TAMPA — What if Tom Brady is an afterthought?
What if, after acquiring an ageless wonder with more records, Super Bowls and disciples than any quarterback mankind has ever known, the story of Tampa Bay’s season was a ferocious defense?
Silly, right? Brady’s aura is too large, and the defense is too unsure. Brady is Godzilla and everyone else is just hoping for a little screen time before the credits roll.
But … what if?
In the second half of last season, the Bucs defense gave up an average of 316 yards with 1.9 turnovers per game. Those are the numbers of a top-five defense. Those are the kind of numbers we’re used to seeing from the Patriots, Ravens or Steelers defenses.
Perhaps that was just a fluke against the softer side of the schedule, but it’s also possible that it was a sign of things to come. A glimpse into the future of a rebuilt defense with a proven coordinator, Todd Bowles, at the controls.
This defense doesn’t simply have two month’s worth of statistics on its side, it also has stories to go along with it. The story of how a group of defensive backs survived doubts and jibes and came away stronger than anyone expected. The story of Lavonte David finally getting his due. The story of first-round draft pick Devin White talking and play at 100 mph.
“There’s a lot of trash talking going on during practice,” coach Bruce Arians said of the young guys on defense. “They’re very feisty. Devin is a guy who brings a ton of energy. The DBs are getting a lot of swagger. I love it, that’s what competition is all about. Nobody talks more crap than me.”
It’s been a long time since anyone wanted to claim a defense in Tampa Bay as their own, which is a shame because every glorious moment in this franchise’s history has revolved around defense. When the Bucs went to the playoffs for the first time in 1979, it was with the No. 1 defense in the NFL. When they won the Super Bowl in 2002, it was with the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
They’re not ready to cross that bridge in 2020, but they’re a lot closer to the other side than they have been in a decade or more.
“What you put in is what you get out,” linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said. “Hot days in Florida … sweat and blood, getting ripped up and scraped up, that’s what’s going to count.
“We can be one of the best defenses in the NFL, but we’ve got to put in the work.”
You might have noticed, the offense got all of the glamour shots in the offseason. First, Brady was brought in. Then rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs. Then tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back LeSean McCoy.
Yet, in the end, the Bucs invested almost as much money in the defense. By re-signing Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Shaquil Barrett, the Bucs ensured stability on a still-young roster. And by taking Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round in April, Tampa Bay now has four second-round picks and two third-round picks in the secondary from the past three drafts.
They lost some pass-rushing depth when Carl Nassib left via free agency, but White is expected to play a larger role in chasing the quarterback.
“Bowles will work his magic and put everybody in a position to make plays,” linebackers coach Larry Foote said, when asked about how Barrett might fare with more attention focused on him this season.
So how good can this defense be?
Will they have the No. 1 run-stopping unit again? Considering they’ve got Suh and Vita Vea in the middle, and Bowles makes run defense an emphasis, that’s not an outlandish proposition.
Can Barrett repeat his league-leading 19.5 sacks? That will be tougher, but another double-digit season would seem likely.
Will the secondary continue to grow? This could end up being the key to the entire season. If what we saw in November and December was not a mirage, the Bucs have a playoff-caliber defense.
Arians said he would like to see fewer explosive plays from opposing offenses, and believes the secondary can produce more interceptions, but he didn’t back away from the idea that the defense is ready to step into the limelight.
“I would anticipate no drop-off,” he said.
No, this defense isn’t good enough to eclipse Brady’s celebrity but they might not look out of place on the red carpet.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.