Going for two.
That’s been the Buccaneers’ mantra ever since the final seconds ran down on their 31-9 Super Bowl LV victory over the Chiefs back in February. In fact, head coach Bruce Arians made it abundantly clear that his team was not trying to “run it back.” Tampa Bay is going for two.
However you want to say it or brand it, the goal is clear: The Bucs are hoping to get back to the playoffs, return to the Super Bowl and take home the Lombardi Trophy for a second straight year. But despite having some factors working in their favor as they look to repeat, there will be other things working against the team during its quest. Here, we’ll break down five things not going in favor of the defending champs as they look to go for two.
As much talent as the Bucs have on their roster, the fact remains that history is simply not on their side. Yes, we just saw the Tampa Bay Lightning repeat as Stanley Cup champions. There have been multiple repeat NBA Finals winners in the last decade. Repeats happen, but they don’t happen all that often in the NFL. The 2003-2004 New England Patriots were the last team to go back-to-back, beating the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII before taking down the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. For reference, Mike Evans was 11 years old when New England completed its back-to-back. Yours truly was six.
And it’s not as if teams haven’t had chances to complete repeat seasons in the years since. The Seahawks beat the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII and returned to Super Bowl XLIX the following year, but they lost to the Patriots. The Patriots won Super Bowl LI and returned to defend their title the next year, only to lose to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. And, of course, the Chiefs were the most recent team that failed to get the job done. After winning Super Bowl LIV, they dropped Super Bowl LV to the Buccaneers. For one reason or another, teams just haven’t been able to finish off their repeat attempts.
So, while the Bucs were able to keep their entire Super Bowl-winning roster together unlike these other teams, there are still no guarantees in this league. As much as the team tries to stay on the hunt instead of allowing itself to be the hunted, the road will be difficult. There’s little room for error. Tampa Bay has the talent and the coaching to go far, but all it takes is a slip-up down the stretch or a close loss in the postseason to kill off any hopes of a repeat. The Seahawks, Patriots, Chiefs and a host of other champions certainly know that.
2. Injury Luck
Every team that wins the Super Bowl has had a dash of luck along the way. In many cases, that luck is in the realm of injuries. That was largely the case for the 2020 Bucs. Sure, they dealt with injuries. Vita Vea missed a large chunk of the season before returning in the playoffs, O.J. Howard missed most of the year and the team lost Alex Cappa in the playoffs. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin worked through some injuries throughout the year. Tom Brady apparently played the whole season with a torn MCL. So, it’s not like Tampa Bay had a completely clean bill of health last season.
But with that being said, it’s hard to complain about any injury luck with this team last year. Not to diminish the importance of guys like Vea, Howard and Cappa, but the Bucs didn’t lose one of their top guys for significant parts of the season in 2020. Other teams weren’t so lucky. Take the Chiefs, for example. They got all the way to the Super Bowl, but they had to play the game without their two starting offensive tackles. Other teams dealt with season-ending injuries at key “skill” positions. The Cowboys lost Dak Prescott. The Panthers couldn’t keep Christian McCaffrey on the field. The Giants saw Saquon Barkley’s season end prematurely. There are high-profile injuries every year, but they were seemingly on a different level in 2020. Tampa Bay largely avoided that.
There’s no way you can count on the Bucs staying as healthy in 2021 as they did in 2020. If they can, that’s great. If it stays healthy, this roster is the NFL’s best. But that has to be a big “if” and you can almost bet there will be some sort of injury adversities that this team has to deal with this year. The depth within the squad is quite impressive, but you never like to see it tested too much, especially when the margin for error is so slim when you’re trying to go back-to-back.
Bruce Arians has already talked about making sure the Bucs stay on the hunt in 2021. They don’t want to be the hunted. But as much as the team looks to control its mindset on that matter, it’s clear that Tampa Bay has a target on its back this year. Defending champions always do. Week in and week out, the Bucs are going to get every team’s best shot. Knocking off the defending champs can be a spark for teams, so you know there will be a little bit of added motivation for each of the Bucs’ opponents this fall. Things aren’t going to be easy and it’s going to be quite the gauntlet to run if this team is going to get back to the Super Bowl.
Not to mention, there’s plenty of parity in the NFL. That’s part of the reason why no team has gone on to repeat as champions since the 2003-2004 Patriots. The league is tough. Going into 2021, the NFC may not look all that strong on paper. No team looks to be as proven and battle-tested as the Bucs. But there are going to be some tough challengers in the conference and others could very well emerge and get hot at the right time too. The Seahawks are always a tough out, while the Rams look to be one of the most complete teams in the entire NFL this year.
