The foundational moment of the Dream Team came together late on a Wednesday night last March, after Tom Brady had exhausted all of his questions for Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht.
Brady was going to have options on the table, but his call with the Buccaneers’ brain trust sounded more like the final stages of a vetting process. He knew the roster’s makeup and had familiarized himself with the team’s key decision-makers. He knew the most pertinent members of the coaching staff and how both sides of the ball were schemed in 2019.
For Brady, the union simply felt right. And when Tampa Bay had his commitment, the marriage would be consummated with an all-in agenda that would maximize a very small window in an effort to achieve very big things. Or in the most grand dreams, the very biggest thing, which was delivered in Sunday’s 31-9 Super Bowl LV victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the long view of history, this should have gone wrong.
You don’t take a 43-year-old quarterback and assemble a Dream Team in the NFL as much as you design your own catastrophic ending. These lessons are typically so forcefully cataclysmic that teams don’t often try what the Buccaneers ventured into last March. Either because they don’t have the opportunity or the desperation to take the shot — and when they do, someone logical comes to their senses and reminds everyone that the spectacular reach usually ends badly.
We think these attempts happen often in the NFL, but they really don’t. The occasional “everyone bubble” where a team amasses a handful of elite level short-timers and sprinkles in some risky additions to try and make some championship stew.
Washington did it in 2000, with Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Mark Carrier, Jeff George and Adrian Murrell added to a solid core, plus two first-round draft picks (LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels) in the top three selections in the draft. The end result was a brand of 8-8 mediocrity that so infuriated team owner Dan Snyder that he’d burn through four head coaches in four seasons, from Norv Turner to interim Terry Robiskie and then Marty Schottenheimer (one year) and Steve Spurrier (two years).
That team became a cautionary tale in the NFL about engaging in a true all-in, where everything is dialed into a single season. And for the most part, franchises avoided it until the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles tried to spark a waning Andy Reid regime with a landslide of “name” signings: Vince Young, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin and a handful of others. All to comprise an ill-fitting roster that was remarkable only in that it also found the 8-8 water mark, just like Washington had in the decade before. It marked the beginning of the end for Reid in Philadelphia and started a weird spiral for general manager Howie Roseman, who wound up in brief exile inside the building during a power struggle with new head coach Chip Kelly.
Again, a lesson to those who would try to fly too high.
If a team is going to take its shot, the decision makers should be prepared to lose their jobs in the process and have the future of the franchise thrown into disarray. Unless, of course, it’s already in the middle of that kind of mess, which these Buccaneers were in 2019 — to the point of Arians and Licht likely being on the outs if the team didn’t turn a corner in 2020.
And maybe that’s what made this Buccaneers team possible. Maybe that’s why this rare “all-in” actually ended up working. Virtually every rung on the ladder of Tampa Bay’s power structure didn’t really have anything to lose after 2019. Heads were going to roll if things didn’t work in 2020 anyway. So you might as well make the shot you take as worthwhile as possible. And once Brady came into the fold, it made zero sense hedging on virtually anyone who could make Tampa marginally better this season.
That’s how you ended up with not only Brady on a two-year deal, but a 68-year-old coach in Arians who also has 12 other players with one-year deals worth at least $1 million each. They include running backs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and offensive tackle Joe Haeg. Not to mention trading for a retired Rob Gronkowski in the final year of his deal, adding wideout Antonio Brown on a one-year incentive-laden deal and using a first-round draft pick on offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs.
It doesn’t take much more than a Google search to understand how many potential landmines the Buccaneers were importing. Fournette had an unceremonious cratering with the Jacksonville Jaguars. McCoy had run into some off-field ugliness with the Bills in 2018 and looked largely spent with the Chiefs in 2019. The Rams couldn’t be rid of Suh fast enough after 2018 and he looked like a player in continued decline with the Buccaneers in 2019. Gronkowski? He’d been out of the game for a year and had some memorable moments where he was on the verge of tears over how bad his body felt in his final years in New England. And Antonio Brown needs no introduction beyond the fact that the NFL essentially suspended him for nearly one-and-a-half seasons that saw him torch nearly every bridge in his life.
How all these pieces found a cohesive fit in 2020 is hard to say. It’s not as simple as suggesting both sides of the roster are talented or that the offensive and defensive scheming found their grooves late in the season and hit their peak momentum in the playoffs. While all of those things are true, there’s little denying the ability of Brady to provide some sense of buoyancy to the team that surrounds him. And it also might have been good to see Arians prod the quarterback at times, too, if only to show that even the immortals will be expected to live up to their end of the franchise resurrection.
All that matters is that the gamble worked in the first-year window. Even the Denver Broncos couldn’t say that after signing Peyton Manning in 2012 and mortgaging a large swath of the team’s future into the deep winter of Manning’s career. That might have been one of the dream teams that bucked the trends of failure — but it took four years to realize the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl win.
Some how, some way, these Buccaneers did it in one. And just like that, they illustrated to the rest of the NFL that in the most special set of circumstances, it can work. Maybe it takes the free agency planets aligning. Or the single-greatest quarterback in league history deciding to bet on himself first, then pushing his remaining days into the hands of the right head coach and general manager. Whatever it takes, you can bet that the willingness of other franchises to take the monumental gamble will be renewed by what happened Sunday. Most especially in this offseason of seemingly monumental quarterback migration.
A Dream Team is now a championship reality. While other franchises contemplate whether this kind of Tampa template might be at their fingertips, too, the Buccaneers will head into 2021 aiming to resolve an even more rare quandary than making this all work.
Now the Buccaneers have to answer whether this Dream Team can make it work twice.
Super Bowl LV from Yahoo Sports: