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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How the Bucs Can Repeat as Champs in 2021

The Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV, preventing the Chiefs from becoming the NFL's first repeat champion since the 2003-04 Patriots, and now it's Tampa Bay's turn to go for two in a row

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, preventing the Chiefs from defending their Super Bowl LIV title. As such, the last team to win consecutive Super Bowls remains the 2003-04 New England Patriots.

Now it's Tampa Bay's turn to go for two in a row, and in one respect they've already duplicated one key aspect of the formula that the Patriots used nearly two decades ago:

That's a very good start for the 2021 Buccaneers, as Brady goes into the second season of the two-year contract he signed with the team last March. But if it was as easy as that, the Patriots would have had all they needed to win again in 2019, 2017, 2015 and so on. There is obviously much more that goes into a championship repeat than just "running it back," as the Buccaneers found out in 2003.

After winning Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of the 2002 season, Tampa Bay brought most of that team back the next season and started their defense with a dominant 17-0 win at Philadelphia in Week One. After shutting down the Vet in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, the Buccaneers ruined the Eagles' regular-season debut of Lincoln Financial Field and signaled that they remained the team to beat. Unfortunately, a string of injuries, last-minute early-season losses and persistent inconsistency eventually doomed the 2003 team to a 7-9 record.

Will it be different for the title-bearing Buccaneers this time around? In addition to the greatest Super Bowl performer of all time under center, the 2021 Bucs will feature a young defense that is still on the rise after a dominant 2020 postseason, an extremely talented coaching staff, a strong offensive line that returns intact and, presumably, a few more key contributors from the 2021 NFL Draft. There is plenty of reason for optimism.

Of course, the Chiefs surely felt that way in 2020, and while they did get very close to a repeat they couldn't quite finish the job, thanks to the Buccaneers. What will it take for Tampa Bay to do what no team since Brady's 2004 Patriots have done? Here are a few things that will be crucial to a Buccaneers Super Bowl repeat in 2021:

  • Retain the championship core of the 2020 team

Yes, we did just say that there's more to winning consecutive Super Bowls than simply running back the same team…but it is a good place to start. In the case of the 2021 Buccaneers, that involves some significant work in the next two months before and after the start of free agency.

The following Buccaneer players are currently not under contract for 2021 (in alphabetical order) and would become unrestricted free agents if not re-signed or tagged before March 17: Andrew Adams, Antony Auclair, Kenjon Barner, Shaq Barrett, Antonio Brown, Deone Bucannon, Ross Cockrell, Lavonte David, Leonard Fournette, Blaine Gabbert, Chris Godwin, Ryan Griffin, Rob Gronkowski, Joe Haeg, LeSean McCoy, Steve McLendon, Jaydon Mickens, Kevin Minter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Ryan Smith, Ryan Succop, Ndamukong Suh and Josh Wells.

Wow. That's a lot of work to do. Obviously there are some players on that list that will be the higher priorities and there's very little chance everyone listed above will be back. As an example, Jason Licht and his staff did a fantastic job of keeping last year's defensive core intact a year ago but outside linebacker Carl Nassib did depart for Las Vegas.

Still, there are some really big names on that, core players who had a big hand in getting the Bucs all the way to the final game this year. The ones that jump out are Barrett, Brown, David, Fournette, Godwin, Gronkowski, Succop and Suh. Several of those players have already mentioned in some forum or another that they would like to remain Buccaneers, most recently Lavonte David after the team's celebratory boat parade on Wednesday. That's a good thing, but it's no guarantee. Licht and company have a lot of work to do to bring two motivated sides together in a way that works under a lower-than-expected salary cap.

The last team to repeat as Super Bowl champs, as noted above, was the 2004 Patriots. Of the 22 players who started the most games at each offensive and defensive position for the 2003 Patriots, 19 were back in 2004 and most remained starters. The only three departures of note were left guard Damien Woody, defensive end Bobby Hamilton and defensive tackle Ted Washington. Hamilton had no sacks in 2003 and Washington only had 2.0 in his sole season in New England, and the Buccaneers drafted his replacement in the first round in 2004 in Vince Wilfork. That's an upgrade.

