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The Buccaneers Are Now the Center of the NFL Universe. How’d They Get Here?

After signing Tom Brady and trading for Rob Gronkowski this offseason, Tampa Bay is in win-now mode. And that’s a marked departure from the franchise’s past decade.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Of all the destinations Tom Brady could have picked to finish his career, Tampa Bay seemed like an odd choice. There’s a line from the underrated ABC sitcom Happy Endings that comes to mind, when a character chides his girlfriend for buying a timeshare in Brady’s new city. “But now we gotta go to Tampa every week,” he says. “Tampa’s not a place you go. It’s a place you end up.” It’s a throwaway joke, just a slight variation on familiar bits that include Florida Man memes and Bugs Bunny sending the state out to sea. But in a football sense, the punch line rings true.

In the past decade, the Bucs and Patriots have been about as different as two franchises could be. Brady’s Pats were the center of the football universe, redefining sustainable greatness both in the NFL and professional sports at large. Starting in 2003, the Patriots made the playoffs every year that Brady was their primary quarterback. There hasn’t been an NFL season in that stretch that the Patriots haven’t significantly influenced. Compare that to the Bucs, who currently have a 12-year playoff drought, the second longest in the NFL. The last time that Tampa Bay truly mattered was also the last time New England didn’t—following the 2002 season, when the Bucs won the Super Bowl and the Pats missed the playoffs for the final time with a healthy Brady. Recently, folks have been more likely to tune into the Bucs to keep track of Jameis Winston’s gaudy interception totals than to monitor a playoff race.

Tampa Bay has been an afterthought in the world of pro football for nearly as long as Brady has ruled it, but this year, the greatest quarterback of all time will head to Florida and try to reverse that trend. The Bucs, of all teams, are now one of the most relevant franchises in football, with a roster and coaching staff fit for the most accomplished player in the history of the sport. And the path to this point has been one hell of a ride.

The modern iteration of the Buccaneers more or less began in 2014, the same year that Jason Licht took over as the team’s general manager. Licht inherited an organization that was rotting from the inside. The Bucs had gone 4-12 in 2013, and by October of that year, the locker room seemed to be in open revolt against head coach Greg Schiano. “How bad is it there? It’s worse than you can imagine,” one former Bucs player told’s Michael Silver. “It’s like being in Cuba.”

Schiano’s hard-ass ways, bizarre treatment of starting quarterback Josh Freeman, and his power-hungry approach alienated his players and people around the league. To make matters worse, a MRSA outbreak also made its way through the Bucs locker room, infecting players like high-priced guard Carl Nicks and kicker Lawrence Tynes, who eventually sued the franchise over the quality of the team’s facilities. It was a fitting end for a diseased era of Bucs football.

Following Schiano’s firing, the Glazer family, which has owned the team since 1995, hired former Bears coach Lovie Smith. Like franchises often do, the Bucs replaced one coach with his polar opposite. Smith was a well-regarded players’ coach with a warm personality and a track record of building a cohesive culture in Chicago. Licht was hired three weeks later, and the pair was expected to usher in a new, respectable version of a franchise that had become a leaguewide laughingstock. But that plan went off the rails fast.

Smith’s hiring was initially likened to the Chiefs’ decision to bring in Andy Reid—an established winner who’d simply run out of road with his former team. But while Reid has consistently adapted both his scheme and style as the league has evolved, Smith’s teams often looked outcoached and ill-equipped. The offense took a significant jump in 2015 after installing no. 1 pick Jameis Winston at quarterback, but the defense lagged, finishing 26th in both points allowed and passing DVOA as opposing offenses carved up Smith’s stagnant zone schemes. Smith was fired after just two seasons, leading to yet another restart.

Some of the motivation to let Smith go was presumably rooted in the team’s desire to retain offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who’d drawn interest for other head-coaching vacancies. During his lone season as the Bucs’ OC in 2015, Tampa Bay had jumped from dead last in offensive DVOA to 17th. Adding Winston was central to that progress, and the franchise clearly didn’t want to stunt its young quarterback’s development by letting Koetter walk. Nine days after Smith’s surprising dismissal, Koetter was introduced as the Bucs’ new head coach. “I think any coordinator, quarterback coach in that role with a quarterback, particularly Jameis ... that’s an important bond,” Licht said at the time. “That’s a strong bond that they need to have.”

