Hello. My name is Will and I’m a Buccaholic. I’m seeking treatment because I recently came across something that I only recall having experienced in my life once or twice before: hope. I know, I know. I’m a Tampa Bay fan. Is there such a thing? Not really. Which is why this year is so weird. I find myself deep into January with a chance at greatness. Pinch me.
Since I started watching Buccaneer football in 1992 at the age of 10 (a gunslinger named Vinny Testaverde was our quarterback and Sam Wyche had the headset), Tampa had gone a paltry 193-252 (.433) before the 2020 season. From 2010, when Tampa last had double-digit wins, to 2019, the record was 49-95 (.340), easily the worst stretch for the franchise since the 1980s. “We” (yes, I use “we”, so get over it) also went 5-8 in the playoffs. Of the team’s six total wins in playoff history from 1976 to 2019, I got to witness 83% of their total “success” in postseason play. This is not worth celebrating. Three of those five wins (60%) came in 2002 when we won the actual Super Bowl. No, seriously. We did! As the decades pass, that lone Super Bowl feels more like a tale from fan mythology rather than a reality.
So when Tampa decided to acquire the (inarguable) G.O.A.T. quarterback Tom Brady in the 2019/2020 offseason after watching the franchise’s best quarterback Jameis Winston (statistically. No, I am serious) throw for 5,100 yards but also 1,000 interceptions en route to yet another sub-.500 season, one couldn’t help but feel this was going to go two ways: a hilarious calamity or a team with championship potential.
Now, to be honest, when I saw a 43-year-old Brady joining an iffy offensive line (Winston had been sacked 47 times in 2019), I leaned towards hilarious calamity. Besides, all the naysayers said Brady was “washed”. Despite going 12-4 with the Patriots in 2019, Brady posted some slightly above pedestrian numbers (60.8% completion percentage, 4,057 yards, 24 TDs, 8 INTs) and played particularly poorly to close out the year, throwing some awful pick-sixes at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.
Adding the Covid-19 pandemic to the equation (no OTAs, no preseason games, no practices), this didn’t look promising. The main argument before the season started in the sports media landscape was: “who was the real success in New England, Brady or Bill Belichick?” Many leaned toward the argument that Brady, he of nine Super Bowl appearances and six rings, was simply a cog in Belichick’s system. There was doubt in the air from all around. And given the Buccaneers dismal history, a fan couldn’t help but be skeptical.
Of course, Brady was adding something different to the locker room: veteran leadership and a winning culture, something Jameis Winston, despite his best efforts, couldn’t produce. And even if all that failed, having a QB throw 8 INTs instead of 30 would make a big difference for the Bucs’ surging defense, led by 2019 sack title winner Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, and the world’s most underrated player Lavonte David. It would also, no doubt, add to their overall confidence. There was nowhere to go but up.
And then Week 1 happened. The talented and well-rounded New Orleans Saints, coming off multiple years of deep playoff runs, easily dispatched Brady and the Bucs 34-23 in a game where Brady threw yet another dreaded pick-six. Needless to say, the skepticism rose. Three wins in a row, however, including an incredible comeback on the Los Angeles Chargers (down 24-7 at half, the Bucs prevailed 38-31), got the eyebrows raised.
Sitting at 3-1 going into Week 5, the Bucs were looking to have one of their best starts in franchise history with the potential to win four straight and go 4-1. Playing a stout Bears defense, however, Brady infamously forgot what down it was on the game-ending drive that could have won the game. The loss of downs lead to a one-point loss (20-19) and with the Green Bay Packers waiting in Week 6, a 3-2 record didn’t really seem that great (or sustainable). We had two wobbly losses and three epic wins. The consistency wasn’t quite there.
After a surprise beat down of the Green Bay Packers in Week 6 (38-10) and two additional wins away at Las Vegas and New York (Giants), the Bucs would get their rematch with division rivals New Orleans in Week 8 with a record of 6-2, a fancy new piece of offense in Antonio Brown, and almost every pundit in the world declaring the Bucs the greatest team in the NFC. But that lack of consistency struck again!
The 5-2 Saints delivered the worst loss of Tom Brady’s career in a 38-3 shellacking where Brady threw for 3 INTs and no TDs with a QB rating of 40.4. To add insult to injury, Brady was the fourth most productive QB on the day as Taysom Hill and, uh, Jameis Winston, eclipsed 116 on the rating scale. It was a bad, bad day. Such a bad day in fact that it would influence the Buc’s expectations for the rest of the season and, if they made it, playoff time. Even if fans had hope, trusting the GOAT could pull it off, critics and pundits were no longer on the Tampa Bay train.
A brief respite with the struggling Panthers in Week 9 (a 46-23 victory) led to the toughest stretch of the season. A three-point loss to the Los Angeles Rams and a three-point loss to the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs not only pushed Tampa’s record to 7-5 heading into their bye but left lots of questions on the table. Since the Saints debacle, Brady had thrown 7 interceptions (against 8 TDs) and been sacked 6 times. Despite being a top-10 defense, Tampa Bay was allowing 400+ yards a game, and the team was negating their 6 forced turnovers with 8 turnovers of their own.
