The NFL‘s annual break at the dawn of summer was set to deliver big on free agent signings, questionable trades, enticing draft selections and the odd front office move.
In and amongst Philip Rivers’ trek north to the Indianapolis Colts and Joe Burrow’s arrival in Cincinnati as the Bengals’ new poster boy, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stole all headlines with the addition of two of the NFL’s greatest ever players, propping them up as one of the best teams in the NFC.
Quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski arrive from the New England Patriots via free agency and trade respectively. There is certainly an element of risk attached to both men, but on paper they make the Florida-based franchise a juggernaut on the offensive side of the ball.
Throw in a strong defensive unit, and top it all off with one of the game’s best coaches, is this the Bucs’ year to reign supreme in the NFC South?
The division bottom dwellers for much of the last decade, while the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints alternated at the top, first became a much more intriguing and potentially dangerous side a year ago when Bruce Arians took over as their head coach. Arians had a successful stint with the Arizona Cardinals, accumulating a 49-30-1 record and leading them to consecutive playoff trips including an NFC Championship game.
Arians’ arrival spelled particular success on the defensive side of the ball.
Ranking 32nd overall in defensive rating in 2018 according to Football Outsiders, the Bucs climbed to fifth overall in 2019, ranking first in points and rushing yards allowed, and also accounted for the fifth most takeaways with 28. The franchise will retain their core for 2020, including All-Pros Shaquil Barrett (franchise tagged) and Jason Pierre-Paul, Pro-Bowler Ndamukong Suh, Kevin Minter and Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, among others.
But, if the Buccaneers players, coaches, management and fans are honest with themselves, the improvement needed is on the offensive end, which is now controlled by argubaly the greatest quarterback of all time, chipping away at the ripe age of 42.
Tom Brady has not shown any glaring signs of slowing down, and is a major upgrade on Jameis Winston at the position. But a slight downward trend in his numbers does create a backed-up idea Brady’s age-defying performances will be no more.
First off, everyone can collectively exhale a sigh of relief… the turnovers will plummet with a new quarterback in the pocket. Last year Winston threw a monster 30 interceptions, while the team had a total of 41 giveaways – far and away the most in the league. The highest number of picks Brady has thrown in a given season is 14, happening on three separate occasions.
Recently Brady has had an impressive second act of his career, where in five seasons he won… *GASP*…three Super Bowl titles, two Super Bowl MVPs, one regular season MVP, two All-Pro selections and gaining an overall passer rating of 102. But following that period he has been on a steady decline in both yards per game, completion percentage and passer rating. In 2019 he managed a passer rating of 88 – his second lowest in the last 14 seasons when playing in at least 12 games – along with a lowly 60.8 completion percentage, 24 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Efficient, but far from game-breaking.
It is not hard to pick out one of the glaring issues in Brady’s production and the Patriots’ offence last year. The team had an incredible amount of turnover at wide receiver, as well as an abundance of injuries at the position and the offensive line. Add to that no Rob Gronkowski, and a running game that dropped from 5th in yards per game to 18th. Fair to say Brady had little help.
Speaking of Gronkowski, the former Patriot will make his highly anticipated return to the game. Gronk is regarded as the greatest tight end of the modern era, and one of the greatest of all time, for his unrivalled skill as a big man and his production come playoff time.
His last season donning tights and pads was anything but typical. The then 29-year-old accumulated just 682 yards off 47 receptions in 13 games played, with a minor three touchdown catches in 2019. The tape show’s his mobility began to fade and his durability became highly questionable. When factoring in he has been out of action for over a year, alarm bells ring for him rediscovering a portion of his best and be productive.
Then again is that being too conclusive of the circumstances?
Perhaps a break to let loose has done Gronk a world of good and his body is in perfect condition to compete. Perhaps being in a new system along with a very familiar face will trigger a second act. The man himself did say recently taking a year off from the NFL was a brilliant decision.
Both men have a flurry of talented players sharing the offensive duties in southern Florida, which is a vast improvement on what they had in New England. The Buccaneers have one of the best receiving duos in the league with All-Pros Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The offensive line received some welcomed touches to offer Brady more protection, with former Indianapolis Colt Joe Haeg signing on and Tristan Wirfs taken 13th overall in this year’s draft. The pair join centre Ryan Jensen and guard Ali Marpet, who emerged as two of the best in their respective positions last season.
The Bucs did rank 24th on the run last season, averaging 11 yards fewer than the Patriots, but that will improve with a stronger line as well as the draft selection of Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round, a highly rated running back with an NFL-ready body.
For the meantime the intangibles of both men are priceless, and outweigh any concerns of the tangibles. Only time will tell.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.