The Buccaneers enter their bye week at a crossroads, possibly in more ways than one.
With three losses in four games, a 6-2 start has melted to 7-5. An NFC South championship won’t happen, and it’s fair to wonder whether they even get to the playoffs.
Based on their last four games — Vikings, at Falcons, at Lions, Falcons — an 11-5 record is possible if not probable, making the team’s first postseason appearance in 13 years more probable than possible.
The organization has a bigger objective than ending a streak that goes back to 2007. The Buccaneers ultimately want to be sure that quarterback Tom Brady chooses to return for 2021.
There’s been a growing sense in league circles in recent weeks that Buccaneers ownership views getting Brady back for a second season as a critical piece of their financial picture. The pandemic kept the Buccaneers from selling all tickets for the first time in a very long time. By next year, the public-health crisis likely will have subsided to the point that will allow the Bucs to open the floodgates again.
The question is whether Brady will be part of the team. Although he’s said nothing publicly to suggest he’s thinking about retiring or trying to play elsewhere in 2021, he said nothing publicly in 2019 about leaving New England, either. With dramatically reduced media access to practice and locker rooms, it’s much harder to get the kind of inside information that could shed light on his plans, and his camp hasn’t been leaking anything to the usual media suspects about whether Brady does or doesn’t fully intend to play in Tampa next year.
He’s technically under contract to the Bucs for next season, but nothing stops him from asking to be released. Brady also could easily retire until he’s released or traded for peanuts; since he received no signing bonus, he’d owe the team none of the $25 million he received in 2020.
At the heart of the question of whether Brady will want to return to Tampa is whether he’ll want to continue to be the pincushion for criticism, both overt and subtle, regarding the performance of the offense. Coach Bruce Arians routinely creates the impression that any and all offensive struggles trace to Brady, that he has full power to pick plays and that any failed decision are his, not the coaching staff’s.
After 12 straight weeks of playing games, the bye week gives all parties a chance to step back and to reassess, even if only for a bit. If ownership hasn’t use the brief pause in the action to make it clear to Arians that the goal is to get Brady back next year, perhaps ownership should. Then again, Arians is smart enough to realize what and who will make money next year for the franchise; fans who fill the stadium will be there not to see Arians coach but to see Brady play.
Ultimately, decisions could hinge on how things go over the final quarter of the season. Arians decided to move on from Jameis Winston after 2019 because he failed to step up when games mattered most. If the Buccaneers continue to stumble and underachieve, Arians may decide that Brady isn’t the answer, Brady may decide that Arians isn’t the answer, and ownership (which hasn’t been bashful about firing coaches) may decide that the best way to keep Brady around for 2021 will be to hire someone else to get more out of Brady.