WHAT KIND OF IMPACT WILL CAM NEWTON HAVE ON THE PATRIOTS?

WHAT KIND OF IMPACT WILL CAM NEWTON HAVE ON THE PATRIOTS?

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Has Bill Belichick done it again? Is the evil empire pulling a line from Lee Corso and saying, “Not so fast my friend!” to all of those who are burying the Patriots dynasty? The legendary head coach, after departing from a quarterback who helped him win six Super Bowls this offseason, pulled a rabbit out of his hat with the signing of former MVP Cam Newton on Sunday evening. While the move is a flashy one with a big name set to fill the void left by Tom Brady, there’s little reason to believe Newton will have much of an impact for the Patriots this season and even less reason to believe he’ll even beat out Jarrett Stidham to win the starting job week one.

Health is still the most pressing question for Newton. Since taking the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015, the former Heisman Trophy winner has played a full 16-game season just once in the last four years. This is a player who missed the final 14 games of the 2019 season and two games in the prior season. As the old cliché in sports goes “The best ability is availability.” It’s impossible to deem the Patriots true Super Bowl contenders because their newest acquisition is far from a guarantee to step on the field.

While getting on the field is one concern, staying on the field is an even taller task. The good news for the Patriots is that Newton did pass a physical back in March, with both his shoulder and foot “checking out well,” according to a source who relayed that information to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. So while the Auburn product has checked the first box, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that this will equate to a healthy 2020 season. Cam’s body has taken a ton of abuse throughout his nine-year career. He’s had surgeries to his shoulder (twice), foot and ankle while also suffering back vertebrae fractures after a car accident.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

As a Colts fan myself, I’ve witnessed first-hand how a player’s body gets worn down over time to the point where the slightest injury could end a career. Andrew Luck, while not as reliant on his legs as the 2015 NFL MVP, would still use his body to run over defenders while also being able to bounce back up after punishing hits. Years of exposure to big hits eventually took its toll, as Luck decided to retire in 2018 in part because of all of the punishment his body suffered.

While the Luck example is an extreme one, it highlights what happens if a team neglects to protect their quarterback. The wear and tear Newton’s body accrued over nine seasons doesn’t just go away because he’s healed from previous injuries. It will only get harder for Cam to keep himself healthy as his career elongates. If the former top pick wants to continue to play his physical, bruising style of football, it’s tough to imagine he’ll be able to make it through a full 16-game schedule, which would put a damper on the playoff hopes of the Patriots.

Putting health aside for a minute, the learning curve that the former Panther has to overcome in this unusual offseason is another reason to slam the brakes on the “Cam Newton will have a huge impact in New England” narrative. Signing on June 29th, Newton will have just about a month to learn the Josh McDaniels offense before training camp begins. The difficulty level increases due to the fact that the quarterback and offensive coordinator can’t meet in person until practices officially get underway. Taking it a step further, this also means Newton won’t be able to throw to any of his new teammates until training camp. Not exactly an ideal circumstance when you’re trying to beat out a player who already knows the offense.

2020 will be a season like we’ve never seen before. Two factors that will play a major role in the success or lack thereof from teams will be: continuity and familiarity.  Minimal-to-zero offseason contact between players this offseason benefits those teams who are returning head coaches, quarterbacks and rosters from 2019. This gives Stidham a tremendous leg up on the competition. The former Auburn quarterback himself had all of last year to build chemistry with the skill position players and absorb McDaniels’ system, which will mean he’ll hit training camp full steam ahead. The familiarity that the second-year quarterback has with the offense could end up being the difference in him starting week one.  

Another pandemic-affected aspect that will benefit the returning quarterback is that the preseason has been chopped in half, as there are only two preseason games scheduled. While teams have been valuing these glorified scrimmages less and less in recent years, it would have been the perfect opportunity for Belichick & Co. to see what they have in the former number one pick. The less preseason games, the bigger the advantage for Stidham to win the starting job.

