The goal of the Buccaneers in 2021 is simple and well known: they're 'going for two.' That is, two championships as they attempt to repeat as the Lombardi Trophy hoisters following a historic Super Bowl LV win in their home stadium this past February.
They've already cleared one major hurdle that can often plague teams in their attempt at a title defense: preserving continuity. Too often, and in today's salary-capped NFL, teams aren't able to hang onto their star players following a championship run. That has not been the case for the Bucs, who as you may have heard, are returning all 22 Super Bowl starters and then some. This team will be made up of almost entirely familiar faces going into 2021, which should start the Bucs off on the right foot given they can pretty much pick up where they left off at the end of last season. Oh, and by the way, they were playing their best football at the end of last season so it's a promising start.
But it is only part of the equation. There's a reason that not many teams throughout NFL history have been able to repeat as Super Bowl champions: It's just plain hard. In fact, Tom Brady's Patriots were the last to do it back in the 2004 and 2005 seasons. As a result, he likely understands more than anyone how hard it is and what exactly it takes. But each year is different, which brings me to today's Give Me Five topic that I'm posing to Senior Writer and Editor Scott Smith:
What are the Bucs' biggest challenges going into the 2021 season?
Scott can take this wherever he wants. I've intentionally left it pretty open-ended wanting to get his specific viewpoint because while the Bucs may have not previously repeated as champions, Scott was around last time Tampa Bay won a Lombardi Trophy, meaning he was also around the season afterward. So, tell me Scott, what do you see as the Bucs' biggest hurdles to making history yet again?
5. Stay Relatively Healthy Again
This is a challenge that unfortunately hinges somewhat on luck. The Bucs had mostly good luck with injuries and other health concerns in 2020, which is probably true of most teams that go on to win the Super Bowl. They'll hope for more of the same in 2020.
Of course, every team tries extremely hard to minimize the possibility of injuries to their players, work that is shared by coaches, doctors, trainers, strength coaches, nutritionists and many others. That surely played a part in 11 different players starting all 16 games, with another six starting at least 13 contests. The Buccaneers only had two major long-term injuries in 2020, to tight end O.J. Howard and defensive lineman Vita Vea, and even Vea made it back for the last two playoff games.
It's worth noting that the Buccaneers' current roster has 14 players on it who are age 30 or older, almost all of whom are locks to make the 53-man roster. I don't have the statistical data on hand to back it up but I'd say it's widely believed that older rosters carry more risk of players missing time. At the top of that list of 30- and 40-somethings is 43-year-old (turning 44 in August) quarterback Tom Brady, but he is practically synonymous with the word "healthy" and is probably not the Bucs' biggest concern heading into 2021.
Ndamukong Suh is 34 but has never missed a game due to injury in his career. Perhaps there should be some concern over Rob Gronkowski and Jason Pierre-Paul, given their injury histories and age, but they both started every game last year. It's not there is a specific player who seems like a big risk to miss time, just a general dependence on some core players who have been through a lot of NFL wear and tear.
But this isn't just a concern over possible hamstring strains or bad-luck fractures. The COVID-19 pandemic may be on the wane in the United States, but it is not completely out of the picture. Bruce Arians told his team before the 2020 season that the team that beat COVID would have a chance to win it all, and the Bucs did that almost completely. Ronald Jones, Shaq Barrett, Devin White, Donovan Smith, Jaydon Mickens, Kevin Minter and Steve McLendon all had stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list but all were very brief, not all of them actually caught the virus and all came near the very end of the season.
This year, teams that can get their rosters to 85% vaccinated will have advantages in terms of how the players live and work over teams that do not, and individual players will have a lot fewer restrictions if vaccinated. If Arians can get his team to adapt to this year's protocols as well as they did last year, it could once again be a winning edge.
4. Avoid Overconfidence
The 2021 Buccaneers are defending champs and the first team to return all 22 of its Super Bowl starters in over four decades. They have every reason to believe they are prime contenders for Super Bowl LVI, and any team with Tom Brady on one side and Devin White on the other is going to be brimming with confidence.
And confidence is good. Overconfidence is the potential pitfall. How do I know this? Because Bruce Arians has been stressing the issue since practically the day after Super Bowl LV. He has repeatedly pounded home the message to his players that the 2021 Buccaneers haven't done anything yet, albeit with a more colorful word than "anything."
Arians liked the vibe he got from his team during the June mini-camp. It didn't look to him like a group that was taken anything for granted. That's promising. But if the potential problem of thinking another Lombardi Trophy was going to fall into their laps wasn't a real concern than Arians wouldn't keep harping on it. There are many reasons that no team has repeated as Super Bowl champs since Brady's Patriots in 2003 and 2004 – most prominently that winning any Super Bowl is amazingly difficult – and thinking things are going to come easy is surely one of them.
