheerfully by fans on social media.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Bucs have reached a crossroads. They have just completed the best three-season run in franchise history, and that should be applauded and appreciated.

But it should not blind the Bucs to what is ahead.

The current team is not good enough to compete for a Super Bowl, and there’s no simple path that will take them there. There are too many holes in the lineup, too many pending free agents on the roster and not enough draft picks to bridge the gap.

And that means accepting the inevitability of some rotten Sundays to come.

As distasteful as that seems, it is far better than chasing a fantasy with desperate, quick-fix solutions. The Bucs tried that a generation ago, and it set the franchise on a years-long journey to nowhere.

The Bucs turned old pretty quickly after winning the Super Bowl in 2002, but Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen kept putting patches on the tires, year after year, until they finally drove the team into a ditch.

They brought in 37-year-old Jeff Garcia. And 34-year-old Kevin Carter. And 34-year-old Joey Galloway. And 33-year-old Warrick Dunn. And 32-year-old Charlie Garner. And 34-year-old Chidi Ahanotu.

They were convinced that the Super Bowl core was good enough to win again, as long as they were supplemented by the right veterans. As it turned out, the Bucs went 17 seasons without winning another postseason game.

That’s your cautionary tale.

Tom Brady is not going to rescue this team in 2023. I doubt he’ll ever step foot in the AdventHealth Training Center again. If he doesn’t retire, he’s going to find a roster that better suits his needs.

So what’s the alternative? Jimmy Garoppolo? Derek Carr? Baker Mayfield? And who is going to block for a new quarterback? Because the offensive line was a disaster this season.

And what about the defense? Of the 16 players with the most playing time on that side of the ball, 10 are unrestricted free agents. That means 80 percent of their interceptions could walk out the door. And 60 percent of their passes defensed. And about 50 percent of their tackles and forced fumbles.

The Bucs might be able to re-sign a handful of those free agents, but they have got some salary-cap issues. Serious, season-altering salary-cap issues.

The Bucs manipulated the salary cap in recent seasons in order to sign as many of their free agents as possible while they still had a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. It was the right thing to do at the time.

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But the bills are coming due now, and it would be salary-cap malpractice to continue mortgaging the future in order to sign players for a team with this many holes.

The Bucs juggled Brady’s salary to free up needed dollars the past two offseasons, and the result is he will consume about $35 million of cap space in 2023 even if he moves on to another team. If Brady retires, the Bucs could do some accounting tricks to spread that $35 million over two seasons, but all that does is drag down 2024 as well.

Kinda makes the idea of bringing in someone like Garoppolo seem like a waste of time and money, huh?

The Bucs are better off making sure they secure their best assets for the future. Picking the right free agents (Anthony Nelson? Sean Murphy-Bunting? Jamel Dean?) to re-sign, and deciding whether players such as Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Logan Hall, Luke Goedeke and Robert Hainsey are the real deal.

It might also be time to turn the offense over to Kyle Trask. Either he’ll justify the second-round draft pick used on him in 2021, or the Bucs will know they need to search for a quarterback in the 2024 draft when they’ll presumably have a more attractive pick.

None of this sounds appealing in the shadow of a playoff loss, but it is reality.

The Bucs are the only team in the NFC to reach the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. And there’s a reason for that. It’s freaking hard to do.

Injuries, age and the salary cap force teams to take a step back to regroup all the time. Thanks to Brady and Bruce Arians — and, yes, to Leftwich and Bowles — the Bucs put it off longer than most.

But the time has arrived, and it shouldn’t be ignored.

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

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