Tom Brady won’t rush decision on future, but changes loom for Buccaneers

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Change, and potentially a lot of it, seems inevitable for the Bucs in the next two months.

It starts with quarterback Tom Brady, who could have played his final game in Tampa — and maybe or maybe not in the NFL — with Monday’s disappointing 31-14 wild-card loss to the Cowboys.

It also might include offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, though a report that he’s expected to be fired appears to be at least premature, with head coach Todd Bowles saying Tuesday afternoon that no decision has been made about Leftwich’s future.

“I don’t have any assessment right now,” Bowles said of Leftwich and his other assistants. “I’m evaluating players. We’ll meet as a coaching staff later in the week, and I’ll meet with individual coaches as well as the staff, which we do every year, and we’ll make those assessments then.”

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And beyond those two, the coming months almost certainly will bring significant change in free agency, with limited cap space and 25 free agents, including longtime captain and linebacker Lavonte David, as well as three 2019 draft picks in the defensive secondary. 

David is the longest-tenured Bucs player, having finished his 11th season, spanning five coaches and going from years without a playoff berth to the current three-year postseason streak. He’s also 32 and a free agent at a position that is less forgiving of age than many. 

“Of course. You never know what could happen,” he said when asked if he thought about Monday being his final game in Tampa. “I don’t worry about it too much. That’s not up to me. I’ll take the offseason, just reflect, get my body right, see what I do from there.”

The same will be true for four 2019 draft picks — corners Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, safety Mike Edwards and outside linebacker Anthony Nelson — who have played four years in Bowles’ defense but are now in position to test the free-agent market, potentially with demand that exceeds the Bucs’ ability to keep them in town. Most of the defensive line is composed of free agents, as well as receiver Julio Jones and veterans on both sides of the ball.

“I would love to be back, but you’ve got to look at the best opportunity,” said Dean, who was limited to special-teams play Monday as coaches went with Murphy-Bunting at corner, citing Dean’s toe injury and illness during the week as factors.

The Bucs are about $43 million over the projected salary cap right now, which will require restructuring if not cuts and other moves to put them in position to keep the best of their free agents. Tackle Donovan Smith, who took a step back this year and has a $15 million non-guaranteed salary for 2023, could be among the cap-related cuts.

Bowles offered encouraging news Tuesday on the health of receiver Russell Gage, who was injured late in Monday’s game and carted off the field while immobilized. Bowles said he was expected to be released from a Tampa hospital on Tuesday afternoon, and while Gage did sustain a concussion, he has no serious neck injury and has full movement and feeling in all his extremities.

“I appreciate all the texts, calls, thoughts and prayers you all have expressed towards my family and I,” Gage wrote on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon. “Just wanted to let you know that I’m doing great and in great spirits! Thank you!”

The Bucs went through end-of-season interviews with players Tuesday as they bid them farewell for the offseason. Bowles said while offseason work will be voluntary for the next few months until minicamp in June, he was hopeful to have high levels of attendance from players appreciating the importance of working together.

“The offseason is voluntary, but at the same time, it builds camaraderie, it builds chemistry and it builds culture,” he said. “When you have an offseason and everyone has their own personal trainer and you come back, you’re not really together at that point.”

Tampa Bay took a major step back offensively, going from 61 touchdowns in 2021 to 31 this season to nearly cut that scoring production in half; as a team, they scored 198 fewer points in 2022 for the second-largest single-season drop-off in NFL history. The Bucs finished with the league’s worst running attack, and Bowles said that shouldn’t be attributed to just blocking or his running backs.

“I think any time you’re worst in the league, it’s a combination of everything,” Bowles said. “There’s no one thing you can point to. We weren’t good in the running game because we weren’t good in the running game. We’ll look at the tape and reevaluate everything and make decisions going forward of why we had such a bad thing.”

Bowles took over as head coach at the end of March, so he was left to inherit Bruce Arians’ coaching staff, and if there are changes to be made, it makes sense to do them soon, before top replacements are grabbed by other teams building their own new coaching staffs. Brady, who retired and then changed his mind 40 days later last spring, has said he wants to take time to make his decision this time, and that ideally would come ahead of Tampa Bay’s difficult decisions ahead of free agency in March.

The Bucs finished 8-9, giving Brady a losing record for the first time in his 21 years as a starting quarterback, and the consolation of winning the NFC South was quickly overshadowed by Monday’s emphatic and early exit from the playoffs. The 2023 Bucs could have a very different identity if Brady is retired or playing elsewhere, but they’ll have the expectation of competing for a division title, if not more, despite all the change that’s likely ahead.

“Nobody likes this feeling, from the top on down, so we want to fix it and do whatever it takes so we can easily get to the playoffs and make some noise in the playoffs instead of barely making it in,” said former Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who missed half the season after tearing his Achilles tendon. “We’re a team. One person doesn’t make the team. We have to rally around each other.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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