The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs will meet in Super Bowl LV on Sunday, and whichever team wins will forever be known as the one that most successfully navigated the most unusual season in NFL history.
Like every sports league in North America, the NFL had to figure out how to operate within a pandemic that threatened the health of everyone involved, from players to fans. Approaches varied from league to league and the NFL had to make some scheduling changes on the fly during the fall, but in the end all 268 games from Week One through the conference championship games were played. The Buccaneers are in Game 269, Head Coach Bruce Arians believes, because the players were committed to a plan to beat the virus.
"I don't think anything ever prepared us for the pandemic and this whole season has been different," said Arians. "The team-building things that you do in the offseason didn't happen. I have to give all the credit in the world to our players for their commitment to each other, the accountability that they've shown to each other of staying healthy and beating the virus before we could beat any other team. And then the closeness they've got and the accountability to make all their decisions to affect the cause, and the cause is to put rings on our fingers."
The Bucs only had a few short COVID-19 related absences during the season, most notably with inside linebacker Devin White and running back Ronald Jones near the end. Of course, injuries and illnesses in general are an unavoidable part of an NFL season and the Bucs aren't without question marks heading into Sunday's Super Bowl. There were four Tampa Bay players who were considered either questionable or doubtful for the game had it been played last Sunday: inside linebacker Lavonte David (hamstring), wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) and starting safeties Antoine Winfield, Jr. (ankle) and Jordan Whitehead (shoulder).
David is the Buccaneers' longest-tenured player and he's getting his first taste of the playoffs in his ninth season. It's hard to imagine him sitting out the Super Bowl. Arians said David sustained his injury in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. David did not miss a snap.
"It was a very slight one," said Arians of David's injury. "But we've been nursing him. We'll make sure he's [ready]. He was running today pretty good. You'd have to shoot him to get him out of this game."
Neither Brown nor Winfield played in the Green Bay game, so both will have had close to three weeks of recovery time before the Super Bowl. Whitehead, who was hurt during that game, could be the biggest question mark.
"I saw them with the trainers today," said Arians of those three players. "Antonio looks a little bit better and Antoine looks a little bit better. Antonio's getting close. He did a little bit Thursday; we'll see how sore he is. Jordan, it's way too early to tell still."
The return of Brown would restore the Bucs' offense to nearly full strength. The passing attack had to deal with a variety of injuries to their top receivers during the season but seemed to hit its full stride in December with Brown, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin all available. In a season affected so thoroughly by the pandemic, beginning with the cancellation of offseason programs and preseason games, the Bucs' offense was understandably a work in progress with a new quarterback integrating on the fly. But Arians, Tom Brady and play-caller Byron Leftwich have gradually gotten in sync and are well set up for the Super Bowl, particularly if Brown plays.
"It's still evolving, each and every week," said Arians. "We collaborate, and Byron does such a fantastic job of running this show. He and Tom have just blended so well. In September we scratched out a game or two, really had no clue what we were doing. October, it got a little bit better and then after the bye week I think things started to click and everybody got comfortable with each other. Chris was hurt for a while, Mike was hurt for a while, played hurt, Antonio came in, Scotty [Miller] was beat up for a while. So it was just a matter of all those pieces getting together, taking some time to jell, but our defense carried us through some of those ballgames to where we are now. Now we're playing pretty well offensively."
Speaking of that offense, even though it ranked second in the league in passing yards and tied for 28th in rushing yards, Arians says it all begins with one specific running play.
"It's a play called '22 Double,'" he said. "It's two double-teams and hand it off between the tackles. That's where we start every year, with that play, and then we use a lot of play-action off of it. [We want] to run the football and use play action and be very, very multiple."