The link between Winston and Koetter would shape the next several years of the Bucs franchise. In maneuvering to keep Koetter because of Winston, Licht and the Glazers tied the fate of their head coach to the development of their quarterback. Unfortunately, that development quickly stagnated. In his five seasons under center, Winston had enough excellent stretches to turn the Bucs into one of the most explosive offenses in football. But those runs were often punctuated by mind-boggling interceptions and the occasional performance from hell.

Even as Winston and a loaded group of receivers that included Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, DeSean Jackson, and O.J. Howard piled up points and passing yards, turnovers prevented the Bucs from cracking the top 10 in offensive DVOA. Considering that Tampa Bay was also saddled with arguably the league’s worst defenses under Koetter’s watch, it was no surprise that he was fired following a 5-11 finish in 2018. With the coach handpicked to shepherd Winston’s career gone and the QB headed into the fifth and final year of his rookie deal, it seemed like the Bucs were ready for a clean slate.

The Bucs began setting the table for a post-Winston future early in 2019, when the team lured Bruce Arians out to retirement to be its head coach. Arians—who literally wrote a book titled The Quarterback Whisperer—has an established history of molding QBs. The thought seemed to be that if Winston failed to take a dramatic leap under Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, the Bucs could simply move on. After a 33-touchdown, 30-interception season that perfectly encapsulated both Winston’s strengths and weaknesses, Tampa Bay did just that.

Brady’s fit in Arians’s vertical-passing scheme will be a hot topic of conversation in the next few months, but the six-time Super Bowl winner will likely have plenty of say over which concepts ultimately make up the Bucs’ system. “We’re looking forward to seeing how he can influence the offense,” Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen told The Athletic earlier this month. “He’ll make it better. That’s what the great ones do. He’ll have some great ideas so we’re anxious to get his take on things.”

Collaboration plays a vital role in the relationship between Arians and his quarterbacks. With the Cardinals, Arians would hand most of the in-week game-planning over to assistants Harold Goodwin (now the Bucs’ offensive line coach) and Freddie Kitchens. But the night before a game, Arians would take over, going through every section of the menu and getting quarterback Carson Palmer’s input. That process gives quarterbacks ownership over the game plan and increases confidence in every play that Arians dials up. Arians has brought that ritual to every stop of his coaching career, using it to great success with the likes of Palmer, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck. And this season, he’ll add Brady to that list.

The way that Arians solicits feedback from his QBs also reflects how he interacts with them overall. While Bill Belichick is notorious for keeping players at arm’s length in order to make unemotional decisions about their futures, Arians hasn’t been afraid to hit the links and tip a few back with his quarterbacks through the years. The demanding environment of the Patriots’ organization has led to unparalleled success, but it’s no secret that the rigidity of Belichick’s approach can wear on people. Brady has gone from a place where boring is celebrated to one where his new center is cracking Twitter jokes about ass sweat. That sort of change would provide a bit of instant relief for anybody.

Playing for a guy like Arians had to be appealing, but the Bucs staff has done more than cultivate a relaxed environment for its players. Like it had been under Koetter, the 2019 offense was prolific but ultimately held back by Winston’s maddening inconsistency. The defense, though, looked like an entirely different unit. Under former coordinator Mike Smith, the Bucs often looked passive and predictable, content to sit back as offenses around the league tore them to shreds; in 2017 and 2018, the Bucs finished dead last in defensive DVOA. But with new coordinator Todd Bowles and his aggressive, blitz-heavy approach in place, the Bucs experienced a turnaround that led to them finishing fifth in defensive DVOA and 12th against the pass. And it didn’t hurt that Bowles’s arrival coincided with a run of personnel success that had eluded Licht for far too long.

Even before adding Brady, the Bucs had the makings a playoff-caliber team. There weren’t many glaring roster holes heading into the offseason, which marked a significant departure for Tampa Bay’s front office.

Licht’s tenure has been marred by some brutal signings and draft decisions. The Bucs spent big during his first offseason, signing sought-after free agents Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, and Alterraun Verner to big-money deals and handing quarterback Josh McCown a two-year, $10 million deal to be their stopgap starter. Collectively, those moves made up one of the worst free-agent classes in NFL history. Collins, Johnson, and McCown were all cut following their first season in Tampa Bay, and Verner was quickly demoted after falling out of favor with Smith’s staff.

