In a virtual roundtable for subscribers, the Globe’s Ben Volin, Jim McBride, Tara Sullivan, and Nicole Yang chatted with deputy sports editor Scott Thurston about the unusual 2020 season for the Patriots, the Chiefs-Buccaneers matchup in Super Bowl LV, and what might lie ahead for New England.
Here are the highlights:
On Tom Brady’s influence in Tampa
“The guy has been everything,” Volin said of Brady. “He’s not only been the quarterback, but basically the head coach and also the GM. ‘Hey, you want to bring in Gronk? You want to bring in Antonio Brown? Sure, Tom. No problem, Tom. Whatever you want.’ They’ve been happy to bend over backward for him.”
“His impact is obvious. They were 7-9 with Jameis Winston. They’re 11-5 and then sweep through the playoffs with Tom Brady, and here they are in the Super Bowl.”
On what it’s like in Tampa during Super Bowl week
“It looks like a normal Super Bowl. But the media center [Wednesday] was dead. And radio row is a ghost town. They actually have a radio row — the tables are spaced 50 feet apart. There’s probably 12 radio stations in there, and four of them are probably from Florida,” Volin said. “It’s not the same this year.”
On covering the 2020 Patriots
“On the road, it was very lonely,” McBride said. “Even on the plane rides to the games, they’d normally be packed with Patriots fans because the team travels so well. I know a lot of people had earmarked the 2020 schedule as a lot of destination games — Seattle, Los Angeles twice, Houston. Miami, as always. But it was different.
“The press boxes were a shell of themselves. We were kind of cordoned off, kind of like cubicles. It was like being in an insurance office. There wasn’t a lot of noise. I reminder thinking that first game in LA — there were two, Sunday and Thursday — there were no press box announcements at all. I think the nearest human to me was probably a football-field length away on the other side of the press box. It was really strange.”
Yang lamented the lack of access because of COVID.
“Especially this season, with the Patriots having a losing record, it would be such an interesting, eye-opening experience to see what the locker room is like after a loss,” she said. “Because in years past it has been guys cracking jokes, high-fiving. Just having a good time. I’d be curious to see if guys were more sullen or if you could see if — if they were more revealing in their body language at all. But we had none of that.”
On Rob Gronkowski
Brady isn’t the only former Patriot eyeing another ring this weekend. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is in his first season with the Buccaneers and is on the cusp of winning a fourth title.
“To me, Gronk just seems as happy as he’s ever been,” Sullivan said. “The year off obviously benefited him — the injuries he was dealing with at the end of his Patriots’ career had slowed him down so much. He clearly looks rejuvenated physically and appears to be mentally rejuvenated as well.”
He didn’t do the Patriots any favors when it came to timing in his last year in New England, Sullivan acknowledged, but she believes Patriots fans won’t let that bother them when it comes to Sunday.
“In the end, I just think he’s such a lovable lug I think the New England fans won’t have a hard time rooting for him in this game, because he just gave everything he had in the time he was in New England,” she said. “And he had only the best thing to say about that time in New England.”
McBride called Gronkowski “maybe the most genuine guy I’ve ever covered in that locker room.
“He comes across as lovable and kind of goofy and he’ll answer questions in a funny way, but as soon as the microphones and cameras are off, he’s the same way. He’ll make a goofy joke right after everything is turned off. What you see is what you get with Gronk. Just a really genuine guy. And the next time he has a bad day will be the first time, I think.”
On Brady’s sudden boost in national ‘likability’ now that he’s away from New England
Now that he’s away from Bill Belichick and the Patriots, has Brady became more relatable for the everyday NFL fan? Volin says yes.
“He’s really avoided any sort of rubbing it in with the Patriots, and has been very magnanimous about the whole thing,” Volin said. “I think he’s been likable. Away from the Patriots, joining this random team like the Bucs and taking them all the way. Everything about this Super Bowl run has been legit — it’s not like fans can point to one thing where he had it easy. There was every game on the road, beating Brees, beating Rodgers. This is as legit as it gets.
“How do you not admire and respect what this guy is doing?”
How much longer will Brady play? The quarterback talked this week about playing until the age of 45, and there’s been talk of him trying to reach 47 years old. While Brady and his trainer, Alex Guerrero, have discussed the topic, McBride would like to hear from one more interested party before he makes a prediction.
“Until we hear from Gisele, I’ll reserve comment,” McBride said with a laugh.
Danny Amendola’s comments about his time in New England
The former Patriots receiver initially said that the “Patriot Way” should be called the “Tom Brady Way,” but clarified those statements on Wednesday.
