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How the Bucs Scouted Tom Brady; Why the Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins Trades Came Together

Inside the Buccaneers' decision to chase the greatest quarterback of all-time, and the conversation when they knew it was a done deal. Plus, details surrounding the trades of two high-profile wide receivers, the new-look Colts and more from a strange week in the NFL amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
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A transaction this big is always delicate, and so there were moments of disbelief along the way this week—a week that seemed more like a month—for Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and GM Jason Licht.

By Wednesday afternoon, of course, they knew. I knew. You knew.

But nerves lingered among the handful of guys who were in the office over a tense few days. They were trying to sign Tom Brady, after all, and landing an icon of that level brought the promise that everything from the team’s ability to convert on third down and in the red zone, to the national perception of the franchise was about to change. And then Brady, in the midst of a 90-minute call with Licht and Arians, coolly broke the unrest.

Hey babe, we’re gonna have a lot of fun. This is gonna be a lot of fun.

There was maybe an hour left in that conversation, and still plenty to discuss after Licht handed the phone over to Arians. But as for moments they’ll remember a few years down the line, that was one for the guys in charge in Tampa. It was done.

Brady was about to become a Buccaneer, something that would’ve been hard to fathom when the quarterback left the Gillette Stadium FieldTurf for the last time two months ago, and an idea even Licht and Arians themselves saw as more of a far-fetched hypothetical than real plan for replacing Jameis Winston until last month.

And so it was that when Arians hung up with Brady Wednesday night, he turned and said to Licht, “I think we have a quarterback.”

The Bucs didn’t just get a quarterback; they got the greatest one to ever play. What he’s got left, and he’ll be 43 on opening day, remains to be seen—as does what becomes of the great Patriot dynasty he leaves behind. All the elements of what’s ahead will be fascinating, and we’ll have plenty of time to discuss them.

Here, we’re gonna tell you the story of how the Bucs got here, how months and months of work built toward a tense few days, and how it was capped with an unlikely ending: a franchise that ranks 32nd in all-time win percentage landing a historical No. 1.

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As the rest of the world shut down, the NFL, for better or worse, kept chugging along. So we did too, and the result, in this week’s MMQB, will be…

• A look at Brady’s final days as a Patriot

• Deep insight into both sides of the Stefon Diggs trade

• A real look at why DeAndre Hopkins is no longer a Texan

• How you should process an aggressive week from the Colts

But we’re starting with the week that everything changed, from a football perspective, on Florida’s gulf coast.

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After the Bucs went through final cuts as they assembled Arians’s first 53-man roster over Labor Day Weekend in 2019, one thing jumped right off the page at the personnel staff in its plans for the future: There was just one quarterback under contract for 2020, and none under contract for 2021. That one was Ryan Griffen, a career backup set to turn 30 in November.

So while the hope was still there for the Bucs that Winston would break through under Arians, and that Tampa would be re-upping with him before March, Licht, director of player personnel John Spytek and director of pro scouting Rob McCartney had to prepare for that not to happen. Which set into motion those three, and the team’s pro scouts, monitoring quarterbacks on expiring deals, and guys who could be available via trade in 2020.

That part of the process is fairly standard for a personnel department trying to anticipate a future need, even if the stakes are raised when such a need is at quarterback. And that just positioned the Bucs to consider life without Winston.

How did the scouts see Brady? They went back a couple years to trace regression in Brady’s arm strength, and didn’t see a discernible difference in that department in 2019, as compared to ’17 or ’18. He was still poised and patient and had great feel in the pocket. In fact, if one thing stuck out, and Licht did two tours as a New England personnel man, it was that what Brady was running, because of attrition around him, didn’t look like the Patriots’ offense.

That made it a little bit of a tougher evaluation. Still, it stood out that New England was producing despite all that—and showed that Brady remained capable of elevating his teammates to the point where an undermanned unit ranked 15th in total offense and seventh in scoring. And while Licht doubted Brady would make it to the market (Arians was more optimistic on that all along), there was resolve in the front office that the Patriots’ QB could still play.

The season ended with Winston throwing for more passing yards than anyone else in the NFL—and throwing 30 picks. The stage was set.

Offseason, Week 1

Arians’s message to his players in their December 30 breakup meeting was direct: We’re a playoff team if this turnover ratio flips next year. Indeed, Tampa ranked 28th in that category in 2019, with a minus-13. And while Arians wasn’t pointing fingers in that auditorium, it wasn’t hard to find the facts. The Bucs had 41 turnovers. Winston was directly involved in 35 of them, with the 30 picks and five lost fumbles.

The players left the room and the coaches finished up work that week, and that Saturday night, Brady and the Patriots hosted the Titans in the wild-card round. It caught more than one staffer’s attention how the broadcast ended, with Jim Nantz and Tony Romo raising the issue of Brady’s future, how he’d structured his contract and how they’d expected he’d be playing in 2020 but not necessarily with New England. The seed was planted.

