Brace for the impact of an iconic NFL quarterback like Tom Brady, Tampa Bay

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots celebrates after defeating the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on October 10, 2019. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/TNS)
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By Rick Stroud Tampa Bay Times (TNS)

TAMPA, Fla. — So this is how the upper crust in the NFL live, eh? This is how it feels for those lucky enough to have been born in the end zone. This is how fan bases react when they have an iconic quarterback who brings an identity to their city and Super Bowl parade routes to their streets.

“The impact that has on a small-market team is immense,” Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. “You’re kind of privileged. There aren’t that many. And for your town to get one, it’s special. It’s not like everyone wouldn’t love to have one. They’re hard to find. They don’t exist.

“The Mannings, the Bradys, the Favres, the Breeses ? there’s not a ton of them. They just bring a notoriety and respect for your town, sports-wise, that’s immeasurable.”

That’s what Tom Brady already has done for the Bucs. Shortly after signing him to a two-year, $50 million contract, the Bucs started reaping the benefits of skyrocketing ticket sales, team merchandise in demand and five prime-time games on the 2020 schedule, a team record.

Both Christensen and former Bucs/Colts coach Tony Dungy say it happened with Manning in Indianapolis.

Before he arrived, the Colts weren’t exactly Page 1 news. But by the time Dungy took over in Manning’s fifth season with the Colts, the transformation had begun.

“Indianapolis was (Indiana) U basketball one, Pacers basketball two and Notre Dame football three,” Dungy said. “And all of a sudden in two or three years, it’s Colts football all the way because of one iconic person. That’s rare and it usually does take a quarterback.”

If any fan base had earned the right to suffer envy, it’s the Bucs.

Tampa Bay hasn’t reached the playoffs for 12 straight seasons. During that awful stretch, their quarterbacks have been Jeff Garcia, Brian Griese, Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson, Josh McCown, Mike Glennon and Jameis Winston.

Having a passing paragon, even one who will turn 43 before the start of the 2020 season, alters the culture of the franchise.

When it comes to iconic quarterbacks who change addresses, there’s no guide. But Christensen says when Brady decided to leave New England after 20 seasons, nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships, he certainly was influenced — if not encouraged — by Manning’s second act with the Denver Broncos.

Despite recovering from a difficult neck surgery that forced Manning to rebuild his mechanics and strength in his right arm, he led the Broncos to two Super Bowl appearances, winning one.

“I do know a couple of times (Brady) mentioned he watched Peyton go to Denver and he said it looked like he was having fun,” Christensen said. “It was a very similar situation. He had two big wideouts, two big-play guys and he just went out there and kind of did it again if you will. He inspired another team to higher levels. I think there’s a joy that comes with just doing that.

“ … You’re down the road in your career. You’ve got the experience. You know how to get it done and you go and apply it to another team. You go and you build something again. All the things he’s learned he’ll bring and share and pass on. I think I can safely say, he got a charge out of that.”

Without Brady, and since the demise of their Super Bowl 37 team in 2002, the Bucs and their fans have struggled to feel like a part of the NFL.

Dungy experienced that first hand when he took over as Bucs coach in 1995.

“I remember that was my goal our first year here, just to get a 4 o’clock game,” Dungy said. “If we get one 4 o’clock game, it will seem like a victory. And we were so excited and the schedule came out and it was 1 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 1 o’clock. And then we were 5-0, I remember it like it was yesterday, they called and said if you guys beat Arizona, we’re moving the Green Bay game to 4 o’clock. And it was like, ‘OK, we’ve arrived.’

“So just that attention of ‘hey, we’re relevant.’ That’s going to be different. And you always think you’re a good team and we can beat anybody. But when you break out that schedule and it’s New Orleans and it’s a national game and it’s we’ve got these guys on Monday night, the Raiders on Sunday night, you say, ‘Wow, we’re there now.’ It has an impact, no question.”

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Brady is known for setting the tone of the team with his work ethic and attention to detail.

