TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — When Tom Brady announced he was ending his brief retirement and returning to the NFL for a 23rd season, Leonard Fournette wasn’t caught off guard.
The Tampa Bay running back recalls having a conversation with the seven-time Super Bowl winner a few days after the team’s NFC divisional-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams last January — a defeat that ended the Buccaneers’ bid to repeat as champions.
“I’m like ‘TB, we can’t go out like that.’ He agreed with me,” Fournette said.
“As a champion,” the sixth-year pro, who re-signed with the Bucs shortly after Brady unretired, added, “I knew he wouldn’t want to go out like that for his legacy.”
Brady, who turned 45 a week into training camp, cited “unfinished business” as one of the reasons for changing his mind.
Before taking an 11-day break from the team during the preseason for personal reasons, he shrugged off questions about his ability to defy the odds and continue to excel at his advancing age.
“I don’t think you can do anything without incredible support. This is not about me, it’s about all of the people that have supported me to get to this point and I’m very grateful,” Brady said. “I’m just super grateful to everybody who has played an important role, and you can’t take anything for granted.”
Brady’s retirement/unretirement wasn’t the only development during a busy offseason. Todd Bowles begins his second stint as a head coach after being promoted from defensive coordinator to replace Bruce Arians, who retired and became a consultant to general manager Jason Licht. Bowles coached the New York Jets from 2015 to 2018.
Brady led the NFL in completions, passing yards and touchdowns in 2021. Injuries and uncharacteristic mistakes during the loss to the Rams were factors in Tampa Bay failing to get back to the Super Bowl after setting a club record for regular-season victories with 13.
“I don’t think there’s any excuses. You either get the job done or you don’t. There’s only one team that is really happy at the end of the year, and it is the team that wins,” Brady said. “You have to come out the next year and do everything you can to put yourself in position.”
Licht traded for former New England guard Shaq Mason to fill an opening created by losing Alex Cappa in free agency. There likely will be at least two other new starters playing in front of Brady after center Ryan Jensen suffered a knee injury on the second day of training camp and left guard Aaron Stinnie suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second preseason game. Young players will be counted on to step up, with second-year pro Robert Hainsey taking over at center and rookie Luke Goedeke and second-year pro Nick Leverett vying for the job at left guard.
“It’s not about experience, it’s about experience playing. Luke and Nick do a great job right now. They’re getting a lot of reps, so they’ve earned that right to compete for that spot,” Bowles said. “We don’t mind playing rookies. … It’s just a matter of them getting in-game experience.’’
The Bucs remain determined to surround Brady with everything he needs to win an eighth Super Bowl ring. That includes bringing in receivers Julio Jones and Russell Gage to bolster an already strong group of playmakers led by Fournette, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph was signed after Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement, and ex-Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was added to replace Ndamukong Suh.
Licht credits Brady, as well as the championship culture the Bucs have developed, for the success he’s had landing established players looking for an opportunity to play for a Super Bowl contender.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think in all those negotiations one of the top priorities that they had on their list was going to a team that they had a good chance of getting a ring. … It’s a very attractive (factor),” the general manager said. “I’m not saying we’re definitely going to win the Super Bowl. We have a long road to go here and short time to get there. We just all feel we’re on the same page and we have a good chance.”
Tampa Bay’s defense, which has been one of the best against the run over the past three years, will face three of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in the first four weeks of the season. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett welcomes the challenge.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve always loved playing against the best players in the league because it’s a chance to make your mark on the league,” Barrett said.
“I’m always trying to prove myself and trying to earn my keep in this league and on this team,” Barrett added. “Going against those guys and making plays against those guys will help me do that. And if I do that, it will help the team succeed, too.”
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