Long before Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians shared morsels of Tampa Bay’s 2020 vision last February, the end game for the franchise was crystal clear.
Optimistic or outlandish depending on your vantage point, the Buccaneers planned to play for the Super Bowl in their home stadium in February 2021.
And here they stand, NFC Champions prepping to host the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7.
“I look back at this time last year compared to where we’re at right now — and we still have unfinished business,” Licht said Wednesday. “Everybody is very focused on this game — I can assure you of that. But, just how far we came in a short amount of time in terms of our record and where we’re at. It’s just a feeling of being grateful for our ownership for giving us the resources that they have to keep this team together, to go out and get Tom [Brady], to trade for Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] and make some other moves during the season when it would have been very easy for owners to pull the reins back a little bit for reasons that go along with being in a pandemic. But, [they] still wanted us to push forward because they desperately want this.”
Last February, Arians opened a choose-your-adventure offseason by revealing he wasn’t committed to quarterback Jameis Winston at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Jump ahead to pandemic times. As the sports world and world in general was slamming the brakes, high fives, hugs and handshakes were impossible to resist at One Buc Place.
The Buccaneers were celebrating in private when Brady penned a public farewell to the Patriots, leaving New England in free agency for a two-year deal in Tampa. About six weeks later, they had Gronkowski under contract and landed a dominant right tackle in Tristan Wirfs plus a starting safety, Antoine Winfield Jr., in the NFL draft.
The slow turn from challenging for the NFC South cellar to playoff — dare they say, Super Bowl — contention was rapidly looking like reality through Licht’s lens.
“You want to make some moves that hopefully get your team into the Super Bowl. I think when you sign a guy like Tom, it makes it a little more realistic,” Licht said. “Just talking to him the days after we signed him, you could just hear and feel the confidence that he had. It made it a little bit more real. Now, you never take anything for granted. We had some highs and lows in the season where things at times looked a little grim. We needed to pull together, but we never lost our confidence. Looking back on some of the things we talked about, you do kind of want to pinch yourselves a little bit saying, ‘Wow, this really did happen.’”
The Buccaneers couldn’t overtake the Saints in the South, but as a wild card won three playoff road games — one in New Orleans — to claim the NFC title. Brady, a 43-year-old quarterback, got them there along with a strong defense and young, talented wide receiver group.
Licht isn’t willing to take much of the credit, deflecting to Arians and the team’s scouting staff. Arians, the team’s call-em-like-you-see-em leader, won over Brady with a combination of tough love and autonomy that only makes sense when viewed in action.
For example, Arians said last week the difference between Brady’s 20 years in New England and this season in Tampa is the Buccaneers got out of his way.
“I allow him to be himself. Like, New England didn’t allow him to coach. I allow him to coach,” Arians said.
Offensive guard Ali Marpet said Wednesday the chemistry with a younger team is a credit to Arians.
“B.A. has done such a great job for us,” Marpet said, “kind of letting players play their own game and giving guys the opportunity to do what they do that makes them successful.”
–Field Level Media