TAMPA, Fla. -- The conversations have been going on for years, long before Tom Brady, the Lombardi Trophy or a championship window were shimmering in the Florida heat. Jason Licht, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' general manager since 2014, would occasionally discuss what if with the Glazer family that owns the team. What if the Bucs got really good? What if they couldn't keep all the good players without detouring from their philosophy of not creating future salary cap peril with the way they structured contracts? A clean cap was great, but wasn't a Super Bowl -- multiple Super Bowls -- greater?
Even as the Bucs found their footing last season -- first enduring a spell in which they lost three of four games before their offense ignited in the final month of the regular season -- Licht and coach Bruce Arians talked about the possibility of trying to keep the team together. Nobody knew yet how 2020 would end, and there was a long list of free agents to tend to. But shouldn't they try? When, during a beer-soaked boat parade in February to celebrate winning the Super Bowl, Arians bellowed "Your ass ain't going nowhere!" to every passing impending free agent, it was less wishful thinking and more of a forecast about the most extraordinary repeat attempt of the NFL's salary cap era.
"We feel like we have a window here of, I don't know if it's two, three, four, five more years?" Licht said in an interview last week. "But we got a window here. Might as well go for it."
That window was, as if anyone needs reminding, thrown wide open when the Bucs lured Brady south last year, so Licht's timeline is almost entirely dependent on just how deeply Brady has drunk from the fountain of youth. Brady's original deal was for two years (it has since been extended), meaning he was sure to return to 2021 -- a powerful lure for all those free agents.
Still, Arians' dockside promise seemed, in the context of the NFL, unlikely to come true. Super Bowl-winning teams are regularly ripped apart. Assistant coaches become head coaches. Free agents cash in on their success. Ballooning salary caps force franchises to excise their most expensive players. And even the best teams have holes they want to fill. It is so hard to keep a roster intact that a Super Bowl team has never returned all 22 starters in the salary cap era. The last NFL title winner to return every starter off a championship team was the 1977 Oakland Raiders.
Then came this offseason for the Bucs. Their defense was already elite (coordinator Todd Bowles, who should get another chance to be a head coach in Tampa or elsewhere, got a contract extension from the Bucs last week), and the offense -- starting 2020 from behind because of the absence of in-person offseason work and preseasons games -- was still ascending even as they were winning the Super Bowl. The coaching staff remained the same. And all those years of contract discipline meant the Bucs hadn't borrowed from the future to pay for that Super Bowl run, so they could do it to pay for 2021 and beyond when approaching negotiations for the seven Super Bowl LV starters who had expiring contracts.
"I didn't know if we were going to be able to do it," Licht said. "And at the time, I didn't know it hadn't been done since 1977 -- I'm glad I didn't know that at the time because I would have been even more stressed out about it."
The Buccaneers' careful financial calculations equaled that rarest of NFL commodities: stability. What does that do for a team? Arians was so comfortable with the players' familiarity with Tampa Bay's systems that he gave all the veterans the entire spring off. When minicamp started in June, the Bucs were picking up where they left off in February, putting them -- particularly Brady -- in a comfort zone that was far from their reach at this time last year.
"Hell, we didn't get there until like Week 12," Arians said in an interview last week. "Tom comes in, he knows where to go for groceries, he knows the way to come to work, everybody is very, very comfortable with each other. Offensively, we're picking up from the Super Bowl, not from last year. Hopefully we just have better execution, very, very few turnovers and very few penalties."
It is as if Frankenstein's monster got an offseason tune-up and is set loose to continue rampaging. That is particularly true for Brady, who played all of the 2020 season with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, requiring that the knee be taped tightly for games. The ailment was never mentioned on the Bucs' injury report and Brady played every game. But Clyde Christensen, the Bucs' quarterbacks coach, compared the injury to a persistent cold or headache -- Brady just never felt good last season.
"If you have a headache, it's just a headache, but you just want to feel good," Christensen said. "I think it's hard to get your knee, you're throwing a football, and you've got the knee taped so tightly, you don't have mobility, you can't step through it. It just changes everything."
Brady finished last season with 40 touchdown passes -- his most since 2007 -- and 12 interceptions. But no one would suggest Brady was in top form until the final month of the regular season. That was not a surprise to anyone at the Bucs, least of all Brady. He and Licht talked during last preseason and Brady told the general manager the offense was not going to be a finished product at the start of the season. Christensen, in fact, says that while the offense played its sharpest game in the Super Bowl, it still was not hitting on all cylinders then.
Brady still feels a little behind because he did not get to throw as much as normal this offseason while he rehabbed the knee. But he is not wearing any kind of sleeve around his knee during camp practices and his movement is improving each day, Christensen said. On a practice day last week, there was no sign of impairment and the football rarely touched the ground, with one catch made by Antonio Brown, who, unlike last season, will now be with the Bucs for the entire campaign and who Arians said this week is playing at the same speed he did four or five years ago. Christensen is especially thrilled this group is back together because of how solid it was even when the Bucs were struggling last season. No one panicked.
"There are some years you don't want everyone back, you need fresh blood, you need change," Christensen said. "On this team, because we still haven't had a lot of time on task and we're still deficient in reps, and we have such good guys, we had a good thing going on. And football was the last thing to come."
Now that it has, the question is how to summon again the urgency that attended the Buccaneers last season. With one championship in the bank and everyone back, the tendency might be to assume good things will come. Or, as Christensen put it, there isn't much excuse for Tampa Bay to not be a good team. There are only two things that can undermine all the work the Bucs did this offseason: injuries (Tampa was the healthiest team in the league in 2020, according to a Football Outsiders metric that calculates how many games were lost by players) and complacency.
Licht's family visited Arians at his lake house during the summer. As they were leaving, Licht told his wife that after spending time with Arians, he knew there would be no complacency. Arians had even more passion and energy than he did last year. For his part, Brady got so frustrated with a recent sub-par practice -- in which he would have been sacked twice if that were allowed -- that he punted a football, slammed his helmet to the ground and cursed at his teammates about having to make a play even when they're tired. Brady is the seven-ring-wearing antidote to complacency.
"He won't allow it personally and he won't allow it in a practice or on the team," Christensen said. "Sometimes the great leaders have a knack for when to stir it up, even if it's just for stir it up's sake sometimes."
For a roster this loaded with talent, psychological tricks might not even be necessary.
"You have so much competition that if you get complacent, the ball goes to someone else," Christensen said. "You want to jog through a route? The ball will go somewhere else. You're in a mad scramble to get open because there are so many options. And if you're a running back, you want to make those runs count so we keep calling them. I think competition holds off complacency, too."
With Brady recently turning 44 years old, no one knows how long the Bucs' window will remain open. While familiarity makes everyone, especially Brady, more comfortable at the Bucs, the clock on a football life still creates urgency. After all, the last championship team to bring back all its starters didn't win the Super Bowl the next year -- the 1977 Raiders lost in the AFC Championship Game -- and then missed the playoffs for two years, bringing to an end the Ken Stabler era in Oakland.
Free agency and the salary cap have thwarted most serious repeat opportunities. It's worth remembering that it's been 17 years since the NFL has had a repeat champion.
Luckily for the Bucs, Brady is very familiar with that, too.