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2021 NFL Preview: Tom Brady did the impossible for Buccaneers, and will try to do it again

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

For the first 54 years of the Super Bowl era, the only starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two teams was Peyton Manning. 

Manning's second Super Bowl was a gift from the football gods, who denied him in his first three Denver Broncos seasons when he was historically great at times but didn't win it all. In 2015 Manning was a shell of himself and a phenomenal defense carried the team to a title. 

Manning was an unusual winning Super Bowl quarterback in that he was a big name but played poorly most of the season. Before last season, there was no instance of a quarterback being the driving force on championship teams with two different franchises. Then Tom Brady went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A lot of people have Brady fatigue and simply don't like him, but what he did last season is unbelievable. At age 43 — no quarterback had previously experienced the slightest success at that age — he switched teams during the strangest offseason ever, and despite no preseason with new teammates he threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns on a Super Bowl champion. Tampa Bay was just the seventh wild-card team to win a Super Bowl. 

Regardless of what you think about Brady (you have probably tensed up with anger by now if you're not from New England or Tampa), what he did with the Bucs is one of the greatest stories in sports history. There are many reasons Brady should have failed, and instead he took a Tampa Bay franchise that has been mostly awful through its history and led it to a Super Bowl. That story probably doesn't get enough attention because we're used to Brady winning. 

What Brady and the Bucs did one time was hard enough. Even with every starter returning for another run, it'll be a huge challenge to get back to the Super Bowl. 

Brady, who miraculously went from a sixth-round pick to six Super Bowl wins with the New England Patriots and the greatest resume ever for an NFL player, should be washed up by now. For at least the last five years, my preview for the Patriots or for the 2020 Bucs included skepticism about Brady. There will be more this year, even if fading Brady has been foolish. Only five quarterbacks in NFL history had even appeared in a game at age 43 or older. We're down to three if we slide the bar to age 44: Vinny Testaverde, Steve DeBerg and George Blanda. Testaverde started six games at age 44 (with a 65.8 passer rating), DeBerg started one and Blanda didn't start any. We've seen quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Manning play well late in their careers, and still hit the finish line well before age 43. Brady won a fifth Super Bowl MVP at age 43. 

Brady is shrewd, and it's not entirely a coincidence that he won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay. He had to have known the potential of the Bucs. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans are perhaps the best 1-2 combo of receivers in the NFL. The defense had a fierce front seven and was magnificent down the stretch, most notably in the Super Bowl win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The coaching staff was a perfect mix, and somehow offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles didn't land head-coaching jobs so they'll be back

Brady knew he was stepping into a very good situation. It took a while to click but the Bucs went 8-0 after the bye week, including the playoffs. And then, somehow, the Bucs managed to retain all 22 starters. That has never happened before in the salary-cap era, which started in 1994. 

There are challenges. The Super Bowl hangover is real. Brady is at an age in which it can all fall apart fast. Complacency could set in. Injuries, which the Buccaneers avoided at a startling rate last season, will be a bigger part of this season. It was a team that despite a great finish, was languishing at 7-5 last season and didn't even win its own division. 

But Brady and the Bucs pulled off the impossible once. It's hard to say they can't do it again. 

Tom Brady holds the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LV. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tom Brady holds the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LV. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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One of the stories of the NFL offseason was the Buccaneers somehow keeping all of their starters. Maybe players like Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette weren't going to have a big market, but getting them back on one-year deals speaks to the culture of the Buccaneers. This team wants to chase another title. Other than running back Giovani Bernard, the Buccaneers added nobody of note in free agency. A lot of the money was spent on Chris Godwin's franchise tag. They didn't lose any key pieces either, obviously. Pass rusher Joe Tryon was the last pick of the first round, and quarterback Kyle Trask was an interesting second-round pick. But there aren't many opportunities for anyone new to break into this lineup. 

Grade: B

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Every year, this spot includes a look through history at quarterbacks the same age as Tom Brady. The list keeps getting shorter. Here are the career numbers for every quarterback age 44 or older through NFL history, via Stathead

Vinny Testaverde: 94-of-172, 952 yards, 5 TD, 6 INT
Steve DeBerg: 30-of-59, 369 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
George Blanda: 39-of-80, 494 yards, 6 TD, 7 INT

That should put Brady's accomplishments last season into perspective. He threw 40 touchdowns and won Super Bowl MVP at an age in which almost every quarterback through more than 100 years of NFL football has already retired. He did so with a torn MCL last season. The draft pick of Kyle Trask is a reminder that Brady won't play forever, but it's useless to predict when Brady will fall apart. He was supposed to hit the wall years ago. What he's doing is beyond unprecedented in the NFL. 

