Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson — that’s what the “Field of Dreams” fans inside the Tampa Bay front office called their pursuit of Tom Brady. John Spytek, director of player personnel and a former Brady teammate at Michigan, came up with the name for good reason.
More than any other franchise in American sports, the Buccaneers needed an unlikely savior to suddenly appear out of a cornfield. “If we build it, he will come,” Spytek would tell his general manager, Jason Licht. “Go the distance.”
The Bucs had no idea how little distance they would actually have to cover to close the deal on the most accomplished free agent in NFL history. A former New England Patriots scout and executive, Licht had intimate A-to-Z knowledge of Bill Belichick’s empire. He was in the room with Belichick when the Patriots made their best decision — drafting Brady with the 199th overall pick in 2000. Licht was also in the private Florida workout with Belichick when the Patriots started careening toward their worst decision — drafting Aaron Hernandez with the 113th pick in the 2010 draft.
Like many former New England coaches and executives, Licht figured Brady would decide at the last minute to resist the temptation to leave, sign back up with the only coach and program he has known for two decades, and ultimately retire a one-uniform icon. “Oh, definitely,” Licht said. “I had thought that several times.”
So when Licht arrived at Bruce Arians’ house on Wednesday, March 18, for their first phone conversation with Brady (after a call Monday with the quarterback’s agent, Don Yee), Arians was the one more optimistic about Tampa’s chances. During the call on Wednesday, Brady spoke excitedly about the Bucs’ receivers, cited specific defensive playmakers who impressed him, praised the way Todd Bowles’ unit played over the second half of the season, and expressed an affinity for the offense Arians has run for all the quarterbacks he has whispered to in the past, from Peyton Manning to Big Ben Roethlisberger to Andrew Luck to Carson Palmer.
Licht doesn’t recall Brady’s exact words, but at one point in the call the six-time Super Bowl champ said something to the effect of, “I think we’ve got something. We’ve got a chance to be very special.”
That’s when Licht looked up from his seat in Arians’ living room and gave his head coach a thumbs-up.
Tom Brady, the ultimate winner, was committing to play for the ultimate loserville franchise; Tampa Bay’s .387 career winning percentage is the worst among all franchises in the four major sports. Brady was leaving an organization that all but patented the term “culture” for one forever defined by its non-culture. Brady was trading a coach with 31 postseason victories for a coach with one postseason victory, and the greatest roster-builder of all (also Belichick) for a GM who has lost 62 of his 96 games.
Were these smart trades for a 42-year-old quarterback trying to prove he can win a championship a different way than the Patriot Way? Or did Brady look past that history to focus on a 2019 Bucs team that was 7-9 with a quarterback, Jameis Winston, who committed 35 turnovers, including seven pick-sixes?
Did Tom Brady see a 7-9 team that would have been 12-4 with Tom Brady at quarterback?
Measured against Belichick, Arians is a stand-up comic with a funny-looking cap and a strange way of managing defeat. “Win or lose, we booze,” is Arians’ oft-stated philosophy. Though people close to Brady believe that he was looking for a little more humanity in his coaching (“Tom was Belichick’d out after 20 years,” said one friend), and that Arians’ let’s-grab-a-couple-beers-and-sneak-in-nine-holes approach will be a welcome change, some league officials who know all parties wonder how Brady will adjust to a head coach who doesn’t quite match Belichick’s maniacal hours or attention to detail.
Yet given Arians’ distinguished history with quarterbacks, the more interesting Brady gamble actually revolves around Jason Licht, the 49-year-old GM who fired two coaches in his first five years and who might have been fired himself had he not persuaded his former colleague in Arizona, Arians, to come out of retirement. (Arians is known to have made Licht’s secured future, via a long-term contract extension, a requirement for taking the job in 2019.) Brady and Licht didn’t spend much time together in Foxborough outside of some conversations here and there in the hallway, or at practice, or in the cafeteria. But if Brady did his homework on Licht — and Brady did his homework on all Bucs — this is what he found out:
Licht was born in Nebraska and raised in Yuma, Colorado, the son of Karen, who was an elementary school teacher, and Ron, who worked at a small construction company. The Lichts were renters, not buyers, and their everyday life was grounded in a very real struggle to pay the bills. Jason was a walk-on at Nebraska before transferring down to the NAIA level at Nebraska Wesleyan, where he was a star defensive lineman for coach Jim Svoboda. During his college days, Jason spent his summers working with his father installing sprinkler systems, paving driveways, building decks and landscaping homes. Jason’s career ambition was to become a small-town doctor.
“He would’ve been the kind of doctor I’d like,” said Svoboda, now the coach at Central Missouri. “He would have had good bedside manner and compassion, and the one thing that’s really striking about Jason is that he’s never forgotten where he came from. He’s very humble and very personable, just the right balance. He’s the kind of kid you love to coach. … He was a great player at our level and was really compelled to be his best, but he was going to have a good time doing it too.”
In 1995, Licht was waiting for his standardized test scores to come back for med school when he got an offer to intern in the Miami Dolphins‘ scouting department. Four years later, Pete Carroll’s personnel man in New England, Bobby Grier, hired Licht as a college scout. Belichick replaced Carroll the following season and ultimately fired Grier. Licht arrived for his first draft meeting with Belichick a bit intimidated, realizing his new boss knew next to nothing about him. The young scout decided he would be unafraid to deliver his honest assessments of prospects, even if they ran counter to the consensus among older scouts in the room, and then Belichick could decide for himself.
