Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Buccaneers organization, Bucs fans around the world and those of you who will henceforth know Tampa Bay as Tompa Bay:
It has been a celebrated offseason in Tampa, and not just because of the new uniforms that pay homage to the best period in franchise history. Bringing in a quarterback many believe to be the best in NFL history was kind of a big deal. Tom Brady comes to a team that has long been starved for a franchise signal-caller. The history of the Buccaneers' organization is filled with quarterbacks who have tried -- and failed -- to deliver a Super Bowl.
Well, not you, Brad Johnson.
But in short, this is a historic time for the Buccaneers. Let's dig in.
How the Buccaneers got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2019.
- Jameis Winston threw for 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Winston became the eighth quarterback in NFL history to top 5,000 passing yards in a season.
- Jameis Winston also threw 30 interceptions. He was the first player in NFL history to have both 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in a season. Winston also had the most pick-sixes (seven) in a season since at least 1950.
Look, for most teams in this series, we spend more time in this section, looking back at what transpired last year. But you added Tom Brady. Nobody really cares about the past right now.
Head coach: Bruce Arians. Rob Gronkowski referred to Arians as a "football master" when he talked about his new coach, and that fits. Arians is one of the best coaches on the planet right now, and any team would be lucky to have him. (I'm not getting into the Bears passing on him, though.) It's funny to think these last couple of years almost eluded Arians, who might not have ever gotten a head-coaching gig if the situation didn't present itself in Indianapolis a few years back. Now he's one of those splendid stories of a guy who achieved his greatest success later in his career. Like the Bryan Cranston of the NFL. (If we're casting actors to play NFL coaches, we just nailed it.) But I will say this about Arians (because you can take my word for it): Brady is in Tampa Bay because of Arians. Maybe not 100 percent because of Arians. But the coach was definitely a check in the pros column, if TB12 filled out a pro-con list. Like Ted Mosby used to do on How I Met Your Mother. And of course, one of the actors to play Ted's boss in the series? Bryan Cranston. Boom. The Bucs are winning the Super Bowl. Alright, maybe I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
But the Buccaneers performed well during Arians' first year in Tampa Bay. The Bucs gained 6,366 total yards, which was the second-highest total in club history. So, you can look at Winston's season and recognize that it was a mixed bag. The Bucs were third in total offense and scoring offense. And you have to imagine it's going to be a little bit better in 2020 because of ...
Quarterback: Tom Freaking Brady. I'll be honest. I didn't think this would ever happen. Even though letting go of the greatest quarterback in history is so on brand for Bill Belichick. The guy has the sentimentality of Thanos. He snaps his fingers and it's like half of his roster disappears. All of the great Patriots of the past 20 years have moved on and finished their careers in some other place, and Brady became the latest to follow that trend, even though it seemed like Brady and Belichick would be there forever. This happens to a lot of the great quarterbacks, going back over the span of NFL history. Joe Montana finished with the Chiefs. Peyton Manning ended up in Denver. Jay Cutler played for the Dolphins. Absolute legends finishing their careers in odd uniforms. It happens.
The question is, which version of Tom Brady are we getting at 43 (what his age will be at the start of the season)? Because getting Brady at 43 might be a little bit like showing up to a party a few minutes before it shuts down, when people are all, "You should have been here a few hours ago." Dave Grohl showed up and did an acoustic set. Gordon Ramsay was making small plates. Now you're there, and there's just three dudes hanging out in the corner, and the only drink left is White Claw. Now, that's not to say you can't have a delightful time. And maybe your presence is enough to get the party going again. Because one of the last times we saw Brady, he was losing at home to Miami (which cost the team a first-round bye). And that playoff loss to Titans was painful to watch. Like Muhammad Ali in some of his later fights.
But you could also see this working out well for Brady, because there is nothing like a fresh start to reinvigorate you. Getting out and playing in the Florida sunshine later in the year instead of the dreary cold of New England has to help. Plus, look at the receiving corps. It's the best Brady has had since 2007. And Gronk is joining the fun. To me, it would be a lot like dating Rachel Hunter. It might not be Rachel Hunter when she was the SI swimsuit cover girl in 1994, but it's still Rachel Hunter. This is going to be amazing.
Projected 2020 MVP: Brady. I mean, can it be anybody but Brady at this point? I can't even halfheartedly try to pick somebody else. Although it's probably going to be more important for the defense to come through here, but we can talk about that in a minute.
2020 breakout star: Jamel Dean, cornerback. He made his true debut later in the season against the Seattle Seahawks, when he started for the injured Carlton Davis III. It didn't go well. He gave up three touchdown passes -- and yeah, that was the good part. But he did play well down the stretch, as the Bucs' defense really started to excel in the secondary. He could take another big step this season.
Another new face to know: Rob Freaking Gronkowski. I don't ever remember in my life seeing a rumor suddenly surface and immediately come true in the way that Gronk is interested in returning to football and playing with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay did. I mean, dudes were still tweeting "Believe it when I see it" when the deal was finalized, giving Cold Takes Exposed some instant material. It's remarkable. I wish all trades could happen that quickly.
And yes, Arians has never had a prolific tight end during his coaching career. He also has never had a player like Gronk who can get up the seam like the best wide receivers. What I'm excited to see is how Arians uses Gronk as a blocker, because that has long been the more underappreciated part of the tight end's game.
The 2020 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: OFF THE CHARTS. You don't pull moves like this to win the NFC South. You do it to win the Super Bowl. Bruce Arians didn't come back to coaching because he likes the pressed Cuban sandwiches in Ybor City. The idea is to win now. Like immediately.