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Tampa Bay's win total at BetMGM is 12, and that's a lot. The Buccaneers were 11-5 last season, after all. I don't want to take the under though. While it's a lot more juice than I like to lay, maybe the Bucs to win the NFC South at -190 odds is the best bet with this team. It's hard to see anyone else taking the division. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "The Buccaneers brought the band back together — all starters returning — and that’s mostly good news for Tom Brady. The sunny side of things is that the Buccaneers might have the deepest skill talent in the league; there could be crowding issues for those receivers and tight ends, but Brady will enjoy throwing to the man with the easiest matchup. On the downside, Tampa’s outstanding defense will limit Brady’s shootout potential — we’re a long way removed from the carnival of the 2019 Buccaneers, when Jameis Winston had his 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.

"Brady is a long shot to be a Top 5 fantasy quarterback; he doesn’t have rushing chops for that, and the Buccaneers won’t need him to lead the league in attempts. But last year’s QB8 finish, that’s an attainable goal. Age is just a number for the NFL’s most accomplished quarterback."

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Tampa Bay had one of the most remarkable seasons ever when it comes to injury luck. The Buccaneers lost 25.6 games to injury (which doesn't count COVID-19 issues) in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost metric. Every other team lost at least 41. Teams lost an average of 70.8 games to injury according to Football Outsiders' numbers. The Bucs were close to one-third of that number. Injury luck is not sustainable, and the Buccaneers would have to hit the lottery to have another season with so few games lost. 

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Can the Buccaneers manage expectations? 

Bruce Arians was swearing about his team's practice after camp started. Tom Brady is already yelling and slamming his helmet. The Buccaneers are trying to move past last season's Super Bowl, which isn't easy. 

“That’s the thing about the whole building. Nobody is worried about last year,” linebacker Devin White said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “Yeah, obviously we got the same team back and we know what that team did. But we’re working on building it with each other again and being better than last year."

“It’s a new year. Coach did an amazing job setting the tone,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “The focus is on what the task is in front of us. Everything that happened last year is water under the bridge."

It's hard to tell a team that dominated Super Bowl LV and has everyone back that they're starting at Square 1. Last season wasn't easy for them. The Buccaneers were 7-5 at one point. They lost 38-3 to the New Orleans Saints. They didn't win the NFC South. They had a tough time putting away a Washington Football Team that was starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke in the wild-card round. It was a harder road than we remember last season, and it'll be a tough challenge for Arians and his staff to get everyone refocused. 

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The Buccaneers team we saw in the last eight games was mostly dominant. The Super Bowl win, when they obliterated a fantastic Kansas City offense, was impressive. It can't be too surprising that we got a champion that started slowly and came together late in a weird 2020 season. Continuity should help this season. Tampa Bay also has much less of a challenge in the NFC South with New Orleans retooling. The Buccaneers have talent at every key area, and even if Tom Brady loses a bit, the defense has enough to pull off a 2015 Broncos routine. It would be a major shock if this team doesn't win a division title, and of course another Super Bowl championship is a realistic goal. 

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It's fair to view the Buccaneers as a team that was only OK for much of last season, then got hot at the right time (thanks in part to an unbelievable run of injury luck) and won a title. And that's OK. Championships don't come with asterisks and nobody would deny the Bucs were deserving champs. But assuming the Buccaneers just pick up where they left off is a little dangerous. Not to mention that, theoretically anyway, one of these years Tom Brady is finally not going to be Tom Brady anymore. Even a bad Bucs season is probably double-digit wins and a division title. But when some are already passing the long offseason wondering if the Buccaneers can go 17-0, it'll be a hard bar to cross for the 2021 Bucs. 

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Tampa Bay won its last eight games, grabbed the Lombardi Trophy and brought everyone back. I debated a long time between the Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs for the top spot. They're mostly interchangeable but I settled on Kansas City at No. 1 because I give a nod to their multi-year excellence, I don't think the Buccaneers' injury luck can possibly repeat and over the entirety of last season, Kansas City was probably the better team. The Buccaneers were much better in the Super Bowl, however. The Buccaneers are a fun story, because in this era of parity and free agency we never see a champion come back intact. Tampa Bay could win another Super Bowl and it wouldn't surprise anyone. I just think there are a few challenges that will keep them from pulling it off. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns
10. Tennessee Titans
9. Seattle Seahawks
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Los Angeles Rams
6. San Francisco 49ers
5. Indianapolis Colts
4. Baltimore Ravens
3. Buffalo Bills

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