Between injuries and learning a new playbook, it doesn’t add up to Cam Newton having success with the Patriots in 2020. To already hand New England the AFC East title or even going further to state this signing makes the six-time Super Bowl champions a legitimate contender for the Lombardi Trophy is premature to say the least. When all is said and done, it will be Stidham, not Newton, that will be under center by the time week one rolls around.

MLB PLAYERS VS. OWNERS: WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?

MLB PLAYERS VS. OWNERS: WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Millionaires fighting billionaires. Most of us just roll our eyes as we’d all love to have those problems. When the haggling of money occurs in the arena of sports, we usually side with the billionaire owners and want the player to sign a deal quickly in order to get back on the field. The stakes, though, are very different in this feud. Players want a reasonable salary for 2020 while the owners are desperate to stop hemorrhaging cash. Baseball’s long-term future is very much in peril if a deal isn’t reached. While we normally side with ownership when contract disputes arise, there are a few reasons why it’s time we flip our allegiance to the players side and root for them to get properly compensated for the risk they are taking in resuming play.

In this pandemic, it’s not unreasonable and almost mandatory that sacrifices be made by everyone. Baseball is no different. The players have already done their share of sacrificing as back in March, the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to prorate their salary commensurate to the number of games played. Owners are now asking the players to take a second pay cut because of the fact that most likely, no fans will be allowed stadiums at all during this shortened season. It’s tough to criticize and fault the players for not wanting another salary reduction because the owners misjudged the climate in which games would be played and now are frantically trying to hold onto every dollar they have. Why should the players have to pay for a miscalculation by the owners?

The form of the pay cut is also very controversial because it would come in the form of a 50/50 split of the 2020 revenue between the owners and players, a practice never before enforced. The players association, as they should, strongly disagrees with this proposal because it would serve as a de facto salary cap, as baseball is the only of the four major sports without one. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark had some strong words when speaking to The Athletic last Monday about the idea of a 50/50 split.

“A system that restricts player pay based on revenues is a salary cap, period,” Clark said. “That the league is trying to take advantage of a global health crisis to get what they’ve failed to achieve in the past – and to anonymously negotiate through the media for the last several days – suggests they know exactly how this will be received.”

Ryan Hickey breaks down why you should be favoring the players over the owners as negotiations about compensation for a shortened season without fans plays out publicly. Catch “The Morning Boys w/ Ryan Hickey” every Monday/Thursday from 9:00 am – 11:00 am ET.

From the players perspective, it’s tough to trust the owners to act in good faith. They’ve accused them in the past of colluding together to suppress wages and destroy the free agent market. Now with the CBA set to expire after the 2021 season, the players worry that their leverage could be lost if they cave and agree to a second pay reduction. This agreement could have devastating impacts that last a lot longer than just this season.

The risk the players are taking by stepping onto the field in the midst of a pandemic is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Without a vaccine available, there’s still a chance of infection despite the numerous precautions the league office is taking. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell’s viral rant brought to light how divisive this proposal is to the players. Snell was speaking on his personal Twitch stream last week when he let loose on why taking another pay cut was not an option.

“The risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why would I think about doing that?” Snell said. “If I’m gonna play, I should be getting the money I signed to be getting paid. I should not be getting half of what I’m getting paid because the season’s cut in half, on top of a 33% cut of the half that’s already there — so I’m really getting, like, 25%.”

He’s right. After all, the owners aren’t the ones out on the field risking their health to play the game. It’s a matter of when a player will contract the virus, not if, so why should the players be exposed as well as have their pay significantly slashed? The risk versus reward debate right now is an easy one because the players are facing a health risk while getting compensated very poorly. The scales have to be tipped in favor of the reward far outweighing the risks involved, a balance that at the moment favors the risk being too high. There needs to be some sort of incentive because right now, all of the signs point to it not making a whole lot of sense for players to return to the field this season.

Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association Tony Clark says a 50/50 revenue split in 2020 is “a non-starter” (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday via Getty Images)

Snell isn’t alone in this thinking, as some of baseball’s superstars came out to defends the Rays pitcher. Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper is glad those comments were put out in the open.

“He ain’t lying, he’s speaking the truth bro,” Harper told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Somebody’s gotta say it, at least he manned up and said it.”

Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado also chimed in and backed up Snell when talking with The Athletic.

“He made a lot of good points,” Arenado said. “A lot of it gets misperceived. Trying to get the public to understand us, it’s not going to work very well in our favor…”

Arenado brings up a very important point that can’t be lost in this entire battle. With the owners floating out the 50/50 revenue split idea, this public frustration from the labor is exactly what they wanted. Social media was buzzing with tons of “Just get out there and play” takes after Snell’s rant went viral. Let’s also not forget what the players are actually asking for. They aren’t demanding a pay raise, but instead just asking to keep their already halved salary. It’s easy for the public to get frustrated about millionaires complaining about salary, but you can’t overlook the billionaires selfishly trying to keep their pockets filled.

Looking at the landscape of the country right now, there’s a serious void that we are so used to sports filling. If the NBA and NHL can’t or choose not to return, baseball will be at the forefront of the nation. This is a unique opportunity that could allow baseball to jump back into national relevancy and with that increased attention, allow owners to make up for lost revenue in this pandemic stricken season. MLB has the chance to be the first and quite possibly the only league to return for a long time.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has focused a lot of his efforts on changing the game to make it more appealing to the younger audience. There’s no better way to bring new fans in than being the main sport played during an otherwise bleak time in history. The short-term losses could be made up down the line by tapping into a fanbase that baseball has never had access to before. The growth of the sport will increase stadium and television revenues, creating a new stable stream of money coming in. Considering the potential loss of four-billion-dollars if baseball isn’t played in 2020, it’s advantageous for the owners to cater to the needs of the players.

If anything, the coronavirus has put us all on the same playing field. No matter the job we have or the industry we work in, we’re all inconvenienced and more importantly, we’re all in this together. We’ve sacrificed and now hope springs eternal that the summer can bring about some semblance of normalcy. Part of that return to normalcy is watching baseball on the television every night. In a time when we’re all sacrificing for the greater good, baseball needs to do the same. The players have made their sacrifice. It’s time for the owners to make theirs.

SHOULD THE DOLPHINS DRAFT TUA TAGOVAILOA?

SHOULD THE DOLPHINS DRAFT TUA TAGOVAILOA?

NEW YORK, N.Y.- The Miami Dolphins are finally on the clock. After a year of “Tanking for Tua” and accumulating as many draft picks as possible, they can finally start addressing their needs, starting at the quarterback position. Holding the fifth pick, it seems destined that Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will be sitting in their lap, waiting to put on the aqua and orange. But now that this day has finally come, the decision is harder than it seems. There is no doubting that the Crimson Tide quarterback has the talent to transcend a franchise. There is very little on the field that Tua does wrong, transforming the SEC powerhouse from a ground and pound team to one that slices and dices defenses with a lethal aerial attack. There is a major flaw with the 22-year-old and that is his health, more specifically, his durability.  Which begs the question: Should the Dolphins trust Tua to be their franchise quarterback?

Ryan Hickey breaks down why the Dolphins should pass on drafting Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Catch “The Morning Boys w/ Ryan Hickey” every Monday/Thursday from 9:00 am – 11:00 am ET

From a talent perspective, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Normally, the biggest question marks surrounding quarterbacks heading into the NFL Draft are their physical tools. Do they have a strong arm? Are they accurate? Can they read defenses and analyze information quickly? Can they be a leader of men? At Alabama, he aced all of those questions. The two-year starter amassed 77 touchdowns to just nine interceptions while claiming numerous accolades, including 2018 SEC Player of the Year and was a consensus All-American that same season. He holds the single season touchdown record (43) and is the career touchdown leader (87) in Alabama history.

