This was always going to be the reality when Tom Brady’s time in Tampa came to an end. The Buccaneers are now left to pick up the pieces and figure out their identity without the greatest quarterback of all time.
Let’s preface all of this with a couple of truths. For starters, we don’t even really need to establish what everyone already knows: signing Brady was 100%, absolutely, unequivocally worth it. It was worth it as soon as Tampa Bay returned to the postseason last year and it was even more worth it when the team completed its storybook journey to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on its home field at Raymond James Stadium last February. An NFC South championship and another playoff appearance this past season just added to the excellence of Brady’s two-year run in Tampa.
The second truth we need to get out of the way is that the Bucs’ roster is still stacked with top-tier talent and quite a few stars. The point of this isn’t to throw in the towel on the future and eulogize the franchise. There’s still a lot to work with, and no one can debate that. How the Bucs move forward and establish a new identity, though, will mean everything.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Tampa Bay needs a new identity. As much as the rest of the team had its profile raised in the last two seasons, the Bucs’ identity from March 2020 until recently was Tom Brady. Without him, what will people immediately think about when it comes to Buccaneer football? That’s the question that the organization's front office will be tasked with answering over the next few months.
Brady’s retirement obviously leaves a void at the quarterback position, and in the current state of the NFL, good quarterback play is a necessity, not a luxury. Tampa Bay definitely has its work cut out in finding Brady’s successor, but there are other decisions and moves that need to be made as well. For one, the front office can’t let Chris Godwin go anywhere. Even coming off of a season-ending ACL injury, Godwin will reassume his place as one of the league’s best receivers when he gets back on the field this fall. The Bucs can’t let that comeback happen with their 2017 third-round pick wearing another uniform.
By re-signing Godwin, the Bucs can lock in one of the league’s best wide receiver duos. That will be a help to whoever steps in at quarterback. Adding more support around the quarterback position will be another challenge that the front office has to navigate in the next couple of months as well. Ronald Jones II is a free agent, as is Leonard Fournette. It would be surprising to see Jones return, while Fournette’s future is less clear. He has enjoyed a career revival in Tampa, but will he parlay that into a deal elsewhere now that Brady is gone? Bringing him back would surely stabilize the Buccaneer backfield, but more work needs to be done at the running back position regardless.
What the Bucs do with their backfield—and behind Evans and Godwin at the receiver position—will largely determine whether or not the offense can still carry the torch as the team’s identity. Bruce Arians’ no risk it, no biscuit offense is set up to score points and, in some ways, serve as an identity of sorts. But the man under center will have a large role in that for better or for worse, whether it’s Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask, a free agent or a quarterback-to-be-traded-for.
The other side of the ball is an equally interesting part of this conversation. The Buccaneer defense deserves its flowers for the role it played in the team’s Super Bowl season. An injury-plagued 2021 season wasn’t the encore everyone wanted, but there are still plenty of big-time players in that unit going forward. Vita Vea is an absolute beast in the middle of the defensive line, Devin White and Lavonte David still form one of the NFL’s more formidable linebacker duos and a pass rush consisting of Shaquil Barrett and the promising Joe Tryon-Shoyinka help round out quite a core to build the front seven off of.
But where there’s perhaps more intrigue is with the back half of the defense. This is a group that, at its best, helped lead a dominant stretch for the Tampa Bay defense. The birth of the “Grave Diggers” during the team’s Super Bowl run was as close as we got to the Bucs having a non-Brady identity over the last two years. But there’s work to be done for the team to tap back into that magic.
Bringing back Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead would go a long way in solidifying the secondary, as those two and Antoine Winfield Jr. are all elite talents. Jamel Dean is solid in his own right, but the cornerback position needs some addressing this offseason. Sean Murphy-Bunting had a disappointing 2021 and the secondary was otherwise bare when it came to depth. That got exposed very clearly. Reinforcements are needed if that group wants to help the defense live up to its “Grave Diggers” moniker. As it stands right now, it’s hard to imagine the Buccaneer defense being deep enough and good enough to become what the franchise is known for. But the right moves may just give the fan base something of a return to the franchise’s identity in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
We’ll get a clearer idea of the Bucs’ direction once we get into the weeds of the offseason. The free agency period will tell us a lot, as will the following month’s NFL Draft. Jason Licht and his staff have a lot of work to do.
One thing is for sure: It will be extremely interesting to see how the Buccaneers go about refreshing their roster and rediscovering their identity in the post-Brady era. The answers they settle on will determine whether or not the organization can carry on the standard set by the G.O.A.T. Era in Tampa Bay.