The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back in the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history. Both have come since Malcolm Glazer's purchase of the team in 1995 and both were preceded by a very dramatic offseason move. But building a championship-caliber team takes more than one big move and there's no guarantee that a team architect is going to get all the resources he or she needs to bring a plan to fruition.
Jason Licht? He got what he needed, thanks to the vision of the Buccaneers' owners, the Glazer family.
"I look back at this time last year compared to where we're at right now – and we still have unfinished business," said Licht, referring to the Buccaneers upcoming meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. "[I look at] just how far we came in a short amount of time in terms of our record and where we're at. It's just a feeling of being grateful for our ownership for giving us the resources that they have to keep this team together, to go out and get Tom [Brady], to trade for 'Gronk' (Rob Gronkowski) and make some other moves during the season when it would have been very easy for owners to pull the reins back a little bit for reasons that go along with being in a pandemic."
When the Buccaneers climbed to the mountaintop for the first time in the 2002 season, beating the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII for their first league championship, it came after the Glazers had swung an unexpected and remarkable deal to trade for the rights to hire Jon Gruden. The Buccaneers sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a large amount of cash to the Raiders to land Gruden, who they believed could take a team that had made the playoffs in four of the previous five years and put it over the top. They were right.
This season's opening strike was arguably even more dramatic, as the landing of Brady ranks among the biggest free agency moves in NFL history. It was a step taken by a team that, like the Bucs of '02, believed it had constructed a talented roster with a superb coaching staff but needed something more to unlock its potential. Had Licht and the Buccaneers just stopped there with the addition of Brady, however, they likely would not be where they are now, needing just one more win to earn a second Lombardi Trophy.
Licht and his staff had more to their initial plan and a lot of work to do after Brady's arrival. They would also come across opportunities along the way that weren't necessarily part of the initial plan but were worth considering to determine if they would make the team better. Licht found that the Glazers were more than willing to make all of those moves possible, each and every time.
"[They] still wanted us to push forward because they desperately want this," said Licht of the Glazers. "They wanted to be in the Super Bowl and they want to win it like we all [do], but they want to do it for the fans. They love the excitement that the Tampa Bay fans have because of this – I think that's what drives them. I'm just very grateful."
Chronologically and officially, the Brady signing on March 20 was not the first big move and that Licht and company made, but it was with that possibility in mind that the series of "go for it" moves began a few days earlier. Here's a look at the roster moves that the Buccaneers made in their journey from the beginning of free agency to the Super Bowl:
March 16: Re-Signed OLB Jason Pierre-Paul to a two-year contract and placed the franchise tag on OLB OLB Shaquil Barrett.
This was huge. Barrett and Pierre-Paul had combined for 28.0 sacks in 2019, including eight between them in just the last two weeks of that season. The Buccaneers had little depth behind those two at edge rusher and had other plans for their high picks in the upcoming draft. Barrett and Pierre-Paul had a combined 17.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits this season and then were an enormous factor in getting the Bucs past the Packers and into Super Bowl LV with 5.0 combined sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game.
March 20: Signed QB Tom Brady to a two-year contract as an unrestricted free agent.
All Brady did was put together the finest season by a quarterback in Buccaneers history and perhaps his own best campaign in close to a decade. Brady threw for 4,633 yards and a team-record 40 touchdowns, breaking another Buc record with a 102.2 passer rating. His touchdown total tied for second in the NFL. Moreover, Brady got hot when the Buccaneers really needed it, leading the team on a seven-game winning streak following its Week 13 bye. Brady averaged 313.2 passing yards per game and tossed 19 touchdowns against four interceptions during that winning streak, with three of those four picks coming in the second half of the last game at Green Bay. Not surprisingly, Brady was also widely lauded for his leadership in a locker room heavy with young players in important roles.
March 26: Re-Signed DL Ndamukong Suh to a one-year contract.
Suh hit the free agent market but ultimately chose to return on a second straight one-year deal. It was widely assume that the arrival of Brady was a big factor in Suh coming back, and he confirmed that later in the offseason, also pointing out the big moves made on defense.
"Yeah, no question," he said. "Definitely Brady, and knowing who the quarterback was going to be, I knew that was going to be a big decision. … Understanding who your quarterback is, all the other particular pieces that were coming back on the defense were important as well. For the most part, we got the majority of everybody on the defense back, which is exciting."
Indeed, in addition to front-liners Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Suh the Buccaneers also re-signed valuable depth pieces on defense in Kevin Minter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Andrew Adams and Ryan Smith. That allowed for a unit that had finished the 2019 season on a very strong note to continue building on the progress it had made under Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles.
Suh followed with perhaps an even better year than his first season in a Buccaneer uniform. He was once again at the heart of the NFL's best run defense, and that's even more impressive given that fellow defensive lineman Vita Vea was lost for the rest of the regular season in Week Five to an ankle injury. Suh also contributed 6.0 sacks, his best total since 2015, and was second on the team with 19 QB hits.
April 21: Traded a 2020 fourth-round pick to New England for TE Rob Gronkowski and a 2020 seventh-round pick.