Equally as impressive as his stats are his leadership abilities. According to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, Alabama head coach Nick Saban had a very glowing compliment of the quarterback’s effect on the university as a whole.

“Tua has probably had as much of an impact on our program as any player we have ever had,” Saban said. It’s tough to find a compliment that has greater weight than that.

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

While the on-field accomplishments and leadership say that the Hawaiian native can turn a franchise around, the injury concerns say he can’t be relied upon. The former Alabama star has had more than his fair share of nicks and bruises throughout his two seasons as the starter. During his three years in Tuscaloosa, there were five documented injuries that Tua suffered. Three of these injuries (broken finger in March of 2018, sprained right knee in October of 2018 and left ankle surgery in December of 2018) did not see the signal caller miss a game. The latest two injuries he suffered this past season saw the Heisman hopeful miss a total of four games, including a dislocated hip that ended his college career.

What’s even more alarming is that while five injuries in three years is significant, it’s possible that more setbacks occurred without anyone knowing. Former NFL executive Mike Lombardi reported that on top of the injuries listed above, Tua broke his wrist not once but twice. On the GM Shuffle podcast, Lombardi expanded.

“It’s not just his hip. It’s his ankle. It’s his wrist,” Lombardi said. “He broke his wrist the first day of spring ball one year. And then they fixed it and he came back and he re-broke it again.”

This is of major importance because it could be a precursor to what Dolphins fans could expect in the future if Miami tabs Tua to be their guy. At Alabama, Tagovailoa had great offensive lines in the two seasons he was the starting quarterback. Both in 2018 and 2019, the Crimson Tide were finalists for the Joe Moore Award, an honor given to the best offensive line in the country.

Oct 13, 2019; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen (3) call for a play in the first quarter of the game against the Washington Redskins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The junior was sacked just 10 times in 2019, while Alabama as a whole allowed the third fewest sacks in the country. In 2018, the Crimson Tide were tied for 12th with just 16 sacks allowed in 15 games. Despite having great protection throughout his college career, Tagovailoa still found himself injured. Looking at what the Dolphins possess on their offensive line, it’s worrisome that the injury-riddled quarterback will be subject to a ton of pressure and will be hit more in one year than his entire college career. Miami allowed the most quarterback hits (147) and tied for first in sacks allowed (58) in 2019, so it’s a stark contrast from the protection Tua was afforded in college to the kind of protection he’ll be dealing with in the pros.

The injury prone label that is being floated around isn’t hyperbole, as NFL teams are legitimately questioning whether the talent is worth the injury risk. Lombardi went on to say that two teams he knew of flunked Tua’s physical not just because of the questions surrounding his hip injury, but because of the total compilation of injuries suffered throughout his career. There is good news concerning his hip injury, as two doctors have said his hip is recovering perfectly and there should be very little worry that his hip will suffer the same fate of Bo Jackson’s. While the hip is encouraging, the fear for the Dolphins should be focused on his ability to stay healthy, not his current health to date.

All of these injuries and serious concerns are enough for me, if I were the Dolphins, to pass on drafting Tagovailoa. There are already examples in the NFL of talented quarterbacks getting drafted to be the franchise leader only to have injuries derail their career. The last thing the Dolphins can afford is to have another Robert Griffin III or Sam Bradford situation. While Tua’s upside is higher I believe than both of those players, the risk is even greater as well. Andrew Luck’s career arc should be enough to give the Dolphins a peek into the future if they draft Crimson Tide star and aren’t able to protect him adequately enough. Even just a year or two behind this extremely porous offensive line could be enough for the already brittle quarterback to never fully recover.

It’s an old cliché, but a very fitting one when it comes to the decision of finding the next elite quarterback. A player’s best ability is his availability, and for Tua, that’s his most questionable feature. It’s why I believe the Dolphins would be better off drafting Oregon’s Justin Herbert or even bypassing the position completely and drafting an offensive tackle. While they might not be getting the player they dreamed of drafting back in September, the good news for the Dolphins is that there are other fish in the sea.