Two years later, Licht also made one of the worst draft blunders in recent memory by trading up in the second round to take kicker Roberto Aguayo. The former Florida State phenom missed nine of his 31 attempts as a rookie and was released the following August. It’s easy to latch onto the Aguayo disaster to describe the Bucs’ recent draft history, but he’s far from the only miss. Vernon Hargreaves, the Bucs’ first-round pick in the 2016 draft, was released halfway into his fourth season. Their other second-round pick that year, defensive end Noah Spence, was cut last August.

Tampa Bay has long struggled to find talent at edge rusher and defensive back. Between 2006 and 2017, no Bucs defensive end produced a season with double-digit sacks. Michael Bennett came closest when he tallied 9.0 in 2012, and the Bucs’ front office responded by showing him the door. Former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn put together a solid career while bouncing around the league, but he never developed into a star in Tampa. Along with the Spence pick and a few other underwhelming free-agent moves, the position has been a wasteland. And the defensive backfield hasn’t been much better. From Hargreaves to Chris Conte to underwhelming veteran additions like Brent Grimes and T.J. Ward, the Bucs haven’t hit on many players in the secondary—which has only further exposed their recent coaching deficiencies. No matter what Licht has done, trouble in those two areas has plagued the Bucs for years. And that’s what made the 2019 offseason so encouraging.

Shaquil Barrett’s decision to sign a one-year, $5 million deal with the Bucs last spring didn’t get much attention at the time, but it might have been the best move of the entire offseason. The former Broncos pass rusher tallied a league-leading 19.5 sacks as he blossomed into a star for the Bucs defense. After a single year, Barrett already ranks 18th on the Bucs’ career sacks list. He needs 14 more this season to jump into the top 5. This is a franchise that’s been starved for edge talent, and nabbing a guy like Barrett on a cheap deal is the sort of pass-rushing find that Licht just hadn’t made during his tenure.

The future also looks bright in the secondary. Licht has adopted an aggressive approach to the position in recent years, taking five DBs in the second and third rounds of the 2018 and 2019 drafts. The hope was that several dice rolls at the same position would give the Bucs multiple chances to find a passable group of corners, and with Bowles’s staff helping this group along, that plan seems to have worked. Young players like Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis, and Sean Murphy-Bunting are quickly developing into solid contributors on the back end of this defense, and they’re finally solving the Bucs’ long-standing issues in coverage.

By addressing the two areas that have vexed them in recent years, the Bucs have been able to fill out an otherwise strong roster. Evans and Godwin make up arguably the best receiving combo in the NFL, and they’re now flanked by a tight end trio of Howard, Cameron Brate, and Rob Gronkowski. The offensive line—once a pronounced weakness early in Winston’s tenure—has transformed into a quality unit. Along the defensive front, the Bucs have paired Barrett with a rock-solid interior that includes ascending nose tackle Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, who’s still a useful player even in the back half of his career. Behind them, linebacker Lavonte David remains one of the league’s most underrated defenders, and 2019 first-round pick Devin White should make considerable strides in his second season.

The Bucs haven’t exactly been a model organization since Licht took over six years ago, but in the past couple years, the franchise has built an infrastructure that ultimately made Tampa a worthwhile destination. With Brady in place, the question now is whether the Bucs can make the most of this window.

After drafting offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs in the first round and playmaking safety Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second, the Bucs don’t have many holes to fill on paper. But building this team hasn’t been cheap. Retaining Barrett on the franchise tag was a smart move, considering the incongruence between his sack and pressure numbers and his limited record of production. But his cap hit has jumped from $5 million to $15.8 million. The offensive line should keep Brady clean, but most of that group is playing on expensive veteran contracts. Licht renegotiated Jason Pierre-Paul’s deal this offseason, but the 31-year-old pass rusher is still slated to make $12.5 million this season. Evans is a superstar who’s also paid like one, with an enormous $18.4 million cap hit in 2020. And though Godwin is currently one of the best bargains in football, he’s also entering the final year of his rookie deal.

By committing to a 42-year-old quarterback, the Bucs have accelerated their timeline, but this group as currently composed was already operating on borrowed time. For the first time since Licht took over, the Bucs finally have all the pieces in place to win. Now they just have to do it.