The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still busy celebrating their first Super Bowl victory in nearly two decades, but the star centerpiece of their march to glory -- none other than seven-time champion Tom Brady -- invited premature speculation of a repeat as soon as he stepped up to the podium at Raymond James Stadium with this: "We'll be back." Brady's comments, of course, were more so in reference to the continuation of his own career, at age 43, but that in and of itself is reason to wonder if the Bucs will, in fact, do it again.
It's funny how quickly the narrative changes. A week ago, no one bothered to entertain the idea of back-to-back championships for Brady in Tampa Bay. Everyone was too busy anticipating the dynasty at hand: Brady's Super Bowl LV opponent, the reigning champion Chiefs. If anyone was going to become the first to repeat since Brady did it with the Patriots back in 2004, it was going to be Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City's super-powered No. 1 seeded squad, right?
Now, 60 minutes of Chiefs-Bucs later, with a seventh ring darn near evoking brass knuckles on Brady's bedazzled hands, it's not silly to discuss Tampa Bay's prospects of running it back in 2021. It's responsible. Because if Brady -- love him or hate him -- has taught us anything over the course of a career that kicked off when Bill Clinton was president, it's that big-time victories are attracted to him. Repeats are never easy. That remains true. But here's your friendly reminder that Brady was the last to do it.
No. 12, if it weren't obvious, is the chief reason the Bucs have to be considered serious Super Bowl contenders going into their title-defense season. He was not perfect in 2020, and he single-handedly accelerated Tampa Bay's loss total during the club's mid-season slump. But let's be real: The guy ended up throwing 50 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions (playoffs included) in his first season outside of New England, turning in a virtually flawless Super Bowl performance to crown the team with the NFL's all-time worst winning percentage. And none of us blinked an eye. If he's not a top-five QB going into his age-44 campaign, he's close.
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A top-10 QB by himself goes a long way toward title contention, so that's already a big bonus in the Bucs' corner for 2021. It's not as if Brady has physically deteriorated like, say, Drew Brees, either, going a whopping 12 straight years without an injury-related absence.
What else has to happen for Brady to be back on the podium in February 2022, hoisting a ridiculous but believable eighth trophy?
As it pertains to the QB himself, Brady could stand to cut down on the turnovers. TB12 has more often been the guy to pick slowly at a defense rather than swing big and swing some more. (Super Bowl LV is a prime example: In the Bucs' 31-9 rout, Brady was ultra-efficient, going 21-for-29 with 201 yards and three touchdowns, wowing with his steady precision rather than highlight-reel deep shots.) But a return Super Bowl trip would be much more likely if he doesn't post 13 turnovers again. That's not an outrageous total, by any means, but it's high for Brady, who's only matched it twice in the last eight years.
Behind one of the league's most promising offensive lines, reducing picks shouldn't be a major issue. Outside of Brady? Here are a couple of other ways Tampa Bay can ensure it's in the mix for another Lombardi right away:
Retain at least one of two key defensive free agents: Shaquil Barrett and/or Lavonte David
If the Bucs only pony up the dough for one of these guys, it should easily be Barrett, who's younger and plays a more premium position. There's just no way Tampa Bay can re-watch the way it muzzled Patrick Mahomes on Super Bowl Sunday and not be itching to keep Barrett and/or David, cornerstones of Todd Bowles' physical defense, even if it means breaking the bank. With nearly $30 million in projected salary cap space, that shouldn't be an issue.
Be flexible at WR, either with Chris Godwin or the rest of the free agent market
The Bucs need to ensure Brady is coming back with at least two bona fide play-makers out wide. He's got one in Mike Evans. Antonio Brown may be back (and available for a full year), but his presence shouldn't preclude the team from being aggressive. Cost will be a factor here, especially if Barrett and/or David is back, which is why Godwin can't be the only option. Fortunately there are a plethora of starting-caliber names set to be available: Allen Robinson figures to cost a pretty penny, too, but you might be able to back-load a deal for someone like Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller or Corey Davis. It helps that Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson should only be better in '21.
Draft an additional weapon (RB, WR, TE) in the first round
Copy the 2020 Chiefs, who made a luxury pick at No. 32 with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. If you can afford to add the best play-maker available, you do it. As long as Brady is under center and Bruce Arians is coach, the Bucs should be operating like their championship window is here, now and fast fleeting. It doesn't matter if it's a running back to pair with Ronald Jones (as Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy likely say farewell), a wide receiver to pair with whomever starts opposite Evans, or a tight end to pair with Rob Gronkowski. Giving Brady and this high-upside offense yet another toy would be wise.
Do all that, and of course the Bucs won't guarantee themselves a ticket back to the big game. But couple it with the reality of the NFC South, where the Saints will likely be entering the post-Drew Brees era, fresh off a salary-cap crunch; the Panthers will likely be a year away from serious contention, perhaps with a new and young QB of their own; and the Falcons, despite any notion of new coach Arthur Smith immediately restoring Matt Ryan to MVP candidacy, still own a bad roster in transition; and it's almost painfully obvious that Tampa Bay has a feasible path to an NFC South title and home playoff berth in 2021.
From there, with the same staff -- Arians, Bowles, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich -- in place and, most importantly, the same ageless arm under center, it's no wonder some of us are already talking about a repeat.