HOW SHOULD MLB SCHEDULE THEIR SEASON?

HOW SHOULD MLB SCHEDULE THEIR SEASON?

Ryan Hickey gives his thoughts on how MLB should schedule their season. Listen to The Morning Boys w/ Ryan Hickey every Monday/Thursday from 9:00 am – 11:00 am ET.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- The sun shone bright on a gorgeous Thursday afternoon, the perfect setting for what was supposed to be a celebration of the start of the Major League Baseball season. Instead, the perfect day for baseball was more of a tease. A “what could have been” if the world wasn’t ravaged by the Coronavirus pandemic. There is hope, though, that a baseball season will be played in 2020, either as normal or as close to normal as possible given the circumstances. The big question from a baseball perspective is how will the season play out if and when play resumes?

There have already been some intriguing suggestions, including holding the World Series during Christmas and seven-inning doubleheaders. Those suggestions can’t be implemented before the most basic question is answered: how many games will be played? 162? 125? 81? All of these suggestions and questions circle around the sport, as a solution can only be thought about once the world can return to some sort of normality. With that said though, let’s have some fun and discuss the best way MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred can go about scheduling their season that would be beneficial for everyone.

Major League Baseball is still hoping for the season to kick off in early June, as Manfred spoke with Scott Van Pelt earlier this week and hoped that spring training can resume again in early May, setting the stage for a June start. So, the start date I am going to use here is June 1st. The season would start as scheduled for that day, as every team’s current opponent for the first day of June would be their Opening Day opposition. By picking up the schedule from that point, many exciting matchups are still preserved, including: Red Sox-Cubs, Astros-Nationals, Yankees-White Sox at the Field of Dreams and Red Sox-Orioles in Williamsport.

Image courtesy of Citi Field

I would institute doubleheaders every other Sunday, so extra games are fit in while not draining the players. Many teams and players have expressed the want to play as many games as possible, as Rockies manager Bud Black supported the idea of doubleheaders every week and Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins is in favor of seven-inning doubleheaders to ease the toll on the players while still squeezing in as many games as possible. Let’s not forget, the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Despite the shortened season days wise, trying to fit a grueling schedule into a shorter time period will only wear down players and cause more injuries and sloppy play. The extra game every other week helps to give players, and more importantly pitchers, a chance to recover while still making up for lost time.

I would also extend the end of the season two extra weeks, moving the end of the regular season from September 27th to October 11th. This will allow for the addition of roughly 13 games, so teams can get as close to the 162-game schedule as possible. All-Star week would also be pushed back from July to August, so Los Angeles will still get to host the event and players will have enough time to prove their worthiness of an All-Star nod.

All of these conditions add up to the playing of 126 games from June 1st through early October. That equates to about 77% of the season being played, which is just behind the NBA’s rough estimate of 80% of their schedule being completed for some teams. With both the NBA and NHL considering going right to the playoffs if play resumes, my schedule proposal would put MLB in the same spot in terms of the percent of their regular season completed.

The playoffs are where it gets a little interesting. Pushing the season back an extra two weeks should still allow teams in bad weather cities to host playoff games in their home ballparks. There have been proposals and discussions of neutral site playoff games, with agent Scott Boras wanting the entire playoffs and World Series to be played at neutral sites. With so much baseball already taken away from fans, my scheduling goal is to allow teams that play in cold weather cities to still be able to host playoff games to reward their fans. After all, playoff baseball’s allure is due in part to the raucous environments that the fans provide, as anticipation is palpable on every single pitch.

I would still keep the World Series format the same, as the team with the better record will get home field advantage. I would try my hardest to keep the World Series in the cities that are playing in them because air travel might not return to normal by November and with so many companies laying off employees, fans might not be able to afford to fly to a neutral site to watch their team. A contingency plan would be put in place to have a few different stadiums on call to host the World Series if the weather doesn’t allow for playing in a certain city, but that would be the last resort. Currently, there are options being floated around like expanding the postseason and moving the World Series to a neutral site, options that make sense from a financial perspective to make up for lost revenue but ideas that I would stay away from because they take even more baseball away from the fans and dampen the playoff atmosphere.

