TAMPA, Fla. – After his 40-day “retirement,” Tom Brady is back with you-know-what: the desire to add to his collection of seven Super Bowl rings and make another run in what may be his final NFL season.
No, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers iconic quarterback can’t do it alone.
Since last season’s attempt to repeat as champions fizzled with a dramatic loss to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams in the NFC divisional playoffs, the Bucs have been forced to tweak the supporting cast on offense around Brady. That happens. The NFL is so fluid.
You don’t have to remind Brady, entering his 23rd NFL season, of what it will take for his unit to develop the chemistry that helps the Bucs fashion themselves again as legitimate contenders.
“I think just steady improvement,” said Brady, who turns 45 on Wednesday. “Just getting better every day. It’s harder if you take one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, two steps back. You can start at a lower point, but if you make progress every day, you get to a good point.”
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Will the adjustments with Brady’s offense – complemented by efforts on defense and special teams – pay off with another crown?
Gronk is gone
As was the case with Brady, Bucs general manager Jason Licht says he will “leave the light on” for former All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski to change his mind about retirement and make a return.
“Yeah, but I’m not thinking about it,” Licht told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not badgering him. We’re moving forward, but I’m just like everybody else: We’ll see if he changes his mind.”
Seeing that Gronkowski came out of retirement in 2020 to rejoin Brady, Bucs fans can harbor hope that, say, the Gronk comes back for the stretch run. In the meantime, 12th-year veteran Kyle Rudolph (6-6, 265 pounds) – undoubtedly inspired by perhaps his best chance yet to win a ring while teaming with Brady – comes aboard as a big red zone target to team with fellow tight end Cameron Brate.
More targets, less drama?
Wide receiver Justin Gage, a former Atlanta Falcons target who signed as a free agent, has been a star during the early stages of camp with his quickness and fluidity. As new coach Todd Bowles put it, “I don’t think we’ve covered him yet.”
Then there’s another ex-Falcon to watch: Julio Jones. Although hamstring problems have hampered the 12th-year vet in recent seasons, let Gage describe the best-case scenario: “A healthy Julio is still a problematic Julio.”
The Bucs could use that, with Chris Godwin not expected to return from his torn ACL until well into the season, and more reliable targets needed to reduce the double-team coverages on go-to star Mike Evans. With Scotty Miller, free agent addition Breshad Perriman and emerging young receivers Tyler Johnson, Cyril Grayson, Jr. and Jaelon Darden in tow, the receiving corps appears to be such a strength that Evans says it could be the deepest group he’s played with yet as a Buc – and this without the drama that ensued last season as Antonio Brown flamed out.
The new sheriff
Although Bruce Arians still has a presence at One Buc Place – he zipped around camp practices in his familiar golf cart – Bowles replaced his mentor with the task of guiding a Super Bowl contender that contains the greatest Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever.
While Bowles, the former defensive coordinator, will still call the plays for the defense, he will essentially have a hands-off policy when it comes to Brady and the offense. Coordinator Byron Leftwich will still call the plays, bolstered by key assistants Harold Goodwin, Clyde Christensen and consulting guru Tom Moore.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of offensive coaches who understand that,” Bowles told USA TODAY Sports. “I can give them different perspectives on what I see for how they are trying to attack them.”
Of course, Bowles will also have the final say – or his own version of “no risk-it, no biscuit” – when it comes to deciding to let Brady go for it at a pivotal point in the game when it’s fourth-and-three.
The Bucs suffered a major blow when All-Pro center Ryan Jensen was carted off last Thursday with a significant left knee injury.
Rather than sign a veteran free agent, the Bucs are showing confidence in the possibility that second-year pro Robert Hainsey can handle the job, with second-year guard Nick Leverett also in the mix. Hainsey played tackle at Notre Dame, but was tabbed by the Bucs to move inside after he was drafted in the third round in 2021.
“He has the mind of a center,” Licht says.
The Bucs were already pressed to shore up the interior line, given the loss of their two starting guards from last season (Pro Bowler Ali Marpet, 28, unexpectedly offseason retired; Alex Cappa left as a free agent) and now the issue is compounded by Jensen’s injury, expected to sideline him for months, if not the entire season – which for the Bucs could hinge on whether they can protect Brady from hard rushes up the middle.
“It’s not like it happened in Week 6 or 7, where they get two days of practice and you’re throwing them out there,” Bowles said. “We’ve got some time to get a good idea of what we want to get and get them seasoned.”
Beyond the skill, the Bucs will miss Jensen as a leader and enforcer.
“The way Ryan approaches every day and every game is with a mentality that he is the baddest dude on the field, and he usually is,” Hainsey said. “I’m not Ryan Jensen – that’s not who I’m trying to be. I have to be myself. But that chip on his shoulder that he plays with, if I’m out there, I want to have a little bit of that myself because I owe that to him to continue that presence.”
With huge ramifications.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.