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John Romano: There’s only one way the Bucs can convince Tom Brady to return

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Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on against the New England Patriots during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Tom Brady (12) of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on against the New England Patriots during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/TNS)

TAMPA, Fla. — You can ask Bruce Arians. You can ask Peter King. You can ask Gisele.

You can listen to the whispers, you can read between the lines, you can play his podcast backwards and search for hidden clues.

You can speculate all you want about Tom Brady’s potential retirement plans but you will never know for sure what is in his heart, his mind, his future.

Except for this:

He will not play for a bad football team.

That’s a certainty. And that means it is up to the Bucs to convince Brady that they have a plan for success in 2022. That means Arians and general manager Jason Licht need to show Brady that they can perform enough fiscal gymnastics to keep this roster largely intact.

The Bucs are going to lose some players, there’s no doubt about that. When you have one of the top receivers (Chris Godwin), top running backs (Leonard Fournette), top offensive linemen (Ryan Jensen), top tight ends (Rob Gronkowski), top cornerbacks (Carlton Davis) and top safeties (Jordan Whitehead) on the free-agent market, you’re not going to have the salary cap space to sign them all.

So it’s up to the Bucs to present a scenario plausible enough to woo Brady back for more.

In a way, we are right back where we were in the spring of 2020 when Arians and Licht were trying to convince Brady to choose Tampa Bay when he was leaving New England.

The advantage the Bucs have now is that Brady is already here, he’s comfortable with the game plan, he’s familiar with the area. The disadvantage is the Bucs might not look as talented as they did in 2020.

The defense has four key players (Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David and Will Gholston) who will be 31 or older next season and three of them (Suh, Pierre-Paul and Gholston) are also free agents. Not having Godwin to complement Mike Evans could be a deal breaker, and losing Fournette and Ronald Jones in the same offseason is a real possibility.

The Bucs were thin at receiver and were missing right tackle Tristan Wirfs in Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Rams, and Brady ended up having one of his worst statistical performances in a playoff loss. He threw an interception, lost a fumble and averaged barely 6 yards per pass attempt.

If you don’t think he’s concerned about a future that might include a lot of afternoons like that, then you’re nuts.

Because Tom Brady does not lose. Not for long, anyway.

He might lose on a particular day, and he might come up short in a season. But losing repeatedly? Embarrassingly? No, sir. His entire career, his entire legacy, is built on the concept that Brady is a winner and that he makes everyone around him better players, coaches, scouts and water boys.

There is no way he wants his final season to look like Johnny Unitas in San Diego or Joe Namath in Los Angeles or Brett Favre in Minnesota.

So expect the Bucs to do whatever they can to convince him that winning is still on the table in Tampa Bay.

Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me if Arians’ sudden willingness to take on the offensive coordinator responsibilities if Byron Leftwich gets a job elsewhere is simply a way to keep Brady happy.

He is that important to Tampa Bay’s chances for success in 2022, and he is that important to the team’s bottom line economically.

Now, Brady says family will be a major consideration in his decision, and I don’t doubt that. On the other hand, what would you expect him to say? That he cares more about his career than his kids? Of course he is going to say his family will play a role in the decision and I’m sure they will.

My point is he won’t even need to wrestle with that decision if the Bucs do not come up with an attractive enough plan to entice him to play one more year at age 45.

It’s also possible that he’s known for the past year that this would be his last season and he’s just waiting for the right time to make that announcement.

The bottom line is Brady is as cognizant and protective of his image as any athlete of his generation. He is not going to do anything that jeopardizes the incredible narrative of his career.

If the Bucs want him back — and, of course, they do — they need to convince Brady that 2022 will only add to his legacy and not subtract from it.

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