Usually, this much success in a short period would inspire jealousy, but it’s hard for eyes to turn green when looking at a city forced to celebration in isolation. The Lightning made the best of it and enjoyed a fun boat parade down the Hillsborough River, but the city didn’t get the customary burst of euphoria after capturing its first Stanley Cup championship in 16 years. The Rays are a fun World Series representative, but once again, Tampa won’t get the full dose of civic pride as it pursues its first MLB title.
But the city isn’t done thriving, it seems. Six games into the season, Brady and the Bucs are improving at a good pace. What matters most is how they’re doing it: The entire team is growing together. Brady is playing well, not carrying everyone else. The Bucs’ weaknesses are diminishing. Their balance on offense and defense is emerging. Their methods seem sustainable. While they aren’t yet as formidable as other contenders, they have significant potential, and they are showing the competence to reach that ceiling.
On Sunday, Tampa Bay improved to 4-2 after its most impressive victory of the season, a 38-10 hammering of previously unbeaten Green Bay. The Buccaneers’ defense proved that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers aren’t unstoppable. They forced Rodgers into his first two interceptions of the season, with Jamel Dean returning one for a touchdown. Rodgers had thrown 13 touchdown passes and posted a 128.4 passer rating in his first four games, but against Tampa Bay, he was 16 for 35 for 160 yards and didn’t throw for a score. And an offense that entered the game averaging a league-best 38 points — an offense that hadn’t scored fewer than 30 points in any game — faltered.
This was the kind of performance that many assumed we would see from the Bucs as soon as the season began. But it was going to take time. Brady came south toting six championship rings from New England and determined to show he can still play at 43. His new team had a productive collection of offensive weapons and an accomplished offensive mind in Coach Bruce Arians. Rob Gronkowski even came roaring out of retirement to join his quarterback. Nevertheless, there’s no such thing as an instant contender in the NFL, and a truncated offseason made that all the more impossible. Tampa Bay had to commit to a process. A 34-23 season-opening loss to New Orleans reinforced the notion.
Now, you see a team that keeps learning from the season’s hard lessons. You see a team that keeps developing while managing the scrutiny that comes with the spotlight Brady provides. To become a legitimate Super Bowl contender, a squad must be able to grind and evolve, and during the learning process, you want to see flashes of excellence that start to last longer as the year progresses. Undoubtedly, this was the first great spike of Tampa Bay’s season. A championship run will require several more.
“Certainly, there are things we can do better than we did,” Brady said. “And we’re going to keep working at it.”
Just a week ago, Brady was dealing with humiliation. In the closing moments of a loss to Chicago, he seemed to lose track of the downs, looking stunned after an errant fourth-down pass. Brady, Arians and the team denied a gaffe. Still, he was mocked for having an old man moment. Whether it was a mistake or just a silly controversy, the freak occurrence took away from the bigger picture: Overall, Brady has been really good this season. His statistical productivity is close to his prime numbers. His remaining talent flickers from time to time, and instead of being asked to cover all of his team’s warts, he needs his team to pick him up on occasion.
The beatdown of Green Bay provided an example. Brady was solid and careful with the football, completing 17 of 27 passes for 166 yards and throwing for two touchdowns without an interception. Ronald Jones II rushed for 113 yards, Gronk went Gronk for the first time this season, and the defense owned the day. That’s far more encouraging than winning because Brady threw for 369 yards and five touchdowns. He did that against the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago, but if Tampa Bay expects that regularly, it is not a formula for consistent success, not at this point in Brady’s career.
“First and foremost, it was a great team win,” Jones said. “Coach said it was going to take everybody, and that’s what it was.”
Brady needs to be allowed to pick and choose his moments. He has to function more as a complement, but he can still be a star while doing so. Arians is beginning to figure out the ideal mix there. The Bucs can still get more out of their running game. Everything is coming together, including the health of their receiving corps. After penalties and undisciplined football got the best of them against Chicago, they responded by not being charged with a single penalty against Green Bay for just the second time in franchise history.
“I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a ballgame with no penalties,” the 68-year-old Arians said.
During two decades in New England, Brady experienced plenty of moments in which Boston-area teams fed off one another and turned the region into Titletown, U.S.A. So Tampa’s hot streak in sports must feel familiar. Perhaps he has been the good-luck charm. He signed with the Bucs near the start of the nation’s long, difficult battle with the coronavirus. For Tampa, he was the first major victory.
Since his arrival in March, it seems the city can’t lose. Include the entire region of central Florida, and it goes down as the epicenter of sports during this time. The NBA retreated to Disney World, near Orlando, to finish its season. The WNBA hosted its campaign at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Throw in the Lightning, the Rays and the NFL’s greatest active legend joining the Bucs, and you can’t even think about sports without focusing on central Florida.
And Tampa is still scheduled to host Super Bowl LV. At the unlikely new epicenter of sports drama, the crazy dream of Brady and the Bucs headlining the party is gaining legitimacy.