TAMPA, Fla. — While at the NFL combine last month, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians was asked: Of all the free-agent quarterbacks, which one would you pick up the phone to recruit? He did not hesitate.
“Tom Brady,” Arians said with a chuckle.
Three weeks later, in what might go down as one of the most improbable moves in all of sports, Arians’ Hail Mary attempt landed the six-time Super Bowl winner and perhaps the greatest of all time.
Aside from one or two national pundits pegging the Bucs as a dark horse in the race to land Brady, the Bucs appeared to be a long shot. They haven’t been to the postseason since 2007 and have produced only two winning seasons in the past decade.
But the Glazers, who have owned the Bucs since 1995, have always swung for the fences, even if it has meant striking out. Although they liked quarterback Jameis Winston, it didn’t take much to sell them on Brady, who could immediately invigorate a franchise that not long ago was subject to league blackout rules because of poor attendance.
This is the same organization that went after coaches Bill Parcells (twice) and Bill Cowher, and nearly landed Chip Kelly before settling on Greg Schiano. The Bucs also orchestrated massive trades for Jon Gruden and Keyshawn Johnson to grab a Super Bowl in 2002.
Now Brady leaves New England for warmer weather in a state with no income tax. That’s attractive, but it was 67-year-old Arians — the two-time NFL Coach of the Year, who has been known to greet players with, “Hey, babe” and celebrate wins in the parking lot after games — who offered Brady the greatest appeal: a change in scenery and a totally different coaching style from Bill Belichick’s. Make no mistake about it: Arians’ teams work hard and are coached hard, but they have fun, too.
There’s a certain irony, as adding Brady officially signifies the end of Winston’s reign as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback. Winston has long considered meeting Brady one of the highlights of his young career. The two squared off in a nationally televised Thursday night game in 2017, with Brady’s Patriots holding off the Bucs 19-14.
Winston said at the time, “I dream to be able to be the type of quarterback he is for his team to our team.”
The Bucs hoped Winston could blossom into the franchise quarterback, selecting him first overall in the 2015 NFL draft. But turnovers plagued him, just as they did in college. His 88 interceptions and 111 turnovers are both the most of any player in the league since 2015.
Winston led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019, but also became the first NFL quarterback to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions — and those 30 interceptions simply became too much for the organization that has insisted it is not rebuilding and is in “win-now” mode under Arians.
The questions that must be answered now are: Can Brady replicate his Patriots’ magic without Belichick? How does Arians’ “No risk it, no biscuit” system fit the 42-year-old passer known more now for carving teams up underneath?
Winston averaged 8.16 yards per attempt last year — sixth-most in the league — and Brady averaged 6.62, which was 27th. Only twice have Arians’ offenses averaged fewer than 7 yards per attempt per season. Winston also attempted 48 passes of 30 or more air yards last season, and Brady attempted quite a bit less than half that, with 19. Arians’ teams have never attempted fewer than 26 passes of 30-plus air yards in a season.
So, yes, Arians would have to adjust his system for Brady. But as much as Arians loves letting it rip, he has another mantra: “You can’t go broke putting more in the bank” — meaning any completion is a positive play. The trade-off is he’s getting a quarterback who has never thrown more than 14 interceptions or turned the ball over more than 17 times in a season. And that quarterback will have one of the best receiver duos in the league with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
How will Brady function behind an offensive line that surrendered 47 sacks last year — one off from tying a league-high 48? There’s a good chance the Bucs will use a high draft pick on an offensive tackle, possibly even their first-rounder, in April’s draft. They’re also looking to upgrade a ground game that averaged just 3.72 yards per carry last season — 28th in the league.
This question must also be raised, and it won’t be answered for a while: How would it ultimately shape Brady’s legacy as arguably the greatest quarterback of all time if he can’t turn Tampa Bay into a winner?