In one of the strangest subplots of the upcoming 2020 season, expect many New England Patriots fans to cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers too.
There are 31 other teams in the NFL besides the New England Patriots.
Of those 31 teams, there are only three teams the Patriots have faced less than 10 times overall in the history of the league: the Carolina Panthers (six meetings), the Jacksonville Jaguars (eight meetings), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nine meetings).
It’s not entirely surprising to find the Panthers and Jaguars on this list since both franchises are so new (both arrived in 1995). And though the Ravens (1996) and Texans (2002) are both even newer, their inclusion in the AFC rather than the NFC has increased the frequency of matchups between both teams and the Patriots.
The Buccaneers were founded in 1976 along with the Seahawks. Seattle was a member of the AFC from 1977 to 2001, though, whereas Tampa Bay has been a member of the NFC from 1977 on.
Because of that, it makes sense that the Patriots have faced the Seahawks 17 times compared to just nine times against the Buccaneers, despite both Seattle and Tampa Bay currently playing in the NFC.
What’s the point of all this historical analysis?
Consider it a little background as to why many, many Patriots fans might find themselves secretly (or maybe even not-so-secretly) cheering for the Buccaneers during the 2020 NFL season.
On the surface, it’s easy to understand the connection: Tom Brady. When the greatest figure in the history of your franchise — and arguably the greatest player in the history of the National Football League, too — switches sides and starts a second career with a new team, what do you do as a fan?
Loyalists and die-hard Patriots fans — particularly the older ones who pre-date the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era by several decades — could very well swear off Brady entirely. They’ve lived long enough to cheer for New England before Brady, so cheering for the team without him won’t be any different — other than perhaps being a bit less fun.
For younger Patriots fans or newer fans of the team that have hopped aboard the Brady/Belichick bandwagon these past 20 years, it’s a been more of a difficult proposition to cut ties with TB12 altogether overnight like that.
This is, after all, the quarterback that they’ve grown accustomed to seeing under center for two decades now. It’s the guy who has put the team on his back repeatedly en route to nine Super Bowl appearances, six Super Bowl wins, and numerous other regular season and postseason accomplishments.
Couple all that with the fact that his running mate, Rob Gronkowski, has also un-retired and found his way via trade down to the Buccaneers as well, and suddenly, you have a large contingent of people with No. 12 and No. 87 jerseys in their closets who may feel a bit conflicted.
But that’s just it: Is there really even a good reason to feel conflicted about this situation?
After all, it’s not like Brady and Gronk are playing for the Jets this season. If that had happened, obviously there wouldn’t be any equivocation or uncertainty in the hearts and minds of most all members of Patriots Nation.
Brady and Gronk would be branded traitors and turncoats if they suited up for Gang Green … and rightly so, no matter the extenuating circumstances that led to their departure.
But this isn’t New York. Heck, it’s not even the AFC.
Even if they’d gone to a certain team in the NFC to play, it could have been easier to turn on them. Seeing the iconic duo team up for the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys … any of those destinations would have upset the stomachs of Patriots fans.
But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
This is a franchise that currently “boasts” the worst win/loss percentage in all four major U.S. professional sports leagues.
In other words, Brady and Gronkowski are leaving the Patriots — a team many sports fans now consider to be the gold standard when it comes to winning — for the Buccaneers, the statistical champions of losing … and not much else.
None of this is meant to disparage the Bucs, their players, their coaches, or their fans.
The point I’m simply trying to make is that Tampa Bay really hasn’t occupied much mental or emotional space in the minds and hearts of Patriots Nation — ever. As a result, it’s not a stretch to suggest that many New Englanders feel a bit neutral or ambivalent about Brady and Gronk suiting up for them.
To be sure, many New Englanders are still outraged and/or devastated that Brady and Gronk aren’t suiting up for the Patriots in 2020.
But considering all we know about the situation — that the Pats had a chance to give Brady the multi-year deal he wanted and passed on it repeatedly, that Belichick wanted to move on from Brady years ago in favor of Jimmy Garoppolo, that Belichick tried to trade Gronkowski to the Lions years ago, that Gronk is only coming back because he wants to play with Brady and not because he loves Tampa Bay, etc. — can anyone really blame Brady or Gronk for how this turned out?
I’d say, without a shred of doubt, the answer is no.
That leaves just one question then: How should we feel about their careers moving forward as Buccaneers?
If we don’t blame them or despise them for how all this went down — and we don’t have some deeply-rooted animosity against Tampa Bay as a franchise (and we don’t since we’ve barely ever even played each other) — then is it possible we might find it in our hearts to cheer for the Bucs in 2020?
That’s not to say that the Patriots won’t always come first, this season and forever. But the NFL schedule-makers, whether truly by accident or by design, didn’t line up any New England or Tampa Bay games at the same time until Week 15 of the regular season.
They probably know that many New Englanders and Patriots fans worldwide will want to tune in to Buccaneers games this year — something nobody ever could have predicted even a year ago.
And honestly, they’re right. Why wouldn’t we want to tune in? Brady and Gronkowski are two of the greatest players in New England Patriots history, and both were essentially considered too old or too broken down by injuries to remain relevant in Belichick’s estimation moving forward.
As a result, they’re carving out a new path down south together on a team that the Patriots won’t play unless both franchises meet in the Super Bowl this year. Then, and only then, I would argue we should root like hell against Tampa Bay, against Gronkowski, and against Brady.
But until and unless that happens, I say we embrace a growing sentiment around our fanbase to react in a totally rational and logical way given the extraordinary set of circumstances we’ve been dealt in 2020 — and that means cheering on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers … after we cheer on our own team, of course.