The Tampa Bay Buccaneers enjoyed the magic of Tom Brady last season as the 43-year-old showed up in Florid and took the team to heights fans had not seen in nearly two decades. Brady still has no plans to retire in the immediate future, so the Bucs will continue to benefit from the greatest quarterback of all-time's presence on and off the field.
Last year paid obvious dividends in the form of a Lombardi Trophy, but the team got there in part because of Brady's off-the-field acquisitions gained by his mere presence. Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to play with his old quarterback and wasn't the same dominant force that we all remember him as, but still caught two touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Similarly, no team except the one employing Brady would have given Antonio Brown another shot, and just like Gronk, he wasn't a game-breaker but made plays when the moment was biggest. The Bucs' offense is so loaded that they likely would have been in a similar position without those two, but the fact of the matter is that the pair helped bring a championship to the organization and Brady is solely responsible.
It is not exactly a new idea that having a player as good as Brady on the roster helps attract other players. Gronkowski and Brown are special cases in that they wouldn't have been in the NFL in 2020 if not for Brady, but over the years plenty of guys signed up to play with Brady in New England because where Brady goes, championship hopes follow. Most, if not all, of these players would sign with the Patriots for less than they might have made from a different team specifically for the near-guaranteed shot at a Super Bowl. In the latter half of the last decade, names like Jason McCourty and Chris Long come to mind in that regard.
The concept of ring-chasing as described above is not nearly as prevalent in the NFL as it is in, say, the NBA. Brady and the Patriots were the obvious exception to that rule, as they were exceptions to basically all rules for nigh 20 years. But even those New England teams were not filled to the brim with veterans who could still contribute positively on the field hoping for a ring in the same way that LeBron James attracts guys like Dwight Howard or Marc Gasol or Wesley Matthews.
There are a variety of reasons for this, but the biggest is that NFL careers are short and nothing is guaranteed. A veteran like J.J. Watt wasn't going to turn down $23 million guaranteed from the Cardinals to go sign with the Bucs for a few million because all it takes is one wrong twist of the knee for his future earnings to go flying out the window. These guys are fierce competitors and want to win, but they're painfully aware that their livelihood has the shakiest foundation out of the four major American sports. Sacrificing a big payday to win a championship is not the easy math that it is for many NBA players.
That could change this offseason, though. And, of course, Brady and the Bucs would be at the center of it all if the tides turn. To start, the Bucs are primed to make another run with no dropoff in sight for Brady and enough money to bring back every major contributor who might leave in free agency. They already re-signed Lavonte David and franchise-tagged Chris Godwin, while the rumor mill suggests they're already deep in negotiations on a long-term deal with stud pass-rusher Shaq Barrett. They are and should be considered favorites to repeat as champions.
Then there's the fact that this particular free-agency period is going to be rife with veteran players who belong in the second tier of NFL players, good enough to help win games but not good enough to justify paying a lot of money to. The salary cap was finalized this morning at $182.5 million, a $15.5 million drop-off from the 2020 number of $198 million. Half of the league will have to cut expensive players en masse in order to get under the cap. The Saints, for example, have already released Emmanuel Sanders and Kwon Alexander, two guys who were solid for the team last year but simply could not fit into their cap picture. They will only be the first.
There will be a handful of teams with enough money to give players like that a decent amount of money. But the cap situation won't rectify itself until next year. That's when most teams will have money to spend on mid-tier guys. That is why there is a possibility that such veterans might end up ring-chasing to an extent we haven't seen before. They have a much higher earnings potential if they hit the open market again next year. The usual risk is still there of signing on for a chance at a ring and then getting hurt, but there won't be a lot of money available compared to previous years.
The Bucs are not exactly going to be overflowing with money to burn given how many guys they have already re-signed and still hope to re-sign. But the dominoes have fallen in their favor. We might see something we've never seen before this NFL offseason, and it could be very beneficial for Tampa Bay indeed.