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How the Buccaneers Became the Team Tom Brady Built

After flirting with the Miami Dolphins and retiring for 40 days, Tom Brady is back in Tampa and using his star power to help the Bucs build one more Super Bowl contender

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As Tom Brady dropped back, set his feet, and threw a spiral that landed smack on the palms of Julio Jones in the back corner of the end zone, it would have been reasonable to mistake an early Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp practice for some kind of All-Star scrimmage.

Brady. Jones. Chris Godwin. Mike Evans. Kyle Rudolph. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs, going into his third season, said he often marvels at the collection of names lining up around him at practice.

“It’s like we’re playing a video game,” Wirfs said.

If the upcoming season were like a video game, it would be fairly clear that the man Wirfs lines up in front of to protect is the one who’s holding the controller. A portion of the Buccaneers roster was assembled by, or at least because of, Brady. Many of those bold-face names were even handpicked by him, and even those who weren’t will have their prospects for the 2022 season essentially defined by his presence.

Brady is a singularly powerful player in the NFL, and through the past several years, he’s exerted his influence in new ways. A watershed moment came when he negotiated his way to free agency in New England, then chose a new team in Tampa Bay that gave him wide latitude to pick players, design his schedule, pursue off-field opportunities, and offer input on coaching and scheme. Another came this past offseason when Brady retired, then unretired 40 days later just before former head coach Bruce Arians stepped down in favor of Todd Bowles. And on Tuesday, further information came out that reveals how Brady has pushed the boundaries of what his power can allow him to do.

As part of its announcement of the findings of an investigation into the Dolphins and owner Stephen Ross over accusations of tanking and tampering, the NFL revealed that Brady had discussions with the Dolphins during the 2019 season, when he was under contract with the Patriots. The league also said its investigation found that Brady had more conversations with Ross and Dolphins vice chairman and partner Bruce Beal during and after the 2021 season, when Brady was with the Buccaneers, and that those conversations included discussions of Brady becoming a limited partner in the Dolphins or serving as a football executive as well as discussions about Brady joining the team as a player. Brady is not facing any disciplinary action from the NFL for his part in those talks–the Dolphins were docked 2023 first-round and 2024 third-round draft picks; Ross and Beal were fined $1.5 million and $500,000, respectively; and Ross was suspended for the first six weeks of the 2022 season and removed indefinitely from all league committees–but the revelations demonstrate Brady’s ability to call on those at the highest levels of NFL management as he maneuvers to control his own future in the league.

Brady is not empowered to get everything he wants. The idea that he could have been both player and part-owner in Miami, for example, would have been an extreme long shot if he’d ever attempted it. Brady would have been allowed to do so only if at least 24 of the 32 team owners voted to approve it, and it’s hard to see division rivals, for instance, giving him the green light. Brady has, though, gotten a lot of what it seems he’s wanted, though, and a recent visit to Tampa makes that especially clear.

Two years ago, when the Buccaneers pursued and then signed Brady as a free agent, their courtship strategy—termed Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson by some Field of Dreams fans in the front office—was to build a good, young roster and sell Brady on the idea of its competitive potential. “If we build it, he will come,” was the mantra.

Two years and a Super Bowl victory later, Tampa’s strategy is the inverse. The team built for Brady is now the team Brady built.

For example, Brady called Jones, who the Buccaneers front office had been talking about since earlier this offseason, to lobby on the Bucs’ behalf. He did the same for Russell Gage, another former Falcons receiver, and helped convince Gage to sign a three-year, $30 million contract with Tampa. Brady also called Rudolph, the longtime Vikings’ tight end, before Rob Gronkowski retired; according to Rudolph, Brady said during the call that “regardless, we need you down here.” Rudolph signed a one-year deal days before training camp began last month.

All of that is perfectly permissible, of course. To Tampa, it’s one of many privileges that comes from employing Brady.

“I think any GM with an established veteran quarterback has an advantage,” said general manager Jason Licht. “But when you have Tom Brady, the greatest, it’s even more of an advantage and I’m never going to apologize for using him to help me bring in players for this team.”

That has been particularly true, Licht said, when it comes to players like Jones and Rudolph who are inclined to do a bit of ring-chasing at the end of their NFL careers. Licht is more than happy to have them do so in Tampa.

