TAMPA, Fla. — When I was about 5 years old and started to show an interest in football, I asked my dad, “Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a real football team? Like a real one?” That was when Bucco Bruce and Creamsicle jerseys weren’t the cherished heirlooms and retro fads they are today. They were, instead, a painful reminder of an embarrassingly awful Tampa Bay football team.
Sure, there were a few very good years in the late 1990s leading up to the Super Bowl XXXVII victory following the 2002 season. But a slew of salary-cap issues, bad drafting and age caught up to the Bucs, which culminated in the epic collapse of 2008, followed by failed rebuild after failed rebuild.
So you can imagine fans’ astonishment when the Bucs not only made a full-court press to land six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady last March, but got him. It’s why, 10 months later, if the Super Bowl wasn’t taking place in their own backyard on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS), with Brady’s image projected nightly onto the Sykes building downtown, they wouldn’t believe the Bucs are actually playing in it.
When coach Bruce Arians was asked on local sports radio this week what he would have thought two years ago had someone told him he’d be in Super Bowl LV against the Kansas City Chiefs with Brady as his quarterback, he said, “What are you smoking or drinking? And get me some.”
“We were 2-14 the year before we got here,” said left guard Ali Marpet, who was selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft. “And gosh, it is hard to get here. I think because it’s been so hard, it makes this moment that more precious.”
Brady and Arians deserve all the credit in the world for getting the Buccaneers to this point — the team’s second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history after a 13-year postseason drought. But neither would be here without Bucs general manager Jason Licht.
“Jason is the main reason I came back in coaching,” said Arians, a two-time AP NFL Coach of the Year, who had worked with Licht when he was director of player personnel and vice president of player personnel with the Arizona Cardinals from 2012 to 2013. “I knew how good of an evaluator he was and having worked with him — we shared the same vision.”
Pieces start falling into place
Licht has been the Bucs’ general manager since Jan. 21, 2014. Most first-time GMs don’t survive more than two head-coach firings. It was Licht’s recommendation to part ways with coach Lovie Smith, who was hired right before Licht in 2014, after two seasons, and elevate offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who delivered one 9-7 season in 2016, followed by two 5-11 seasons. He was gone after the 2018 season.
By then, Jameis Winston, the quarterback Licht selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, was struggling with turnovers, and Licht’s decision to trade up into the second round of the 2016 draft to select Roberto Aguayo had gone up in flames as the kicker was gone after one season. There also had been numerous failed free-agent signings on massive multiyear deals like defensive end Michael Johnson (five years, $43.75 million) and offensive tackle Anthony Collins (five years, $30 million).
With a 27-53 record in his first five seasons, Licht was on the hot seat.
The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, has never shown much patience. Former general manager Mark Dominik was fired after going 28-52 in five seasons, along with coach Greg Schiano, who lasted only two seasons. Schiano’s predecessor, Raheem Morris, lasted three.
But Licht had some successes, too. He hit it out of the park in selecting wide receiver Mike Evans with the seventh overall pick in 2014, Marpet in the second round of 2015 and wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third round in 2017. He found a hidden gem in tight end Cameron Brate, an undrafted free agent out of Harvard, in 2014.
Licht also pulled off a trade with the New York Giants to land linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul for a third-round pick by swapping fourth-round picks. Ownership believed in the core group that had been built with those players, and praised Licht’s ability to re-sign Evans, Brate and Lavonte David, and still maintain a healthy salary cap. So Licht got to stay.
He rewarded that faith by landing arguably the NFL’s top head-coaching candidate that year in Arians, and things began to fall into place, piece by piece. With former Jets head coach Todd Bowles coming in as defensive coordinator, the Buccaneers overhauled their passive zone 4-3 defense into an attacking-style 3-4, one-gap scheme with little player turnover. One of their key additions, outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who had been little more than a situational pass-rusher with the Denver Broncos, surged with a league-leading 19.5 sacks in 2019.
“Jason [Licht] is the main reason I came back in coaching. I knew how good of an evaluator he was and having worked with him — we shared the same vision.”
“I was able to learn from a lot of mistakes — and I had a lot — and I would always admit to those,” Licht said. “Listening to my staff more, more inclusiveness and more teamwork, I think, has been the reason that it has come together and we’ve made better decisions in the last few years.”
When Arians came in he got heavily involved in draft evaluations and Licht deferred to him in certain areas. Licht’s lack of an ego was key, sources close to the situation said. Disagreements happened, but the results were constructive because Licht and Arians believed in the same things and respected one another. And at the end of the day, the coaches have to have players with whom they can work.
“[Arians] is just such a unique guy and we have such a unique, strong bond,” Licht said. “We get along well and we even argue well to get the result that we want and make the decisions that we’ve made. It’s been awesome.”
