At this time in 2020, the Bucs were coming off of a 7-9 season with quarterback Jameis Winston heading to free agency after his fifth season in Tampa Bay, a year in which his astounding 5,109 passing yards and 33 touchdowns was only matched by the bewilderment of his 30 interceptions. Now a year later the Bucs are heading to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history on the heels of an 11-5 season led by the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history, Tom Brady.
As improbable as Brady signing with the Bucs sounded to many, a quarterback with six Super Bowl victories in nine appearances heading to a team with the worst all-time winning percentage in NFL history, his signing even seemed like a pipe dream to general manager Jason Licht… until it happened.
With a number of options on the table, from re-signing Winston to adding one of the numerous free agent options like Teddy Bridgewater or Phillip Rivers, Licht claims that the ball got rolling toward signing Brady at a staff get-together shortly following the 2019 season. Licht spoke to sports columnist Peter King on his podcast this week and re-lived the process of signing Brady.
“I pulled [head coach Bruce Arians] aside and I remember saying, ‘you know there is one player out there that may sound like a pipe dream but we could consider, that’s Tom Brady,” Licht said. “It just kind of went from there. We had a lot of meetings, we had a lot of evaluations, all of our scouts and coaches dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s doing all of the evaluations of every quarterback available and lo and behold, we’re at this point now.”
As the Bucs’ staff began their evaluations and free agency loomed closer, Licht even recalls quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen joking that he felt like he was getting pranked as he watched film on Brady, preparing for a potential push at the 20-year veteran if he was willing to leave New England.
But while Licht had his doubts, Arians remained confident that Tampa Bay would be in the running to sign Brady.
“For me it was a little bit like, I don’t know if this is ever going to happen,” Licht said. “But Bruce, being as confident as he is, he was like, ‘Well why the hell wouldn’t this happen? Why the hell wouldn’t he want to come here?'”
And the Bucs’ director of player personnel John Spytek shared in Arians’ hope.
“We were in my office one day and Bruce was in there and I posed that very question,” Licht said. “I said well why would he come here and then Spytek pointed to a depth chart that I have up in my office on a smart board and he said, ‘this is why he would come.’ He pointed to Mike Evans and [Chris] Godwin and O.J. [Howard] and our defense, Lavonte [David] and company, and he said, ‘we built it, he will come.'”
The mission of signing Brady then became dubbed as Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson, per Licht, a reference from the classic baseball film Field Of Dreams in which the line, “If you build it, they will come,” derives its’ origin.
“Then throughout the process Spytek would pop into my office, or Mike Beal, my college director or Mike Greenberg, our [salary] cap guy or Rob McCartney, my pro director and every once in a while would say, ‘go the distance,’ or drop other little lines from Field Of Dreams,” Licht said. “It was a fun time. They were just trying to keep my sanity but also [help me] realize, hey, this could happen.”
Months passed and the Bucs’ staff was eventually able to speak with Brady’s agent Don Yee, to which Licht recalls his first words being, “you made the right call,” and that was the moment that Licht knew that Brady had been looking at Tampa Bay as a potential option. And in March, Licht and Arians finally spoke to Brady himself.
“I went over to Bruce’s house and the minute that we could talk to him I called him first and [Brady’s’] first words were, ‘Hey, Babe,’ you know how he talks,” Licht said. “And he said ‘this is going to be fun’. I remember I had the phone and said, ‘I think this is actually happening’ to Bruce.
“We had a talk for 30 or 45 minutes, he rattled off all of the players that we had and he had obviously done his homework which is to be expected the way he’s so detailed. We talked about every game we played and how close we were and our defense, how it stepped up in the second half, and then I turned it over to Bruce and those two talked for what seemed like an hour. He gave me the phone back and the first thing [Brady] asked was if I could give him the numbers of every player on our team, ‘I want to start talking to them.’ I can’t remember what the number was but he had the exact number of hours that we had until we opened up the season with New Orleans and he said, ‘we have to take advantage of every minute.'”
Now looking back on the Bucs’ improbable run to the Super Bowl, with three road wins as a wild card team that includes toppling both the top seed in their division and their conference, it all began with the improbable signing of an all-time great quarterback in Tom Brady.