The NFL world hadn’t yet been turned upside down by the pandemic, but one tweet on March 17 caused a magnitude-12 earthquake from New England that would soon be felt far south:
“My football journey will take place elsewhere.”
Three days later, Tom Brady announced that he would be taking his talents to Tampa Bay. He signed his two-year, $50 million contract on March 20.
It was right then and there that Buccaneers GM Jason Licht provided a clinic for teams — are you listening, Jets? — on how you go about supporting your franchise quarterback, even one as legendary as Tom Brady. Licht was a Southeast-area scout for Bill Belichick when Brady was drafted in 2000.
“We took him in the sixth [round]. We didn’t need a quarterback at the time, [Belichick] and [GM] Scott Pioli had him much higher than that on the board,” Licht said. “Conversations started, if I recall correctly, in the third round.”
One month after Brady became a Buc, Licht traded a fourth-round pick to his old boss Belichick for unretiring tight end Rob Gronkowski and a seventh-rounder — the greatest modern-day tight end hopping aboard the GOAT’s Super boat with a one-year, $9 million deal that could reach $10 million with incentives.
“What really makes him special,” Licht said when Gronk signed, “is the fact that he’s a proven winner who brings that championship mindset and work ethic.”
Brady must have felt like a kid in the candy store with Gronk joining wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and fellow tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Remember, Brady spent a miserable 20th season under Belichick with the cupboard virtually bare.
When your new quarterback is Tom Brady, 43 years young when the season began, it is Super Bowl-or-bust from the owner to the janitor.
So the Bucs didn’t stop here.
The day after Gronk arrived, Licht and coach Bruce Arians jumped at the opportunity to draft right tackle Tristan Wirfs with the 14th-overall pick. Arians knew that he could effectively implement his no-risk-it-no-biscuit philosophy if Brady, an anachronism as the old-guard pocket quarterback, didn’t have something akin to five blocks of granite standing in front of him. Wirfs was the last of the Big Four tackles from the 2020 Class, and he was the best.
The Bucs didn’t stop here.
Just two days after power running back Leonard Fournette was released by the Jaguars, he was signed to a one-year, $2 million deal with incentives that could earn him $3.5 million to join Ronald Jones, veteran LeSean “Shady” McCoy and third-round draft choice Ke’Shawn Vaughn and juice a rushing attack that had averaged a league-worst 3.7 yards across the previous three years. And help Brady’s deadly play-action game.
“It’s fantastic to have people that want to win that’s running the organization,” Arians said. “From Day 1 when I met with them when I took this job, they were committed to winning, and I was sold that they were committed to winning.”
The Bucs didn’t stop here.
Off the field, Brady and Antonio Brown make for the Odd Couple. But on the field, Brady had been intoxicated by the troubled receiver’s talent — to the extent that a desperate Belichick signed him on the same day that the Raiders released him in 2019 following erratic behavior, to say the least.
Brown played one game with Brady and lasted 11 days in New England before his release amid allegations of sexual assault. Days before Halloween this season — trick or treat? — the Bucs signed him to a one-year deal as an insurance policy for a banged-up wide receiver corps. Brown’s $1.416 million prorated base salary earned him $749,647 with $1.75 million in incentives once his eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy had ended.
“This is something Jason and I have been talking about every couple weeks, ever since the injuries to our other guys,” Arians said. “When the time was right, we would see if we can pull the trigger and fit him into what we wanted to get done. And we’ll see. If Antonio does what I think he’s going to do, he’s going to be fine.”
Brady not only vouched for Brown, he housed him. Brady recognized and appreciated that Arians had bent over backward for him with a zero-tolerance policy. Remember, Arians had coached Brown with the Steelers, and when asked about him in 2019, said this: “Too much diva.”
Wirfs surrendered one sack in 769 pass-block sets, according to Pro Football Focus. Gronk (34 catches, 623 yards, seven touchdowns) wasn’t vintage Gronk, but he was Gronk nevertheless.
“If you’re having a bad day,” Licht said on Wednesday, “I suggest any of you just go spend a little time with Gronk. He just lifts you up, just by being him. … I tell my wife, ‘I can’t wait to go talk to Gronk at practice today.’ He’s being himself, he’s very authentic, he loves the game, and when it’s time to be serious, he’s very serious. There’s a lot of talk of what Tom has done for this locker room and it’s all warranted, but what Gronk has done for this locker room is equally as amazing. He’s just a great teammate, and loves life.”
Fournette (97-367-6 rushing, 36-233 receiving) was the lead back and safety valve for Brady once the playoffs began. Brown (45-483-4) missed the NFC Championship game (knee) but stayed out of trouble, and the club reportedly would welcome him back.
“It would have been very easy for owners to hold the reins back a little bit for reasons that go along with bring in a pandemic, but still wanting us to push forward,” Licht said on Wednesday, “because they [the Glazer family] wanted to be in the Super Bowl, they want to win it like we all did, but they want to do it for the fans.”
Licht praised director of football administration Mike Greenberg and director of football research Jacqueline Davidson for much of his belief that the Bucs will be in position to keep Brady comfortable beyond this season.
“We have some other elder statesmen on our roster, but we have a young, young team,” Licht said. “I wouldn’t say it changed on March 20. We’re still looking long term, and we still have to plan long term, the way we set things up.”
The franchise did right by its legendary franchise quarterback. And so the Bucs stop here. In their own backyard. At Super Bowl LV, against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.