“To me he’s the Executive of the Year,” said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians on Monday, fresh off Tampa Bay’s 30-20 playoff win at New Orleans, when asked about general manager Jason Licht.
And why wouldn’t Arians believe that Licht is the league’s top G.M. after Sunday’s divisional playoff win against the Saints as the Bucs prepare to head to Green Bay for a rematch against the Packers in the NFC championship game?
Licht’s personnel moves over the last two years working with Arians – and even before that – were on display in Tampa Bay’s biggest win of the year.
No move was bigger than signing six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, who accounted for three touchdowns in the victory at New Orleans and two scores the previous week in the win at Washington. With Brady at the helm, the Bucs averaged a franchise-record 30.8 points per game this year and have scored 30 points or more in each of the team’s last five games.
Speaking of points, Licht finally solved the team’s puzzle at the kicker position with the addition of veteran Ryan Succop, who has been the Bucs’ unsung hero this year. Succop set the franchise record for most points scored in a single season with 136, and was perfect in New Orleans with three field goals and three extra points.
Linebacker Devin White, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2019, which was the year Arians was hired by Licht, was the best defender on the field in New Orleans, recording a game-high 11 tackles, recovering a fumble and a big interception in the fourth quarter.
Cornerbacks Carlton Davis III, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting – all recent Day 2 picks – combined to hold Saints star wide receiver Michael Thomas to zero catches. Murphy-Bunting, a second-round pick from 2019, recorded a big interception in the second quarter – his second in as many weeks – to help the Bucs build an early 10-3 lead in the win over the Saints.
Safeties Antoine Winfield, Jr., a second-round pick this year, and Mike Edwards, a third-round pick from the 2019 draft class, also had a hand in forcing two takeaways. Winfield knocked the ball out of Saints tight end Jared Cook’s hands with White recovering the fumble, while Edwards ended New Orleans’ comeback attempt with Brees’ third interception of the day late in the game.
“I’ve got to say that Jason is the main reason I came back in coaching,” Arians said. “I knew how good of an evaluator he was having worked with him [in Arizona]. We shared the same vision – we’re going to build this thing on defense. We’ll score enough points.”
True to Arians’ word, the Bucs scored 30 points for the second straight playoff game, hitting the team’s season average of 30.8 points per game. The key was holding the Saints below 30 points, which is something Tampa Bay hasn’t done in the four previous losses to New Orleans under Arians.
The defensive draft picks that Licht and Arians chose over the past two years played a significant role in the Bucs’ victory, as did some of the duo’s recent offensive selections.
Right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was this year’s first-round pick, held Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan to just four tackles on Sunday. It would be fair to say that Wirfs won all three individual battles against Jordan, a five-time Pro Bowler, in the three Bucs vs. Saints games this season.
Wide receivers Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson, who were drafted on Day 3 in 2019 and 2020, respectively, also came up with a pair clutch catches in New Orleans that led to the go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter.
On third-and-11 at the Tampa Bay 20 with the scored tied at 20-20, Brady threw a back-shoulder pass that Johnson contorted his body to make a fantastic 15-yard reception.
Three plays later on third-and-5 at the Tampa Bay 40, Brady dropped a 29-yard dime to Miller between two Saints defenders to get the Bucs in field goal range to go ahead 23-20.
“He has a great rapport with all of them, especially Scotty,” Arians said of Brady. “There are very few guys that can twist and turn and make that catch, but Tom put it out there and he knew Tyler could make that catch. He’s got a great, great future.”
Throw in reserve offensive lineman Aaron Stinnie, who got his first start at right guard in place of Alex Cappa, and running back Leonard Fournette, who had his second playoff game in a row with a touchdown and over 100 yards total yards of offense, and Licht’s fingerprints were all over one of the biggest victories in franchise history.
Brady was also instrumental in helping to lure future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement, and that allowed Licht to pull the trigger on a trade with New England for his services. Although he caught just one pass for 14 yards in New Orleans, the Bucs were able to rush for 127 yards between Fournette’s 63 yards and 62 yards from Ronald Jones II against the league’s fourth-best rushing defense, and Gronkowski’s blocking on the perimeter played a role in that achievement.
“Just building the roster the way he has, and then being able to get Tom and Gronk, Leonard and still be really cap-friendly [is remarkable],” Arians said. “We believed RoJo was a player. He had all that talent. It was just a matter of maturity. I can’t say enough about what Jason has done. To me he’s the Executive of the Year just pulling off all that stuff he did.”