The journey to the Super Bowl for the 2020-2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers began last March. Tom Brady says he sold himself to the team. Many feel like it was likely the other way around. Whatever the lead-in, a 7-9 franchise had a new quarterback, new leader, and a light at the end of their losing culture tunnel. Or did they?
Doubt set in just as fast as the headlines hit every major and minor news outlet. Brady was too old, he was a system quarterback, he didn’t fit with Bruce Arians’ ‘no risk it, no biscuit’ mentality. And he was too old.
Then, COVID-19 stripped the team of their ability to practice and play against live opponents before making their regular season debut against the reigning NFC South Division Champion New Orleans Saints.
Because of the off-season concerns and this lack of warm-up schedule, disbelief began to get paired with a lack of two big ‘c’ words. Continuity and chemistry.
The Buccaneers had none of this on offense. Tristan Wirfs was the team’s new right tackle. Rob Gronkowski promised to play an early role as the team’s new number-two tight end in a predominantly twelve-personnel (one running back, two tight end) scheme. Leonard Fournette was the newest member of a running back room featuring Ronald Jones II entering a season as the ‘starter’ for the first time, and LeSean McCoy somehow in the mix with rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
We aren’t done yet as Scotty Miller was the true number three following the departure of Breshad Perriman to the New York Jets, and rookie Tyler Johnson figured to be in line as the fourth receiver.
Oh, and they had a new system quarterback who was too old and didn’t fit.
All of these factors led to predictions of many varieties. Some saw the Buccaneers finishing behind the Atlanta Falcons and in third place in the NFC South. Seven win seasons were discussed. The question arose about whether or not this season was THE season we finally saw the fall of Brady.
Fast forward to today, and that lack of continuity put up 31-points on a Kansas City Chiefs team which had ousted the likes of the Buffalo Bills and embarrassed the same Buccaneers team just half a season’s worth of games earlier.
A strange thing about the regular season match-up though. For all the talk of a lack of continuity, injuries which stifled the offenses ability to gel and grow together; the Chiefs didn’t embarrass the inconsistent offense in Week 12. They embarrassed the defense.
The defense which had returned all eleven starters, even though one of them was now relegated to a back-up role behind standout rookie, Antoine Winfield Jr.
As the playoffs moved forward the questions often turned to that same defense. Doubt which existed in the preseason (32nd ranked secondary) stuck, and while the lack of chemistry couldn’t be blamed, there were plenty of other reasons.
Behind the scenes, those comments and their critics made them stronger together. Bonded them in the negativity. And then they got Vita Vea back.
Like a wrestler coming in to provide his tag team partner with a late match boost, the glass broke and the big nose tackle with run stopping and pass rushing ability alike came screaming down the playoff platform right into Lambeau Field. After immediately tossing Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers over the top rope, they turned their sites home, and to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Losing Vea earlier in the season hurt the defense. Forced Todd Bowles and his squad to play a little less aggressive at times, and opened the door for more criticism, and more doubt.
The characteristic everyone held against the Buccaneers offense, however, is what helped the defense get charged up for the postseason. Even though nobody was giving them the benefit of the doubt because of it.
I asked defensive lineman William Gholston about that continuity on the defense after the team’s dominant performance against Mahomes and the Chiefs.
“Once we knew that everybody was coming back - well the majority of everybody was coming back, and we added our pieces, we knew that we could only evolve in this defense. Last year was our first year and we did pretty well. This year was our second year under there and we started getting our turnovers, started making our plays, and coach Bowles had all the confidence in us. And we got a chance to execute.”
Execute they did. To the tune of nine points. No touchdowns. Only one person not in a Buccaneers uniform crossed the goal line on Sunday night, and he either spent the night in jail for doing so, or will be paying a hefty fine at a minimum.
So it turns out the experts were right. In a COVID-19 NFL, continuity was going to be the key. Almost can’t win without it. Just turns out that with the blinding power of the ‘Brady Effect’ many missed the returning defense led by their returning defensive coordinator.
A ‘Band of Brothers’ who knew each other, knew adversity, had been through the shade of doubt before, and grew under it. In 2020 they feasted on doubt and grew under it again. They evolved as Gholston said. And are Super Bowl Champions, because of it.