Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady came to Tampa Bay seeking new opportunities and a fresh start. He's now learning how hard it is to pursue such dreams when time clearly isn't on your side. Brady certainly is experiencing things he hadn't during his 20 years in New England. The problem is that too much of that has included suspect coaching decisions and predictable issues with chemistry.
The Kansas City Chiefs spent much of Sunday afternoon exposing what is becoming a familiar quandary for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay lost, 27-24, but the score, as is often the case with this team, didn't provide a true image of how this game played out. The Bucs struggled to keep pace with the Chiefs for most of the contest. A late rally in the fourth quarter merely masked the fact that the buzz around this team has evaporated in the last month.
The Bucs had an absurd plan for defending Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and wide receiver Tyreek Hill. They had an offensive strategy that led to only one first down in their first four possessions. This was supposed to be a matchup between two teams that had their sights set on playing in the Super Bowl in Tampa in a few months. Instead, the Bucs looked every bit like a team still searching for a consistent identity heading into a Week 13 bye.
"Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August," said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians when asked about his team dropping to 7-5 on the season. "You just don't throw guys out there with names. You've got to practice. You've got to learn to get in sync with each other. That takes time."
Tampa Bay now has lost three of its last four games. If you include the Bucs' uninspiring 25-23 win over the New York Giants on Nov. 2, they've produced only one impressive effort in the last five weeks. This isn't the look of a team brimming with talent. It's the perfect example of a squad that is starting to free-fall at exactly the wrong time. This team has just two wins this season against opponents that currently have winning records.
What's even crazier is the Bucs tend to do their worst work in front of national television audiences. The Bears beat them on a Thursday night when Brady seemed to be confused on Tampa Bay's final possession. The Saints trounced the Bucs by 35 points on Sunday Night Football three weeks ago, while the Rams terrorized Brady for most of a 27-24 loss on Monday night. The Chiefs simply picked up where those other teams left off. They had the Bucs down 17-0 before the first 15 minutes expired on Sunday in CBS' late-afternoon showcase.
The Bucs wound up facing that deficit for two reasons. One is that they inexplicably believed cornerback Carlton Davis had some kind of magical ability to stick with Hill, who finished with 269 receiving yards and scored two of his three touchdowns on Davis in the first quarter. The other was that Brady had no way of moving the Bucs' offense in the early going. Tampa gained all of 39 yards in its first four possessions.
You can accept the defensive struggles because Mahomes -- who completed 37 of 49 passes for 462 yards and three scores -- has roasted plenty of opponents in his brief career. What's harder to understand is how the Bucs have been running their offense of late. They have the greatest quarterback in the history of a football, an assortment of Pro Bowl-caliber skill players and a sturdy offensive line. Normally, that would have been enough to mount an effective, consistent attack against a Kansas City defense that had surrendered 62 points over its last two games.
Instead, the Buccaneers finished another contest by giving viewers the impression that they really are confused about how to make all this work. Brady threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, but he also tossed two interceptions for the second straight week. There were also too many moments early in the game when his receivers weren't on the same page as their quarterback. Aside from a 34-yard outburst by Ronald Jones in the third quarter, the running game was nonexistent, which is what happens when an opposing team jumps on you so quickly.
The Bucs basically spent the first half reminding us that they're a team that currently doesn't know what it wants to be.
"Football is so much about being in rhythm, staying in rhythm and finding a rhythm," said Brady during his postgame press conference. "As we keep going forward, we're learning more about ourselves, about what we need to do. We're going to get back to work and try to do a better job in the last quarter of the season."
It would be one thing if the Buccaneers knew they had five more years with Brady. They could patiently write some of this off as simple growing pains, the logical byproduct of an offseason wiped out by COVID-19. Unfortunately, they don't have the luxury of buying themselves more time with that excuse today. This is a team built to win a championship in a hurry, which is exactly why Brady showed up in the first place after leaving New England.
The Bucs had plenty of impressive moments earlier this season. They were 6-2 at one point and they have scored at least 38 points in four of their wins. This current slide makes those successes feel like a lifetime ago. The Bucs keep getting credit for their potential while their chances to maximize it keep dwindling away.
One of the most obvious issues for this team is its surplus of talent. The idea of Brady having more weapons than he did in his final season in New England was tantalizing at first. It's maddening today. The Bucs have added so many big names -- Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown -- to a roster that already had tremendous talent, but it feels like the coaches don't know how to utilize everybody in the same way Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has managed all his skill players in Kansas City.
Anybody who has followed the Bucs over the past month also realizes that a shortage of creativity is a problem here. Countless broadcasters and analysts have harped over the lack of pre-snap motion and the challenges Brady faces by often having to read defenses after the ball is snapped. This isn't overkill. Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich legitimately have made the job harder for Brady in the last few weeks.
Some of that might be the result of having too much confidence in a Hall of Fame signal-caller. It could even have plenty to do with coaching arrogance, as Arians hasn't shied away from calling out Brady for plays that are dialed up and don't work. Whatever the case, we can assume that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is smirking somewhere. All the momentum that Brady built earlier this year in the debate about who was more important to the New England dynasty has diminished.
What's left is a quarterback guiding a struggling team, which we haven't seen from Brady since his second year as a starter in New England. He always had the answers for how to energize his old squad, likely because Belichick and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew how to make him comfortable. The exact opposite is now happening in Tampa Bay. Brady is being treated like he can make anything work and, in the process, he's proving how human even he can be.
When asked about all the criticism that has been heaped on Tampa Bay's offense lately, Brady said, "It's the external noise, that when you're losing, that's what you deal with. I love playing for the guys I play with, the coaches, the whole organization has been unbelievable. I certainly have to do a better job with the last four weeks of the year."
Added wide receiver Chris Godwin: "We understand what we are as a team and what we can be. We're still learning each other and still growing. With four games left, there are still endless possibilities."
The lone upside in this latest loss for Tampa Bay was that Brady did look more like himself in the second half. He faced down pressure, found receivers open downfield and orchestrated drives that resulted in touchdowns. Brady seemed more instinctive in those moments, more certain of what he needed to do to pull off a comeback. His success also had plenty to do with the Bucs having to shelve their game plan and pray for him to create a miracle.
If the Bucs learn anything from this loss, it's that they found the Tom Brady they need over those last two quarters. Yes, they've been hurt by the unusual offseason and they're still very much a work in progress, but nobody cares about that stuff at this point in the season. The only thing that matters today is whether the Bucs really can deliver on all the promise they once created for themselves.