With 12 seconds left in Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay Buccaneers nickel back Dwight Smith intercepted a tipped pass from Rich Gannon and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown, thus becoming the first (and still only) player in Super Bowl history with two pick-sixes in the same game.
At about the same time, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVII was being announced in the Qualcomm Stadium press box and elsewhere. The award went to safety Dexter Jackson, who had two key interceptions in the first half to help Tampa Bay's legendary 2002 defense completely take over the game. In retrospect, Smith might look like a good choice for the award given his singular accomplishment, but his second pick-six came after voting had concluded. Since 2001, the Super Bowl MVP award has been determined each year by a vote of 16 media panelists (80% of the decision) and fan voting (20%), which takes while the game is still going on.
If the vote had taken place after the game it might have gone to Smith or it might still have stayed in Jackson's hands. In truth, that 48-21 thrashing of the Oakland Raiders was such a team effort that it was hard to pick one star out of the pack to anoint as the game's best player. In addition to Smith and Jackson, Derrick Brooks had a game-sealing pick-six, Keenan McCardell had two touchdown catches, Michael Pittman had 124 rushing yards and Simeon Rice had two sacks, to name a few worthy considerations.
The MVP that year was up for grabs because quarterback Brad Johnson had a relatively unassuming stat line, though he played quite well, and the defense was so clearly the driving force in the win. Had Johnson had a more dominant evening, he probably would have been the choice; 31 of the 55 MVP awards so far have gone to quarterbacks.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl Win vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.
And so it is that, 18 years later, the Buccaneers have won their second NFL championship, defeating Kansas City 31-9 in Super Bowl LV on Sunday night, and once again it was very notable a team effort. The difference this time is that Tom Brady went into the game as the obvious Super Bowl headliner (along with the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes) and did not disappoint on the way to his record-setting seventh NFL title. Brady completed 72.4% of his passes, threw three touchdowns against no interceptions and finished with a 125.8 passer rating. Brady has now played in 10 Super Bowls and won MVP in half of them, but that passer rating is the best one he's ever had in the championship game.
So when that panel on Sunday chose Brady, it was deserving, it was right and it was too good of a storyline to pass up as the G.O.A.T. held off the challenger to his throne. But it was also easy.
After each win for the Buccaneers in the 2020 season – which means every week for the last two months – Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I have nominated two players as potential recipients of the Game Ball for that week (note I said "players"…things are about to change). This is our last such opportunity, and we're going to do it a little differently than the previous 14 times. This time, we're going to let Tom Brady take that Pete Rozelle Trophy and put it with his other four, and then nominate Game Ball recipients from the rest of the team. In other words, this is 'Game Ball (Non-G.O.A.T. Division).'
As always, our two nominations serve as the starting point and then you, the readers, finish the process by voting for which person you think should get the honor. If it turns out that you aren't satisfied with the candidates we put forth, you can choose "other." Since we have decided not to duplicate picks in any given week, we're alternating the order of selection and it's Carmen's turn to go first.
Carmen Vitali: DC Todd Bowles
Since we're already doing something different, allow me to break convention even more and go with a coach.
The Kansas City Chiefs were never in control of Sunday's game. After Week 12, where the Bucs found themselves dug into a 17-0 hole entering the second quarter, the defense vowed this time around to start fast. And that they did. Bowles produced a masterclass in adjustments over the two-week period Tampa Bay had to prepare for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. He and his defense attacked Kansas City and hit them (literally) where it hurt. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was hit eight times (compared to Brady, who was hit only twice) and was running for his life all game, yet the Bucs rarely brought more than four guys. Which four guys were coming was anyone's guess, most of all Mahomes, who found guys like cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in his face along with the usual suspects like Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett and Ndamukong Suh. The latter two each managed a sack as well, despite Mahomes' elusiveness.
And Mahomes being Mahomes still managed to get some incredible throws off. He sent one sailing 30 yards with pinpoint accuracy while actually horizontal in the air. But the Bucs' defense was ready for that, too. With only four guys rushing, they had more guys on the back end to cover. They also employed the services of inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White in coverage a lot. This limited Mahomes' options so much that even when he escaped and did superhuman things, it didn't matter. There was someone there to either break up the pass or force an incompletion. The Bucs had nine passes defensed on the evening.
The Chiefs didn't score a touchdown. Not a single one.
Kansas City settled for three field goals – two of which were from 49 yards or more. They converted just three third downs all day out of 13 attempts and this is a team that had one of the best third-down conversion rates in the league. They were the best in third-and-long situations. Mahomes had just a 53% completion rate, connecting on 26 of 49 passes for a total of 270 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. It gave him a passer rating of 52.3, which was not only his lowest of the season but was also the lowest of his entire career. The Bucs knew they had to contain Mahomes and they did. Thanks to Todd Bowles.
And besides, as even the Super Bowl MVP knows according to his Instagram story on Monday: defense wins championships.
Scott Smith: RB Leonard Fournette
I had guessed that Carmen would pick Shaq Barrett here [Editor's Note: I'm told she would NOT have], not considering this 90-degree turn into three-dimensional chess. No, we have never nominated a non-player before. No, that idea never came to me all season. And no, a coach can't win Super Bowl MVP. But this is our own Game Ball project and we never really wrote down any rules, so to me it stands, even if I now know that any attempt I have a nominee is already in check, maybe mate.
That means, of course, that I can now pick Barrett, who would have been my first choice. However, since Carmen has already gone on the defensive side of the ball, I'll go offense with the breakout star of the postseason, Playoff Lenny. I drew the parallel to the 2002 team above and here's another strong comparison. Running back Michael Pittman started all season for the Bucs' offense in '02 but never had a single 100-yard rushing game. Then in the playoffs the Bucs rode him for 124 yards on 29 carries. It was a potential MVP performance that got lost in the shuffle of all the defensive stars.
Leonard Fournette did not start all season for the 2020 Buccaneers, notably, but he came on extremely strong at the end and his 135 yards from scrimmage in the Super Bowl marked his best performance of the season. He saved his best for less. Fournette's 27-yard touchdown run in the second half gave the Bucs a 28-9 lead and made the Bucs' Super Bowl victory start to feel inevitable.
Tampa Bay used play action on a whopping 43.3% of its drop-backs in the Super Bowl, according to NFL Next Gen stats. They brought out the jumbo unit with reserve tackle Joe Haeg as a sixth, eligible lineman for 20 of their 63 plays, many of which coincided with those play-action snaps. Brady completed 10 of 13 passes for 135 yards and all three of his touchdowns after faking a handoff. But the Buccaneers also ran well out of that jumbo set, which means there was more bit to that play-action, and Fournette was a big reason why.
Fournette converted a third-and-one with a power run over left guard in the first quarter, then dashed for 11 yards later in the drive to get the ball to the Chiefs' 13, setting up Rob Gronkowski's first touchdown two plays later. He caught a 15-yard pass with 13 seconds left in the first half to get the ball to the nine before Antonio Brown's one-yard touchdown catch. He accounted for 46 of the 74 yards on Tampa Bay's touchdown drive in the third quarter, which ended in that aforementioned touchdown run. He got the first 21 yards of the Bucs' field goal drive on the next possession. He touched the ball at least twice and had at least one play for double-digit yardage on four of the team's five scoring drives.
Playoff Lenny was absolutely at the heart of what the Buccaneers accomplished on offense on Sunday. He deserves your vote for the Super Bowl game ball.