Whatever happened at practice and in meetings during the two-week break must have lit a fire under Brady and the entire team though. Not satisfied with an average 7-5 mark, which placed the Bucs towards the bottom of the playoff bracket, coach Bruce Arians and Brady ate their Wheaties. The next four weeks would prove to be some of the most explosive and exciting in the franchise’s history.
A convincing 26-14 win over the surging Vikings in Week 14, a simply mind-boggling comeback victory over the poor, Brady-terrorized Atlanta Falcons 31-27 in Week 15, a dismantling of the Lions 47-7 in Week 16, and a blitzkrieg on those pesky Falcons again 44-27 in Week 17 pushed the Bucs to 11-5 and the top wild-card spot in the playoffs. In that four week stretch, Brady threw for 1,333 yards at a 70% completion rate with 12 TDs and only 1 (unlucky bounce) INT. The GOAT was fully operational and ready for postseason glory.
He had lots of help too. Mike Evans had 393 yards and eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season for the 7th straight year (every season he has been in the league), an NFL record. Rob Gronkowski and Chris Godwin were gobbling up touchdowns while Antonio Brown finally settled in with 315 yards and 4 TDs. And the defense pitched in with an interception and 14 sacks, four by Devin White himself who pitched in 31 total tackles. While the defense was strong, with a few breaks here and there, the offense was humming and seemed unstoppable.
The gift for the Bucs making the playoffs for the first time in 13 years was a date with The Washington Football Team in the Wild Card Round. Even though the WFT only won 7 games to clinch their division and the fourth seed, they had one of the league’s toughest defenses (3rd in opponent pass completion %, 2nd in Yards per attempt, 2nd in total yards allowed, 2nd in TDs allowed, 2nd in INTs, 1st in limiting first downs, best at stopping 20+ yard plays, 6th in sacks, and 4th in total points against).
After the Saints, Bears, and Rams had their way with Brady earlier in the season, collapsing his pocket and forcing him out of his comfort zones which led to hasty turnovers and low efficiency, a large number of pundits assumed a stout defense like Washington would end the steam engine of the Bucs offense and put the team to bed as simply pretenders. Even Washington’s stud rookie DL Chase Young was calling for Brady’s head. From the mouth of babes.
Despite a career-making night from third-string QB Taylor Heinicke, Washington couldn’t cut into the Bucs lead, which they held from the beginning of the game. Brady and the Bucs put up 31 points and 507 offensive yards on that vaunted Washington D, holding Young to only 3 tackles (none for loss and no sacks), and clinching the first postseason win in 18 years. Yes, 18 years.
So that’s where we stand now. With anyone other than Tom Brady, this season would be a win regardless of what happens the rest of the way through. We had a double-digit winning season for the first time in 10 years, made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and won a playoff game for the first time in 18 years. Brady threw 40 touchdowns (and ran for three) at the age of 43, eclipsing the previous franchise record of 33 (Winston). Other franchise records broken included having the best QBR in franchise history (72.4), the most wins for a QB in one year (11), and the most completions (401).
Mike Evans broke an NFL record and had his jersey and gloves sent to the Hall of Fame. He also broke his own franchise record for TDs (13) and set a franchise playoff record for yards in a game (119). Our young stud running back Ronald Jones ran for almost 1,000 yards (pesky finger injury!) and had a 98-yard run (a franchise record). We have Leonard Fournette as a backup. A backup! We just scored the most points in team history (492). Life is good in Tampa Bay.
But there is one more wrinkle. Back in the early 2000s, the Bucs could never beat the Philadelphia Eagles. Regular season, playoffs, whatever: they stomped ’em. In 2002, after suffering yet another regular-season loss to the Eagles, the Bucs had a chance at redemption by going to Philly (the last game in the Vet) with the NFC championship on the line later in the season. And somehow, someway, the Bucs pulled it off and eventually went on to win the Super Bowl.
The New Orleans Saints are this decade’s version of those Philadelphia Eagles for Tampa Bay. The Bucs have lost five straight to New Orleans and were absolutely pounded this year in a regular-season sweep. Like I said, with anyone other than Brady, this year is a success regardless of a W or an L this weekend. But with the GOAT, you expect better because he expects better. And that brings us to that odd feeling of hope I feel as a long-suffering Bucs fan. This Sunday, we can slay the monster, kill the monkey that is on our back, end the torment. Brady, and the Bucs, can have a storybook ending to one of the good chapters in this story of endless atrocity.
The odds aren’t in our favor. Everyone is picking against us. We are the underdog. We are David facing Goliath. In all likelihood, our season ends this Sunday. And while winning 12 out of 18 games will feel like a refreshing change, there will always feel like there is unfinished (and unfinishable) business. I’m not ready to say “maybe next year”. I’m smiling and I’m happy but, most of all, I’m hoping. Tampa Bay fans haven’t had that kind of opportunity in a long time.