“Football is the ultimate team sport and it takes everybody. Everybody plays a role, I’m just so proud of this whole team and again, just blessed to be a part of it.”
These were the words of Tampa Bay Buccaneers savior Tom Brady – words he’s repeated often this season to a chorus of groans and eye-rolls on the other end of muted media microphones hoping for a juicier quote. It is cliche-filler to be sure, but it’s also 100 percent accurate, and its’ embodiment has never been more evident than in this Bucs team.
Sure, if we’re dividing up credit into chunks, Brady gets the biggest without question. What he’s done on the season is incredible enough – over 4,500 passing yards, 43 total touchdowns, limited turnovers and limited sacks in a Bruce Arians’ offense that typically produces a lot of both thanks to the aggressive nature of the passing attack – but what he’s doing in the playoffs? Completely nuts.
And after beating the Packers in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, 31-26, Brady and the Bucs return home to Raymond James Stadium in a rematch of a Week 12 loss, 27-24, to Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City in Super Bowl LV.
Brady was the catalyst of the Bucs’ first playoff win in 18 years in the wild card round, where he shredded a terrific Washington defense for 381 yards and a pair of touchdowns to help the Tampa Bay defense survive a particularly rough outing against an upstart Taylor Heinicke. Brady made several clutch throws, including two touchdowns, and avoided mistakes against the Saints. Then Brady came out on fire against Green Bay, lighting the Packers up for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, including a 39-yard dime to Scotty Miller for a critical touchdown before halftime.
But in the second half Brady and the rest of the offense struggled. Drops have been a familiar refrain for the Bucs this season, and there was at least six of them against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, along with a couple uncharacteristically poor throws from Brady. With several chances to put the game away, the Bucs offense wilted, putting a ton of pressure on their defense to save the day.
And that’s what the Bucs defense did, because football is the ultimate team sport. And make no mistake, this is a team.
It’s a team constructed by general manager Jason Licht, whose fingerprints were all over Sunday night’s victory, from the countless key stops made by former fifth overall pick Devin White (15 tackles, many for short gains and a key fumble recovery), to the way the Bucs’ homegrown secondary somehow held up against Rodgers, the league MVP, and the Packers’ plethora of weapons.
No Antoine Winfield, Jr. and no Jordan Whitehead – two of the Bucs most consistently impressive defenders all season long? No problem, as another Licht draft pick, Mike Edwards, played lights out from start to finish, combining with the No. 4 safety on the depth chart, Andrew Adams, to break up the Packers’ last offensive play of the game at the goal line.
Yes, Rodgers had his way with the Bucs at times, but Sean Murphy-Bunting also came up with a game-changing interception to set up Brady’s touchdown to Miller before the half and another critical third down pass breakup later in the game. That’s three straight playoff games with an interception for Murphy-Bunting, who rallied after a rough regular season to be one of the key catalysts of this Bucs’ Super Bowl run. The reason why? As bad as it got in the regular season, and it got bad some weeks (see Falcons, Week 15), Murphy-Bunting never stopped working and the coaches never stopped believing in him.
Almost every member of Licht’s fully-drafted secondary has been a hero at some point this season, but it was his free-agency formed defensive line that really changed the game during the NFC Championship Game. Franchise-tagged Shaq Barrett, one year from being the NFL’s sack leader after Licht nabbed him with a one-year, prove-it deal in the 2019 offseason, was unstoppable, running through and around Packers right tackle Ricky Wagner for three sacks on Sunday. On the other side, veteran Jason Pierre-Paul, laughably the Bucs’ lone 2021 Pro Bowler, was equally as dominant, destroying Packers left tackle Billy Turner for two sacks and getting consistent pressure on Rodgers. Licht wisely traded a third-round pick for the play-making Pierre-Paul three years ago.
The Bucs’ four-man pass rush has struggled this season, but the return of nose tackle Vita Vea, whom Licht drafted in the first round after trading back to acquire extra picks, was monumental. Vea constantly forced Rodgers off his spot and condensed the pocket, not allowing the quarterback any room to step up and escape the edge pressure of Barrett and Pierre-Paul. After dominating all season, the Packers offensive line was again manhandled when it counted most, with three of Licht’s best moves as general manager leading the way.
It hasn’t just been been starters stepping up for the Bucs in the playoffs either. Right guard Aaron Stinnie has had to fill in for an injured Alex Cappa, and he’s been capable enough to win with, even throwing a great block on Leonard Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
And with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin struggling with drops over the past two weeks and Antonio Brown out of the lineup due to injury, it’s been Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson – two Day 3 Licht draft picks – making some of the biggest plays for Tampa Bay. Miller’s touchdown before halftime was the play of the game, and Johnson’s contested 16-yard grab on third-and-8 brought the Bucs to the doorstep of field goal range in the second half.
Over and over again, up and down the roster, the Bucs have gotten to this point of the season on the backs of contributions from almost every single player on the team, including kicker Ryan Succop, who has been near perfect in the postseason. When starters like Evans and Godwin have struggled, backups have stepped up. When Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean have been banged up, Ross Cockrell has filled in admirably. When running back Ronald Jones was out with a broken pinkie, COVID-19 and an injured quadriceps, Leonard Fournette stepped in valiantly and carried the ground game, adding a touchdown in all three playoff wins, including a tremendous 20-yard score in Green Bay.
When Vea went down in Week 5, the Bucs’ 5-man rotation did all it could to fill his shoes, maintaining the team’s place as the top run defense in football. And when Devin White’s absence threatened disaster for the Bucs in the wild card round of the playoffs, veteran Kevin Minter stepped up with stellar run defense and a critical tipped pass against Washington, which resulted in Murphy-Bunting’s first game-changing interception of these playoffs.
Tampa Bay’s depth, once thought to be a significant concern in this team’s quest for a Super Bowl trophy in 2021, has been nothing short of spectacular. That’s a testament to the terrific drafting and signings by Licht and his personnel staff in the offseason, and the marvelous development that has taken place due to the teaching and training of the Bucs coaching staff.
The Bucs aren’t in the Super Bowl because Brady single-handedly rescued this team from the cellar of the NFL. As big as Brady’s contributions have been, the Bucs were a good team that needed to grow up a little, cut down on its self-inflicted wounds, and just get competent quarterbacking in order to be a playoff squad in 2020. That’s how talented this team was a year ago.
When they grew up a lot and got elite quarterback play this season? That’s when they became a Super Bowl team.
So regardless of how much the national media narrative tries to disparage this Bucs team pre-Brady, or disparage Brady by saying a great roster carried the former Patriots quarterback to his 10th Super Bowl, let’s make a promise to ourselves, Pewter Report readers. Let’s not fall victim to the linear mentality that one party deserves credit and one party deserves criticism in this. We can be more nuanced than this.
As Brady knows, football is the ultimate team sport. If you want to achieve success, everyone has to perform their role at a high level, especially in critical moments.
In Tampa Bay, when the story of this season is written, that should be the tale they scribe. This wasn’t a team carried to the big game by Brady, or the team that boosted their 43-year old quarterback back to the biggest stage in sports. It was a team that flew on its collective efforts – of front office, coaches and players – to heights no one believed were possible at the start of a COVID-riddled 2020 season.
But of course the Bucs believed it was possible. After all, isn’t that what a true team does?