Yes, you clicked on a ridiculous headline. And no Tom Brady has not spoken publicly about the Minnesota Vikings’ decision to fire Mike Zimmer. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback’s actions spoke louder than words last Sunday as he displayed exactly what was missing during Mike Zimmer’s run in Minnesota.
Before I further explain, let’s properly set the table. After Zimmer’s dismissal both Eric Kendricks and Brian O’Neill came out and criticized the team culture. These aren’t loud, dramatic guys. These are veteran team leaders who are beyond respected by their peers. To have them speak up is a damning indictment of the way things were run under Zimmer. The man was clearly out of touch with his players.
Back to Tom. Rob Gronkowski went into Tampa’s Week 18 matchup against the Carolina Panthers needing seven catches and 85 yards to hit separate $500,000 incentives in his contract. Gronk pocketed half a mil after catching a 42-yard pass in the third quarter, but he was still one catch short of the mark with less than seven minutes to go in the game.
The Bucs were up 14 at that point, and head coach Bruce Arians called for backup Blaine Gabbert to enter the game. Why risk an injury to Brady when the team has nothing on the line? Well, Touchdown Tommy had another idea. CBS’s cameras caught Brady telling Arians that he wasn’t going to be taken out of the game as he placed his pewter helmet over his resodded hair.
“Let’s see who has more power, Brady or Arians,” said one of the CBS broadcasters.
Spoiler alert: It was Brady.
Brady got Gronk the ball, Gabbert replaced him, and the rest is history.
Contract incentives matter to players, regardless of if you like it or not. Records do, too.
Justin Jefferson made it clear that he wanted to break Randy Moss’ receiving yards record before Minnesota’s Week 18 game against the Chicago Bears. Jefferson entered the game 124 yards shy of Moss’ 1632 set in 2003.
He finished 17 yards shy and watched his team opt to run the ball and take a knee instead of trying to get him the ball so he could break it.
“We talked about it all week,” Kirk Cousins admitted after the game, who threw Jefferson a screen pass late in the game to try to allow him to break the record. “I mentioned (the record) at his locker earlier this week that I’m aware of it.”
“Just being that close and not getting it, definitely tough,” Jefferson allowed, “but it is what is.”
Zimmer? Well, you know what he said by now.
“I don’t care about records,” he explained. “I care about wins.”
The truth is you can care about multiple things. A coach can be completely driven to win and also be in tune with what’s important and meaningful to his players. A coach who’s looking out for his players will have players who are looking out for him.
Jefferson should be celebrated for trying to break Moss’ records. The offense should be built around him. He should be contractually incented to be on the field and torch secondaries. A great coach should have wanted that record for Jefferson almost as bad as Jefferson wanted it for himself. A great coach should have understood that moment could galvanize his teammates.
That’s something Brady gets because he’s an all-time great. And more importantly, it’s something Bruce Arians gets. It would have been easy to take the grizzled old approach and fight back or make a negative deal of it after the game. He didn’t. He gets it.
Teams rally around good culture. Maybe not 50 years ago. Hell, maybe not even 20 years ago. But today they do. It might have seemed like a small thing, but Brady’s insistence on helping a teammate and Arians recognition of the importance of the matter shows you exactly who the Buccaneers are and how they run their team. It completely highlights what Mike Zimmer struggled to understand as he cost himself a job. In the modern NFL, you can care about wins and create a great supportive culture that truly understands your players.
As the Vikings search for Zimmer’s replacement they should keep these two dramatically different moments in mind. I’m not insisting that the Wilfs hire someone who will do everything he can to make sure they payout every bonus on the roster, but whoever they bring in should know the difference between these two culture creating moments. Whoever they bring in should be able to recognize what motivates and galvanizes their players and be willing to push that direction while also doing everything they can to win.