The coaches took two weeks off, then reconvened a couple weeks before the Super Bowl. Arians had an assignment for offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, QBs coach Clyde Christensen and offensive consultant Tom Moore: Spend the rest of January breaking down the 2019 tape of a group of seven or eight available quarterbacks, with Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater and Andy Dalton among them. Then go back and look at some of 2018 too, and come back with a list of which ones are better options than Winston.

Arians got to work himself, looking at about half the film the other three did, but doing it with more purpose, because he knew exactly what he was looking for. And Licht directed his scouts to do what he planned to and keep their opinions to themselves, so the coaches’ reports would be untainted.

The coaches and scouts then gathered for planning meetings just after the Super Bowl. The consensus top three among Arians’s staff and among Licht’s staff were the same. And the coaches felt like two quarterbacks in the group would be worth moving on from Winston for. Brady was one of the two.

Assessing the fit

Arians’s report back was similar to Licht’s. As he looked at Brady’s tape, the veteran coach—who’d historically worked with big-armed Clydesdales like Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck—saw a quarterback who could make every throw his offense required.

He also saw where Brady was being held back. The feeling was that with more speed and explosiveness around him—which the Bucs could give him with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate—Brady wouldn’t be forced to hold the ball like he had his last year in New England, where he had slower skill position talent on hand.

Arians has a saying with his quarterbacks that’s well-worn in football circles: You never go broke putting money in the bank. It took a while for it to register with Winston. Conversely, that mindset basically explains Brady’s point guard–like approach to the position. And where some saw Arians’s bombs-away style as a weird fit for Brady, the coaches saw where they could have Brady putting that money in the bank, hitting faster receivers on the move, running through zones rather than sitting stationary in them.

That, of course, isn’t to say one way is better than the other. Brady’s success in the Patriots offense over the last 20 years, with scores of heady receivers hooking up underneath based on coverage, speaks for itself. This, though, could be something new and exciting for Brady, that would work within Arians’s offense, and accentuate the quarterback’s strengths as a distributor.

And as all this indicates, the wheels were turning on how the whole thing would look.

The legal tampering period

The Bucs didn’t waste time reaching out to Brady’s camp, with the focus, by Monday, on landing the new free agent. Brady was still a day away from announcing his departure from New England, and thus there was still plenty of speculation that the Patriots and their resident legend would reconcile at the 11th hour. But the signals Tampa got from Brady’s people indicated otherwise.

“You made a very good decision to call,” agent Don Yee told the Bucs. And that conversation led the Bucs to believe that money wasn’t really a huge of concern of Brady’s—mostly because it didn’t come up in that initial talk. In fact, all Yee said was that there were boxes that needed to be checked, and Tampa appeared to be checking them.

Yee did, of course, eventually lay out terms to the Bucs, and he would to the Chargers too. Brady wanted a two-year commitment, backed by guarantees. He had a rough ask for $30 million per year, but that was flexible. The big thing was he wanted to allow for his new team to add to its roster where it saw fit.

The deal that wound up being hammered out reflects all that. Brady has a $10 million roster bonus and $15 million base in each year, all of it fully guaranteed. And in both years (we’ll detail this later in the column), he got $2.25 million in performance incentives, and $2.25 million in playoff-related incentives. That means he’s assured of $25 million in each year, with the chance to get to $29.5 million.

Knowing where he’ll be the next two years was important for Brady (hence, the no-trade clause). But the Bucs also never got the feeling that doing the deal this way put a hard end date on Brady’s career—he seemed pretty open, in fact, to the idea of continuing to play for more than two years (hence the no-tag clause in the contract).

The start of the league year

Now, we can get back to the phone call. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, very few staffers were in the office on Wednesday, as the league year began—Licht, Arians, Spytek and cap czar Mike Greenberg were among them. And even if the whole thing was 99% of the way over the goal line, the conversation was one that nobody involved will soon forget.

Arians and Licht were taken aback a bit by the level of research Brady had done, having thoroughly studied the Bucs’ offense and personnel, while explaining, then showing, that he’d kept an eye on Arians’s offense through the years. Licht loved the thought that went into what Brady was saying. Arians got juiced listening to the quarterback’s enthusiasm—to the point where it almost seemed like Brady was selling himself to the Bucs.

Of course, he didn’t need to, and groundwork for how the whole thing would work was being laid. For one, the terminology in Tampa won’t change much based on a premise, which Brady agreed with, that it’ll be much easier for a high-level learner like Brady to pick up something new than it would be for more than 20 other players to adjust to him. But that doesn’t mean Arians won’t change some things.

With Palmer, who was 33 when he started working with Arians in Arizona, there was a fairly simple process of melding what the quarterback knew with what the coach would do. Palmer might have said, “We used to do it like this.” And Arians might have responded, “Actually we stopped doing that because it caused this problem.” In other cases, Palmer would give Arians a concept he loved. Arians might have said, “Yup, we have something just like that.” Or they’d adjust to Palmer. (That came into play, in particular, in third-down and red-zone concepts.)