From dysfunction to triumph: How this GM received the Buccaneers to the Tremendous Bowl
TAMPA, Florida – When I was about 5 years old and started taking an interest in soccer, I asked my father, "Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a real soccer team? Like a real one?" Back then, Bucco Bruce and Creamsicle jerseys weren't the cherished heirlooms and retro fads they are today. Instead, they were a painful reminder of an embarrassingly awful football team in Tampa Bay.
Sure, there were some very good years in the late 1990s that led to the Super Bowl XXXVII victory after the 2002 season. But a series of salary cap issues, poor drafts, and age caught up with the Bucs, leading to the epic collapse of 2008, followed by a failed rebuild after a failed rebuild.
So you can imagine the amazement of fans when the Bucs not only did a press in court last March to land six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, they caught him too. That's why, 10 months later, if the Super Bowl wasn't being held in their own back yard on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS) and Brady's image projected onto the Sykes building downtown every night, they wouldn't believe the Bucs actually play in this.
When coach Bruce Arians was asked on local sports radio this week what he would have thought two years ago if someone had told him he was going to play the Kansas City Chiefs at Super Bowl LV with Brady as quarterback, he said, "What are you ? Smoking or drinking? And get me something. "
"We were 2-14 the year before we arrived," said left guard Ali Marpet, who was selected in the 2015 NFL draft second round. "And my gosh, it's hard to come here. I think because it was so hard it makes this moment all the more precious."
Brady and Arians deserve all the world's credit for getting the Buccaneers to this point – the team's second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history after a 13-year post-season drought. But neither of them would be here without Bucs General Manager Jason Licht.
"Jason is the number one reason I came back in coaching," said Arians, a two-time AP NFL Coach of the Year who worked with Light when he was director of player personnel and vice president of player personnel for the Arizona Cardinals from 2012-2013 "I knew how good he was as a reviewer and had worked with him – we shared the same vision."
The parts begin to fall into place
Licht has been General Manager of Bucs since January 21, 2014. Most first-time GMs don't survive more than two head coach layoffs. It was Licht's recommendation to split after two seasons with coach Lovie Smith, who was hired shortly before Licht in 2014, and to appoint offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who delivered a 9-7 season in 2016, followed by two 5-11 seasons. He was gone after the 2018 season.
Bruce Arians came out of retirement to work with Jason Licht. AP Photo / Chris O & # 39; Meara
By then, Jameis Winston, Licht quarterback selected as number 1 overall in the 2015 draft, was struggling with sales and Licht's decision to move into the second round of the 2016 draft to select Roberto Aguayo was on fire rose when the kicker was gone after a season. There have also been numerous failed free agent deals on massive multi-year deals like the defensive end of Michael Johnson (five years, $ 43.75 million) and the offensive attack on Anthony Collins (five years, $ 30 million) .
With a 27-53 record in its first five seasons, light was on the hot seat.
The Glazer family, who own the Bucs, have never shown much patience. Former general manager Mark Dominik was fired after 28:52 in five seasons, along with coach Greg Schiano, who only lasted two seasons. Schiano's predecessor, Raheem Morris, lasted three years.
But light also had some successes. He made it out of the park picking wide receiver Mike Evans with the seventh overall win in 2014, Marpet in the second round in 2015 and wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third round in 2017. He found a hidden gem in Cameron Brate, an unoccupied free agent from Harvard, in 2014.
Licht also made a deal with the New York Giants to win linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul for a third round selection by swapping the fourth round selection. Ownership believed in the core group that had been built with these players and praised Licht's ability to re-sign Evans, Brate and Lavonte David while still maintaining a healthy salary cap. So the light had to stay.
He rewarded that belief by landing arguably the NFL's top head coaching candidate that year in Arians, and things started to piece together piece by piece. With former Jets head coach Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator, the Buccaneers reworked their passive zone 4-3 defense into an offensive 3-4 one-gap scheme with low player sales. One of their key additions, full-back Shaquil Barrett, who had been little more than a situational pass rusher at the Denver Broncos, rose by 19.5 sacks in the league in 2019.
"Jason (light) is the main reason I came back in coaching. I knew how good he was as a reviewer and worked with him – we shared the same vision."
"I could learn from a lot of mistakes – and I had a lot – and I would always admit that," said Licht. "I think hearing my staff more, more inclusiveness, and more teamwork was the reason it came together and we made better decisions in the past few years."
When Arians walked in he was heavily involved in drafting assessments and light pushed back on him in certain areas. Light's lack of ego was key, sources close to the situation said. Disagreements arose, but the results were constructive because the Light and Arians believed in the same things and respected one another. And at the end of the day, coaches need to have players to work with.
