Rob Gronkowski shrugged and smiled as only the carefree Gronk can. No, he isn't surprised the vultures are circling old buddy Tom Brady and new head coach Bruce Arians.
"When you lose games, that's what happens," the Buccaneers tight end said of the criticism that's come with a 1-3 slump. "It's always been like that."
The Bucs are 7-5, holding the NFC's sixth playoff seed and coming off a well-placed bye heading into Sunday's home game against the Vikings, who are 6-6 and holding the seventh seed.
A meaningful mid-December game normally would be cause for celebration in Tampa. Not this year, though. Not when a legendary six-time Super Bowl champion is under center. Even one who's attempting a second act in Year 21, at age 43 and in the midst of a pandemic that wiped out the offseason and preseason.
All that matters to some right now is the Bucs have lost two in a row and three of four with Brady throwing seven interceptions and looking uncharacteristically vulnerable.
What he's done this season, all things considered, is still amazing. But the square-peg-round-hole arguments about Brady's fit in Arians' vertical system have only intensified since Nov. 8, when Brady posted the third-worst passer rating of his 21-year career (40.4) in a humiliating 38-3 loss to the Saints in prime time.
Rob Ninkovich, ESPN analyst and a former Patriots teammate of Brady and Gronkowski, waited all of 11 games before saying Arians was the root of the problem and should be replaced so Brady can essentially run his own system, à la Peyton Manning when he left Indianapolis for Denver.
The Bucs had just lost to the Rams 27-24. Brady's streak of missing on deep passes reached 22 after going 0-for-6 with two interceptions against the Rams.
And Arians continued to grate on Brady's supporters by staunchly defending his system and being openly critical of Brady for misreading coverages and not executing the play calls better.
A week later, after a loss to the Chiefs, Brady didn't bite when given the chance to respond to Ninkovich's criticism of Arians.
"It's just external noise," Brady said. "When you're losing, that's what you deal with.
"I love playing for the guys that I play with, the coaches, the whole organization has been unbelievable. Just got to go out and do a better job the last four weeks."
That starts Sunday against a Vikings defense that's scrappy but has two things that could help Brady — a mild pass rush and inexperience at cornerback.
"He just knows everything that's going on, on the field," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "I don't think I need to say any [more].
"I think everybody knows who Tom Brady is and why he is who he is."
Brady is the only active NFL player who can hearken back to something he experienced in 2001 and use it to spread confidence during a 1-3 slump.
"The first championship we won, we were 5-5," Brady said. The Patriots also were 7-5 that year. They finished 11-5, then won three more games in the playoffs.
"You have to have competitive stamina," said Brady, who has more of that than anybody who's ever played the game. "We all wish we were 12-0. It's not reality. We haven't deserved that.
"But we have been able to learn about each other and what we're productive at. Hopefully, having a week off and getting an understanding of how we need to go forward, we can play better. That's what December football is all about. No one is going to give us anything. It's up to us to earn it. We're still working to improve."
Yes, believe it or not, a 43-year-old who switched teams after 20 seasons might need more than 12 games in the year of COVID-19 to become a finished product.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: email@example.com
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