The Buccaneers got as much out of wide receiver Antonio Brown as they could in less than two full seasons. He turned in a great half-season in 2020 and another one in 2021. But after his refusal to come back into Sunday’s Week 17 game against the Jets and subsequent immediate release, his time with Tampa Bay has come to an end short of a second playoff run.
Brown was looking good on the field when healthy, but from his ankle injury to his vaccination card-related suspension to his final topless in-game meltdown, his stay with the Bucs went from steady to tumultuous in one year.
Brown would have likely never been a Buccaneer had it not been for Tom Brady, the quarterback who also got him his third chance with the Patriots. Although coach Bruce Arians finally had enough of Brown’s antics on Sunday, the bottom line is cutting off ties with Brown comes at an inopportune time.
The Buccaneers have lost wide receiver Chris Godwin (knee) for the season. Wide receiver Mike Evans (hamstring) is playing hurt. Running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring), who’s also developed into a key target for Brady, may be back for the playoffs, but for now is on injured reserve.
Here’s what the breakup means for Tampa Bay’s quest for a second consecutive Super Bowl win with Brady:
Tom Brady will need to trust younger wide receivers a lot more
While Brown made his dramatic exit from the team, the Buccaneers were going down two touchdowns on the road to the Jets, 24-10 in the second half, during the latter’s team big upset bid. Brady had tight end Rob Gronkowski as his best target with Evans hamstrung and on a snap count. But he couldn’t complete one of his patented comebacks without more wideout help.
Brady dug deep on the depth chart to make better use of promising second-year man Tyler Johnson (5 catches, 50 yards) and an undrafted journeyman turned promoted practice-squad player Cyril Grayson (6 catches, 81 yards, game-winning TD). Scotty Miller, often a Brady favorite last season, has seen limited snaps of late but that may need to change without Brown.
Minus Godwin and plus a hampered Evans, Gronkowski is also supported veteran-wise by tight end Cameron Brate and wide receiver Breshad Perriman. With Fournette or Giovani Bernard not available, second-year back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Le’Veon Bell are Brady’s top receiving backs of the moment.
Johnson and Grayson no doubt earned more trust from Brady on the winning drive. Vaughn is getting used to being a lot more involved. Miller has delivered in the Brown No. 3 big-play role before, including in last season’s playoffs.
The reason the Bucs got Brown last season was to improve depth and insurance, as well as give them three tough wideouts for any defense to cover in Evans, Godwin and Brown. Brady needs to help Johnson and Grayson growing in confidence so that they can remain key parts of the passing game.
A committee to complement Mike Evans’ deep threat
Evans, when healthy, is a big target with great vertical speed, is as adept at hitting home runs as winning with his catch radius in the red zone. Evans, Grayson, Johnson, Perriman and Gronkowski all had catches of more than 20 yards against the Jets when Brady needed to throw for 410 yards and 3 TDs to win.
Now the group will need to prove it against playoff-caliber defenses much more challenging than the Jets’ secondary. Godwin was the glue guy with his intermediate slot work; Brady must adjust to finding a variety of boom-or-bust targets inside and outside to stretch the field. The Bucs will still be aggressive downfield with Brady attacking for Arians and Byron Leftwich and need more players to get involved catching deep balls, often off play-action.
Buccaneers will need to be effective running the ball in the playoffs again
The Buccaneers got the “Playoff Lenny” version of Fournette to get through their four games through Super Bowl 55. That Fournette carried into the 2021 regular season. Tampa Bay has been hit hard by injuries, but the offensive line remains sturdy. The Bucs will hope to get Fournette back for the NFC tournament, but if not, they should be committed, based on situation, to putting the ball in the hands of Ronald Jones, Vaughn and Bell.
If the Bucs can’t prove they can still stretch the field with multiple receivers without Brown, it will be harder to run the ball. But then again, committing to a semblance of balance also will open up favorable downfield shots. Brady used a good blend of pass and run based on opponent to navigate the Bucs well through the 2020 playoffs. That won’t change even with him taking the personnel hits of losing Godwin and Brown. He just needs to be more discerning about finding favorable matchups because it’s not as easy to scheme the youngsters open.
Buccaneers need to get as healthy as possible on defense in a hurry
The Buccaneers, even with Brady and their explosive offense, ultimately won Super Bowl 55 because of what they did defensively vs. Washington, New Orleans, Green Bay and Kansas City in consecutive games. This season, they’ve been stout up front with Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea, but the injury bug has bitten other levels of their defense hard.
The secondary was of primary concern earlier in the season as they got depleted at defensive back. Now the Buccaneers are healthy there, save for Richard Sherman (Achilles’). They have traded that for injury issues at linebacker, where inside man Devin White was their only standing starter for the Jets’ game, a big reason why the Jets were able to move the ball so well. While outside edge rushers Shaquil Barrett (knee) and Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) were ruled out for Week 17, inside leader Lavonte David (foot) is on injured reserve.
Like Fournette, David could return to help in the playoffs, and Barrett and JPP are, too. Rookie first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka did fill in well for Barrett and JPP in an expanded role in Week 17, making a game-saving play late. But the Bucs’ top second-level quartet was the backbone of their Super Bowl run. Brady and the offense could benefit from less burden to produce big point totals and could use to be facilitated by short fields off takeaways.
Between now and the wild-card home game in two weeks, the goal is to have all the regular starters together again. There’s a fair chance of that happening.
The Bucs will lose some offensive juice without the volatile Brown, magnified without the reliable Godwin, so the defense must be better at taking over games. As the reigning champions led by Brady, they can compensate for his particular loss with other players. No Brown also may end up being a rallying bonus for the locker room.
The Buccaneers could have been more dangerous team in the playoffs with Brown, but not when he was no longer buying into their championship cause.