TAMPA ― Bucs general manager Jason Licht would normally watch games from a press box or a suite.
But this season, he has shed his suit and tie for more traditional sideline wear. Not only has the physical divide between the front office and coaching staff been breached, the philosophical one has never been closer.
“I’ve been on the sideline for every game,” Licht said. “I’ve been a ‘scoach,’ a scout-coach. It started with the Raiders; that was the first away game I went on the field. It’s been great. I haven’t had to buy a new tie or suit. It’s been really cool to interact on the sideline and see the interactions of all these guys.
“Yeah, we have some stately vets like (Tom) Brady, (Ndamukong) Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Lavonte (David). But when you see it first-hand, you’re like, ‘Wow, we are really young, too.’”
As Licht watched the Bucs’ 30-20 win over the Saints from field level at the Superdome in New Orleans during Sunday’s NFC division playoff game, his handiwork came to life.
With the Bucs trailing 6-3, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting locked down receiver Michael Thomas and undercut an out route, intercepting a pass from Drew Brees and returning it to the 3-yard line to set up a touchdown.
Trailing 20-13 with the Saints driving near midfield in the third quarter, safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., stripped tight end Jared Cook after a reception. Inside linebacker Devin White scooped up the fumble and returned it to the New Orleans 40-yard line, a play that led to the game-tying touchdown.
Later in the quarter, receivers Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller made huge third-down catches on a field-goal drive to help the Bucs take a 23-20 lead.
White intercepted a fourth-quarter pass to set up the clinching touchdown. Safety Mike Edwards sealed the win by picking off the last pass that may ever be thrown by Brees with 4:17 remaining in the game. Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs completely stoned the pass rush of Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan.
What did all those players have in common? Licht and his staff selected them in the past two NFL drafts.
There were others, too. Cornerback Carlton Davis, a second-round pick in 2018, locked down Saints receiver Michael Thomas, holding him to zero catches on four targets. Running back Ronald Jones, also drafted in the second round that year, rushed for 62 yards with a 4.8 average.
“The cool thing about that game was seeing all these guys make plays,” Licht said. “And throw (safety) Jordan Whitehead in there. He was part of that (2018) draft with (defensive lineman) Vita (Vea) and those guys.”
Licht, 49, has had plenty of misses to go with all these hits. He has produced two winning seasons in seven years. He owns a 45-67 regular-season record, if such things should be stuck to the GM.
Licht came in with Lovie Smith, didn’t go out with Dirk Koetter and has never been closer to any head coach as he is to Bruce Arians. The two worked together for two seasons in Arizona, where Licht made it to vice-president of player personnel.
“My relationship with B.A. is unique,” Licht said. “I’ll probably never have this again. Our respective staffs see that and they, in turn, get along. There are no boundaries at all. If you look around the league and see what teams are kind of falling apart now, or that haven’t done well for a long period of time, which was us, there’s usually a rift.
“There hasn’t been a bond this strong.”
Licht is quick to say how proud he is of his staff, including director of player/personnel John Spytek, college scouting director Mike Biehl, director of football administration Mike Greenberg and director of pro scouting Rob McCartney.
“I’ve got to say, Jason (Licht) is the main reason I came back in coaching. I knew how good of an evaluator he was and having worked with him,” Arians said. “We shared the same vision. We were going to build this thing on defense. We’ll score enough points.
“Just building the roster the way he has and being able to get Tom (Brady), Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) and Leonard (Fournette) and still be really cap-friendly with this roster that we have. We believed RoJo (Ronald Jones) was a player. He had all that talent, it was just a matter of maturity.
“Can’t say enough about what Jason has done,” Arians continued. “To me, he’s Executive of the Year, just pulling off all that stuff that he did.”
Of course, eventually every conversation about the skill and will of the 2020 Bucs begins with Brady.
The impact he has had on the locker room is immeasurable, Licht says. It’s his attention to detail, his laser focus on preparation that has been transferred to his new Bucs teammates.
“After we won (in New Orleans), there were some moments of jubilation on that sideline,” Licht said. “But as soon as everyone left the locker room, I mean, Brady is grinding tape on the plane. There’s no walking around, high-fiving and pouring drinks. We’re all business, and it’s cool. I don’t know if that would’ve happened in the past without a guy like Brady as our leader on the team.”
The Bucs are 60 minutes away from Super Bowl 55 and a chance to become the first NFL team to play for a Lombardi Trophy in its home stadium.
If it does, Licht will receive credit for correcting early mistakes and stocking the Bucs with a blend of experience and young talent. Arians will be hailed for developing that collection of players into a championship team.
“One of the first conversations I had with (Arians) after he was hired, we were talking and having a few drinks and I said, ‘You know what my goal is? My No. 1 goal here in my career is to have a statue of you in front of the stadium,’” Licht said. “‘Because if there’s a statute of you in front of the stadium, that means we’ve won at least one Super Bowl or Super Bowls. That means we did our job.’
“That would be the biggest feather in my cap. A statue of him in front of the stadium. I reminded him on the flight home Sunday. We’re one step closer to getting that statue built.”