Todd Bowles was a starting safety on the Washington team that won Super Bowl XXII at the end of the 1987 season. The next year, Washington slipped to 7-9 and missed the playoffs entirely, in this case largely due to a rash of injuries on defense.
Bowles is now the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which means he'll soon be collecting another fancy ring after the Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV back in February. Not long after that ring ceremony, Tampa Bay will begin its title defense and try to become the first team to win consecutive Super Bowls since New England in 2003 and 2004.
Coincidentally, the Buccaneers' offense is now run by the same quarterback as the one who led the Patriots to those two titles almost two decades ago. The continued presence of Tom Brady in the huddle seems like a big check in favor of the Bucs' repeat chances, but there is always the possibility of injuries or other unforeseen circumstances working against that pursuit, as it did for Bowles' team in 1988.
There's also one more thing that Bowles knows the Buccaneers have to guard against if they want to repeat: hubris.
After not only winning the Super Bowl at the end of an eight-game winning streak but also completely dominating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the final game, the Buccaneers are undoubtedly a confident team heading into 2021. That confidence is surely bolstered by the fact that every starter and virtually every contributor from that title run is back. However, Bowles will be quick to remind the players on his rising defense that the only guarantee this season is there will be no second trophy without all the hard work from the ground up.
"I don't think we can go back to last year," he said. "You have to go forward to this year. Even with 22 guys [returning] it's still a different team. It's a different team. We tweaked some things for us to get better at and we know some things that hurt us.
"So as a team we have to re-jell and redo our chemistry and everything else, and try to get better from there and start from the bottom up. I think if you go into the season saying that we're top dog, we've already lost. We've already lost. We're starting at the bottom and we're going to work our way back up."
There's nothing wrong with confidence in and of itself, of course, and Buccaneer defenders have every reason to believe they can be among the league's best. Tampa Bay finished the 2020 season ranked sixth in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed and was arguably playing much better ball at the end of the season than the beginning. In the playoffs, the defense turned up the heat with nine takeaways in four games, which was easily one of the biggest factors in the four straight wins. There are Pro Bowl-caliber players at every level and a good number of the team's starters are still very young and can reasonably be expected to improve.
All of that is encouraging, but what Bowles and the Bucs' coaches are focusing on now are the things that did not go as well as hoped in 2020. Though these things weren't enough to derail a championship they could do so in 2021 and thus they draw the coaches attention in film study more than a great interception or a timely sack.
"Looking at the tape, we have a lot of things we can do better that we're going to look at," said Bowles. "We want to do better at all facets – front, middle and back end. So we're going to get to those things and we're going to look at them when they get in here and get to work. We have a lot to take care of."
View the best photos from the third day of Bucs OTAs.
Starting at the bottom doesn't mean the Buccaneers are lacking a solid foundation on the ground floor. Bowles may not want his players to coast on their post-championship hype, but he knows there was growth from 2020 that will carry over into 2021.
"Just looking at the cut-ups with the other coaches, we've got to have a lot more growth from everybody," he said. "I think they made the most growth in coming together as a unit. It wasn't just the back end and the front end working separately; they came together at the right time. The MEs [mental mistakes] had cut down, they got used to seeing each other [and] how they play. A couple guys learned to play with some nicks and bruises and learned how to be professional about that. And, you know, you get on one of those rolls and they come together."
Bowles likely won't have a hard time getting his message through to the players, especially because they've now seen the amount of work they will have to put it in to go all the way. There's no lack of work ethic in the Bucs' locker room. And there's another thing that players are not likey to forget: Hard work and attention to detail will not only make the difference better but will also be the difference between whether or not they, personally, are a part of that defense.
"It's always about the competition," said Bowles. "It starts at the bottom and depending upon how good you are you can work your way to the top. Every year, everyone has to earn their spot, even the people that started in the Super Bowl. You can't have somebody out-perform you at training camp and expect to be given the job. Work is work. We understand that, they understand that…now we get to work."