Tampa Bay is the perfect retirement home, with swaying palm trees, beaches and park benches. But who really retires anymore?
Tom Brady announced that his 22-year NFL career was over Feb. 1. But like a paroled inmate unable to cope with life outside of prison, he came back on the eve of free agency to make sure the Bucs re-signed as many of his buddies as possible for another Super Bowl run.
That was followed by head coach Bruce Arians hastily leaving the NFL owners meeting at the Breakers in Palm Beach in March and retiring from coaching a few days later. But Arians will only be going as far as his golf cart will take him. He was given a front office job as an assistant to general manager Jason Licht, using his golden parachute to drop in any time he wants. Arians is a charitable man, but his most benevolent act was ensuring that long-time assistant and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles became the Bucs head coach. Bowles isn't retiring from calling the defensive plays, although he named Larry Foote and Kacey Rodgers co-defensive coordinators.
It turns out that Brady, Arians and Co. aren't ready for the gold watch. They just want to clean somebody else's clock.
Brady will be 45 in August, and this is his final year under contract with the Bucs. The biggest reason Brady will play a 23rd NFL season is because he's still at the top of his game. Last year, he led the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43).
"At the end of the day, I just love the competition on the field," Brady says. "And last year was a very bitter ending to a season, and we've got to make a lot of corrections and try to improve and put ourselves in a better position to succeed moving forward."
How the Bucs try to win on offense, however, may look a little different under Bowles. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will continue to call plays. But Brady wants some changes to the game plan, and Bowles, who will take more of an active role than even Arians did in game-planning, may offer some subtle changes.
For starters, Brady wants to run the football more. He doesn't want to lead the league in pass attempts the way he did last season with 719. Most of those were five- and seven-step drops, and Brady would prefer the Bucs be more balanced or at least allow him to get rid of the football more quickly. The Bucs re-signed workhorse back Leonard Fournette and veteran Giovani Bernard to go with Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Arizona State rookie Rachaad White may be the receiving back Brady has needed since he left the Patriots.
Chris Godwin is recovering from a torn ACL and has been cleared for training. But the Bucs still have Mike Evans and his eight straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons to go with former Falcons Julio Jones and Russell Gage.
Pro Bowl guard Ali Marpet retired at 28. But the Bucs traded for Patriots guard Shaq Mason and drafted Central Michigan offensive lineman Luke Goedeke in the second round. Unfortunately, center Ryan Jensen, who the team re-signed in free agency, suffered a serious knee injury at the start of the training camp, so it's possible the team will be replacing all three interior spots along the offensive line.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his second retirement in late June, so the team will replace him with veteran Kyle Rudolph and rookie Cade Otton, who will be the in-line blocker.
One other possible change — the return of the diminutive slot receiver Brady has wanted, which could mean more work for Scotty Miller.
The sting of watching Brady bring the Bucs back from a 27-3 deficit against the Rams in the NFC divisional playoff game only to allow Cooper Kupp to get loose to set up former Buc Matt Gay's game-winning field goal hasn't abated. "We blew it," Bowles says. "Anytime a play goes wrong, it's on the coaching staff and the players." Injuries, especially to the secondary, were the biggest reason the Bucs didn't defend their Super Bowl title.
The Bucs allowed the most completions (445) but also had the most passing attempts against them (680) as teams have largely abandoned the run against the league's best rush defense over the past three seasons.
Strong safety Jordan Whitehead left for the New York Jets in free agency. But the Bucs have continuity in the secondary, led by cornerback Carlton Davis III, who signed a three-year, $44.5 million contract. Davis missed seven games due to injury but still had 11 passes defensed and one INT while being glued to the opponent's best receiver.
"If Carlton would have caught half the balls he dropped last year, he would've been an All-Pro," Bucs defensive backs coach Kevin Ross says. "That's why he got rewarded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first place because he's very capable of doing that. He just needs to focus on the ball and finish, and he will be fine."
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting also battled injuries and returns with Jamel Dean and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. It's a solid group that got better with the addition of two veteran safeties in free agency: the Falcons' Keanu Neal and the Giants' Logan Ryan.
The Bucs needed to get younger and more athletic on the defensive front. So they said goodbye to edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, the team's first-round pick in 2021, takes Paul's place.
The Bucs traded out of the first round to select Houston defensive end Logan Hall 33rd overall. Hall is 6'6", 283 pounds with length and a good pass rush. He will be a developing complement to Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea.
The keys to Bowles' defense are linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, who is recovering from a Lisfranc injury. Co-DC Foote is using every tool to motivate White, who declined from nine sacks in 2020 to 3.5 last season.
"The contract is coming up (in 2024)," Foote says. "Whatever you've got to do to motivate them. I done threw that in his ear a little bit. You see the salary cap and stuff like that and what linebackers are getting, so I threw that in his ear a little bit."
The Bucs aren't afraid to use draft picks to bolster their special teams, drafting Georgia punter Jake Camarda in the fourth round. Veteran Bradley Pinion finished 34th among qualifying punters last season with a 42.5-yard average. His $2.9 million salary for 2022 wasn't guaranteed. Camarda is an exceptional athlete. He recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.56 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, which bested several running backs and receivers. The All-SEC pick averaged 44.6 yards on five punts in the national title game. Seventy-one of his 102 kickoffs went for touchbacks. Ryan Succop will handle the placekicking duties but can still improve on his field-goal percentage (83.3).
The Bucs need to improve quickly in the return game. As a rookie, receiver Jaelon Darden struggled. The Bucs could try fleet rookies such as Rachaad White or Sam Houston defensive back Zyon McCollum (4.33 40-yard dash) in that role.
The Bucs are all-in again to win another Super Bowl with Brady, who will get a boost working with Bowles. They will need to play more complementary football to help their defense against high-powered offenses such as the Rams, Packers, Chiefs and Bengals. They're the most complete team in the NFC South but still have lost seven straight regular-season games to the Saints, who are very capable of taking the division crown. The infusion of youth and athleticism on defense should help. And in the end, do you dare bet against Brady's latest attempt to go out on top? He's won 29 games, a Super Bowl and is 5-1 in the playoffs the past two seasons. About 13 wins and another run to the NFC Championship Game seem almost guaranteed.