According to Bruce Arians, the arrival of Tom Brady in March of 2020 gave a talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers team the belief that they could win it all. Brady might have been the only single player who could have had that much of an impact on an organization's psyche.
Now, 15 months and – yes – a Super Bowl championship later, Brady is offering his Buccaneers teammates a perspect that few others, and certainly no other active player, could provide.
Brady was the starting quarterback for the 2003 New England Patriots, who finished that season with a victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. A year later, Brady was still at the Patriots' helm when the Patriots upended the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. In the 16 seasons since, no other team has won back-to-back Super Bowls. Amazingly, Brady could be the one who follows Brady, if he can lead the Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl LVI next February.
Both of those teams went 14-2 in the regular season but they got there in different ways. The 2003 team famously lost its opener to Buffalo, 31-0, before beating the Bills by the exact same score in the season finale to cap a 12-game winning streak, which included three defensive shutouts in the last seven weeks.. The 2004 squad won its first six and didn't have any shutouts along the way. The '03 team saw Antowain Smith lead the way in rushing with just 624 yards; while the '04 team had a 1,635-yard performance from Corey Dillon. Both Ty Law and Tyrone Pool picked off passes for the 2003 defense; nobody in 2004 had more than four as Law and Poole were limited to 14 games between them.
Those are mostly surface stats and notes but they are still a quick illustration of what Brady said on Wednesday about the process of repeating as champs and what he would stress about that to his Buccaneers teammates.
View the top photos from the Bucs second day of mandatory mini-camp.
"I think the assumption comes from the belief that it'll just be exactly like it was last year," said Brady. "I think that's what you've got to not fall into, is that, 'Oh that's the way it worked last year so that's the way it will be this year. The reality is, everything is different."
It's easy to see why Brady would want to emphasize the point. If there has been one overarching story about the 2021 Buccaneers since they finished celebrating last year's championship it's that management succeeded in keeping virtually the entire team together. The 2004 Patriots didn't have exact same lineup as the 2003 Patriots; in fact, the Bucs are the first defending champ to bring back all their starters for the following season since the '70s. There are no big numbers to replace, no missing contributions from the 2020 stats ledger. One could understand how that would breed confidence…which is fine as long as it's not paired with complacency.
"The teams will approach you a little bit differently. You're kind of the team everyone's watching now. There are different degrees of expectation. There is more external noise. There will be more people that are wanting to come to games, more opportunities to do things outside of football. And I think the reality is you've got to stay focused on what's really important: How do you improve? How do you get better from week to week, day to day?
"Improve your routine. Improve your communication with your teammates, with your coaches. Not allow your mind to really fall into this position that you make this assumption that just because you did something in February that you'll do it again next February, because that's the reality of football. It's way too competitive. A lot games we won last year were very razor-thin margins; one or two plays make the difference in every game."
Brady wants to guard against assumptions that would get in the way of hard work and improvement, but that doesn't mean his perspective is an inherently negative one. His 2004 Patriots were significantly better on offense than the 2003 team and finished with a per-game scoring differential of 11.1 points that was an improvement of 61% year-over-year and the best mark in the NFL.
Similarly, there's reason to believe the Bucs can be better on offense in 2021 than the team that ranked third in the NFL with 30.8 points per game. They may not have added one huge new force on offense like Corey Dillon (or for that matter Vince Wilfork on defense), but they have added a lot more shared experience in Bruce Arians' offense. Brady won't have to start this season learning the offense on the fly and needing until the second half of the season for truly to have a strong grasp on it. That could yield better results from Week One on.
"I think last year I was trying to figure out what to do, and I think this year it's more like, 'No, these are the things we're going to focus on, these are the things we're going to try to improve,'" said Brady. "A lot of it is just being on the same page and understanding timing and steps and non-verbal communication. … There's a lot of those things you can gain over the course of a long period of time. We're starting at that place now as opposed to [last year]. Now we've got 15 months invested in one another, as opposed to three months. I'd much rather be 15 months than three months because I believe that continuity in football is the key to winning.
"There's just so many situations that come up over the course of a season that you're not able to sort through and you've got to rely on a lot of past history. I think 15 months is better than three months, I think 27 months is going to be better than 15 months."