As it turned out, Belichick liked nothing more than prepared scouts who had the conviction to defend an unpopular evaluation. He didn’t just keep Licht; he promoted him to national scout, and then to assistant director of player personnel. Licht learned his trade straight from the master.
“There were times in October when I’d come off the road and [Belichick would] run into you in the hall and ask about a defensive tackle at Alabama or North Carolina,” Licht would say. “He’d say, ‘Man, I really like this guy. He’s a high pick and can start right away.’ And then he’d say something like, ‘Did you happen to see him against Appalachian State? What the hell happened to him there?’ And you’re like, ‘What? When did he have time to watch that?’ But he did, so you had to know everything about that player. On a Tuesday night when you’re typing out a report at midnight after going to Auburn, you can’t throw just anything down. He will read every single word that you write.”
“Now what?” Belichick responded incredulously. “We win more.”
In 2003, Licht left the Patriots for the Philadelphia Eagles and the executive he worked for in Miami, Tom Heckert Jr., and contributed to the 2004 Philly Super Bowl team that was defeated by — who else? — the Patriots. Belichick never gave Licht any grief over that. In fact, at the NFL combine in 2009, when Licht was a personnel executive for the Arizona Cardinals, Belichick approached him and said, “How about if you came to the combine as a Cardinal and left as a Patriot?” Belichick rarely rehires people who walk out on him, but he brought back Licht as his director of pro personnel.
Though a big believer in Bill, Licht was never one of the Westworld-like robots sometimes churned out by the Belichick assembly line. One former Patriots colleague described Licht as the most personable executive to pass through Foxborough during the Belichick/Brady years. “Jason Licht,” the former colleague said, “you can drop him in a cave in Afghanistan and he’s going to talk to somebody.”
“If you’re a quarterback who wants to play with good players and for a coach with a great offensive mind, why wouldn’t Tom pick Tampa?”
John Spytek, Bucs director of player personnel
Maybe Licht used that personality, and his Belichick street cred, to land the Tampa Bay job in 2014, after he had left New England a second time for a promotion in Arizona. And maybe that personality (along with the Arians insurance policy) is a primary reason he wasn’t fired with Dirk Koetter, after 2018, with Licht’s record at 27-53. He did seem at the time to be just another Belichick guy who couldn’t win apart from Belichick. He did make a mistake by handing the franchise over to Jameis Winston in 2015, and then he did commit a ghastly unforced error by trading up into the second round in 2016 to draft a kicker, Roberto Aguayo, who lasted all of one year in the league.
Aguayo alone could be considered a fireable offense. But whatever convinced the owning Glazers to stick with Licht, this much is true: Tom Brady just chose his roster over Belichick’s. And Brady wouldn’t have made that choice had Licht not drafted Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to be his receivers and had not hired Arians to be his coach.
Jason Licht likes his current roster a lot, including the former first-rounders he has up front in Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea and Devin White. He defends some (not all) of his draft picks and admits, “I’ve made mistakes in free agency, and now I’ve taken a different approach … that I think has paid off.” He declined to identify the specific tweaks, but suffice to say that the Bucs’ new No. 12 qualifies as a pretty good tweak.
“There were a lot of things really intriguing to me about this organization,” Brady said before he started making plans to move his family into Derek Jeter’s waterfront estate known as St. Jetersburg.
It’s all still a little hard to believe inside a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since losing to Eli Manning and the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in January 2008. “Wow, s—, we have Tom Brady,” Licht has said to himself more than a few times over the last couple of weeks.
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Where do the Bucs go from here? By the time Brady walked into Belichick’s first-string huddle, on the first Sunday football was played after the 9/11 attacks, Belichick had five losing seasons out of six as a head coach. By the time Brady committed to a second career in Tampa Bay, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Licht had five losing seasons out of six as a GM. He knows there’s no time for another full-fledged Brady dynasty.
“But I’ve only been fortunate to win one Super Bowl, Tom’s first Super Bowl, and there’s no better feeling,” Licht said. “It doesn’t matter what position you have in the organization. My goal is to win another Super Bowl.” The executive who was part of Brady’s first title now has a shot to preside over Brady’s last title.
When Licht’s guy, John Spytek, first got word that Brady was on the verge of signing on, part of him found it difficult to process. The greatest of all time? In Tampa? This coming season? In a different life, Spytek had knocked down a couple of Brady passes in Michigan practices as a freshman member of the scout-team defense. He recalled the senior quarterback projecting negative energy just once the entire season — when he grabbed his helmet and stared at the sky before realizing his interception against Ohio State was nullified by a Buckeyes penalty. “We saw the same guy and same consistency every day,” Spytek said.
But a part of the very executive who came up with “Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson” wasn’t stunned at all by Brady’s audible.
“Jason is a really good talent evaluator,” Spytek said. “I know our record’s been what it’s been, and this is my fifth season here and Jason’s going into his seventh. But we’ve had a lot of good players down here. We just haven’t figured out how to win the close games, and obviously that’s something we’ve got to do.
“We felt we had built a good team down here, especially on offense. If you’re a quarterback who wants to play with good players and for a coach with a great offensive mind, why wouldn’t Tom pick Tampa? It always made sense in my mind. It made sense that if we built it, he would come.”
Another Michigan grad, James Earl Jones, would surely agree with that. Now comes the fascinating part of the script. If the world rights itself by the fall, we’ll all find out if Tom Brady made a mistake coming out of that cornfield.