About a week before Super Bowl LV, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians was asked about the dramatic decision his team made to pursue Tom Brady 11 months earlier.
"You can't hit a home run unless you're going to swing for one," said Arians, an echo of his famous 'no risk-it, no biscuit' offensive philosophy. "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."
Indeed, even though Brady was headed towards free agency in 2020 and could not be franchise-tagged, he didn't seem likely to depart the only NFL home he had know. It took a while for a Brady-Buccaneers collaboration to seem like anything more than a pleasant daydream. Still, Arians and the Bucs swung…and connected. The signing of Brady on March 20 proved to be the centerpiece move among a long list of them that built a championship roster.
The Brady signing, as unlikely as it might have seemed, was at least a plan concocted weeks earlier. Around the same time, the Buccaneers also re-signed a trio of key defensive players before and after the start of free agency, and that was definitely planned ahead. Some of the Buccaneers' other moves along the way, however, were the result of unexpected opportunities. As we count down the 15 most significant moves in building the Buccaneers' Super Bowl-winning 2020 roster, we now get to one of the moves in that category.
Note: The countdown we will be constructing over the next three weeks does roughly progress towards the most impactful moves at the end, but it is not strictly a ranking. There's not much of a distinction to be drawn between moves listed near each other in the countdown, and we're not trying to say that any particular re-signing on defense was more important than the next. There is, however, a clear number one. These are also not in chronological order.
Countdown: Top 15 Transactions in the Buccaneers' Pursuit of the 2020 Championship
9. Signed RB Leonard Fournette, September 6
Fournette morphed into "Playoff Lenny" and then "Lombardi Lenny" in the postseason, set numerous franchise playoff records and would probably be on the short list of postseason MVP candidates for the team. That his signing is not included among the top five on this list is an indication of how many hugely impactful moves team management made along the way.
But make no mistake, the move was important, even if the full extent of it's impact wasn't obvious until late in the season.
The Jaguars originally drafted Fournette out of LSU as the fourth-overall selection in 2017. Though he missed eight games in 2018 he was a workhorse back for Jacksonville for three years, averaging 19 touches per game. He topped 1,000 rushing yards as a rookie and was sixth in the NFL in 2019 with 1,674 yards from scrimmage. However, Jacksonville chose to release Fournette on September 1, 2020, making the fourth-year back a free agent who could sign anywhere for the second chapter of his NFL career.
Fournette chose to go just a bit south in the same state, first meeting with the Buccaneers two days later and then officially signing on September 8. After a 2019 season in which he was the clear focal point of the Jaguars' defense and a player opposing defenses loaded up to stop, Fournette thought he could benefit from playing in an offense with so many other weapons.
"I think just me coming to Tampa made perfect sense," said Fournette at the time. "I feel like they had all the keys that I needed and vice versa. I can help the team out, and also, they can help me. I think it's probably one of my first seasons running in a six-man box – which is a smart part on me. I made sure all that was in consideration with me coming here."
Fournette joined a backfield headed by incumbent starter Ronald Jones plus rookie Keyshawn Vaughn and another recent veteran signing, LeSean McCoy. It wasn't immediately obvious how all four would fit together but Arians knew the newest addition was an asset who would help along the way.
"He's a big, strong back that can really catch," said the coach. "He can do everything. He can protect, he's a big third-down back and he's been a solid guy in the league. It just gives us another weapon."
Fournette was only used sparingly in the season opener at New Orleans but the Bucs had a fourth-quarter lead on Carolina on Week Two and used their new back to pound away at a tired defense. His 46-yard breakaway touchdown run in the final period sealed a 31-17 win and gave him a 103-yard game very early in his Bucs tenure.
An ankle injury would then slow Fournette for a portion of the first half of the regular season. He came back with a couple of 50-yard games but then was limited to a very small role over the next month as Jones clearly emerged as the team's most productive back. However, Jones then encountered a finger fracture, a two-week stay on the COVID list and a quad strain in rapid succession. All of that opened the door for Playoff Lenny.
Fournette started the last three games of the regular season and while his stats in that stretch weren't eye-popping he did score three touchdowns and make some plays in the passing game. He then went to another level in the playoffs, setting a Buccaneer record for a single postseason with 448 yards from scrimmage. He also scored a touchdown in all four postseason games, joining Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Davis as the only players in NFL history to do that. Fournette averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the playoffs and led the team with 18 receptions.
The last Buccaneer to score a touchdown in 2020 was Leonard Fournette, as his 27-yard scoring run against Kansas City in Super Bowl LV gave the team a 28-9 third-quarter lead in an eventual 31-9 victory. Tom Brady was the deserving MVP of that Super Bowl win and the home run swing Arians and company took back in March. But the on-the-fly addition of Fournette in September proved to be a huge move come January and February.