2019 draft class paying dividends
The growth of the 2019 draft class in two seasons is proof of that synergy between Licht and Arians. Inside linebacker Devin White, the Bucs’ fifth overall draft pick that year, has delivered a postseason performance so strong, some have argued he should be Defensive Player of the Year with 26 tackles, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a pass breakup in two games. (White missed the wild-card game at Washington because of the coronavirus.)
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, the Bucs’ second-round pick in 2019, has had three picks in three postseason games, joining Hall of Famers Aeneas Williams and Ed Reed, along with Jason Sehorn, as the only players in the Super Bowl era with an interception in their first three career playoff games.
Safety Mike Edwards, their third-round pick, intercepted Drew Brees in the fourth quarter to help seal their 30-20 win in the divisional playoffs at New Orleans. The day White and Murphy-Bunting took the field for the first time, as part of the Bucs’ rookie transition program, White put his arm around Murphy-Bunting and said, “We’re home, brother. We home. ‘Bout to win a lot of games in here.” Murphy-Bunting responded, “You don’t even know.”
And wide receiver Scotty Miller, the Bucs’ sixth-round draft pick, might have had just two catches in that NFC Championship Game, but his jaw-dropping 39-yard touchdown reception with eight seconds before halftime, after converting on fourth down, might go down as one of the biggest in franchise history.
“In order to have this much success you need the young guys to step up, and those guys really have,” Marpet said. “They’ve really done a nice job and they’ve taken it very seriously. They’ve led from the front as young guys, which is really important.”
‘No risk it, no biscuit’: Wooing Brady to Tampa
Most important to the construction of this roster was solidifying the quarterback situation. Parting ways with Winston after five seasons wasn’t easy, but when else would the Buccaneers have a shot at Brady in what would likely be his only free-agency period? Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen went to Arians and told him he believed they had something.
So when Arians was asked at the NFL combine if he could have his pick at QB, there was no hesitation.
“Tom Brady,” he said, echoing a philosophy he shared with Licht from their days with the Cardinals: “No risk it, no biscuit.”
“You can’t hit a home run unless you’re going to swing for one,” Arians said. “You can’t do anything special in life sitting on a fence. The question back then was, ‘If there was a quarterback that was a free agent, who would you want?’ Of course, it was Tom Brady, not thinking he’d become a free agent. Once he did, it was a pursuit that we wanted to make and [we] knew he had some interest. That’s how you live life. Do you sit and live in a closet trying to be safe, [or are] you going to have some fun?”
Brady liked what he saw and surprised the Bucs by making them a pitch. The Bucs were willing to give him a lot of say in terms of personnel and playcalling and he was free to coach up the younger players as he saw fit.
“I love the opportunity that presented itself here, which is ultimately why I chose here,” Brady said. “I really love the coaching staff, I loved the players that they had. I looked at those players and thought, ‘Wow, these are really great players. This would be a good opportunity for me.’
“I went through a process of decisions and thinking about everything that really mattered to me in some way [and] one form or another. Obviously, a lot of family considerations. My son [Jack] lives in New York and I didn’t want to be too far from him. It just ended up being a great fit and as it’s played out, I’ve just thought, ‘Wow, this has really been a magical year.'”
Completing the puzzle
But the puzzle wasn’t complete with Brady alone. Licht traded a fourth-round draft pick with the New England Patriots — another team he had worked for in 2002 and then from 2009 to 2011 — to acquire tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was coming out of retirement to join Brady, and a seventh-round pick. Licht signed running back LeSean McCoy to give Brady a veteran running back to throw to.
He brought in former fourth overall draft pick Leonard Fournette after he’d been cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The week after defensive tackle Vita Vea went down with a broken ankle in Week 5, Licht worked out a deal with the New York Jets, sending a sixth-round draft pick for veteran Steve McLendon and a seventh-round selection. Thanks to McLendon, the Bucs were able to maintain their ranking as the top run defense in the league and Vea has since come off injured reserve.
Licht also made the controversial decision to bring in wide receiver Antonio Brown, whom Brady had been advocating for but Arians believed wasn’t a fit and was “too much diva,” not to mention his off-the-field issues, which included a no contest plea to a felony burglary charge last year after an incident with a delivery driver. Brown also was accused of sexual assault by two women, with one of them filing a civil suit with a trial that has been postponed a year because of the coronavirus.
Arians changed his mind when the Bucs’ receiving corps was severely depleted by injuries. They agreed to take him on, but explained to Brown that if he made one mistake, he was gone. Despite missing the NFC title game because of a knee injury, he has been a key contributor.
“Just building the roster the way he has and being able to get Tom, Gronk and Leonard and still be really cap-friendly with this roster that we have …” Arians said. “Can’t say enough about what Jason has done. To me, he’s executive of the year just pulling off all that stuff that he did.”