The significant difference between the 2021 Bucs and that '04 Patriots team is that New England didn't face anywhere near the amount of key potential free agents as the current defending champs do. Other than the three listed above, of which Woody was probably the toughest loss, the only other free agent of note the Patriots needed to re-sign was running back Kevin Faulk. And they did re-sign him.

  • Stay healthy

Before the Bucs' 2020 season, Head Coach Bruce Arians told his players that they had to beat COVID-19 before they could beat other teams. In other words, as thoroughly as the whole team could adhere to pandemic protocols and avoid the types of contact and situations that could lead to an outbreak on the roster, the better chance the Bucs would have of fielding their best lineups every week. And the Bucs did beat the virus, with barely a hiccup until a couple missed games by Devin White, Shaq Barrett and Ronald Jones near the end.

Of course, they could have excelled in that regard and still been derailed by major injuries. It is no coincidence that the teams still playing in January are usually ones that had good fortune on the injury front throughout the regular season, and that was the case for this year's Bucs. Yes, tight end O.J. Howard was lost for the season in Week Four to an Achilles tendon tear and defensive lineman Vita Vea went down the next week with an ankle fractures. But those were the only injuries that cost any Tampa Bay starters or core players to miss more than a couple games, and Vea was surprisingly able to return for the last two games, which made a positive difference.

On offense, six players started all 16 regular-season games for the Buccaneers in 2020, including Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans and three offensive linemen. Left tackle Donovan Smith only missed one game and both running back Ronald Jones and left guard Ali Marpet started 13 contests. Chris Godwin fought through some early-season injuries to start 12 games.

On defense, seven players started 15 or 16 games and Carlton Davis started 14. Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean flip-flopped on the depth chart a couple times but started 16 games between them at the other corner spot. By the time the Bucs met the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, they had all 11 defensive starters from the beginning of the season on the field, as well as virtually every sub of note.

Give Tampa Bay players credit for working hard to get themselves into the peak shape that helps to reduce certain injuries, and let's also acknowledge the great work by the team's training and strength staffs. Still, there is an element of luck involved in a roster remaining largely healthy, and the Bucs had it in 2020. If they want to repeat in 2021, they'll need to have it again.

  • Get the offense on the same page before the season

The Buccaneers did not fit the profile of a team most likely to succeed during the pandemic-altered 2020 season. With no offseason training program or preseason games, it was commonly-shared wisdom that the teams most poised to handle the situation were those with a great deal of continuity, particularly at the quarterback position.

And, in fact, the top two seeds in the NFC as the playoffs began were Drew Brees' Saints and Aaron Rodgers' Packers. The Saints had the added advantage of the long-time QB-HC pairing of Brees and Sean Payton. Green Bay's Matt LaFleur was in just his second season at the helm in Green Bay but he had connected quickly with his veteran quarterback during a 13-3 season in 2019. Three quarters of the way into the season, the Saints were 10-2, the Packers were 9-3 and the Bucs were scuffling along at 7-5, having lost three of their previous four games.

But it all came together for the Buccaneers after the bye week and they didn't lose again, right up until they were accepting the Lombardi Trophy on their own home field. From Week 14 on, the Bucs averaged a league-high 33.9 points per game and racked up 413.3 yards per contest. They scored 30-plus points in each of their last seven games, marking just the 12th time in NFL history, and the first since Denver had 12 in a row in 2012, that a team has produced a streak that long. Brady threw a league-high 22 touchdowns during that run, against just four interceptions, and compiled a passer rating of 112.4.

As the 2020 season progressed and the Bucs produced good but sometimes inconsistent results in the season's first half, Brady noted repeatedly that the offense was a work in progress. Thankfully, it did eventually hit full stride.

