The Bucs built it, Tom Brady came. Now what? Inside GOAT’s ultimate bet

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Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson – what Tampa Bay front office fans of “Field of Dreams” called their pursuit of Tom Brady. John Spytek, director of player personnel and former teammate of Brady, Michigan, found the name for good reason.

More than any other franchise in American sports, the Buccaneers needed an unlikely savior to suddenly appear from a cornfield. “If we build it, it will come,” said Spytek to its general manager, Jason Licht. “Go the distance. “

The Bucs had no idea how far they would have to go to reach the most accomplished free agent deal in NFL history. A former scout and executive with the New England Patriots, Licht had an intimate knowledge of A to Z of the empire of Bill Belichick. He was in the room with Belichick when the Patriots made their best decision – drafting Brady with the 199th overall choice in 2000. Licht was also in private Florida training with Belichick when the Patriots started to caress towards their worst decision – editor Aaron Hernandez with the 113th pick in the 2010 draft.

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Like many former New England coaches and executives, Licht thought that Brady would decide at the last minute to resist the temptation to leave, re-register with the only coach and program he has known for two decades, and ultimately withdraw an icon to a uniform. “Oh sure,” said Licht. “I had thought about this several times. “

So when Licht arrived at Bruce Arians’ home on Wednesday March 18 for their first phone conversation with Brady (after a call Monday with quarterback agent Don Yee), Arians was most optimistic about Tampa’s chances. During the call Wednesday, Brady spoke enthusiastically of the Bucs ‘receivers, cited specific defensive playmakers who impressed him, praised the way Todd Bowles’ unit played in the second half of the season and expressed an affinity for the Arians’ offense. every quarter, he whispered in the past, from Peyton Manning to Big Ben Roethlisberger to Andrew Luck to Carson Palmer.

Licht doesn’t remember Brady’s exact words, but at one point during the call, the six-time Super Bowl champion said something like, “I think we have something. We are fortunate to be very special. “

It was then that Licht looked up from his seat in the Arians living room and gave his head coach a boost.

Tom Brady, the ultimate winner, pledged to play for the Loserville Ultimate Franchise; The .387 career win percentage in Tampa Bay is the worst among all franchises in the top four sports. Brady left an organization that had almost patented the term “culture” for a definition forever defined by his non-culture. Brady traded a coach with 31 playoff wins for a coach with a playoff victory, and the biggest list builder of all (also Belichick) for a general manager who lost 62 of his 96 games.

The Bucs went 7-9 in the first season of Bruce Arians, and it was with a quarterback from Jameis Winston, who threw 30 interceptions. Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

Were these intelligent exchanges for a 42-year-old quarterback trying to prove that he can win a championship in a different way from the Patriot Way? Or has Brady looked beyond this story to focus on a 2019 Bucs team that was 7-9 with a quarterback, Jameis Winston, who committed 35 turnovers, including seven pick-six?

Did Tom Brady see a 7-9 team that would have been 12-4 with Tom Brady in the quarterback?


Compared to Belichick, Arians is a comic with a funny cap and a strange way of dealing with defeat. “Win or lose, we drink”, this is the often stated philosophy of the Arians. Although people close to Brady believe he was looking for a little more humanity in his coaching (“Tom was Belichick released after 20 years,” said a friend), and that the Arians had a couple of beers – and a nine-hole approach will be a welcome change, some league officials who know all the parties wonder how Brady will adapt to a head coach who doesn’t quite match Belichick’s manic hours or attention to detail .

However, given Arians’ distinguished history with quarterbacks, Brady’s most interesting bet revolves around Jason Licht, the 49-year-old general manager who fired two coaches in his first five years and who would have could have been fired himself if he had not convinced his former colleague in Arizona, the Arians, to come out of their retirement. (Arians is known to have made the secure future of Licht, via a long-term contract extension, a condition for taking up the post in 2019.) Brady and Licht did not spend much time together at Foxborough outside of a few conversations here and there in the hallway, or at the practice, or in the cafeteria. But if Brady did his homework on Licht – and Brady did his homework on all Bucs – that’s what he found out:

ESPN + organized a “Best of Tom Brady” collection which is available for streaming. Watch on ESPN +

Licht was born in Nebraska and raised in Yuma, Colorado, the son of Karen, who was an elementary school teacher, and Ron, who worked in a small construction company. The Lichts were tenants, not buyers, and their daily lives were based on a very real struggle to pay the bills. Jason was a walk-on in Nebraska before moving to the NAIA level at Nebraska Wesleyan, where he was a featured defensive lineman for coach Jim Svoboda. During his university studies, Jason spent his summers working with his father installing sprinkler systems, paving driveways, building terraces and fitting out houses. Jason’s career ambition was to become a doctor in a small town.

“He would have been the kind of doctor I would like,” said Svoboda, now a trainer in central Missouri. “He would have had a good bedside and compassion, and the only thing that really strikes Jason is that he never forgot where he came from. He is very humble and very pleasant, just the right balance. He’s the kind of kid you love. He was a great player at our level and really had to be the best, but he was also going to have fun. “

In 1995, Licht was waiting for his standardized test results to return to medical school when he received an internship offer in the Miami Dolphins screening department. Four years later, Pete Carroll’s New England staff, Bobby Grier, hired Licht as a university scout. Belichick replaced Carroll the following season and eventually fired Grier. Licht arrived for his first meeting with somewhat intimidated Belichick, realizing that his new boss knew almost nothing about him. The young scout decided that he would not be afraid to deliver his honest prospects assessments, even if they ran counter to the consensus among the older scouts in the room, and Belichick could then decide for himself.

