The Bucs’ long road ahead begins without Tom Brady

Coach Todd Bowles said after the playoff loss that he hopes players don’t choose comfort over commitment.
Published Feb. 1|Updated Feb. 2

TAMPA — There never will be another Tom Brady. The Bucs knew their time with the future Hall of Famer would be short, and it proved sweeter than anyone could have hoped.

A Super Bowl 55 championship, three straight playoff appearances and two NFC South titles later, they can only hope that all that winning created a culture that will continue long past Brady’s retirement, which he announced Wednesday for the second, and what he said is final, time.

Perhaps coach Todd Bowles was prescient the day after the Bucs lost 31-14 in the wild-card round to the Cowboys this season. Addressing his 2022 team for the final time, Bowles sounded as if he feared players might choose comfort over commitment.

“Those who come back, we’ve got to create new culture, new chemistry and new camaraderie,” he said. “We’ll have new people coming in. If you’re lucky enough to come back or privileged enough to come back, be ready to work.”

No one worked harder than Brady, even at age 45. But he leaves an enormous vacuum with the Bucs that must be filled, not just at quarterback but in leadership.

“One of the things that strikes you is what his teammates say about (Brady) from every place he’s ever been, from high school to the Bucs,” former Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. “They saw a work ethic and humility and (a) bar that was set the highest for himself and pretty darn high for everyone around him. He chased winning and had a joy about it. There’s not that many guys who are so driven and do it with the joy he had about his job.”

Related: Tom Brady had a career for the ages, and the rest of us had the time of our lives

The Bucs’ challenge is to continue what Brady’s biggest contribution was: winning. The Bucs aren’t eager to return to their losing ways post-Brady.

“You can’t get another Tom Brady — anywhere,” outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett said after the Bucs’ 2022 season ended. “No matter how hard you try. No matter how many years, I don’t think anybody will ever do what Tom did.”

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13), quarterback Tom Brady (12) and wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) huddle up during an October game against the Chiefs.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13), quarterback Tom Brady (12) and wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) huddle up during an October game against the Chiefs. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Before Brady’s arrival, the Bucs had not qualified for the playoffs for 12 consecutive years and enjoyed only two winning seasons. Fewer than two dozen players remain from the 53-man roster that won Super Bowl 55 with Brady, and there stands to be even fewer next season.

“Nobody likes this feeling, from the top on down,” Barrett said following the wild-card loss. “So we’re going to fix it and do whatever it takes so we can easily make the playoffs next year and make some noise in the playoffs instead of barely making it in.”

Related: Bucs quarterback Tom Brady retires for good this time

Those are ambitious goals, especially considering how many changes the Bucs are about to undergo as a result of borrowing from the future to enjoy the Brady years.

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Tampa Bay is $55 million over the $224.8 million salary cap for 2023 despite having 24 players set to become unrestricted free agents in March.

Brady’s retirement could help alleviate some of that strain. He counts $35 million against the salary cap next season in dead money though his career apparently has ended, the result of adding voidable contract years to help sign other free agents.

The Bucs can now utilize a process that would spread that amount over the next two seasons, with Brady costing $11 million on the salary cap in 2023 and $24 million in 2024.

The Bucs had the oldest team in the NFL this season, with more than half the starters on defense coming from players who can be free agents. They also have a number of issues to solve before training camp.

Chief among them: Who is the quarterback now?

Quarterback Kyle Trask, left, drops back to pass as Tom Brady looks on during training camp last July.
Quarterback Kyle Trask, left, drops back to pass as Tom Brady looks on during training camp last July. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Kyle Trask is the only quarterback under contract for 2023. That certainly will change. The Bucs could opt to re-sign potential free agent Blaine Gabbert and let them battle it out.

Trask, a former Florida star who was taken with the last pick in the second round of the 2021 draft, has appeared in only one regular-season game, in mop-up duty at Atlanta in this season’s finale. He completed 3 of 9 passes for 23 yards.

Trask has worked hard for two seasons and likely picked up pointers sitting in the quarterbacks meeting room with Brady. Though he has been active for only two regular-season games, he routinely has been the first player on and the last off the practice field.

He has earned plenty of praise from Bowles for his work ethic and mental toughness.

Related: A look at the last details of Tom Brady’s 23-year NFL career

“Since he’s been here, every time I look out my window, he’s out there working on his own,” Bowles said of Trask a few weeks ago. “When his time comes, he’s going to be ready because I see him working at it every day.

“He has inner toughness, he has inner strength, and he has the drive and the will to win. If you put that together, given the opportunity, I think he’s going to take advantage of it.”

The Bucs also have the option of trying to acquire another quarterback. Baker Mayfield, Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold and Jacoby Brissett can be free agents.

And now that Brady’s future is no longer in limbo, perhaps a new offensive coordinator will be hired quickly.

Byron Leftwich was caught up in a coaching purge by the Bucs after the team's exit in the first round of the playoffs.
Byron Leftwich was caught up in a coaching purge by the Bucs after the team's exit in the first round of the playoffs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Days after losing to the Cowboys, Bowles fired offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and five other assistant coaches, most on offense. Three other assistants, including Christensen, retired.

The Bucs have interviewed seven assistant coaches for offensive coordinator, including Georgia’s Todd Monken. He was the Bucs’ offensive coordinator from 2016-18 under head coach Dirk Koetter but called plays only in his final season in Tampa Bay.

Monken is the highest-paid college assistant at $2.01 million per year. He worked one season with the Browns under head coach Freddie Kitchens as offensive coordinator, in 2019, but didn’t call plays. He did, however, take a special liking to Mayfield.

Other strong candidates for offensive coordinator include Giants quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney, who is credited with helping Daniel Jones lead his team back to the playoffs and a win at Minnesota in the wild-card round this season.

Jaguars passing-game coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has had plenty of success helping develop quarterback Trevor Lawrence and was successful coaching Matthew Stafford in Detroit. Broncos quarterback coach Klint Kubiak, the son of former Texans and Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, has the pedigree if not the production with Russell Wilson this season.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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