Our 2022 NFL Preview makes one more trip back to the Sunshine State, where the new-look Buccaneers gear up for another run at the Lombardi Trophy. After returning completely intact following their Super Bowl triumph, Tampa Bay fell short of their objective last January, meeting narrow defeat at the hands of the (eventual Super Bowl Champion) Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs. However, whereas continuity was the theme of 2021, this season appears to be dominated by change, with a number of arrivals and departures throughout the spring and summer. How will (Head Coach) Todd Bowles replace Bruce Arians, and what impact will that have on the defense? Will (All-Pro Quarterback) Tom Brady continue to perform at a high level at the age of forty-five? How the will the supporting cast come together with so many new faces? Let’s take a trip to the Gulf Coast and find out, shall we?
The Ageless One
At this point it has become utterly ridiculous that Tom Brady (pictured) continues to perform at the level that we’ve come to associate with the future Hall-of-Famer, who is coming off one of his most prolific campaigns despite doing so at 44-years-old. Indeed, 2021 was a special one for TB12, who led the NFL in passes attempted (719) and completed (485), along with passing yards (5,316), touchdowns (43), and sack percentage (3.0%), all the while guiding the Buccaneers to their first NFC South title since 2007. Furthermore, he made quite a bit of history along the way, becoming the first to eclipse 600 career touchdown passes, while surpassing Drew Brees on the all-time completions list, with his 485 passing completions establishing a new single-season record. Oh, and he also became the oldest Quarterback in NFL history to surpass 5,000 passing yards, which was also good for the third-most in a single season by any player regardless of their age. However, not long after falling to the Rams in the playoffs, Brady initially announced his retirement from professional football, putting a cap on what has been by far and away the most accomplished career in the history of the sport. In twenty-two seasons, he became the all-time leader in a wealth of categories, including attempts (11,317), completions (7,263), passing yards (84,520), passing touchdowns (624), and wins in both the regular season (243) and postseason (35), all the while earning fifteen Pro-Bowl selections, and three MVP and Super Bowl MVP awards apiece. From a team perspective, he’s led his sides to eighteen division titles, ten conference championships, and the greatest number of all: SEVEN Lombardi Trophies. And it’s with that said that the sporting world was ready to celebrate his legacy of greatness, which lasted for all of just forty days, as he abruptly decided to unretire in mid-March. With Brady back under center, the expectations for the Bucs go from rebuilding to once again contending, though there are some serious questions as to how the aging Quarterback will perform with a supporting cast that has seen quite a bit of turnover on both sides of the football…
Shuffling the Deck
Almost immediately upon arriving in Tampa, Brady was joined by a number of veteran players who were willing to play on cheaper contracts in an attempt to chase a championship ring, with an embarrassment of riches soon surrounding him on both sides of the football. In hindsight, it’s really no wonder that that 2020 team managed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, even with the pitfalls of COVID-19 and a lack of continuity obstructing their path to glory. This time last year, the mandate was maintaining said continuity, with all twenty-two starters on offense and defense returning to defend their crown, which was indeed a rarity in this era of free agency. However, the Buccaneers fell short of their goal last January, and with Brady’s initial retirement an exodus was on hand on the Gulf Coast. (Pro-Bowl Tight End) Rob Gronkowski called it a career not long after his longtime teammate, while a number of other prominent names including (Receiver) Antonio Brown, (Tailback) Le’Veon Bell, (Tight End) O.J. Howard, (Offensive Linemen) Alex Kappa and Ali Marpet, (Edge-Rusher) Jason Pierre-Paul, and (Defensive Lineman) Ndamukong Suh all departed in the offseason. Furthermore, (Wideout) Chris Godwin was retained via the franchise tag, but is rehabbing from a torn ACL, while (Starting Center) Ryan Jensen was recently carted off the field with his season in doubt after suffering an apparently significant knee injury during practice. And then there is (veteran Tailback) Leonard Fournette, who returned to the team in Training Camp weighing in at nearly 260 lbs. Needless to say, this is far from the same group that Brady suited up alongside last January, and it remains to be seen how quickly he will get acclimated to them. While adding talent has been difficult due to salary cap restraints, (General Manager) Jason Licht has managed to procure the services of some established veterans of late, including (Receiver) Julio Jones (pictured), who signed a one-year, $6 million deal in late July. Limited to ten games and personal-lows in catches (31), receiving yards (434), and touchdowns (1) due to a nagging hamstring injury in his lone season with the Titans, the 33-year-old will be looking to revive his Hall-of-Fame career in a familiar place with a familiar Quarterback. No stranger to Tampa, Jones totaled 848 receptions, 12,896 yards, and sixty touchdowns over the course of a decade spent in Atlanta, earning seven Pro-Bowl nods and a pair of All-Pro selections along the way. He also enjoyed an NFC Championship in 2017 before falling victim to the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history at the hands of, you guessed it, Brady. They should have plenty to talk about this fall…
With all of the high-profile departures and Brady deciding to return following the briefest of retirements, we’re surprised that the retirement of (former Head Coach) Bruce Arians hasn’t received more attention than it has. In three years with the Buccaneers, the oft-traveled Arians amassed a 31-18 record (.633) and was instrumental in changing the culture of one of the league’s once downtrodden franchises. To put this into perspective, Tampa Bay was a miserable 55-105 (.343) between 2009 and 2018, with just two winning seasons and zero playoff appearances along the way, as the franchise ran through various head coaches, including Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith, and Dirk Koetter. Coining the phrase “No Risk It, No Biscuit”, the 69-year-old is celebrated among his former players and coaches for his unique philosophy in building a team, and above all else his ability to communicate and delegate to them. With his age and health concerns, Arians’ future was frequently a topic of discussion in Tampa, though there was always a feeling that one of his two Coordinators, either Todd Bowles (pictured) or Byron Leftwich, would end up replacing him despite both coaches interviewing for multiple teams’ head coach openings. And it’s with that said that Bowles earned the nod to succeed his longtime mentor, with the venerable defensive mastermind looking to make the most of his second opportunity to lead a franchise. From 2015 to 2018, Bowles led the Jets, though after a surprising 10-6 finish in his first year in the Big Apple, proceeded to spiral to a 14-34 record over the final three seasons ending in his ousting. The former Defensive Back would land on his feet comfortably as Arians’ Defensive Coordinator with the Bucs, helming a unit that was absolutely dominant during their run to the Lombardi in 2021. With his experience on the sidelines and in personnel, the 58-year-old is a natural choice to take over for Arians, though it will be interesting to see how he handles himself calling the shots once again. It also bears watching how his ascension influences the play of his charges on defense, whom he will no longer be calling plays for, with a joint collaboration between Larry Foote and Kacy Rodgers set to serve as his lieutenants this fall.
Projected Finish: 9-8
Upon the news of Brady’s retirement, just about everyone penciled in the Bucs as taking a step backward in 2022, particularly given the numerous losses that they suffered on both sides of the football and not to mention the coaching staff. However, Brady’s abrupt return to the gridiron makes things all the more interesting, for there is an obvious legitimacy associated with any team that he’s playing for. While we expect the Buccaneers to be formidable, we think that it may take some time to get everyone on the same page, and with an extremely difficult schedule ahead of them, they very well may suffer some early setbacks before eventually finding their groove down the stretch.