When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs clash on February 7 at Raymond James Stadium, it will mark the first time that the league's top two ranked passing attacks will meet in a Super Bowl. Those two passing offenses will be led by Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, perhaps the most intriguing quarterback matchup in Super Bowl history. Chances are the football will be flying around quite a bit that evening.
The Buccaneers have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate. The Chiefs have Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins. Any one (or three or four) of them could steal the Super Bowl spotlight with a huge performance in the passing game. But is it possible that the offensive player who makes the difference on February 7 will be none of the above but a man who is more likely to take a handoff than catch a pass?
To put it more directly, could Leonard Fournette be the Buccaneers' secret weapon in Super Bowl LV?
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Super Bowl practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Fournette isn't exactly a secret after morphing into 'Playoff Lenny' in January. In the run-up to the Super Bowl, he led all players with 313 postseason yards from scrimmage. He also tied for the playoff lead with three touchdowns and is the only player on any team, so far, to score both on the ground and through the air. Not bad for a guy who only had 100 yards from scrimmage in one game during the entire regular season.
Fournette's 20-yard feat of willpower on a touchdown run in Green Bay was one of the key plays that propelled the Bucs to the Super Bowl through a three-week run of road victories. Afterward, with his new "NFC Champions" t-shirt pulled over his jersey, Fournette reflected emotionally on his decision to join Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in September after being cut by Jacksonville.
"It feels good just to be a Buc," said Fournette. "[Brady] is a great one. I just thank God every day. I was crying for like 30 minutes – I was on the phone with my mom and my dad just [talking] about my journey. I think it's a wonderful story how it's playing out."
It could continue to play out with him being a focal point in the offense in his first Super Bowl appearance, something that would have seemed unlikely five or six weeks ago. But consider this: Including all three playoff games, the Buccaneers are 9-0 in 2020 when Playoff Lenny touches the ball 10 or more times. That seems significant.
That 9-0 record also includes two of the last three games of the regular season after he was a healthy scratch against Minnesota in Week 14. Starting tailback Ronald Jones suffered a fractured finger in that game and then landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list for two weeks. Jones was also unable to play in the Wild Card win at Washington due to a knee injury that he aggravated before the game. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, Fournette was ready and Head Coach Bruce Arians was prophetic.
"It's very, very hard when you're a superstar and you're the focal point of the offense and you come to a [different] team and you're basically a role player for a while," said Arians. "It's a very hard role to accept. I just told him, 'This team is special and you're a huge part of it. Embrace your role – you never know when your role is going to change.' Then, Ro got hurt. He got COVID and then he got hurt. I'm really, really proud of Leonard and the way he's handled it."
Fournette has never claimed that it has been easy going from a huge workload as the bell cow back in Jacksonville – and a former fourth-overall draft pick – to just one of many options in Tampa. Earlier in the season, he had to work to see the wisdom in Arians choosing not to rush him back from an ankle injury. In addition to Arians, other Bucs including Brady, running back LeSean McCoy and Running Backs Coach Todd McNair helped him stay engaged.
"I came here and had hopes of being a starter [but] it didn't work out," said Fournette. "I had ups and downs this whole season, but with guys like Brady, Shady, Coach T-Mac and even Coach B.A. – we had our personal talks. He asked me during the duration of the season, 'What do I want to be?' Don't get me wrong, I was upset plenty of times after the game when I wasn't getting the ball or anything. He just sat down and had a real talk with me, and I just had to get my mind right."
Fournette didn't get the ball much the last time the Buccaneers lost a game, which happened to be against their upcoming Super Bowl opponent in Week 12. He had just 20 yards on six touches in that contest. Perhaps that will change in the rematch, as Tampa Bay's running game has found its footing in the postseason while the Chiefs' defense has been susceptible to the run.
Tampa Bay has run for 115.0 yards per game during the 2020 postseason, more than any team except the Baltimore Ravens, and 20.1 more yards per game than it did during the regular season. Meanwhile, Kansas City has allowed 120.5 yards per game on the ground and, perhaps most promisingly, 6.0 yards per carry.
Now, the Buccaneers have not lost faith in Jones, who was their leading rusher during the regular season and who set a franchise single-season record with 5.1 yards per carry. In the NFC Championship Game, Fournette had just two more carries than Jones did, 12 to 10. However, Fournette also caught five passes and is tied for the team lead with 14 receptions in the postseason. That dual effort has already allowed Fournette to join some exclusive playoff company.
With 211 yards and two touchdowns on the ground plus 102 yards and one score through the air, Fournette is the first player in 27 years to have 200-plus rushing yards, two-plus rushing TDs, 100-plus receiving yards and at least one touchdown catch in a single postseason. The only other players to achieve that feat are Hall of Famers Marcus Allen (1983 with the Raiders) and Emmitt Smith (1993 with the Cowboys).
And Fournette still has one game to go. Both Allen and Smith won the title and the Super Bowl MVP award in those two seasons. The Buccaneers don't necessarily need Fournette to join them in the MVP category to prevail in Super Bowl LV, but they wouldn't mind if he proved to be their secret weapon on February 7.