“Everything he wants in a particular way,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette says of Brady, “and we make sure at our best we can give it to him.”
Brady launches a pass into double coverage. That one is complete, too. Second-year defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. knows the pass is coming, and yet it’s out of his reach, caught by wide receiver Chris Godwin. Winfield is asked later what can be done in that situation.
“Nothing,” he says. “Go make a tackle.”
Then Brady flashes urgency. He crouches behind his center and claps quickly, calling an audible. He receives the ball, swivels 90 degrees and lobs a high pass. It’s caught by the running backs coach, Todd McNair, waiting on the sideline. He laughs. Brady grins. Fans cheer.
Tom 2.0 is living his best life. He’s the same perfectionist, pinpoint passer as the six-ring legend of New England, but after a vindicating championship and a successful offseason surgery, this vibe is different. While many debated the push-pull of Brady and Coach Bill Belichick in Foxborough, here in Tampa the quarterback appears to be a much more relaxed version of himself — more outspoken, more social media-savvy and with exactly as much control as he wants.
“It feels like Tom is more empowered, more self-aware, more understanding that he’s a big deal [in Tampa],” says former NFL defensive lineman Marcus Spears, an ESPN analyst. “It’s a lot of things he feels the freedom to do. The Patriot Way didn’t allow that to be fully expressed.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that Brady, whose quest to win an eighth Super Bowl will begin when Tampa Bay hosts the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL season opener Thursday night, is surrounded by one of the best rosters in football — one that returns a whopping 98 percent of snaps from the team that won it all.
“I just think back to where I was a year ago at this time. It was a very different situation in terms of what I knew — the knowledge of the offense,” Brady recently told reporters. “And I think starting at a place like I’m at now allows me a better grasp of things. We’re starting at a good place. We just have to build on it.”
The result is the most unperturbed, unbothered group of defending champs you’ll see. Asked how this camp feels compared with all of the others he has led, Bucs Coach Bruce Arians chuckles.
“I would not consider this camp,” he says. “Just practice every day. Normal season. There’s no such thing as camp anymore. Days off and limited days in pads. If it was a camp, it’d be Camp Cupcake.”
No, we are not in New England anymore.
Different from the Patriot Way
When we last saw the Bucs, Winfield was giving a peace sign to Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreek Hill at the end of the Super Bowl. It was the final dagger of revenge against a team that beat them several weeks before, with Hill giving the sign to Winfield on his way into the end zone.
It’s the kind of gesture that would get a rookie in trouble. Except it didn’t.
“Afterward, [Arians] came and yelled something to me,” Winfield recalls. “Then he said, ‘Aw, good job.’ ”
Controversy doesn’t seem to linger much around here. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, never shy of the spotlight, has made few waves and fewer headlines. Antonio Brown, who was suspended just last summer because of legal charges, has so far drawn negative attention only for a training camp fight that Arians coyly dismissed as “swatting flies.” Ndamukong Suh — who arrived in Tampa with a reputation as a rule bender — has been so silently effective that it’s sometimes hard to remember he’s on the team. Suh was recently placed on the reserve/covid-19 list, but Arians says everyone on the team is vaccinated.
Yes, that includes Brady, who used to find himself in the orbit of all sorts of drama, from Deflategate to having a MAGA cap in his locker. Here he has morphed into Twitter Tom — the playful, cheeky, jovial social media personality who pokes fun at himself, chucks the Super Bowl trophy from boat to boat during a boisterous title celebration on the water and promotes his love of cryptocurrency.
“He was much more PC with New England, is how I would describe it,” Spears says. “We saw the dude drunk, tossing the Lombardi. You don’t see that in New England.”
Arians is going to be the last person to furrow a brow at Brady’s new ways. He’s the opposite of a control freak — a macro-manager who’s willing to let others make key decisions.
“We schedule a number of reps,” Arians says, explaining his preseason strategy. “When the reps are done, we’re done. Average 60 to 80 plays. That’s more than enough reps. It’s not, ‘Let’s get some work because we have time.’ ”
There’s not really a Patriot Way on the bay. That has created an unspoken faith that if you do the work, it’ll work out. This is a change from where Fournette — and Brown and Suh, for that matter — used to be in their careers. The pressure no longer lands squarely on them to make a game-changing play.
“I’ve been the number one guy my whole life,” Fournette says. “It was kind of what I needed, too, just to sit back and realize what was at risk for myself.”
So a running back who arrived in the NFL with a “franchise player” label is now content to show up in the second half of games — if that’s what is needed.
“It’s fine,” he shrugs. “The younger me wasn’t used to that. I just had to get a better sense of what was going on.”
Brady is going through a renaissance of his own. His excellence and dedication never waned, but there’s a sense that he has let his hair down in the Sunshine State. Perhaps the biggest proof came when the Bucs visited the Biden White House this summer and the quarterback made a joke about how a large percentage of fans didn’t believe the results … of the Super Bowl. It was a “Did he really say that?” moment.
“No shade at New England; they won,” Spears says. “I just don’t know how much enjoyment it was. I don’t know if they enjoyed it as much as Tampa enjoyed it.”
Brady surely enjoys the supporting cast he has now, which is a marked upgrade from the end days in New England. And much like Fournette and Brown, the No. 1 and No. 2 targets are willing to be role players.
“Mike [Evans] and Chris [Godwin] have been here for years now, and those are two of the most unselfish teammates I’ve ever played with,” tight end Cameron Brate said of the wide receivers. “They’re both amazing players who can demand the ball — and they don’t. They’ll go in and block. They’ll be the decoy on a route. If those two aren’t saying anything about not getting the ball, then who am I, who is anyone else to say something like that?”
Arians delegates authority, and Brady delegates the pigskin.
“He’s putting [receivers] in perfect positions, and his reads are automatic,” Winfield says. “His eyes, his reads, it’s amazing. He’ll be looking one way and just peek and throw a bullet. He’s tough.”
Potentially even tougher now, after offseason knee surgery. Pundits await his decline, but it’s possible Brady will be even better without the knee complication. “It was probably something that certainly needed to be done and there was a great outcome, so I’m very happy about that,” Brady told reporters. “I feel I’ll be able to do some different things this year than I was able to do last year.”
In the Bucs’ final preseason game, the starters played against the Texans and Tampa Bay had 14 players catch passes. They racked up 181 yards in 18 game minutes. Whether this could rank among Brady’s best teams is a steep hill to climb, but it surely could be the most fun group of his career.
After all, Brady already has his Florida ring, his Florida receivers and his Florida rep. He’s the rarest Florida Man of them all: the dude who moves to this state and does everything right the first time.