TAMPA — The Tom Brady Era is done in Tampa Bay, and the capital E seems appropriate.
We have known more beloved athletes and we have appreciated longer relationships, but have we ever seen such an intense, impactful three-year journey?
It wasn’t just the Super Bowl or the sold-out crowds, it was the way Brady helped change a franchise’s reputation. After more than a decade of well-deserved ridicule, the Bucs were suddenly allowed to sit with the cool kids in the NFL’s cafeteria. And darned if they didn’t look good.
Think of it this way:
From 2009-19, the Bucs played 14 games in prime time. That’s 14 slots across 176 games in 11 seasons. During Brady’s tenure, including the postseason, 16 of Tampa Bay’s 57 games were in prime time.
He did not win a Super Bowl by himself, but he single-handedly changed the way America viewed the pewter and red.
So, here’s what I’m wondering:
Was this the best three-year performance in Tampa Bay history? When you take into account how well an athlete performed, how transformative it was for a team and the ultimate effect in the standings, was there any 36-month period that could match Brady’s time in Tampa Bay?
This is not a retired jersey or Ring of Honor or Mount Rushmore conversation. Those type of honors, typically, belong to athletes who made their names in a particular town or uniform. Brady’s legacy in the NFL was well-established before he ever crossed our border.
This, instead, is a specific question across a specific window of time.
Let’s dive in.
No. 12 Carlos Pena
In his favor: Pena was traded twice, released twice and played for five different teams between 2001-06. After arriving in Tampa Bay in 2007, he averaged 37 homers and 108 RBIs for the next three seasons while also winning a Gold Glove and hitting .264 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in the 2008 postseason.
On the other hand: After two top-10 finishes in MVP voting, his batting average tumbled to .227 in 2009, although he led the American League with 39 home runs.
No. 11 Ben Zobrist
In his favor: Redefined what versatility could look like. Zobrist wasn’t just a utility player, he was the ultimate utility player. Between 2009-11, only Albert Pujols and Evan Longoria had a higher WAR than Zobrist. He averaged 19 homers and 20 stolen bases while playing seven different positions.
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On the other hand: Slumped a little in 2010 and did not dominate in any one category, even though he got MVP votes in both 2011 and 2013.
No. 10 Lee Roy Selmon
In his favor: The first true superstar in Tampa Bay. The No. 1 pick in the 1976 draft, Selmon was the Defensive Player of the Year by 1979 when the Bucs went to the playoffs for the first time. His 35 sacks from 1977-79 were the fourth-most in the NFL in that span.
On the other hand: Named to only one Pro Bowl in those early years, but that was more of a perception problem in Tampa Bay than an accurate depiction of Selmon’s talents.
No. 9 David Price
In his favor: Three consecutive All-Star Games, a Cy Young Award in 2012 and a runnerup in 2010. Price went 51-24 over that span with a 2.93 ERA. The Rays won 90 games all three seasons. He and Justin Verlander were the only pitchers with at least 50 wins, 600 strikeouts and an ERA below 3.00.
On the other hand: Struggled in the playoffs in consecutive seasons against the Rangers in 2010-11. Went 0-3 with a 4.66 ERA in three postseason starts.
No. 8 Steven Stamkos
Seasons: 2009-10 through 2011-12
In his favor: Hard to pick which Stamkos era was more compelling. Do you go young, prolific scorer Stamkos, or mature, team leader Stamkos? We chose the younger version just because there has never been a goal scorer like him in Tampa Bay. Stamkos averaged 52 goals a season and led the league twice. Tampa Bay reached the Eastern Conference final when Stamkos was just 21.
On the other hand: Not as good on the defensive end earlier in his career. Wasn’t a huge factor in the playoff loss to Boston.
No. 7 Evan Longoria
In his favor: His first three seasons in the big leagues, Longoria won Rookie of the Year, made three All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves and was one of four players to finish in the top 20 of voting in AL MVP every year. The Rays went from last place in 2007 to the World Series in 2008 with Longo leading the way.
On the other hand: Hard to argue against. Between age, ability and contract, Longoria was the most coveted player in baseball in those early years.
No. 6 Martin St. Louis
Seasons: 2003-04 through 2006-07*
In his favor: Pick a stat during that period, and chances are St. Louis was among the league leaders. Goals, points, game-winning goals, plus-minus, shorthanded goals. St. Louis did it all. He was the league MVP in 2004 and a Selke candidate for the best two-way player in 2004 and 2007.
On the other hand: It was more of a labor/salary cap issue than an indictment of St. Louis, but the Lightning went five years without winning a playoff series after taking the Cup in 2004.
* The 2004-05 NHL season was wiped out by a labor war.
No. 5 Derrick Brooks
In his favor: He was already a star by this point, but Brooks took his game to another level the next few seasons. No other linebacker had the same combination of solo tackles (291) and interceptions (9) during that period. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, made the Pro Bowl all three seasons and was an Associated Press first-team pick twice.
On the other hand: If not for Ray Lewis, he would have been the best linebacker of his generation.
No. 4 Andrei Vasilevskiy
Seasons: 2018-19 through 2020-21
In his favor: The best goaltender on the planet during that span, and possibly before and after, too. Vasilevskiy went 105-34 in the net for those three years with a .922 save percentage and a 2.40 goals-against average. He led the NHL in all three categories, finished in the top three of the Vezina balloting every year and won the Conn Smythe in 2021.
On the other hand: Forget it. There are no complaints.
No. 3 Warren Sapp
In his favor: Had the requisite stats and awards but he was more than that. Sapp completely disrupted offenses with his dominance in the middle of the defensive line. He made Pro Bowl all three seasons, first-team Associated Press all three seasons and was Defensive Player of the Year in 1999. The only players with more sacks from 1999-2001 were edge rushers Michael Strahan and Jevon Kearse.
On the other hand: He was clever, entertaining and outspoken, but Sapp could also be an obnoxious boor.
No. 2 Victor Hedman
Seasons: 2017-18 through 2019-20
In his favor: The best defenseman in the NHL during this three-season span, and probably longer. Hedman finished in the top tree of the Norris Trophy all three seasons, winning it in 2018. Had a plus-83 rating in that time period. The next-closest player in the league was Brayden Point at plus-73.
On the other hand: There is no other hand. Hedman was as close to flawless as possible, and he topped it off by winning Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2020.
No. 1 Tom Brady
In his favor: The simplest way to explain it is the Bucs were 62-114 with zero playoff appearances in the 11 years before Brady arrived. They then went 32-18 with three consecutive postseason appearances, five playoff victories and one Super Bowl. Brady was second in the NFL in passing yards and third in touchdown passes during his three-year Tampa Bay stint.
On the other hand: A weakened offensive line combined with Brady’s lack of mobility ultimately doomed the Bucs in 2022.
Other players considered
Nikita Kucherov won an MVP Award in 2019 and has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic players, but his best three-year span was interrupted by a hip injury that wiped out his 2020-21 regular season. John Lynch is a Hall of Famer and Ronde Barber may very well be elected this month, but they did not dominate at quite the same level of Brooks and Sapp. You might use the same argument for Mike Evans and Simeon Rice. Blake Snell won a Cy Young Award but was too inconsistent otherwise. Carl Crawford was the first jewel from the Rays farm system, but a little shy of superstar status.
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