“Fortunately, we’ve been in a situation here in the last few years, where we’re bringing in a lot of players, maybe they’re on the downturn of their career but they still have something left, guys like Kyle, guys like Julio,” Licht said. “The last couple of years we’ve done the same thing so I think these two in particular, Kyle and Julio, I think they’re really gonna help us.”

Both Jones and Rudolph had down years last season—in Tennessee and with the Giants, respectively—and it’s too early to say what kind of contributions they’ll be able to give the Buccaneers this season, but Jones in particular has already made a string of nice catches from Brady. On the day I visited practice, the best of the bunch came during a red zone period, the types of throws Jones has always seemed perfect for but hasn’t always caught many of—and the thought of that possibly changing in Tampa is probably nauseating to anyone who rooted for him in Atlanta.

Besides, the Buccaneers aren’t asking Jones or Rudolph to have their best seasons ever in 2022. Save for the 40 days when Brady’s temporary retirement threatened to push the team into early rebuilding mode, the Buccaneers’ offseason goal was to keep the core of the roster together and add depth to it. As long as Brady is there, Tampa has a good chance to get back to the Super Bowl. But after their 2021 campaign ended with a divisional-round loss to the Rams, due largely, as Licht sees it, to a lack of reserve talent at key positions, Licht has tried to preempt some losses. For much of 2021, injuries in the secondary made it hard for Todd Bowles’s defense to be as multiple as he’d normally like, so Licht added safeties Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal to a defensive backfield that should also have Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, who missed seven, two, and eight games, respectively, in better health. A decimated receiving group was one of the team’s biggest issues in the playoff loss, so in came Gage, Rudolph and Jones. Godwin, who missed the loss to the Rams after tearing his ACL in late December, has has been cleared for limited work in training camp and managed to avoid placement on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. The best-case scenario for the Buccaneers would be that Godwin’s recovery is well ahead of schedule and he misses little time in the regular season but if that’s not the case, the receiving group is built to withstand some attrition.

“We had a lot of injuries last year coming down the stretch that really hurt us, and we wanted to try to avoid that situation this year,” Licht said.

Still, injuries have already struck and Licht’s plan to build depth across the roster is being tested. On one of the last plays of practice last Thursday, center Ryan Jensen went down with a significant knee injury. The Bucs are still waiting for additional tests to confirm if Jensen will be out for the entire season but Bowles said last Friday that “he won’t be available any time soon.”

The Buccaneers have had Robert Hainsey, a third-round draft pick in 2021, fill in in practice since Jensen was hurt. If he is not ready to move into a starting role, they could also turn to their ace recruiter quarterback and call up a free agent center like J.C. Tretter or Matt Paradis, though it doesn’t appear those calls have happened yet.

In any case, they’ll be trying to make up for the loss of Jensen, one of the best in the NFL at his position and a player who went from being a selling point for Brady to join the team back in 2020 to getting asked by Brady to stick around. Jensen was a free agent this offseason but wound up re-signing with the Buccaneers on a three-year, $39 million contract just hours after Brady unretired. It turned out that Brady had called Jensen shortly after making his decision to return to let Jensen know he’d be back and express hope that his center would do the same. Interior pressure has always been one of the few things on a football field that Brady struggles with: He typically steps into his throws by moving up in the pocket. Taking that space away was a major reason the Giants beat him in two Super Bowls, so the presence of a Pro Bowler in the center of the line was significant. Plus, Brady had already schooled Jensen in his strong preference for being snapped a dry football—at the beginning of the practice in which he was injured, Jensen spent some time with Hainsey demonstrating the proper methods of dousing towels in baby powder and stuffing them in his spandex to eliminate sweat.

The tone of practice in Tampa went from rowdy to subdued in an instant when Jensen was injured. It was an acknowledgement of a terrible event for a well-liked teammate, but also of the harsh reality that injuries can suddenly torpedo both individual seasons and team pursuits.

“Nobody knows what the team is going to look like,” Brady said Monday. “You think you have a center and then he gets injured, so the team’s different in one day.”

Licht also cautioned that plenty of obstacles remain, though he did so with the confidence of a general manager who feels good about his team’s chances.

“I’m not saying that we’re definitely going to win the Superbowl,” Licht said.

“But we just all feel we’re on the same page and we have a good chance.”

That is about as good a place as an NFL team can be in early August. If there’s a problem that stops the Buccaneers in 2022, it’ll be one that Brady can’t fix. As we’ve learned, those may be even fewer than realized.