Three key dates:
- Week 1 at New Orleans. We are wasting no timing getting into one of the most anticipated games of 2020. Brady and Brees in the first of (at least) two.
- Week 7 at Las Vegas. It's been 20 years. Jon Gruden still doesn't see the humor in the Tuck Rule. And please don't bring this up to Amy Trask, either.
- Week 12 vs. Kansas City. Good to see the Tom Brady-Patrick Mahomes rivalry is going to get one more chance. At least. Maybe this could be a Super Bowl preview. Though even the Jags and Bearscould be a Super Bowl matchup. But we're being more realistic here.
Will the Bucs be able to ...
Fit the offense to Brady's current skill set? We all know Arians loves to throw the ball downfield. "No risk it, no biscuit," as the saying goes. But this isn't 2007 Tom Brady. The current incarnation has relied on a strong running game while throwing shorter passes. Per Next Gen Stats, Brady averaged 7.6 air yards per attempt last year. Still better than quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Jimmy Garoppolo. But still well behind Jameis Winston, who was second in the NFL (among those with a minimum of 200 pass attempts) with 10.7 air yards per attempt. The thing is, Arians is no dummy. He's not going to force Brady to do something he's not comfortable doing. I anticipate the coach and quarterback working well together. Arians has worked well with other strong personalities like Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer in recent years.
A quick fantasy note: Brady's affinity for shorter passes should make Chris Godwin your first receiver off the board. Godwin had a career-high 86 receptions last year, but I would consider him a lock for 100 if he plays all 16 games this year. You can thank me later.
Avoid the fate of other "super teams" of the past? A lot of the internet haters love to point out what happened in Cleveland last year. And if you've followed this series, you know the Cardinals are a better comparison to what happened with the Browns last year. The Bucs have the greatest quarterback of all time. The greatest tight end of all time. They have a former Coach of the Year who has won Super Bowls in the past (as an assistant). That's not to say there couldn't be injuries or some of the other unforeseen turns that derail teams. But if you're thinking there is going to be the dysfunction that riddled the Browns last year, yeah, that's not happening in Tampa Bay. Find some new material, trolls.
Fix the offensive line? If there is one spot where a Browns comparison might be apt, it is on the offensive line. One of the biggest problems the Browns had was on the offensive line, so it might be crucial to address these needs. Drafting Tristan Wirfs will certainly help offset the loss of Demar Dotson. The line will also be crucial because you need to run the football. And both the Bucs and Tom Brady will want to use play-action as much as possible. That doesn't work if you can't run the ball, or at least make teams feel like you can run the ball. That's where Wirfs is going to be huge.
Run the ball? We all thought the Bucs were going to take a lot of different RB prospects early in the draft. Jonathan Taylor. Cam Akers. J.K. Dobbins. D'Andre Swift. Instead, Tampa waited until Round 3 and went with Ke'Shawn Vaughn. He could end up moving past Ronald Jones II, the Bucs' lead back last year, when they finished 24th in rushing. But also keep an eye out for Dare Ogunbowale.
One storyline ...
... people are overlooking: The defense is kind of good. Sure, the Bucs finished 15th in total defense last year. But they were first against the run. And even though their final ranking was 30th against the pass, they were much better at the end of the season. The Bucs' defense didn't allow a quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in a game from Week 11 on. This came after allowing quarterbacks to top 300 passing yards in six of the first 10 games. A big reason was the pass rush. The team's 47 sacks were the second-highest total in club history. Shaquil Barrett had 19.5 sacks, a club record. Vita Vea has been a force in the middle. Lavonte David is a stud. And the cornerback trio of Jamel Dean (our breakout candidate), Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting could be very good. Funny, the uniforms aren't the only thing that's starting to resemble the Tony Dungy/Jon Gruden era.
... people are overthinking: Keeping everybody happy. I know, it's awesome when you get a quarterback like Brady, but he's probably not going to throw for 5K like Jameis did. It's great that Gronk is aboard. Who is going to get all of the red-zone looks? And I know this is mostly coming from a selfish, fantasy-stat place, but we've seen instances where players have complained about not receiving enough looks. I get all of that. I really do. But when you're playing with the best quarterback of all time, you're going to look like an absolute clown if you're whining about touches while your team is winning games. The main complaints will likely come from fantasy managers and less from the guys on the field. Because this is a team that is not set up to endure BS, but rather to win games.
... people are forgetting: Jameis famously threw 30 interceptions last year. Brady has 29 interceptions in his last four seasons combined.
For 2020 to be a successful season, the Bucs MUST:
Win the Super Bowl. That's the only goal that matters. Tom Brady is trying to show the world that he can win without Bill Belichick. Bruce Arians would love to win a title of his own, as a head coach. And Gronk ... Yeah, I'm not sure what Gronk wants. But he would be the first person to win the Super Bowl and the WWE 24/7 title within a one-year period. Well, unless Mike Evans takes that WWE belt from him. (And I know exactly what I just did by calling it a belt, the thing Vince McMahon absolutely hates. Well, that and CM Punk.)
These are exciting times to follow this team. You should enjoy it. I'm a fan of the Lakers, and it was amazing watching LeBron James this season. Everybody liked to pretend that he was washed, but he came out and was pretty amazing even at 35. I'm not expecting Brady to throw 50 touchdown passes, but I wouldn't be surprised if he has a Peyton Manning-like impact and takes this team to the Super Bowl. These Bucs are ready to rock.