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2022 NFL Preview: Tom Brady returns, maybe to win another Super Bowl with Buccaneers

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A theme through Seth Wickersham's book on the New England Patriots' dynasty, "It's Better to Be Feared," is Tom Brady worrying about losing his starting job and his career fading away. Even during the best of times, Brady worried about what came next.

Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising that Brady had a tough time walking away.

Brady retired for 40 days this offseason. Whether you believe a conspiracy theory that the brief retirement had to do with a failed backroom deal with the Miami Dolphins or a rift with Bruce Arians, all that matters for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is Brady is back. For those 40 days, the Buccaneers were looking at the possibility of choosing between Kyle Trask and Blaine Gabbert to start for a team that has Super Bowl hopes. That couldn't have been fun.

Brady doesn't have anything more to prove. Either you already think he's the greatest quarterback of all time or you never will. If you don't have Brady in the top spot after seven Super Bowl titles, you won't move him up if he wins No. 8. It sounds strange, but another Super Bowl title really wouldn't move the needle at all on Brady's legacy.

But Brady obviously loves being an NFL quarterback, and he has to see the possibility of yet another Super Bowl trip with this Buccaneers team.

“It’s been so much fun for me to come here two years ago, almost two and a half years now," Brady said, via the Tampa Bay Times. "It’s been an incredible part of my football journey, and it’s not over. We’ve still got a lot to accomplish.”

The Bucs have been loaded the past couple seasons. They won a Super Bowl two seasons ago and went 13-4 last season. They had a great comeback to tie the Los Angeles Rams in a divisional round playoff game after falling way behind, and if not for an ill-fated "Cover 0" blitz call that led to a long Cooper Kupp catch in the final seconds, they might have advanced to the NFC championship game and beyond. The roster isn't quite the same heading into this season, but it's still at a championship level.

The big change of the offseason was Arians stepping down as Bucs head coach, but that shouldn't change much. Todd Bowles moves over from defensive coordinator to head coach. Byron Leftwich remains as offensive coordinator. Arians delegated a lot to his assistants the past couple seasons, so it should be business as usual.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) came back for another season after a brief retirement. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) came back for another season after a brief retirement. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There are some subtractions, though the Buccaneers were proactive in filling those holes. Rob Gronkowski retired, though we'll see if that sticks. Veteran Kyle Rudolph was signed to help tight end depth. Chris Godwin is coming back from a torn ACL and MCL, though the team added Russell Gage and Julio Jones. The Buccaneers signed defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, presumably ending their series of one-year deals with Ndamukong Suh. Guard Alex Cappa left in free agency and Ali Marpet retired after seven NFL seasons at age 28, but the team traded for Shaq Mason and then drafted Luke Goedeke in the second round. There's not much reason to worry about the roster.

The Buccaneers did take on a huge injury early in training camp. Center Ryan Jensen suffered a knee injury that will keep him out at least a couple of months. That could be a big blow for the offense. It's a reminder that everything can be in place, but you can't control injury luck.

The biggest question, other than replacing a Pro Bowl center, could be Brady. There's a saying that once you've started to think about retiring from the NFL, you've already retired. That's not entirely true; plenty of players have come out of retirement and played well, including Gronkowski. But what if there's just a bit of a letdown in the maniacal competitiveness that has made Brady great? Again, he has nothing to prove anymore. He has a massive TV contract waiting for him with Fox. And physically, nobody has ever done what Brady is trying to do at age 45. Brady seems like a cyborg after beating every realistic expectation for a quarterback in his 40s, but it still wouldn't be too shocking if he falls off at age 45.

Otherwise, the Buccaneers should be very good again. They're the biggest division favorites in the NFL, mostly because the rest of the NFC South isn't posing much of a threat. The Buccaneers should be hosting at least one more playoff game this season. Maybe Brady will write the perfect ending to his career and walk away. Or, he'll just play forever.

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

The Buccaneers operated as you'd expect from a team with a 45-year-old quarterback and Super Bowl hopes. They aren't waiting for tomorrow. They did a good job, again, retaining their own players with new contracts to center Ryan Jensen, cornerback Carlton Davis, receiver Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette, among others. Receiver Russell Gage was the big addition on a three-year, $30 million deal, then they followed that up with a late July signing of Julio Jones. The Buccaneers lost guards Alex Cappa in free agency and Ali Marpet to a surprising retirement but made a low-cost trade with the Patriots for Shaq Mason. Akiem Hicks was signed to take Ndamukong Suh's spot on the defensive line. Safety Jordan Whitehead left but Mike Edwards should replace him fine. Edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul is still unsigned and maybe pass rush depth is a bit of a concern. Otherwise, the Buccaneers retooled the roster well. The team's draft didn't get great grades, but the team's top three picks — Houston DE Logan Hall, Central Michigan OG Luke Goedeke, Arizona State RB Rachaad White — could all contribute right away.

