In 2002, the NFL expanded to its current state of 32 teams and took that opportunity to realign its conferences and divisions into a more symmetrical and geographically-accurate structure. The NFL also went from a scheduling format based largely on previous standings to one that is mostly a rotation of divisional matchups, ensuring every team would play ever other team at least once at home and on the road in an eight-year span.
The 2021 season will bring the first major change to the schedule since that 2002 realignment, but of a different kind. In this case, the enhanced schedule is going from 16 regular season games and four preseason games to 17 in the regular season and three in the preseason. The most immediate impact for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is that they get an extra game on the road at Indianapolis in 2021.
Just as in 2002, however, the league is taking this opportunity to more formally structure another aspect of its schedule-making: the NFL International Series.
The end result is also similar – an eight-year rotation that ensures every team plays a game abroad at least once in that span, beginning in 2022. The NFL has been playing regular-season games in London since 2007 and in Mexico City since 2016 as part of the International Series but its global footprint could grow under this new format. In its announcement on Tuesday, the NFL said it would "focus initially on Canada, Europe, Mexico, South America and the United Kingdom. That suggests several new potential game locations in the near term and perhaps even more in the long term.
Buccaneers Owner/Co-Chairman Joel Glazer is the chairman of the NFL's International Committee and has thus worked closely with the league's efforts to grow the game outside of the United States. He sees the new International Series scheduling format as a great step in that direction and the addition of the 17th game as the perfect time to make that step.
"The NFL has a focus on growing internationally; it's been focused on that for many years," said Glazer. "And now I think the NFL is going through another stage of development, and with a 17-game schedule it enabled a more structured approach, a more long-term approach where everybody will participate and play once every eight years. That's great for growing the game internationally. We have fans throughout the world, there's a lot of excitement throughout the world. This will just help build on a lot of the great work that the league has done in the past and its goal of continuing its global growth."
Teams are still allowed to volunteer for home games to be played internationally and could play abroad more often than once every eight years. Tampa Bay has already participated in the series three times, playing home games in London in 2009 (against New England), in 2011 (against Chicago) and in 2019 (against Carolina). The first two were at Wembley Stadium but the most recent was held at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a multi-purpose facility that hosted the NFL for the first time in 2019.
While the Buccaneers (and the NFL as a whole) are very popular in the United Kingdom, they are currently wildly popular in the Bay area thanks to their Super Bowl LV victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in February. Interest in the 2021 season is sure to be at an all-time high, and Glazer said on Wednesday that the Buccaneers are "preparing for normality and all the excitement that comes with it."
After a season of empty or partially-filled stadiums due to the pandemic, the NFL is hoping to be back to full stands in 2021, which would be great for the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers as they attempt a title defense. There is, however, one other thing many fans would like to see return to Raymond James Stadium that is not yet in the works: Throwback Games.
And that's not for a lack of trying on the Buccaneers' part.
Tampa Bay played Throwback Games in their classic orange and white uniforms once every year from 2009-12 but had to stop in 2013 when the league instituted a "one-shell" rule for player helmets. That meant the Buccaneers couldn't play a game in white helmets, and they weren't going to pair the old orange and white uniforms with the new pewter helmet. The Buccaneers very much want that rule to be revised so that they can begin playing Throwback Games again.
"On the throwbacks, we're constantly at the league's doorstep trying to get them to move so that we can wear our throwbacks," said Glazer. "We're not there yet, but there are discussions going on. Hopefully at some point in the future that will happen because I know how popular they are with our fans."
Of course, the Buccaneers did a more sweeping throwback of a sort in 2020, introducing a new set of uniforms based largely on the ones they wore in their first Super Bowl era. Fans welcomed a return to the more traditional uniforms the team wore from 1997-2013, and of course it didn't hurt that the team immediately won another championship in them.
"On the uniform change last year, it was unbelievably well received, the pure [look], people loved it," Glazer said. "It was great to see a little more traditional look than we've had in the past. I know our players liked it, our fans liked it and it all worked out. It all went together well with the Super Bowl championship."
If the Buccaneers do get to play in front of full crowds at Raymond James Stadium this fall, it will be additionally exciting because the organization will be defending that Super Bowl LV championship. And that is only possible because of how well the entire team handled the challenges of operating within a pandemic. Glazer lauded the Buccaneers players for their unselfish approach to the season and was particularly impressed with the leadership of Bruce Arians' coaching staff.
"I can't say enough about our coaching staff and the job that they did in a very tough environment, developing the younger players – the blend of younger, better players – in the most difficult of environments," said Glazer. "And every step of the way, whatever hurdle we faced, there was no complaining, there was no moaning, there was just figuring out a way to do it, to coach up the players. We have a special, special, special group of coaches and I can't tell you how appreciative I am of all their hard work last year and everything they did. We're just fortunate to have them all back, which is unique after a Super Bowl. We're just very proud of everything they did."