Defending a championship is never easy. When they take the field for the 2021 season opener this September, the Buccaneers will begin their quest for a repeat, looking to “go for two” after capturing the Lombardi Trophy on their home field back in February.
It certainly won’t be easy to complete the back-to-back, as there are obstacles that every team faces following a Super Bowl-winning season. But Tampa Bay does have plenty working in its favor as it tries to do what no team has done since the 2003-2004 New England Patriots. Here, we’ll break down the five things working the Bucs’ way heading into the 2021 season.
Stability is perhaps the most significant factor working in Tampa Bay’s favor heading into 2021. What Jason Licht and his front office staff were able to do this offseason was nothing short of remarkable, as the Bucs return all 22 starters from the Super Bowl this season. No team has done that in the Salary Cap Era—which began in 1994—and the last team to do it was the 1977 Oakland Raiders. The fact that Licht, Mike Greenberg and the rest of the front office were able to accomplish this becomes even more impressive when you consider how many big-time free agents there were from the 2020 roster. The team moved money around and was able to keep Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Chris Godwin, Ndamukong Suh, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Antonio Brown and Ryan Succop.
Without a true offseason last year, the Bucs spent much of the 2020 season developing and coming together as a team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Down the stretch, they became much more dangerous, which led to an eight-game winning streak that culminated with a 31-9 victory over the defending champion Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Now, this group will take the field together in 2021 having played a full season and a complete offseason together. That’s bound to be a major advantage.
Beyond the roster stability, Tampa Bay will also benefit from keeping its coaching staff together. Bruce Arians is back for his third year as the Bucs’ head coach, and he still has both of his coordinators alongside him. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles interviewed for some head coaching jobs, but ultimately stuck around in Tampa. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, much to the dismay of Arians, didn’t receive any head coaching interest, so he’s back as well.
With the coaching staff still intact and a roster full of familiar faces, the Bucs won’t be facing much of an adjustment period this summer, allowing them to carry into the fall hoping to pick up where they left off in February.
Tampa Bay proved in 2020 that it had the depth to compete at a high level. Losing Vita Vea for much of the year hurt, but the midseason addition of Steve McLendon proved to be masterful. Whenever Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were banged up, the likes of Scotty Miller, Antonio Brown and Tyler Johnson stepped up. O.J. Howard’s season-ending injury became something of an afterthought given the presence of Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate. And, of course, losing Alex Cappa in the playoffs was a test that the team passed thanks to the emergence of Aaron Stinnie. Champions need to have depth, and the Bucs had plenty of it in 2020.
The good news is, that depth from 2020 is still there in 2021 and it may be even stronger. In Stinnie, the Bucs now have a known commodity as a backup on the offensive line. Josh Wells and rookie Robert Hainsey may prove valuable up front as well, and Ryan Jensen’s ability to slide over to guard when necessary is a big plus too. The backfield is three or four deep, with the proven 1-2 punch of Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette complemented by new addition Giovani Bernard and second-year running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The team’s receiving corps is absurdly deep, with Evans, Godwin, Brown, Miller and Johnson now joined by speedy rookie Jaelon Darden.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bucs still have McLendon there to back up Vea. Rakeem Nunez-Roches is back as a proven depth piece on the defensive line as well, plus there’s a little more depth off the edge thanks to the team using its first-round pick in this year’s draft on the promising Joe Tryon. In the secondary—and especially at the safety position—the Bucs are set. Mike Edwards emerged as an extremely valuable piece last year and he’s sure to be a big part of the 2021 defense as well. There’s plenty to love about this roster, as it is well-equipped to handle the adversity that is to be expected throughout the duration of a grueling NFL season.
Tampa Bay’s leadership will be a massive key in 2021 as it looks to get back to the playoffs and make its return to the Super Bowl. There is guaranteed to be some adversity along the way, but this is a roster built to deal with hardships and obstacles. We saw it in 2020, between the injuries, COVID-19 protocols and tough stretches of struggles. The Bucs prevailed through it all and went on to achieve glory. Of course, there’s adversity for every team in every season. But we’ve never quite seen a season as difficult as the one we just saw last year, and the fact that this group of players and coaches emerged from that year as champions tells you all you need to know about the leadership in that locker room.
