Recently, Jason Licht and Bruce Arians were looking back over the 2020 journey that has brought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers all the way to Super Bowl LV, and Licht brought up the 20-19 loss at Chicago in Week Five. Licht, the team's general manager told Arians, the head coach, that of all the team's five defeats during the season, that was the one that still stings.
Arians' response: It was the best thing that happened to the Buccaneers. Licht now agrees, seeing in retrospect that it forced the team to confront the ways in which it was beating itself, including penalties, and become more disciplined and more accountable. Licht said it showed them that, for all the team's talent, they were still human. It brought the team much closer together.
There was one loss in that game that discipline or accountability couldn't fix, however.
"That game was a game that, probably in my career here – and we've had a lot of bad losses – that one was one that really stung the most, I think," said Licht. "Not only did we lose the way we lost with the penalties and things like that, we also lost Vita."
That would be third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea, the incredibly nimble 350-pound defensive lineman who was the fulcrum of the Bucs' defensive front. Late in that Thursday night loss in Chicago, Vea suffered a fractured ankle, a very significant injury that was largely reported as being season-ending at the time. Vea went on October 12.
That evening, the team's medical staff told Vea that there was a slim chance he could return in 2020 if the season extended into the playoffs. Vea leaned into that small dollop of optimism and turned it into his goal.
"I think it was the next day or that night – I think I had it in my head," said Vea. "Obviously, I was down and out that night, but I think that night I told myself, 'If you just push through this, push through rehab, you might have a chance.' They told me I might have a small chance of making it, so I took those chances of what they said, and I really took it to heart. That's what I stuck with."
It was at some point in early December when Arians saw Vea running and began to consider the possibility that Vea could come back at some point in January. Of course, that only mattered if the Bucs made the playoffs, and they started December with a shaky 7-5 record as they came out of their bye week. The Bucs beat Minnesota in Week 14 and Arians laid out the stakes for Vea. "You keep working," said Arians. "And we'll keep winning."
Vea quite liked the sound of it, and he turned it into something of a daily mantra whenever he encountered Arians.
"That's always a blessing when you hear someone say that to you, and obviously when the head coach says that to you," said Vea. "I think that was our little thing to each other. Every time, seeing each other, we'd look at each other and [I'd say], 'You keep winning, I'll show up.'"
And, incredibly, he did. The Bucs won their last four regular-season games to secure the NFC's fifth playoff seed, then won a Wild Card contest in Washington before taking down the Saints in New Orleans in the Divisional round. That Saints game was played on January 17. On January 18, the Buccaneers designated Vea to return from I.R., and on January 20 he practiced for the first time since his injury. After watching him move over three days of practices, Licht and Arians chose to activate Vea and get him ready to play in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay.
Fifteen weeks after what looked like a season-ending, and somewhat gruesome, injury, Vea returned to game action. That may seem incredible, but Vea said it was possible due to a good support system that kept him mentally strong through the process
"I don't think it was that hard, honestly," he said. "I've got a good group of people around me – I had my family and friends in my ear the whole time [along with] my teammates over here. I stayed over here [and] I stayed in meetings. I was coming to position meetings, defensive meetings and stuff like that. I think that just helped me stay locked into football, really keep my mind off the injury and focus on learning more about football."
Vea said he prepared himself for any possible outcome in Green Bay, in terms of his playing time, from watching the whole game from the sideline to taking 10 snaps to getting a lot of action. It would turn out to be a lot. Vea came in early on obvious passing downs and, as he reported to the coaches on the sideline that he felt fine, started to pick up more snaps. He would finish with 33 out of a possible 71, and while he didn't finish with any statistics he was widely credited by his teammates for helping create the pressure that led to five sacks of Aaron Rodgers.
Now Vea gets the best prize of all for his hard work: His first chance to play in a Super Bowl. Given that he felt fine after the Green Bay game and just went through what had always been his usual postgame recovery process, he should be able to play as much as the coaches want him to in the title game. That's great news for the Buccaneers because their defense is noticeably better when he's on the field. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bucs give up 2.7 yards per carry when Vea is in the game and 3.9 per carry when he's out. In addition, the Bucs have a pressure rate of 32.7% and a sack rate of 10.5% with Vea on the field compared to 26.0% and 5.9% when he's out.
And if there was a silver lining for Vea from that night in Chicago, just like there was for the team in its overall development, it was gaining a new perspective.
"It was actually really exciting to see the growth with everybody and to see them having fun out there," he said. "It was really cool to take a step back and look at everything from a different view. Especially watching on TV during away games and being able to see the bigger picture, rather than being on the field and seeing it from a player point of view. I thought it was really cool seeing the growth between everybody and how much fun they were having."