With Tom Brady’s official retirement announcement Tuesday the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are now in a lurch. The team mortgaged its future for a win-now approach with Brady’s arrival in 2020, and it worked. The plan won a Super Bowl, and nobody can fault them for it — but now it’s time to face an uncertain future.
So much of Tampa Bay’s ethos over the last two years has centered on Brady’s mystique, using him as a catalyst to bring in other aging superstars looking for a ring late in their career. To the team’s credit, they didn’t give up draft capital to put themselves in a winning position, but it has prevented the team from locking up young free agents to longer contracts as a result.
The team has an astonishing 25 free agents set to hit the market, and while the bulk are rotational role players, there are some key pieces like WR Chris Godwin, DT Ndamukong Suh, and C Ryan Jensen also hitting the open market. Couple this with the presumptive retirement of Rob Gronkowski, and he sails off into the sunset with Brady, and the Bucs are setting up for a huge drop-off in 2022. Or, at least, it should be. There are really two scenarios moving forward, and it’s going to be fascinating which path Tampa Bay goes down.
The first is the traditional rebuild, letting the majority of the high-profile free agents go. In this case one has to believe the team would want to re-sign Godwin, because you don’t let a 26-year-old, 1,000-yard receiver walk if you can possibly avoid it. From there you build through the draft, sign some promising young rotational players, and roll some cap space into 2023 when you’ve had a better chance to evaluate the roster.
In this scenario a lot falls of second year QB Kyle Trask. The Buccaneers selected him in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and he went utterly ignored all year, because playing behind Tom Brady will do that. However, there are some glimmers of hope. Trask was given extensive playing time in the final preseason game of last season, and he absolutely shined — completing 12 of 14 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown. Yes, he was playing against the Texans’ backups. Absolutely nobody should read too much into a preseason game, but it’s on the Buccaneers who have seen him week-in-week-out to determine if he can shoulder the load in year two.
This really is not a bad path, because the NFC South is an absolute flaming dumpster fire. There is no doubt that it is the worst division is football, and really by quite a large margin. The Saints are in cap hell and just lost Sean Payton, the Falcons are floundering around with no real direction, and the Panthers are so profoundly dysfunctional right now it’s going to take years to fix their mess.
The point is: Even with a rebuild, the Buccaneers could still win the damn division. That’s how bad the NFC South is. At the very least the retained talent on their roster should be able to push the Falcons, and I guess maybe the Saints, assuming New Orleans has some sort of plan in place.
The second scenario for Tampa Bay, and the far more dramatic one, is that they try to roll this all forward. The team makes another big play for an established QB to go all-in again. What that looks like is difficult to envision right now. Perhaps the Packers could be convinced to trade Aaron Rodgers to an NFC team, though that seems unlikely. Maybe Russell Wilson decides he wants out of Seattle, but that also feels like a long shot.
There are some weird potential half-steps too, like making a play for Kirk Cousins if the Vikings decide to rebuild, or getting Jimmy Garoppolo from the 49ers — though it’s difficult to envision either of them being able to lead Tampa Bay to a championship. Really, this is about getting an established QB in the system. Someone who has a similar aura to Brady where players are going to want to come to Tampa Bay because of them, and try to recreate the magic of 2020 once more.
For the record, I think this would be a bad move. The bold all-veteran approach worked once, and it was a paradigm shift for the NFL. I’m not sure the Rams would have traded for Matthew Stafford and signed their veterans had Brady and the Buccaneers not won the Super Bowl, but catching that lightning in a bottle is such a risky proposition. The Rams were in a very, very different situation when they traded for Stafford than the Buccaneers are in now. They were younger on defense, had dozens of established developed talent in the fold, and were really just a QB away from competing.
Instead Tampa finds itself needing to plug so much positions across both sides of the ball that it really would take an Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson to make free agents want to come to the Buccaneers, even taking pay cuts in the process to make it all fit together. It’s possible, sure, but I wouldn’t take it to the bank.
If that didn’t happen or pay off, and the Buccaneers settled for a half step, they’d just be miring themselves in mediocrity for a season or two, while young players didn’t have time to get reps or be evaluated, and there would be nothing to show for it. Instead the incredible weakness of the NFC South should be leveraged into rebuilding and competing at the same time, a luxury almost no teams in the NFL ever have. You can keep fans happy, and get a chance to see what Trask has to offer before needing to make a long-term decision on the QB position.
As a whole the NFC is on the brink of huge rebuilds across some of the conference playoff stalwarts. The youth shift in the AFC happened far earlier, which is why we’re seeing teams like the Bills and Bengals in the mix. Meanwhile the NFC is very much in limbo, waiting to see while rebuilding team got it right and is ready to ascend.
The Buccaneers owe it to themselves, and their fans, to see if they can be one of them.