Now, imagine that same offense with months to get everyone on the same page and at least a little bit of preseason work to iron out any wrinkles before the games start to count. Remember, Brady said this shortly before the Super Bowl:

"I think next year is going to be a lot better than this year. I feel like I'll be in a much better place mentally. I'm going to train a lot better; physically next year I'll be in a better place. I know as soon as this game ends, we're on to next season."

Having an offseason program doesn't guarantee that the offense will be at peak performance in Week One, but it certainly will give the Bucs a chance to hit their stride on offense earlier than they did in 2020.

  • Win the NFC South

The 2020 Buccaneers became just the fourth NFL team ever to win three straight road games in order to qualify for the Super Bowl, following the 2005 Steelers, the 2007 Giants and the 2010 Packers. That's yet another incredible accomplishment for this team, but the 2021 Buccaneers would rather not have a shot at joining that list.

That feat is so rare because, obviously, it's incredibly hard to pull off. The Bucs had to beat four straight division winners in order to take the 2020 title. The run did start with a vulnerable Washington team that had won the NFC East with a 7-9 record, but then the next three opponents were all first or second conference seeds led by former Super Bowl MVPs. That's a gauntlet no team should be eager to face again.

The Buccaneers were the first Wild Card team to win (or even make it to) the Super Bowl since those 2010 Packers. They were the first team to play in the Super Bowl without a first-round bye since the 2012 Ravens. The odds will be heavily against any Wild Card team next season, so the Bucs would like to avoid being one of them.

With seven teams per conference in the playoffs now, only the top seed gets a first-round bye, which has lessened the advantage division-winners get a little bit. Still, every division winner starts the postseason at home, and that will presumably return to being a big advantage in 2021 with stadiums once again (hopefully) packed for the playoffs. The Buccaneers haven't won the NFC South since 2007. They'll take a Lombardi Trophy over that title any time, but it will be a lot easier to get another one if they can avoid another long road swing next January.

  • Add a few more role players in the 2021 draft

Tom Brady or no Tom Brady, would the Buccaneers have made it all the way to the top in 2020 without rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs and rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr.? Both were starters and high-level performers from Week One and both made the PFWA All-Rookie Team. One prominent NFL analyst even named Wirfs to his All-NFL Team as one of only two offensive tackles. Wirfs played every single offensive snap in 2020; Winfield missed the NFC Championship Game with an ankle sprain but otherwise played 98% of the team's defensive snaps. Wirfs allowed one sack all season; Winfield was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in September.

The Bucs got Wirfs and Winfield with their first two picks in the 2020 draft. They don't necessarily need to hit back-to-back homers again to start the next draft, but they may need to find a couple new contributors in the first few rounds. Given their large number of pending free agents and a more restrictive salary cap than originally expected, the Buccaneers will probably have to focus most of their 2021 free agency work on keeping as much of their championship core intact, as noted above. If there are any departures, the best bet to find replacements will be in the draft rather than free agency.

As an example touched on above, the 2004 Patriots didn't lose much from the 2003 roster but they did see two of their starting down linemen depart via free agency. The Patriots were not particularly active in free agency in the spring of 2004 but they did find a big (literally) reinforcement for their front line in first-round defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. He would eventually become a star and a five-time Pro Bowler, but as a rookie Wilfork only started six games and had 2.0 sacks, though he played in every contest. It was a good depth addition for the Patriots at a rare position of need that year.

  • Have Tom Brady

Wait, did I already mention that one? Well, it's worth repeating anyway. No quarterback has won two consecutive Super Bowls since Tom Brady in 2003-04. He's won seven of those babies. Is there any player in league history who could make a team feel more confident about their championship chances than Brady?

After a clearly talented roster went 7-9 in 2019, Arians said the Buccaneers needed to believe they could win it all. After Brady arrived, they did.

View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl Win vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.

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