Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Nevermind the hype over the influence that the addition of six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady has had on the rise of the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 – at the end of the day, any quarterback is only as good as the receivers he throws to.
Granted that Brady – at age 43, downright Methusala-like in NFL terms – had an October to remember, throwing 12 touchdown passes to just one interception and averaging 289 yards per game passing in that month as the Buccaneers won three out of four games, Tampa Bay is loaded in the way of downfield receivers.
Mike Evans is a multiple All-Pro wide receiver, Scott Miller has been a revelation in his second season, and running backs Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and LeSean McCoy are always threats for screen passes and downfield passes alike.
The Buccaneers’ depth at the receiver positions was already well noticed, prior to the arrivals of Brady and coach Bruce Arians.
And then, there’s the man known simply by one nickname… “Gronk”.
Rob Gronkowski ended his one-year retirement – others would have called it a rest, or even a self-imposed exile, from the day-to-day, week-to-week rigours of the NFL – to reunite with Brady in Tampa Bay, as Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and John Spytek, the team’s director of player personnel, acquired Gronkowski’s rights and a 2020 seventh-round draft pick from the New England Patriots for a mere fourth-round pick in the same draft.
And some would attest that Brady, either by his presence with the Buccaneers or by his advocacy for his ex-Patriots teammate and favourite target, had more to do with the trade than either Licht or Spytek did.
That, and Gronkowski’s competitive juices started flowing again in late 2019, towards the end of his “gap year” to rehabilitate his body from the previous nine years where he not only caught 79 touchdown passes – all bar one of them from Brady’s powerful right arm – but also suffered 20 concussions and underwent nine different surgeries.
“I wouldn’t say I had that fire, even at the end of last season, to come back, but as the time rolled on, the last couple weeks, I started really picking it up,” Gronkowski said upon being acquired by the Buccaneers.
“My body started feeling good, my desire to play the game of football was coming back and I knew that by the time the season rolled around again, I would want to be back out there.
“That desire, that passion has lit into me and I just felt like the last couple weeks, it was the right time to hop on before it was too late,” he added.
Gronkowski – whose on-field accomplishments is seen to be matched only by his oddball cult of personality – has eased his way back into the flow of a Brady-led offence, making fans believe he was content to be “a blocking tight end, baby” as opposed to one who would catch passes.
But thankfully for Buccaneers fans, old habits between Brady and Gronkowski die a slow death.
In Tampa Bay’s Week 8 “Monday Night Football” 25-23 win over the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, Brady targeted Gronkowski four times, and Gronkowski made four catches for 41 yards and a key second-half touchdown that swung momentum into the Buccaneers’ way at a key point in the game.
“The touchdown to ‘Gronk’, he made a great catch, but the ball got tipped at the line of scrimmage. He had great concentration on that,” said Brady after the win.
That win sets up a mouth-watering Week 9 showdown between the Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints – two teams vying for NFC South supremacy. And while one side story has Brady and Saints quarterback Drew Brees yo-yoing in the leadership for the NFL’s all-time record for most touchdown passes, the Buccaneers will be looking to avenge a Week 1 34-23 loss to the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The main story has the Buccaneers a half-game ahead of the Saints atop the NFC South, and a game in front in the win column, and Tampa Bay balances the pressures of a short week with the luxury of strengthening Brady’s and Arians’ receiving corps even more.
On the surface, the recent signing of former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown bolsters reinforcements to a team already stacked with receiving options.
But in truth, Brown – who played with Brady briefly with the Patriots last season, and whom Brady lobbied with Buccaneers’ management, like he did with Gronkowski, to acquire Brown and all of his baggage as a free agent signing – provides necessary cover for a long-term Achilles injury to O.J. Howard and a week-to-week situation for Chris Godwin, who missed the win over the Giants with a broken finger.
If one wants to argue that the rich are getting wealthier in the way of receiving talent, then one can point at the fact that Brady, Arians and Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich all possess an advantage of experience with Brown – Arians as a former offensive coordinator with Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, and Leftwich as a quarterback in Pittsburgh that threw the ball to him in training sessions as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup.
“He looks fantastic. I think we had really good conversations today, he and I. He was in the meetings and everything and he's working with [wide receivers coach] Anthony Piroli and the strength staff. He looks in great shape and ready to go next week,” Arians said about Brown, who he also terms as an “insurance policy” the longer Godwin misses games.
Way long gone are the days in Buccaneers history where John McKay, their first coach from 1976-84, when asked by the media – as the Bucs lost the first 26 games of their existence – what he thought of his team’s execution, he said he was in favor of it, with a classic tongue-in-cheek deadpan reply. And in truth, Arians’ Buccaneers currently lie closer to Jon Gruden’s Super Bowl XXXVII-winning side along the spectrum of the team’s 44-year history.
And as long as Brady possesses a bottomless supply of receivers to throw the ball downfield to, the sky’s the limit for the Buccaneers.
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