It turned out that Belichick liked nothing more than prepared scouts who were convinced to defend an unpopular assessment. He didn’t just keep Licht; he promoted him to National Scout, then Deputy Director of Player Personnel. Licht learned his trade directly from the master.

Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht also spent time in the offices of the Patriots, Eagles and Cardinals. Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire

“There were times in October when I got off the road and [Belichick would] meet you in the hallway and ask questions about a defensive tackle in Alabama or North Carolina, “would say Licht. He said, “Dude, I really like this guy. It’s a good choice and can start right away. And then he would say something like, “Have you ever seen him against the Appalachian State? What happened to him there? And you say to yourself, “What? When did he have time to watch this? But he did, so you had to know everything about this player. One Tuesday night, when you type a report at midnight after going to Auburn, you can’t throw away anything. He will read every word you write. “

As the Patriots celebrated their upset at the St. Louis Rams in their first Super Bowl victory, Licht turned to Belichick and said, “Wow, that was great. And now? “

Now what?“Belichick replied incredulous. We earn more. “

In 2003, Licht left the Patriots for the Philadelphia Eagles and the manager for whom he worked in Miami, Tom Heckert Jr., and contributed to the 2004 Philly Super Bowl team which was beaten by – who d ‘other? – the Patriots. Belichick never bothered Licht about this. In fact, when the NFL regrouped in 2009, when Licht was a staff executive for the Arizona Cardinals, Belichick approached him and said, “What if you came to the cartel as a cardinal and left as a patriot? Belichick rarely rehires people who leave him, but he has brought back Licht as director of professional staff.

Although a big supporter of Bill, Licht was never one of the Westworld-type robots sometimes produced by the Belichick assembly line. A former Patriots colleague described Licht as the most pleasant setting to cross Foxborough during the Belichick / Brady years. “Jason Licht,” said the former colleague, “you can put him in a cave in Afghanistan and he will talk to someone. “

“If you’re a quarterback who wants to play with good players and for a coach with a great attacking spirit, why wouldn’t Tom choose Tampa?” “

John Spytek, Bucs Director of Player Personnel

Perhaps Licht used this personality and his Belichick Street diploma to land the Tampa Bay position in 2014, after leaving New England a second time for promotion to Arizona. And perhaps this personality (along with the Arians’ insurance policy) is one of the main reasons why he was not fired with Dirk Koetter, after 2018, with the Licht record at 27-53. At the time, he seemed to be just another Belichick guy who couldn’t win outside of Belichick. He made a mistake in handing over the franchise to Jameis Winston in 2015, then he made a horrible unforced error when he traded in the second round in 2016 to draft a kicker, Roberto Aguayo, which lasted a whole year in the league.

Aguayo alone could be considered a felony offense. But everything that convinced the owners of Glazers to stay with Licht is true: Tom Brady simply chose his alignment with that of Belichick. And Brady wouldn’t have made that choice if Licht hadn’t named Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to be his receivers and hadn’t hired Arians to be his coach.


Jason Licht is very fond of his current roster, including the former front rows he has in mind at Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea and Devin White. He defends some (not all) of his draft choices and admits, “I made mistakes in free agency, and now I have taken a different approach … which, I think, has paid off. He declined to identify the specific adjustments, but suffice it to say that the Bucs’ new number 12 is a pretty good fit.

“There were a lot of things that really intrigued me about this organization,” said Brady before he started making plans to move his family to the Derek Jeter waterfront estate called St. Jetersburg.

It’s still a little hard to believe inside a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since losing to Eli Manning and the eventual Super Bowl Giants champion in January 2008. “Wow, s -, we have Tom Brady, ”Licht said to himself several times in the past two weeks.

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Stephen A. Smith explains why Tampa Bay has the best shot in the Super Bowl after signing Tom Brady.

Where are the Bucs going from here? By the time Brady joined the Belichick group, the first Sunday football game was played after the September 11 attacks, Belichick had five out of six seasons lost as head coach. By the time Brady embarked on a second career in Tampa Bay, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Licht had five out of six seasons lost as GM. He knows there is no time for another full-fledged Brady dynasty.

“But I was lucky enough to win only one Super Bowl, Tom’s first Super Bowl, and there is no better feeling,” said Licht. “No matter where you are in the organization. My goal is to win another Super Bowl. The executive who was part of Brady’s first title now has a chance to preside over Brady’s last title.

When Licht’s guy John Spytek first learned that Brady was about to sign, part of him had trouble dealing with it. The greatest of all time? In Tampa? This coming season? In a different life, Spytek had shot a few passes from Brady in Michigan practice as a freshman member of the scout team. He recalled that the senior quarterback projected negative energy only once throughout the season – when he grabbed his helmet and looked up at the sky before realizing that his interception against Ohio State was canceled by a penalty from Buckeyes . “We saw the same guy and the same consistency every day,” said Spytek.

But part of the executive who proposed “Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson” was not at all taken aback by Brady’s sound.

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“Jason is a very good talent assessor,” said Spytek. “I know our record was what it was, and this is my fifth season here and Jason is entering his seventh. But we have had a lot of good players here. We just didn’t understand how to win close games, and that is obviously something we have to do.

“We thought we had built a good team here, especially in attack. If you are a quarterback who wants to play with good players and for a coach with a great attacking spirit, why wouldn’t Tom choose Tampa? sense in my mind. It made sense that if we built it, it would come. “

Another Michigan graduate, James Earl Jones, would certainly agree with this. Now comes the fascinating part of the script. If the world turns up by fall, we’ll all know if Tom Brady made a mistake when he got out of this cornfield.

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