This is obviously an unprecedented situation not just in sports, but in the world. MLB has done a good job so far in recognizing this and have entertained many different ways for how baseball could get their season on track. Trying to play 162 games is unrealistic at this point, which is why 126 games is Major League Baseball’s best way to get the most out of a shortened season while also keeping the schedule as normal as possible. That last phrase is critical, because in these times of uncertainty, a sense of normality is the biggest thing that fans need right now.

TOM BRADY IN TAMPA WILL BE FUN, BUT WILL THEY WIN?

TOM BRADY IN TAMPA WILL BE FUN, BUT WILL THEY WIN?

NEW YORK, N.Y.- After months of speculation, Tom Brady made it official on Tuesday morning that his time in New England was done and he would play elsewhere in 2020. The Buccaneers seemed to come out of the shadows and land Brady’s services. The six-time Super Bowl champion taking his talents to Tampa should provide for some high-octane offensive play. While the highlights should be abundant, Brady didn’t sign with the Bucs to only throw touchdown passes and have a good time. His goal of winning hasn’t changed, and he wouldn’t have signed up if he didn’t believe the team that went 7-9 last year were just a few pieces away from being legitimate contenders in a deep NFC. Will Brady be right?

Ryan Hickey lays out the reasoning for the fun to be had in Tampa Bay for Tom Brady and why the winning won’t come as easily

Before we look ahead at what could be in 2020, we must first look back at 2019 to try and figure out what led to the Patriots offense becoming pedestrian, especially in the second half. The final eight games of the regular season, New England averaged just over 21 points per game, compared to 31 points per game they average in the first half of the season. While it’s easy to point to the trigger man as the main reason for the two score drop off, it goes deeper than that. The Patriots offensive system, guided by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, is predicated on reading the defense and adjusting routes based on what they see. Reading the defense doesn’t just start and stop at the quarterback position though. It extends to the running backs, tight ends and wide receivers. Everyone has to be on the same page and the timing must be exact, or else the entire play is thrown off.

The rotating cast at the skill positions, which saw first round pick N’Keal Harry miss the first nine games of the season, Mohamed Sanu traded for halfway through the year and an extra reliance on rookie Jakobi Meyers, not to mention both Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon coming in and then going out, Brady wasn’t able to trust his targets. The lack of trust stemmed from not being on the same page, which led to bad throws and a stagnant offense. Last year wasn’t a hint that Father Time is finally catching up to the ageless wonder, but instead a reassurance that Brady can no longer make chicken salad out of, well, you know.

Looking ahead now to the upcoming season, the new toys Brady has at his disposal jump right off the page. Tampa boasts arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the league, as Chris Godwin and Mike Evans both surpassed 1,100 receiving yards last season. Brady hasn’t had two players both go over 1,100 yards in the same season since 2011, when Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski combined for 2,896 yards. On top of those two on the outside, the future Hall of Famer also has two solid tight end options in Cameron Brate and OJ Howard. While there’s still work that has to be done at the running back position, this is already shaping up to be one of the best supporting casts ever assembled around the soon to be 43-year-old.

Brady also gets the pleasure of working with pass-happy head coach Bruce Arians, whose aggressive mindset allowed former Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston to create the infamous 30-touchdown, interception club. Arians worked his magic with the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, so it will be intriguing to see what he can do with an all-time great chasing his seventh Super Bowl victory. The biggest question mark with this new marriage is how Brady, who is known more as an underneath to intermediate passer, will integrate into the vertical passing system that Arians runs.