GRADE: B

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

For many years, this part of the Patriots/Buccaneers preview has been spent looking at what quarterbacks Tom Brady's age have done in the NFL. Let's take a look at the statistics of every single quarterback who has thrown a pass at age 45 or later through NFL history:

George Blanda, 7-of-22 for 116 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT over four seasons.

That's all folks. Blanda never started a game at quarterback after age 41 and was mainly a kicker in his 40s. We're finally to the point in which there is no historical comparison to what Brady is about to do. Do not undersell what Brady has already done in his 40s. We've never seen anything like it, or even close.

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

The Buccaneers have the shortest Super Bowl odds at BetMGM of any NFC team at +750. They are an overwhelming -300 favorite to win the NFC South, and you won't often see odds like that for any division favorite. They're -600 to make the playoffs. Their win total is 11.5. There is a lot of optimism about the Bucs in the betting market. I'll pass on the Bucs at those lofty odds. One number that stands out is that Tom Brady is tied for the second-shortest MVP odds at +800. Take a moment and think about how unbelievable that is for a 45-year-old NFL player.

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

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Mike Evans is in the boring veteran stage of his career, and perhaps that will make him a fantasy bargain. He’s quietly putting together a Hall of Fame resume, the only receiver in history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons.

"Granted, Evans eked over that 1,000-yard mark the last two years, but he’s been Tom Brady’s money man in the scoring area. Evans has 27 touchdown catches since Brady relocated to Tampa Bay, a connection you can bank on. And with Chris Godwin a question mark to open the year and Rob Gronkowski settled into retirement, Evans should retain a massive share of the goal-line work. You have my permission to strongly consider Evans at any point in your draft’s second round; his current Yahoo ADP of 22.9 looks like a gift."

[Set, hut, hike! Create or join a fantasy football league now!]

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

The Buccaneers had four Pro Bowl players on defense last season: defensive tackle Vita Vea, linebacker Devin White, edge rusher Shaq Barrett and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. That doesn't count linebacker Lavonte David, a former Pro Bowler who has been a defensive stalwart for 10 seasons, and underrated cornerback Carlton Davis. The Buccaneers have had a top-10 defense each of the past two seasons with Todd Bowles running it. The defense should be about at that level again this season. The offense gets most of the attention, but the Buccaneers defense has also been at a championship level since Tom Brady arrived.

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

Can Chris Godwin return at 100 percent?

Godwin missed three-and-a-half games last season and still led the Buccaneers with 127 targets. Only Mike Evans came within 38 targets of Godwin in the Bucs offense. Godwin was cleared to start training camp, which is good news as he comes off a torn ACL and MCL. There's still no guarantee he'll be ready for the season opener. Tampa Bay will hope Godwin is back to full health early in the season, because he has become a huge part of the offense and a favorite of Tom Brady. The loss of Godwin and Antonio Brown, who quit during a game late in the season, left Tampa Bay shorthanded for the playoffs. The Buccaneers lost on the final play to the Rams, and perhaps they would have won that game with Godwin in the lineup. While the Buccaneers added at receiver in the offseason, it will be challenging to win another Super Bowl if Godwin isn't his normal self. It's a situation worth watching early this season.

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

Tom Brady finished second in the NFL MVP voting after throwing for 5,316 yards and 43 touchdowns last season. There have been no signs of a drop off. While Brady's late-career production is hard to believe, it's happening and will probably continue until he retires for good. By the end of the season Brady could be surrounded by Mike Evans, a healthy Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, Julio Jones and Leonard Fournette, with a strong offensive line in front of him. The defense should be very good again, too. Tampa Bay has the easiest path to a division title of any NFL team, and perhaps a No. 1 seed. A second Tampa Bay Super Bowl title for Brady is certainly possible.

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

Clearly, the "Tom Brady is suddenly washed up" possibility is the worst case for the Buccaneers, though that seems unlikely based on how Brady played last season. It could still happen. Assuming Brady is near what he was last season and there's not a crazy string of injuries (the Ryan Jensen injury isn't a great omen that way, and it leaves the Bucs vulnerable on their interior offensive line), it's hard to imagine the Bucs not winning the division. That's a pretty good floor. But when you're in win-now mode — we've never seen a 45-year-old starting quarterback before, but that's pretty much the epitome of "win-now mode" — anything short of a Super Bowl will feel like a lost season. Maybe the passing game will be a little light if Chris Godwin doesn't look like his pre-injury self and Rob Gronkowski isn't sufficiently replaced. The defense should be good but the pass rush is a little unproven. And yes, maybe Brady goes from being great to merely very good, and that's the difference in a deep playoff run and an early exit.

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

Tom Brady became the greatest "old" player in NFL history ... five seasons ago when he won MVP. I've spent a lot of time in these previews through the years wondering when we'd see Brady fall off, and it hasn't happened yet. I don't think it will this season either. The Buccaneers are going to win the division unless the wheels fall off somehow. Given their competition in the NFC South, they have the clearest path to the No. 1 seed. I'm not sure yet if I'll be picking the Buccaneers to win the NFC, but they have the talent to get back to a Super Bowl. What a story that would be.

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

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