TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent the past three seasons doing everything they could to try to help Tom Brady be successful.
If the seven-time Super Bowl champion retires or decides to sign with another team in free agency this winter, it will be important to have a plan to replace the 45-year-old quarterback.
Coach Todd Bowles acknowledges as much, although he's not providing much insight into how the Bucs are thinking.
And while there's no definitive timetable for Brady to let the team know how he's leaning, ideally the Bucs would like to have a better idea by the start of free agency in March.
"You want to have plans going into it. So we'll do our due diligence, meet with the parties involved and come up with a plan one way or the other," Bowles said Tuesday, less than 24 hours after a 31-14 playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys ended Brady's third season with the Bucs.
Tampa Bay enters the offseason with more than 20 players on the verge of becoming unrestricted free agents, including Brady and linebacker Lavonte David, who's been an important component of a defense that helped the Bucs win the Super Bowl two years ago.
David reiterated that while he'd like to remain with the Bucs, he won't rush a decision.
"Of course, you never know what could happen. I don't worry about it too much, though," the 11th-year pro, a team captain, said. "It's not up to me. I'll take time to just reflect, get my body right and see what I'm going to do from there."
Brady had little to say about his future after throwing for 351 yards, two touchdowns and a costly red zone interception in the lopsided loss to the Cowboys.
He briefly retired last February only to change his mind and return for a 23rd season.
"You always want every year to end great. Unfortunately, in sports it doesn't work that way," Brady said. "There are 32 teams in the league, and they're all very competitive, and only one of them is going to feel really good at the end of the year."
Although the Bucs (8-10) found a way to hold off Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta to repeat as NFC South champions for the first time in franchise history, they also became only the fourth team to make the playoffs with a losing record during a non-strike season.
Bowles conceded there could be significant changes to the roster this offseason. He stressed, however, the Bucs are not in need of a massive overhaul.
"You never want to rebuild, you always reload," the coach said. "No matter if you have new guys or not, you want guys who can come and play and compete so you can win the division."
Count center Ryan Jensen among the Bucs who would like to see Brady remain with Tampa Bay, which had missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons before the five-time Super Bowl MVP signed with the Bucs in 2020.
Jensen missed the entire regular season with a knee injury suffered on the second day of training camp. He was activated hours before Monday night's playoff loss and started against the Cowboys.
"It just is what it is. It's part of the business. We love Tom, we'd love to have him back," Jensen said. "I love playing with him. He's a good friend, he's helped me a lot this year, with getting my injury healed, and pushing me and motivating me throughout this year."
Tight end Cameron Brate caught an 8-yard TD pass in the closing minutes Monday night.
"It might be the last touchdown I catch. We'll see," Brate said. "I kept the ball."
Brady broke his own NFL record for most completions in a season with 490 while throwing for 4,694 yards and 25 touchdowns vs. 12 interceptions. Those are impressive numbers until you consider he completed a then-record 485 passes in 2021 when he led the league in passing with 5,316 yards and 43 TDs. A bigger issue, though, was the Bucs had trouble getting into the end zone, struggling to sustain drives and ranking 25th in scoring offense (18.4) after averaging more than 30 points per game in Brady's previous two seasons with Tampa Bay.
The team's offensive line woes were well documented as the season progressed, often overshadowing the struggles of a top 10 defense that lost its best pass rusher — linebacker Shaquil Barrett — to a season-ending Achilles injury in late October and endured constant lineup changes the entire season because of injuries that sidelined tackles Akiem Hicks and Vita Vea, cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, and safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards for stretches of the season.
While Bowles didn't identify specific areas the Bucs need to address, he did note the team would like to get more production out of the pass rush moving forward.
There was a concerted effort the past two years to retain key veterans Brady helped recruit to Tampa Bay. If the quarterback doesn't return, look for that trend to change.
"We'll prioritize the guys that we really want to keep and guys that we're willing to wait and see go out there" to test their worth in free agency," Bowles said.
"I think every team is going to have the same problem, so we've got to be prepared either way."
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