NEW ORLEANS -- At least the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now have some sense of what they're working with this year. It's great to have a Hall of Fame quarterback like Tom Brady under center, along with a slew of young talent surrounding him. It's even better when a team plays without miscommunication, mental errors and monumental turnovers inside an opposing stadium. That's what this team will remember most about the start of Brady's tenure.
The final score said Tampa Bay suffered a 34-23 loss to New Orleans on Sunday. The reality was the Bucs didn't look anywhere near ready to challenge the Saints, the reigning champions of the NFC South, for supremacy in this division. The most glaring aspect of this defeat was Brady's inability to perform at a level that would allow his team to overcome most of the miscues that cost them in this contest. He even contributed to the ugly play far too often, as Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins opened the second half by returning a Brady interception 36 yards for a touchdown.
Oh, Brady displayed his classic resilient attitude, as he exhorted his teammates to keep fighting when they trailed by as much as 17 points in the second half. It's just that the Bucs needed more from him on this day, with sharpness and execution ranking high on that list.
"We didn't do anything that great on offense," said Brady. "We made a few plays, but we'll all wish we had a few plays back. I know I do."
It's important to note that this loss doesn't all fall on Brady. It's merely that he was the biggest story coming into this game. Brady had spent the last 20 years turning himself into the greatest quarterback in NFL history while leading the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl wins. After leaving that franchise earlier this offseason, we all wondered what the next chapter of his career would look like with a team that hasn't made the postseason since 2007.
Let it be known that this will be more of a work in progress than anybody expected. Brady actually threw two interceptions on the day, while completing 23 of 36 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns. The Bucs' defense did play fairly well -- as they held the Saints to just 271 total yards -- but special teams were a disaster. New Orleans blocked one field-goal attempt and also recovered a pooch kickoff when two Bucs players ran into each other while trying to field the ball.
These were the types of comical errors that were supposed to vanish with Brady's presence. The truth is that the Bucs very much resembled a young team still trying to find its own continuity after COVID-19 ravaged offseason practice time for every franchise in the league. Bucs head coach Bruce Arians had worried about special teams mistakes earlier in training camp and he got them. Brady had voiced his own concerns about miscommunication, and his first interception resulted from him and wide receiver Mike Evans misreading the Saints' coverage.
Those issues quickly altered the energy around the Bucs after Brady led them on a nine-play, 85-yard scoring drive that ended with his 2-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter. When asked about the team's efforts after that point, Bucs tight end O.J. Howard said, "it was very disappointing" while adding that "we really beat ourselves." Bucs head coach Bruce Arians was more candid in his assessment: "I wouldn't say [Brady] was out of sync until we started screwing it up."
The most painful part of this for the Bucs was that New Orleans wasn't exactly lighting it up, either. Most of their success on offense resulted from good field position created by Tampa Bay mistakes. Drew Brees didn't dominate (he threw for 160 yards), nor did Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas (three catches, 17 yards) or Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara (67 total scrimmage yards). Arians even complained that the artificial noise piped into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was uninspiring, saying, "There was no energy in the building."
You could tell the missed opportunity to win this game gnawed at Brady in his postgame press conference. He hates losing anyway, but he desperately wants to win in Tampa Bay. He didn't go to the Bucs so he could hang out in Florida for the final few years of his historic career. He went there for the challenge it posed, for the chance to do something special with another franchise while pushing his competitive spirit as far as it could go.
The reality is that it was crazy to expect the Bucs to not make mistakes in this contest. They're still learning a lot about each other, with Brady being very much a part of that evolutionary process. They understand that it's only Week 1. Said Brady: "We have to learn from it and do a better job. You're not going to beat good teams by making mistakes. I'm going to focus on what I have to do and that's doing a better job."
Brady's struggles seemed more glaring because of the performances other quarterbacks enjoyed around the league on this opening weekend. Patrick Mahomes was being Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. Lamar Jackson continued to dazzle in Baltimore, while Seattle's Russell Wilson was tearing it up against Atlanta. Let's not overlook the positive impression that Cam Newton left in New England's win over Miami, when he proved that his dual-threat ability will benefit the Patriots throughout this season.
It's hard to know how much Brady cares about the question of whether he can succeed without Bill Belichick coaching him any longer. It is fair to say Brady has a ton of pride and a serious issue with any type of failure. It's hard to believe he'll go through a second consecutive week with an effort like he just produced. It's just not something that he can tolerate.
This actually feels exactly like what Howard described, a case of the Bucs being served a little humble pie. As much as Arians said Tampa Bay wasn't listening to the noise surrounding Brady's presence with that franchise, it would've been impossible to dismiss it entirely. The Super Bowl is going to be played in the Bucs' home stadium in February. There's no way they haven't dreamed about Brady being under center for that contest.
If that is going to happen, Brady and his teammates will have to be much better than they were on Sunday. As he said, "It's going to come down to mental toughness and urgency, but not turning the ball over would be a good start." That sounds like a man who's ready to start grinding. That's a critical approach because everything we saw on Sunday told us the Bucs have plenty of work to do.