"(Arian) is such a unique guy and we have such a unique, strong bond," said Light. "We get on well and we even fight well to get the result we wanted and make the decisions we made. It was great."
Draft class 2019 pays dividends
The growth of the 2019 design class in two seasons is proof of this synergy between light and Arians. Inside linebacker Devin White, the Bucs' fifth draft pick this year, had such a strong post-season performance that some argued he should be Defensive Player of the Year with 26 tackles, two fiddly restores, an interception and a pass break-in two games. (White missed the wildcard game in Washington because of the coronavirus.)
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Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, the Bucs' second round hit in 2019, had three picks in three postseason games and joined Hall of Famers Aeneas Williams and Ed Reed as the only player in the Super Bowl era with an interception in their first three career playoff games.
Security Third-round elected Mike Edwards intercepted Drew Brees in the fourth quarter to secure his 30:20 win in the divisions playoffs in New Orleans. The day White and Murphy-Bunting first took to the field, as part of Bucs' rookie transition program, White put his arm around Murphy-Bunting and said, "We're home, brother. We're home. " win a lot of games here. "Murphy-Bunting replied," You don't even know. "
And broad receiver Scotty Miller, the Bucs' sixth-round draft pick, might only have two catches in that NFC championship game, but his jaw-dropping 39-yard touchdown reception with eight seconds to half after moving to fourth Had relegation switched, it could go down as one of the greatest in franchise history.
"In order to have that much success, young people have to move up and these guys really have it," said Marpet. "You did a really good job and took it very seriously. As young people, you led what is really important."
"No Risk, No Biscuit": Courting Brady to Tampa
Most important to building this roster was consolidating the quarterback position. Parting with Winston after five seasons wasn't easy, but when else would the Buccaneers get a shot at Brady in what was probably his only time as a freelance agency? Quarterbacks manager Clyde Christensen went to Arians and told him he thought they had something.
When asked at the NFL Combine if Arians could make his choice at QB, there was no hesitation.
Getting Tom Brady to sign was arguably the greatest free agent to sign in Buccaneer history. AP Photo / Matt Ludtke
"Tom Brady," he said, repeating a philosophy he shared with Light from their time with the Cardinals: "No risk, no cookie."
"You can't hit a home run if you don't swing for one," said Arians. “You can't do anything special in life when you're on a fence. The question then was, 'If there was a quarterback who was a free agent, who would you want?' Of course it was Tom Brady who didn't think he was going to become a free agent. Once he did it was a chase that we wanted to do and (we) knew he had some interest. This is how you live life. Do you sit? And live in a closet to be safe, (or) will you have fun? "
Brady liked what he saw and surprised the Bucs by making them bad luck. The Bucs were ready to give him a lot of say on staff and call-to-play, and he was free to coach the younger players at will.
"I love the opportunity here, which is why I chose this one," said Brady. "I really love the coaching team, I loved the players that they had. I looked at these players and thought, 'Wow, these are really great players. That would be a good opportunity for me.'
“I went through a process of decision making and thinking about everything that was really important to me in one way or another. Obviously a lot of family considerations. My son (Jack) lives in New York and I don't want to be too far from him . It just went well and when it was played I just thought: & # 39; Wow, that was a really magical year. & # 39; "
Solve the puzzle
But the riddle was not complete with Brady alone. Light traded a fourth-round draft pick with the New England Patriots – another team he worked for in 2002 and then from 2009 to 2011 – to win Rob Gronkowski, who was retiring to join Brady, and a selection for the seventh round. Light signed up to run back to LeSean McCoy to give a veteran Brady running back to throw.
After being cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he brought in Leonard Fournette, the earlier fourth draft pick. In the week following Vita Vea's defensive tackle with a broken ankle in Week 5, Light worked out a deal with the New York Jets, posting a sixth-round draft pick for veteran Steve McLendon and a seventh-round selection. Thanks to McLendon, the Bucs maintained their rank as the league's top run defense, and Vea has since retired from the injured reserve.
Licht also made the controversial decision to include broad receiver Antonio Brown, who Brady had advocated, but Arians believed he didn't fit in and was "too much of a diva," let alone his off-field issues, including those a belonged to No objection to a break-in last year after an incident with a delivery driver. Brown was also charged with sexual assault by two women. One of them filed a civil lawsuit with a lawsuit postponed for a year because of the coronavirus.
Arians changed his mind when the Bucs receiving corps was severely exhausted from injuries. They agreed to take him in, but explained to Brown that if he made a mistake, he would be gone. Although he missed the NFC title game with a knee injury, he was instrumental in it.
"Just set up the roster like he did and be able to get Tom, Gronk and Leonard and still be really cap-friendly with this roster we have …" Arians said. "I can't say enough about what Jason did. To me, he's the manager of the year just pulling off all the stuff he's done."