By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFL Writer
Count Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians as a believer in Blaine Gabbert.
Yes, that Blaine Gabbert, the University of Missouri product selected No. 10 overall in the 2011 draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The quarterback who failed to meet immense expectations and has bounced around the league to five different teams as an NFL journeyman.
The same Gabbert who has a 13-35 career record with 50 touchdowns and 47 interceptions in 10 NFL seasons, earning the nickname “Blame” Gabbert in Jacksonville for his perceived lack of accountability.
That’s who the Buccaneers have tabbed to replace the best quarterback to ever play the game in Tom Brady, who announced his retirement last month.
“That door is never closed,” joked Arians at this week’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis when asked about Brady changing his mind. “Whenever Tom wants to come back, he’s back.”
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Buccaneers GM Jason Licht added that he’ll always “leave the light on” for an unlikely return for Brady. But as it stands now, Tampa Bay might replace the GOAT by bringing back Gabbert as a free agent and having him compete for the starting job with Kyle Trask, Tampa’s second-round selection last year who was not active for a game.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to just replace Tom Brady,” Licht told reporters at the combine. “I don’t think you ever will. But you look at trades. You look to see who’s out there in free agency. You look at the draft.
“It’s not as easy as my neighbor thinks it is to just trade for another All-Pro quarterback. Teams tend to not want to let go of their All-Pro quarterback. So, we’ll look at every avenue, and we’ll look in-house, too.”
Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson appear to be staying in Green Bay and Seattle, respectively. Jimmy Garoppolo had shoulder surgery this offseason and will not be healthy until June, making NFL teams understandably hesitant to make a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. Deshaun Watson has significant off-the-field issues to deal with in Houston.
That leaves free agents such as Mitchell Trubisky, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston as potential options for the Bucs.
Arians has already been down the road with Winston; he’s not bringing the Florida State product back. With the 32-year-old Gabbert, Arians at least has a QB who has been in his system for three years with the Arizona Cardinals and the Bucs.
“You go through the growing pains — eight head coaches, nine coordinators in your first eight years,” Arians said about Gabbert. “But you’ve got to have something about you to keep going, all right. And when we got him, I was always a fan. I go back to his rookie year when I was at Pittsburgh, and they don’t block James Harrison off the edge. And he threw a touchdown, and James Harrison hit him in the mouth about the time the ball was going out. He jumped up and went and grabbed his guys. I thought, ‘He’s going to be a player.’
“He won two big games for us in Arizona when we were decimated with injuries, so I know what he can do. And I don’t judge records from the past. What are you going to do for me today? And I like what I can do for us today.”
The Buccaneers have 23 pending unrestricted free agents, including impact players such as receiver Chris Godwin, center Ryan Jensen, running back Leonard Fournette and cornerback Carlton Davis. Pro Bowl guard Ali Marpet recently announced his retirement, adding another player to the growing list Tampa Bay will have to replace.
The Bucs do have a few things going for them. They have roughly $20 million in cap space, enough to make some moves in free agency. They have one of the best defenses in the league, led by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. And the NFC South remains winnable. The only other winning team in the division last season was the New Orleans Saints, and they lost their head coach in Sean Payton.
The Bucs hit a home run by landing Brady in free agency two years ago, winning the Super Bowl in his first season and taking the NFC South last year. Now, Arians needs a better answer than Gabbert or Trask to convince free agents and even Bucs players that the team isn’t in rebuild mode.
He doesn’t seem to have one.
“We addressed it last year,” Arians said when asked about the quarterback position post-Brady. “We drafted Kyle Trask No. 2 for a reason. He fits everything we want to do as a quarterback. And I really liked what I saw for a year. So, I doubt drafting is an option.
“For all of the other guys, it’s going to be a trade. You don’t trade by yourself. You’ve got to have a partner, so that could be out of the question.”
A quarterback with postseason experience should lead Tampa Bay’s still-talented roster. That’s not Gabbert or Trask. Gabbert has a poor track record in the league; Trask has yet to play a meaningful snap in the NFL.
FOX Sports NFL Analyst Bucky Brooks had this to say about the possibility of Gabbert leading Tampa Bay to start the 2022 season:
With Brady gone, the Bucs not only have to replace his skills but also his leadership. It’s fair to question if Gabbert and Trask can meet that high bar.
“One thing that doesn’t get talked about enough, and just because we have seen the best for the last couple years, is the leadership that a quarterback has, and how important that is,” Licht said. “How his teammates feel about him, how they want to work for him, and how he gets the best out of his players.
“He doesn’t have to be the most talented. He doesn’t have to have the strongest arm. He does need to be smart and be a true leader to elevate and get the best out of his teammates. And that’s hard to gauge .”
Unless other options open up, this season is Tampa might be all about gauging Gabbert and Trask.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @eric_d_williams.
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