If this all ends the way it’s supposed to, there will be a rush to explain how it happened. They will throw around names as if they were actual street signs pointing the way toward a Super Bowl.
Brady, Gronk and Wirfs. Barrett, White and Suh. Arians, Bowles and Leftwich. Each arrived in the past 16 months, and all will eventually have a role to play in the journey. The real starting line, meanwhile, will go largely unnoticed.
It wasn’t a free agent. It wasn’t a trade and it wasn’t a hire. Instead, it was a reprieve. The day the Buccaneers began to turn the corner was the day the Glazers decided not to fire general manager Jason Licht.
Heaven knows, a pink slip would have been easily justified. When head coach Dirk Koetter was fired at the end of 2018, Licht had a 27-53 record as Bucs general manager. In the five years before he arrived, Tampa Bay had gone 28-52, so you could argue improvement was non-existent.
And yet the Glazer family trusted in what Licht was preaching. That the franchise was closer to greatness than anyone could see, and that Licht had a plan to get the Bucs there. He wasn’t selling himself as much as the future. Even if he was worried about his own job status.
“Any general manager coming off a losing season is going to have that thought (of being fired)," Licht said. “There’s really nothing you can do about it. I put it in their hands. I’m grateful ownership saw some of the same things I did, that we were not that far off. We just needed to add a few pieces here, and we needed to bring in Bruce (Arians)."
Since then, the Bucs have gone from zero to sexy in no time at all. Licht begat Arians, Arians begat Tom Brady, and Brady begat the eyes of the world. A team that hasn’t won a playoff game in 17 years is now lumped among the top five Super Bowl contenders, according to the sports books in Las Vegas.
Has a franchise ever reinvented itself so quickly? Why, yes, now that you mention it. Just last spring, the world was talking about the Cleveland Browns as if Lazarus himself was playing quarterback. And in case you missed it, the Browns went 6-10 last year.
The point is, the Bucs haven’t won anything except the offseason. The path from preseason darlings to postseason champions can be particularly cruel. As Licht puts it, he’s not ready to run up the hill carrying a championship banner just yet.
Still, it’s time to appreciate the work done by Licht since the start of last year. His 2019 draft class yielded three starters on defense, including future star Devin White. His 2019 free-agent class produced the single-best signing of the year in NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett, as well as Ndamukong Suh. That was five new starters on defense, acquired in a little more than a month.
“Last year’s (draft) was just a different feel. It was like there was no doubt," Licht said. “I remember talking with (Arians) in June at the conclusion of (organized team activities) and (Arians) looked at me and said, ‘These are all going to be players for us this year.'"
And all of that was just a prelude to this offseason when signing Brady shook the NFL to its foundation, and that was followed by the trade for Rob Gronkowski and a well-received draft with Tristan Wirfs, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Even if you want to argue about who is running the show when it comes to putting the roster together, this turnaround all began when Licht lured Arians out of retirement. It lent credibility to the offense, and accountability to the locker room.
That point was hammered home in November when the Bucs, limping along at 3-6, released cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for not hustling enough. The move made room in the secondary for the young cornerbacks the Bucs had drafted in 2018-19, and it sent an unmistakable message that no one was untouchable, even if it meant another black mark on Licht’s list of first-rounders.
As if on cue, the defense got on a roll a short time later. Some of that was an easier portion of the schedule, and some of it was all the young players starting to grow up. But some of it could have been that shot across the bow.
“Vernon is a great kid, Vernon is a talented player, but I think when Bruce and I decided to release Vernon, that was one of the moments where everybody realized it doesn’t matter if you’re a first-round pick or a minimum salary guy, you’re going to be held accountable," Licht said. “It’s a bigger mistake to hold on to a player that isn’t performing who was a high pick than it is to cut your losses.
“If you let your ego get in the way, it’s just going to compound the problem. And (the Glazers) respect that. I’m not saying I’m immune (from blame) by any means, but you have to put the ego aside and make the decisions that are best for the football team."
The same thinking was used with the Jameis Winston situation. Five years ago, Tampa Bay decided to build an entire team around Winston and, in some ways, he justified that faith by leading the NFL in passing yards in 2019. Once again, Licht could have argued in favor of his own guy. And he wasn’t ready to automatically cut ties with Winston, but Brady’s availability completely changed the landscape.
“We didn’t go into this offseason saying we need to get rid of Jameis," Licht said. “We went into this offseason saying, ‘Is there any way we can improve that position?’"
So is it all enough? Can the Bucs go from a losing record to a shot at the Super Bowl?
Licht chuckles softly. You will not get a screaming headline out of him.
So I change tack, and ask if years of criticism and insults over personnel moves now feel a long way off. This offseason may not be about Jason Licht, but it ultimately will decide his legacy.
“The better your football team gets, the better life gets for a general manager," he says. “Food tastes better, your relationship is better with your kids and your wife. I would credit this to ownership giving me the ability to get one of the best coaches in the NFL, and giving Bruce and I the resources to bring in top talent.
“When a GM and a coach have an extremely close relationship, it usually works out. If you look around the league at teams that have blown up … there’s usually a rift somewhere in the organization. That doesn’t happen here because (Arians) has always been of the philosophy that we’re all in this together, which I love."