Ever since the Bucs won the Super Bowl in February, players and coaches alike have talked at length about having the right mindset in the quest to go back-to-back. Between the championship boat parade and subsequent interviews throughout the offseason, we’ve heard from several different Bucs about the importance of keeping the right mentality. Head coach Bruce Arians spoke as recently as last week about making sure his team remains the hunters rather than the hunted, referring to the fact that—as champions—the Bucs are who everyone will be chasing this fall and into the winter.
There are quite literally too many leaders on the team to name, and that’s a phenomenal thing. The key about the number of leaders, too, is that they’re all over the field. Between Tom Brady, Mike Evans and Ryan Jensen on the offense and Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David and Devin White on the defense, Tampa Bay has leaders—both vocal and the lead-by-example types—to navigate the storms that are sure to surface throughout 2021.
It’s worth prefacing this section by saying that there are no automatic wins in the NFL. But each year when schedules are released, they’re ranked by difficulty. And this year, the defending champions have one of the easier ones, at least according to DraftKings Sportsbook win totals. Based on rankings published back in May, Tampa Bay’s schedule is the third-easiest in 2021. There are a lot of factors that go into that, but that simple fact of seemingly not having it as bad as some other teams do has to be a plus in the Bucs’ favor this fall.
Starting within the division, it appears there should be a solid path for the Bucs to earn their first NFC South title since 2007. The Falcons and Panthers are still very much building and the Saints are a bit of an unknown given their quarterback situation heading into the year. With Drew Brees off to retirement, it’ll be either Taysom Hill or former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston under center for New Orleans in 2021. It’s hard not to look at Tampa Bay’s roster and say that, on paper, it’s the division’s best. Obviously, the Bucs get the Saints, Panthers and Falcons twice each.
Outside of the division, Tampa Bay will play the NFC East and the AFC East, as well as the Rams, Bears and Colts. The NFC East, while it should be improved in 2021, didn’t have a single team finish with a winning record last year. The AFC East has plenty of question marks as well, at least outside of the Bills. It remains to be seen what kind of team the Patriots will be in year two without Tom Brady, the Dolphins are still unproven and the Jets are the Jets. Of course, the games are played for a reason and it’ll be key for the Bucs to take it game by game, as cliché as that may sound. But that’s where the aforementioned leadership and mentality can kick in for Tampa Bay.
5. Tom Brady
The NFL is often said to be a quarterback-driven league. It’s not hard to see why that’s a widely held belief, as things typically start with the man under center. It’s a good thing for the Bucs, then, that they have seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady as their signal-caller. Not only is he a guy who has seen it all during his 21 years in the NFL, but he is still playing at a high level even into his 40s. At 43 years old in 2020, Brady threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. He added 1,061 yards and 10 more touchdowns during the playoffs as he went on to win Super Bowl LV MVP honors. Oh yeah, and it was revealed this past week that he did all of that on a torn MCL.
Whereas many were predicting a decline from Brady heading into last season, that doesn’t feel like the case going into 2021. He just had the year he did while playing on a bad knee and without having a full offseason to adjust to his new offense and teammates. The Bucs had to figure things out as they went during the regular season last year, but once things started clicking, the team didn’t lose again. In fact, Tampa Bay is currently on an eight-game winning streak thanks in large part to Brady and his growing comfort in Bruce Arians’ offense. During that winning streak, Tampa Bay has scored 26, 31, 47, 44, 31, 30, 31 and 31 points. If Brady can pick up where he left off last year, the Buccaneer offense will once again be among the league’s most dangerous this season.
It’s also worth noting that Brady was the last quarterback to lead a team to back-to-back Super Bowl victories. The Patriots went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, with Brady throwing for 3,692 yards and 28 touchdowns in the 2004 regular season before adding 587 yards and five touchdowns in the playoffs as New England completed the repeat. While he hasn’t been able to complete repeats in his three tries since 2004, he at least has been there and done it before. And it’s not as if he hasn’t come close to a repeat in the years since. In 2015, he took the Patriots back to the AFC Championship Game after winning his fourth ring the previous year. He led New England back to the Super Bowl in the 2017 season after getting his fifth ring in the 2016 season, but the Patriots fell to the Eagles to fall short of the repeat. As rare as repeats are, you should bet against Brady and the Bucs getting the job done at your own risk.
What do you think, Bucs Nation? Are you feeling good about the team’s chances to go back-to-back this year? Let us know what you think in the comments down below and stay tuned later this week for the five things working against Tampa Bay’s repeat hopes.