“He backpedaled on that quicker than a left tackle trying to protect Brady, didn’t he?” McBride said of Amendola. “When I heard the first comments, I thought it was kind of sour grapes, in my mind, for a guy to be saying that. He negotiated his own contracts. He didn’t have to take those cuts if he didn’t want to, if he thought he could get somewhere else.
“I think he enjoyed playing with Brady. I think he enjoyed playing for Bill. I think he enjoyed winning those two Super Bowls. And now, for him to come out and say something like that, it reminded me a little of Dion Lewis — sour grapes, after the Patriots basically rejuvenated his career after being on the scrap heap.”
Volin said it was a “bad look” for Amendola.
“He looked like a bitter ex,” Volin said.
On Antonio Brown
The Brady-Brown relationship remains an odd pairing.
The quarterback and wide receiver, who were briefly together in New England before being reunited in Tampa Bay, talked about it this week.
“They both reiterated that they clicked immediately, they say,” Yang said. “They bonded over their shared passion for football and how hard they both work. Even in those 11 days with the Patriots, they were able to form a real connection. In terms of why Brady has continued to stick with him, throughout all of these various allegations and off-field incidents, Tom was talking about now that he’s reached a later stage in his career, it means something to him to mentor younger players, he said.
“Antonio Brown isn’t that young — he’s 32 — but Tom was saying how there’s value in those relationships and stressing that life isn’t easy for everyone and that people deserve second chances and we should all show a little more grace ands care and support for other people. He was taking that approach, which is hard to argue against, but Antonio Brown, I think, it’s a complicated situation as to whether he should even be in the league or not. But Tom seems to take no issue with it. And part of that is Antonio’s production too.”
“It’s a strange alliance in my book,” Sullivan said of the pairing. “I don’t have an explanation for it, but I find it really strange.”
On the 2020 Patriots going 7-9
While acknowledging Cam Newton was put at an immediate disadvantage with a truncated offseason plan and a lack of offensive options around him, Volin said the poor passing numbers were a sizable reason for their struggles.
“I think we all overestimated how much football Cam Newton had left in him,” Volin said. “You hate to put it all on one guy, but their dysfunction in the passing attack is what held them back. They were 6-6 after that 45-0 win over the Chargers, and they just fell apart three games after that.
“They tried to get by with Cam Newton on the cheap this year, and they got what they paid for.”
McBride referenced the league-high number of opt-outs as having a big impact. He also said that when it came to Newton’s issues, it wasn’t about arm strength, but an inability to connect on his secondary and tertiary options in the passing game.
“What killed him was that he couldn’t make a second or third read,” McBride said of Newton. “I watched him in training camp and in practices during the season, during warmups on game day, and he could still spin it. He could throw the ball in warmups and drills. He was hitting guys downfield. But when it came to games, if his first read wasn’t there, he had no chance at getting it downfield because someone was on top of him. He couldn’t process the information quick enough in this offense. A lot of that goes back to time — he didn’t have the time.”
Who plays QB next year? If it isn’t Cam Newton, is there another name in the mix?
“I wouldn’t say that it’s out of the question that he comes back,” McBride said of a possible return to New England for Newton next season. “But I don’t think that’s their plan right now. Maybe their plans fall through and maybe Cam’s plans fall through and they’re left staring at each other [again].”
“Bill can’t afford another year with a $5 million quarterback. He’ll get crushed again if they go cheap in free agency,” Volin said.
“They have to have a competent veteran,” added Volin, who advocated for Ryan Fitzpatrick and also floated the idea of a Jimmy Garoppolo return.
“I think the Garoppolo situation is one to watch,” Volin said. “The problem with that is the Niners have to feel good about the backup plan. And they don’t right now.”
Sullivan was asked about the idea of a Garoppolo return.
“A great idea, from a writers’ perspective, what an amazing story that would be. That would be so delicious,” she said of Garoppolo’s potential return. “But he’s got to stay on the field. I don’t know. His history would concern me.”
Yang endorsed a possible Garoppolo return to the Patriots, while McBride said Sam Darnold is a name worth watching.
“He’s been the product of a bad organization,” McBride said of the Jets’ signal-caller. “I watched him lot in college and I think he’s going to be a good pro. If you tie him to Josh McDaniels for the next five years, I like the way that sounds.”
The group also also doesn’t see the Patriots making a play for Deshaun Watson, with McBride saying it would be bad “optics” for Nick Caserio to send Watson to Caserio’s old boss in New England.
Who wins the Super Bowl?
McBride: 24-14, Tampa.
Volin: Bucs in a close one
Tara: Chiefs in a close one.
Yang: To quote Gabriel Taylor in Super Bowl LI, “It’s Tom Brady, though.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara. Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride. Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.