TAMPA, Fla. — With 1:56 to go and the Carolina Panthers threatening to spoil Tom Brady’s home opener with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Brady put the ball in the hands of running back Leonard Fournette, whose 46-yard touchdown run sealed the Bucs’ 31-17 win — Brady’s first as a Buccaneer.
The Panthers had turned Tampa Bay’s 21-0 halftime lead into a one-score game — a situation the Bucs had seen before when they allowed the New York Giants to erase an 18-point halftime deficit to win Daniel Jones’ rookie debut last year. In fact, the Bucs’ 66 blown leads in the post-Jon Gruden era (2009 to present) are third-most in the NFL.
But Fournette, who signed with the Bucs exactly two weeks ago, told the offensive line as they huddled up on first-and-10 at the Carolina 46, “Y’all give me an inch, I’m gonna take it a mile.”
And that he did, exploding through the A-gap and reaching 21.44 miles per hour on the play, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — the second-fastest time from a ball carrier in Week 2 and third-fastest all season.
Brady came running to the end zone to envelop Fournette in his arms.
“It’s funny how everything came to pass,” said Fournette, who finished with 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. “I’d seen the hole and I took it and tried to put the icing on the cake for the team.”
The Bucs have had only one other instance during the past three seasons when a running back has rushed for 40 or more yards on a single play — a 49-yard run against the Houston Texans last year from starter Ronald Jones, whose NFL career up until this point has underwhelmed, with just one 100-yard game in 18 career games as a starter. Fournette has done it six times in 33 games.
Brady has said on multiple instances since arriving in Tampa Bay that he needs to know whom he can count on. There weren’t many Sunday. Countless balls slipped through receivers’ and running backs’ hands. Jones fumbled a simple handoff at the Carolina 38 in the second quarter. Third-down back LeSean McCoy dropped what would have been a touchdown on third-and-8 with 6:25 to go.
“I know he wants that one back that he dropped for a touchdown,” Arians said of McCoy. “But he’ll make some more in the future. … RoJo — we fumbled that ball and we can’t have that on a handoff. Overall, Leonard … as he keeps practicing, learning and doing some things, we’ll keep getting him more and more touches.”
The Bucs couldn’t get anything going in the second half. Brady wound up with just 19 passing yards after halftime. Which made Fournette’s production that much more important.
“It’s nice to have a hell of a player with fresh legs in the fourth quarter,” Arians said.
Even without his 46-yard run, Fournette still averaged 5.18 yards per carry Sunday, while Jones rushed for 23 yards on seven carries (3.3 average), but did score a touchdown to give the Bucs a 7-0 lead.
Arians declared Jones the starter at the very beginning of camp, and reaffirmed that when Fournette arrived, saying, “It’s his job. Nothing’s changed for him,” but with one caveat: Arians said it was his job “if he wins or loses it” and “he’s gonna have to screw it up” in order to lose it. Was Jones’ fumble Sunday enough for a changing of the guard, considering having Brady’s trust is the single most important thing a player can do for himself right now in this offense? Fournette’s 242 rushing yards and four touchdowns in three postseason games could certainly help.
Brady met with Fournette as soon as he got to Tampa to go over the playbook. The two also push each other while enjoying some playful banter in practice.
“I’m hard on Tom. Tom’s hard on me,” Fournette said. “He expects a lot out of me. I expect a lot out of his ass. He’s a six-time Super Bowl [winner], so I expect a lot out of him — just know that. It’s coming together. It’s still new. We’re still figuring each other out right now.”
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Tom, you might hold the ball too long.’ He might tell me I’m not running the ball hard enough. So I’m like, ‘Damn, Tom said that — I’m really not running the ball hard enough.’ So I gotta come back and do what I gotta do, you know what I mean? It also helps you to be responsible at your job.”
Fournette is continuing to learn the offense, which has been a process, although Arians pointed out that he doesn’t have to learn the entire playbook, just the plays that they’ll choose from on Sundays each week.
“I am getting there. It is like my ninth or 10th day still,” Fournette said. “I am still fresh, still learning the playbook as it goes.”
Arians also doesn’t want to pigeonhole Fournette, but instead wants him to carve out a role for himself. So far, it’s been as a reliever for Jones, with Fournette’s downhill style serving as a nice contrast to Jones’ shiftiness. And Fournette is more of a natural pass-catcher.
Fournette’s arrival has led to more production after contact for the Bucs. He’s averaging 4.0 yards per carry after first contact this year — second only to Cleveland’s Kareem Hunt (4.30), while Jones’ average is 1.33 (McCoy is mostly used as a pass-catcher). Meanwhile, the Bucs as a whole are averaging 0.96 yards per rush after contact — 28th in the league. They averaged 1.46 yards in this department last season.
A part-time role has been an adjustment for Fournette though. In Jacksonville, he averaged nearly 19 carries per game. The entire offense went through him. Prior to coming to the Bucs, he had only five instances when he didn’t have more than 12 rushes. It took a toll on his body going against stacked boxes week after week. Some games he’d face eight and nine-man boxes on over half his touches. In 17 carries in Tampa Bay, he’s faced zero instances of eight or nine-man boxes.
“It’s different. You are so used to being the guy. Like last year I played for the Jags, I had like 95% of the snaps,” Fournette said. “It’s different. It is helpful too; you know a lot of guys come in with fresh legs and you get your breath back with the rotation of the backs, so it’s helping.”