The Cowboys have a star-studded offense and—if they can get their defense on the right track—could be a solid contender. The Washington Football Team should be even better and even more dangerous in 2021. If the Aaron Rodgers saga ends favorably for the Packers, Green Bay will be in the mix again. Even within the NFC South, the Saints are no cakewalk. If Jameis Winston cuts down on his turnovers and plays like the 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick, there’s enough talent in New Orleans to compete at a high level. Plus, there’s always room for a sleeper team like the Cardinals to step up in the new year. The Bucs won’t just be able to sleepwalk through the NFC.
And, of course, if Tampa Bay can get through the NFC to play for the Lombardi Trophy again, it will meet a very good team on the other side. The AFC is quite stacked, with the Chiefs leading the way and the Bills, Ravens, Titans, Steelers and Browns right behind them looking to knock off the back-to-back AFC champs. Getting to Super Bowl LVI will be hard enough, but going on to win it is a completely different thing.
As impressive and meaningful as it is for the Bucs to be returning practically their entire Super Bowl roster, that doesn’t mean it will still truly be the same roster. Now, before you completely check out and think about how contradictory and silly that statement may sound, there’s a deeper meaning behind it. The point is, there’s no guarantee that Tampa Bay’s players play at the same levels that they did in 2020. There is bound to be some regression from different guys, and that can drag down the team as a whole if enough guys fail to replicate the success they had last year. Simply put, the 2021 team very well could be worse than the 2020 team despite having the same core guys in every position group. Whether it’s regression to the mean or flat-out regression due to age, injuries, or other factors, the Bucs may have to deal with some of it in 2021.
Of course, the good thing for this group of guys is that they’ll get a full training camp and preseason to prepare together. And unlike last season, they had some semblance of an offseason together. Not to mention, they played 20 games together last year. But as advantageous as all of that will be, things can still go wrong. In fact, plenty is bound to go wrong, and it’s possible that no one even knows where potential declines will happen. Does the offensive line perform to the same level as it did last year? Will Leonard Fournette be the same guy he was in the playoffs or will he be more like he was during the regular season? Will Ronald Jones II continue his upward trajectory or does he take a step back in 2021? Will the defense’s rise continue, or will there be more struggles than we’re projecting at this point?
The fact is, no one knows how the Bucs will perform when they take the field this fall. Of course, everyone has a good idea of what they’re capable of and we’re all expecting to see more of the same in terms of their ability to perform at a high level. But things can go wrong. Regression can kick in. And if it does, the difficult road back to the Super Bowl gets even tougher.
OK, now the eagle-eyed folks who read my “five in their favor” piece from Sunday will remember that the Bucs’ schedule was mentioned as something going in their favor as they hope to repeat this year. Well, it’s also landing on the list of things not going in their favor. Does that make sense? Sure it does. While the strength of schedule rankings and combined opponent records may say Tampa Bay has an easy schedule, it’s actually sneaky difficult. There’s obviously not going to be a team on the slate that rolls over and lets the Bucs walk all over them on a given Sunday.
There’s no scheduling “cupcakes” as there may be in college football. That’s one of the most exciting things about the NFL, really. Any team is capable of winning on a given day. There’s a lot of parity in the league. So, yes, maybe the Bucs have an easy schedule based on records from last year and projections, but that doesn’t mean they’ll roll right through it. Plus, with a 17th game on the regular season schedule, that could add even more to the difficulty of the season. Every team will be in the same boat in terms of playing 17 regular season games for the first time, but for a team that played 20 games last year and has the potential for the famed “Super Bowl hangover,” adding another contest could prove to be a challenge, especially when that extra contest is a road game against the Indianapolis Colts, who have a chance to be a contender this year.
Looking at the schedule as we did in the “competition” section, there are some tough teams that the defending champs will see this fall. Opening with the Cowboys is a tough way to start the year. Going on the road to play the Rams and Patriots in back-to-back weeks will be a tough stretch. Playing the Saints twice will be no easy task. The Washington Football team, the Colts and the Bills are all going to be tough outs as well. There’s really no easy road to the Lombardi Trophy in any year, so it would be foolish to think the Bucs could just cruise through the regular season. The hope is obviously to win the NFC South and clinch a first-round bye and home-field advantage, but that certainly won’t be easy. The playoffs are a different animal as well. It’s just not going to be easy for the Bucs, that’s for sure.
So, what do you think, Bucs Nation? What worries you about the team’s chances to repeat as champions in 2021? Do you feel like there’s more working for or against Tampa Bay in its quest to go for two? Let us know what you think in the comments down below.