You knew where this was heading. I knew where this was heading. Your grandma who doesn't watch football knew where this was heading.
We've been counting down the moves that built what would be a Super Bowl-winning roster for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, and all of them were impactful in some way. The ones we've examined in this third and final week of the countdown were primarily part of the twin plans with which the Buccaneers approached free agency a year ago. One was keeping together the core of a strong defense. The other? We're getting to that today.
So far we've looked at those re-signed defenders, a couple of draft picks, three key additions to the offense along the way and a number of important depth moves. But there was one extremely bold strategy, and the successful execution of it, that set everything else in motion.
Countdown: Top 15 Transactions in the Buccaneers' Pursuit of the 2020 Championship
1. Signed QB Tom Brady, March 20
This was quite simply one of the most important days in the franchise's 45-season history. It was also the highest profile free agency signing imaginable. The thought that Brady would leave New England after 20 years and start a new chapter in his playing career at age 42 at one point seemed implausible, at best.
But Brady had an expiring contract and a stipulation that he couldn't get the franchise tag, so if he did want to explore opportunities outside of Foxborough, he could. Realizing this was an actual possibility, General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians made it their top priority. They knew they had to do something at the quarterback position because their incumbent starter, Jameis Winston, was also a pending free agent, so they went all in for the dream scenario.
"I think we do our due diligence every year after a season to see how we can better our football team and better our organization," said Arians. "When we looked at everybody that might be available at the quarterback position, obviously really never dreaming that Tom would be available, but if he was, he was going to be our number-one choice. Mainly because he can do everything that we want to do in our offense, but more than that it's his leadership ability that we need in our locker room to get where we want to go. Once that became a reality it was full bore ahead, let's see what we've got to do and see if we can get this done."
Reports first surfaced that Brady would be signing with the Buccaneers during the three-day period leading up to the start of free agency when teams can negotiate with the representatives of free agents. The Bucs made it official three days later, on a Friday afternoon. The world was just starting to adjust to the pandemic, and this momentous day in franchise history was celebrated not with the usual press conference at team headquarters but with a Zoom call. That couldn't dampen Licht's excitement about the addition of the "G.O.A.T."
"To say that this is an exciting day for the Buccaneers organization, and me personally, would be a rather large understatement," said Licht. "Tom is, quite simply, the greatest quarterback to play the game of football. Any time you can add someone of his caliber, you instantly make your organization better. He's got a long list of truly remarkable accomplishments in his career – frankly, too many to mention here. Going after Tom in free agency was our number-one priority this offseason because we knew he would be a perfect fit for what we are trying to do here. He is a Buccaneer today not for what he has done in the past, but for what we know he can accomplish here in the near future as well."
Brady spoke appreciatively of his time with the Patriots, which included a record six Super Bowl victories, but he was clearly eager to move on and focus on the task ahead. His tone was mostly matter-of-fact about what he intended to bring to his new team, which was a commitment to handle his job and take care of his responsibilities.
"They hired me to do a job here and I'm going to go in there and do it like you've always seen me do for a long time, like the fans have always seen me do, like opposing coaches, my teammates have seen me do. I'm going to give it everything I've got like I've done every day of my life for as long as I've been playing this sport."
It's hard to say the results were even better than the Buccaneers could have hoped, because when you add Tom Brady you start thinking very seriously about winning a Super Bowl. During the ensuing playoffs, Bruce Arians said his team in 2019 had lacked the belief that they could win it all, but the addition of Brady changed that in an instant.
With no offseason program and no preseason games, the transition for a new quarterback – even one as great and experienced as Brady – to a new offense, coaching staff and collection of teammates was understandably gradual. He threw two interceptions and was at times out of sync with his receivers in a season-opening loss at New Orleans. But the Bucs won their next three games and Brady threw eight touchdowns in back-to-back wins over the Broncos and Chargers, the latter including a comeback from a 17-point deficit. He threw seven touchdowns an no interceptions over the next four games, three of which were victories.
The Buccaneers slumped a bit in November and fell to 7-5 heading into their bye week. However, the team spent the off time evaluating what they were doing right and wrong and came out of the break red hot. No one was hotter than Brady. The Bucs won their final four regular-season games with their quarterback throwing 12 touchdowns and one (fluky) interception and racking up 333.3 passing yards per game.
He would finish the regular season with 4,633 yards, 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His 40 TD passes shattered the team's previous single-season record of 33 and tied for second in the NFL. His final passer rating of 102.2 was also a new Buccaneer record, and his yardage total ranked third in the league. He also ran for three touchdowns.
Brady didn't cool down in the postseason, either. He threw for another 1,061 yards in four games, with 10 more touchdowns against three interceptions, with all three of those picks coming in a single half at Green Bay. His 10 postseason touchdowns gave him an even 50 on the season. After a Wild Card win at Washington, Brady was part of a historic QB matchup for three straight weeks. Brady and the Buccaneers prevailed against former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees and the Saints, 2020 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers and Super Bowl LIV MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to take the title. Brady was coolly efficient in Super Bowl LV, completing 21 of 29 passes for 201 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 125.8. That was, surprisingly, the highest passer rating he had put up in his 10 (10!) career Super Bowl appearances. After the game, players and coaches sounded off in a chorus about how important Brady's leadership had been along the way, and particularly in the postseason, where he had so much experience and so much success.
In the end, 324 days after he officially signed with the Buccaneers, Brady was right where the team believed he could take them, holding up the Lombardi Trophy in the Super Bowl postgame celebration at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers became the first team ever to win a Super Bowl in their own home stadium; it's doubtful they would have made that bit of NFL history without one of the most dramatic free agency moves the league had ever seen.
View the top pictures of Tom Brady from the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs and Super Bowl LV.