Teammates are inspired and challenged. He doesn’t tolerate mistakes, during games or on the practice field.

Considering all Brady has accomplished, even during a period of virtual workouts, closed training facilities and social distancing, players aren’t likely to ignore workouts and need to be as prepared as possible when the NFL comes back together.

“I think anyone who is jumping out of bed and your quarterback is Tom Brady, all of a sudden you’re a lot less likely to skip that workout or go with your girlfriend and go to the beach and skip your workout with the phone session,” Christensen said. “It just kind of brings the level of play up for everybody in the whole building. That’s players as well as the kitchen (staff) as well as the sports information department ? all those things, everyone tightens things up a little bit.

“ … I think Tom and Peyton have such a love and respect and hunger for the game that you don’t want to let them down.”

When the Colts signed a trio of former Patriots — kicker Adam Vinatieri, defensive tackle Dan Klecko and safety Dexter Reid — those players immediately were struck by the similarities between Manning and Brady.

“They said what Peyton did, it’s just like Tom,” Dungy said. “You had to be at a certain level. You can’t let down. He’s not going to let you. So there’s that part of it that just impacts how everybody practices.”

Christensen said coaches feel that pressure, too.

“I just remember you wouldn’t even think about going to a walk-through and not knowing the plays because you let Peyton down, not to mention the scowl you would get,” Christensen said. “I think it raises the level of conscientiousness because you know that your quarterback is going to be prepared to the tens.”

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Nothing calms a coach or a team more than knowing a quarterback like Brady will give your team a chance to win each week, regardless of the opponent or score.

Brady has 249 victories, including 30 in the postseason.

In Week 1 this fall, the Saints are favored by 6.5 points, per Caesars Sportsbook. If it holds, Brady won’t be favored in a game for the first time in 74 regular-season starts.

But with a player like Brady under center, “You start thinking, ‘Hey it doesn’t matter, we can go to the Super Bowl,’ ” Dungy said. “That’s what it brings you. We don’t have to play our best every single day. We don’t have to get lucky. We’re a Super Bowl-caliber team. And when you feel that way and you start to believe it, good things happen.”

Dungy experienced that with his first return trip to Tampa Bay in 2003. The Bucs blew a 21-point lead in the final four minutes of a Monday night game to the Colts on Dungy’s birthday.

“I will never forget, when Ronde Barber intercepted that ball and it was 35-14, I went to (Colts offensive coordinator) Tom Moore and said, ‘What do you think?’ ” Dungy said. “‘Maybe we should get these guys out. We’ve got a Sunday night game and a short trip.’ He said, ‘Nah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’ … And four and a half minutes later we’re tied up. Tom had been around (Manning) longer than I had at that point.”

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Just because Manning had success in Denver, it’s not guaranteed for Brady in Tampa Bay. He has to learn a new offense for the first time in his NFL career. Manning installed his own in Denver.

The pandemic has prevented, or at least drastically limited, Brady’s ability to build passing chemistry with his new teammates.

The schedule-makers didn’t do the Bucs or Brady any favors. Opening the season against the Saints and Drew Brees in New Orleans is a tough break. The Saints have won the NFC South the past three seasons, and Brady won’t be as in synch with his receivers in Week 1 as he will later in the season.

“It’s a mountain of a chore,” Christensen said. “Despite what people think, this won’t just happen smoothly and easily. This will be a grind and there will be setbacks and restarts. I think some of these guys really get a charge out of that. Coaches get a charge out of that. To think it’s just going to go smooth because we have Tom Brady in town would be disrespectful because it just doesn’t work that way.

“What Peyton did (in Denver), that wasn’t easy. That wasn’t easy. That was hard, like losing the first Super Bowl. He gets them to the Super Bowl and they get beat in that first Super Bowl and had to keep climbing and keep marching. It’s hard work.”

But there are potentially huge rewards.

“A small-market team is working extremely hard to get a national platform,” Christensen said. “To get respect nationally and to do it with a premier quarterback, that’s special stuff.”

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