3. Figure Out the Offensive Backfield
It's not difficult to predict the Buccaneers' starters on offense, and even at the one spot where there is a question it probably doesn't matter too much. Arians has referred to Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette as "co-starters" at running back, which is frustrating for fantasy football players but probably not much of an issue for Jones and Fournette. Most teams rely on multiple running backs in today's NFL.
But it's a lot more difficult to figure out how the football is going to be distributed among the Bucs' four top backs. Unfortunately for those aforementioned fantasy players, I don't believe the Bucs coaches have a firm plan for that distribution just yet. That process is going to play out in training camp, and probably for weeks beyond.
Will the Bucs go with a "hot-hand" approach with Jones and Fournette, as they did in letting Fournette take the lead when he took his game to another level in the playoffs? Will they distribute the carries more evenly than they did during the 2020 regular season when Jones had the edge in rushes by a 2-1 margin? Will Jones get more looks in the passing game?
We haven't even mentioned Giovani Bernard or Ke'Shawn Vaughn yet. Bernard's years in Cincinnati suggests that he is the best pass-catching back currently on the Bucs' roster, and Brady has a history of getting the most out of that type of weapon. Is that important and impactful enough to take snaps away from the Jones-Fournette duo, particularly since Fournette is also an effective receiver? And what will the team do with Vaughn, a 2020 third-round pick who got limited exposure last year. Arians has said that he believes in Vaughn's abilities as a runner and a receiver, and the former Vanderbilt star is the only one of those four backs who is under contract beyond 2021.
This seems like a good challenge to have, but the Buccaneers will need to figure out how to deploy those four if they want to get the most out of their backfield in 2021.
2. Handle More Stressful Schedule
Buccaneers players and coaches would tell you there was no causative correlation between the time a game kicked off in 2020 and how the team fared. The Bucs got a heavy dose of prime-time exposure after Brady arrived but ended up going 1-3 in nationally-televised night games, with their one win a narrow two-point decision over a Giants team that finished 6-10. The Bucs worst game of the season was a Sunday night loss to the Saints and perhaps their most painful loss came on a Thursday night in Chicago.
Of course, the Buccaneers could point out that three of their four postseason games started in the evening, and those turned out pretty good. In any case, the team needs to be right that night games are of no particular concern because they have been granted five of them in the 2021 regular season, with the possibility of other games also being flexed into the evening spotlight. Three of Tampa Bay's first six games are nationally-televised prime-time affairs.
But there's more to it than that one issue. Within those first six games the Buccaneers play a West Coast late-afternoon game (Eastern time) against the Rams and then have two road night games over the next three weeks. That sort of non-standard schedule and travel can add stress to a team's efforts to prepare for the next game. Most NFL coaches would love a schedule that had every game kicking off at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday because it means the schedule is the same every week and it becomes second nature. Even better, 1:00 p.m. home games, which offer maximum rest before the next contest. The Buccaneers play exactly one 1:00 p.m. home game in the first 17 weeks of the season.
Oh, and by the way, there's now a 17th game and this year that means nine regular-season road trips for the Buccaneers instead of eight.
1. Weather Every Team's Best Shot
There is not much explanation needed here. The Buccaneers are the champs. They're at the top of the NFL hill. Every opponent will be gunning for them; every contender will want to knock them off that hill. I'm not sure any team with Tom Brady on it can "sneak up" on an opponent, but it's fair to say the 2020 Buccaneers weren't at the top of any power rankings as late as mid-December or even mid-January.
The Buccaneers should expect to get every opponent's absolute best shot in 2021. They will have to be prepared to match that level of intensity every single game day.
Carmen's Thoughts: I'll be honest, this isn't necessarily where I saw the answers going when I posed the question. For the record, it's better. I thought maybe Scott would talk about upcoming opponents more and perhaps which offenses or defenses would pose the biggest threats. While there are plenty of answers to choose from there, Scott took more of an all-encompassing approach, which again, I like better. His perspective never disappoints.
The health factor would have probably been my first answer, too. Not only because of injuries, but again because of COVID. The point that Arians brought up about the team that beats COVID will be the team that wins the Super Bowl still applies. The pandemic is very much still a thing and will be until everyone gets vaccinated. That means being COVID safe, and adhering to protocols if you aren't vaccinated, will be something that not only carries over into this next season, but will undoubtedly affect it just like it did last year.
I also loved Scott's point about getting every team's best shot. The Bucs now have a target on their backs. And while that's not as tangible of a challenge as perhaps health, it's going to be very real. Everyone is going to bring their A game against the Bucs – and Tampa Bay will have the spotlight, often in primetime, as an additional layer. To Scott's point about being in that primetime limelight, we'll see if that ends up being an issue this year, though I don't think it will given the Bucs' playoff performance in 2020.