Gronkowski played nine seasons in New England alongside Brady before retiring at the end of the 2018 season due to an overall accumulation of injuries. However, when Brady chose the Buccaneers, Gronkowski surveyed his own much-improved health and decided to return to the game and another chance to help his long-time friend chase a championship. The Patriots still held his rights, so a trade was necessary to make the reunion happen.
Gronkowski proved to be a valuable part of the offense and was particularly important to the attack after O.J. Howard was lost for the season in Week Four. Gronkowski played 75% of the Bucs' offense snaps and finished third on the team with 45 receptions for 623 yards and seven touchdowns. He also proved to be a strong blocker in the running game and, like the offensive line he played next to, was particularly good in that regard down the stretch and in the playoffs.
August 4: Signed RB LeSean McCoy
Though the Bucs had returning starter Ronald Jones in the backfield and had drafted Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the third round in April, they still wanted more depth at the tailback position and reached out to the veteran McCoy, who had won a Super Bowl ring with Kansas City the year before. McCoy had a handful of games in which he made an impact as a pass-catchers but had a limited impact overall because of another signing the Bucs would make a month later.
August 27: Signed C A.Q. Shipley
Licht had already shored up the team's depth at tackle by re-signing Josh Wells and bringing in former Colt Joe Haeg on the same day that Brady was signed. But Arians thought the Bucs needed some more experience at the interior-line reserve spots so the team signed Shipley, who had started for him for three seasons in Arizona. Though he would eventually end up on injured reserve with a career-ending neck ailment, Shipley helped the Buccaneers weather a three-game absence by standout left guard Ali Marpet in the second half of the season.
September 1: Signed K Ryan Succop
The Buccaneers spent a fifth-round pick on Utah kicker Matt Gay in the 2019 draft and saw him have a promising but uneven rookie season. When his kicking was inconsistent in training camp in August, the Bucs made a late addition of the veteran Succop, who had been one of the league's more reliable kickers before an injury-plagued 2019 season. In just one practice week, Succop won the job over Gay.
The good news here is that nobody lost. Gay ended up with the Rams and made 14 of his 16 field goals, perhaps earning a shot to stick long-term in Los Angeles. But the Buccaneers knew they had a loaded team and couldn't afford to let uncertainty at the kicker position cost them any games in 2020. Succop gave them exactly what they had hoped for with his very consistent work on field goals. At one point he made 21 straigth field goal attempts over a 12-game span, and with the playoffs combined he is currently 36 of 39 overall.
September 6: Signed RB Leonard Fournette
The Jacksonville Jaguars chose to move on from the former fourth-overall draft pick after just three seasons on the first day of September and the Bucs brought him in just five days later. As he has described recently, Fournette had to learn how to adjust to a role that didn't always have him as the lead man in the backfield but was grateful for the journey. He ended up second on the team to Jones with 367 yards and six touchdowns on 97 carries, and he also caught 36 passes for another 233 yards.
Then came "Playoff Lenny." With Jones out with a knee injury in the Wild Card round, Fournette stepped back into a lead role and has been a revelation over the last three weeks. He has recorded 211 yards and two touchdowns on 48 carries (4.4-yard average) and is tied for the team lead with 14 receptions, which have produced another 102 yards and a score. His 313 yards from scrimmage are already the most any Buccaneer has ever had in a single postseason. Fournette's 20-yard touchdown run in Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game is destined to show up on highlight reels for many years to come.
October 20: Trade a 2022 sixth-round pick to the New York Jets for DL Steve McLendon and a 2023 seventh-round pick.
The Buccaneers lost Vea to his ankle injury in Week Five. In Week Six, they put together their best game of the regular season, drubbing the previously-undefeated Packers, 38-10. Before that evening was over, Licht had also addressed the Vea issue, trading for McLendon, the steady 12th-year veteran who had been a starter for four-and-a-half seasons with the Jets. With Nunez-Roches moving into the starting lineup to replace Vea, the Buccaneers needed a new backup nose tackle and McLendon fit the bill perfectly. He helped Tampa Bay maintain its number-one rush defense ranking the rest of the way.
October 27: Signed WR Antonio Brown.
The last really big move of the season, this one gave the Bucs some insurance in case they were without Mike Evans and Chris Godwin for any length of time, and an extremely talented three-receiver set when all of them were available. Brown's roll in the offense increased at a steady pace over the second half of the season and he would finish with 45 catches for 453 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season.
Brown began to retain his big-play touch at the end of the regular season, and he racked up 256 yards and four touchdowns over the last three games. He also scored in the Wild Card win at Washington, though he is currently recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of the NFC Championship Game.
Licht agreed that the Buccaneers were "all-in" in their efforts to win a championship in the 2020 season, as demonstrated most notably on March 20 when Brady came aboard, but disagreed that the team's plans were aimed at just one successful campaign. Licht believes the Buccaneers are "set up beautifully" for the long run, giving some specific credit for that to Director of Football Administration Mike Greenberg and Director of Football Research Jackie Davidson, in terms of the salary cap.
"Tom is 43 years old and we have some other elder statesmen on our roster, but we have a young, young team," said Licht. "A young defense, a young secondary, young receivers [and] we have a fairly young offensive line. I wouldn't say it changed on March 20th. We're still looking long-term and we still have to plan long-term [with] the way we set things up."
And as Licht knows all too well, he is going to be supported in every way by the Glazers in executing that plan in search of championships.