TAMPA, FL – OCTOBER 5: Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots controls the offense during the second quarter of an NFL football game Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 5, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

The Buccaneers upcoming 2020 schedule also adds to the fun, as there are a few very sexy matchups that are sure to put Tampa Bay in primetime more than they’ve ever been. The former Patriot (still so weird to write) will go against his former defensive coordinator in Matt Patricia, battle Drew Brees twice and gets a shot against the only other team that made an offer for his services in the Los Angeles Chargers. There are also some awesome quarterback matchups slated for the 101st NFL season, as the Michigan alum will take on Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Patrick Mahomes. These games will bring the most eyes and attention that have been on this franchise since their 2002 Super Bowl season.  

While the weapons, head coach and schedule present some great opportunities for fireworks this upcoming season, the main question surrounding this team is whether they will be legitimate contenders not just in the conference, but in their own division. The Falcons are gearing up offensively to match the firepower of Tampa Bay, signing Todd Gurley to add to the collection of talent they possess that includes Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst and Matt Ryan. The Saints return Drew Brees and most of the weapons that helped power New Orleans to a 13-3 record. Both of those teams already pose bigger threats than most of the competition the Patriots have rolled over in the AFC East for the last 20 years. The Panthers don’t appear to be a pushover either, as the signing of Teddy Bridgewater will keep them competitive in 2020.

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) gestures after a fourth down in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Rams 13-3 to win an NFL record-tying sixth championship. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of just a more challenging division, the NFC poses a deeper road to the Super Bowl than the AFC. Before the breakthrough of the Chiefs this past year, the Patriots controlled the conference for two decades, going to 13 AFC Conference Championship games in that span. While Brady navigated the AFC littered with young, up-and-coming gunslingers, the NFC is filled with established, championship-winning signal callers. Standing in the way of a seventh Lombardi Trophy are the likes of Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

In addition to those star quarterbacks, the NFC also boasts the defending conference champion in a young and physical 49ers team, the Vikings, who pulled off an impressive playoff upset over the Saints, a talent loaded Cowboys team that is armed with a head coach who doesn’t specialize in clapping and the Eagles, who barring catastrophic injuries, will be a tough out.

While the road may be tough, there is promise that the Buccaneers can turn it around from a losing season to right in the thick of it this year. Ironically enough, it’s on the defensive end where the Brady signing could show the biggest dividends. Last year, Tampa Bay’s defense, especially their secondary, struggle mightily. But was is truly all their fault? The answer lies on the other side of the ball. In 2019, the defense was credited with allowing 449 points, which was the fourth most in the league. Part of that was due in part to Winston’s record setting seven pick-sixes thrown that directly added 49 points to their total points allowed tally. You take away those 49 points and while it’s still not pretty, it’s improvement as they move from fourth to 10th worst in total points allowed.

That’s not where the optimism for a defensive turnaround in 2020 ends. Of the 23 interceptions thrown by the former number one overall pick that weren’t returned for touchdowns, 16 occurred in the Buccaneers’ own end of the field, putting the defense in a tough spot to succeed. The overall efficiency numbers reflect the notion that the defense, led by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, was a lot better than the scoreboard indicated. According to Football Outsiders, Tampa Bay was fifth in defensive DVOA, which is a collection of data that measures the overall efficiency of the unit. So, despite the Buccaneers struggling statistically, the simple addition of Brady and subtraction of Winston should automatically give them a boost.

The path to a 10th Super Bowl appearance seems as tough as it’s ever been for Brady. The positive is that despite is age, he’s insulated with a supporting cast that can pick up him in a way the 2019 Patriots couldn’t. Barring injuries, it’s tough to bet against the man who’s only known winning his entire career. The playoffs are very attainable, and frankly expected, especially with the addition of an extra wild card team. 2020 will be simultaneously both the same and different. It will take some getting used to seeing the Boston icon wearing the pewter and red. The quest though, remains the same and the final destination is a familiar one, as Raymond James Stadium will host the upcoming Super Bowl. The end goal of raising that Lombardi Trophy doesn’t change, but for once, the journey will be a fun one.