TAMPA — The journey from loser to winner in the NFL is not as complicated as you might think.
It’s a league of parity with the draft, the schedule and the salary cap all playing a role in a continuous trek to the middle. You’ll find teams going from last-to-first and first-to-last seemingly every NFL season.
So should you really be impressed with the Bucs’ turnaround in 2020?
In a word, yes. In two words, heck yes.
This was not simply a regular-season mirage. It was not the Dolphins going from five wins to 10 with the help of two games against the Jets as well as games with the Jaguars and Bengals, too.
What the Bucs have done is change the way the world looks at them. A team that had been irrelevant for 12 years grew in stature from month to month until putting together one of the most impressive Januarys in league history. Tampa Bay is only the fourth team to ever win three consecutive road games against division winners in the same postseason.
And they’ve done it with a roster that is not drastically different from the team that was 5-11 just two years ago. When the Bucs walked off the field at the end of the 2018 season, the offensive line was almost identical to what you see today. The starting receivers were the same, and so was a tight end. Half the defensive line looked familiar and two of the defensive backs, too.
So what was it that head coach Bruce Arians needed to change when he replaced Dirk Koetter?
“The culture. Breaking that losing culture,” Arians said. “We got so close our first year to getting to 8-8 or 9-7, but (we needed) to set that culture and to build a defense that could win championships. We had a lot of the pieces here on defense.”
Of course, adding the NFL’s most successful quarterback and a future Hall of Famer at tight end helped. But in some ways, that was about culture, as well.
There’s no denying that bringing in Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski improved the look of the offense. And signing Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh solidified the front seven on defense, along with the drafts that brought in Devin White, Jamel Dean, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Roughly half the starters on defense have changed in the past two years.
But Arians also changed expectations. If you’re looking for signposts, you could go back to the day the Bucs cut former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves at midseason in 2019. Hargreaves went from being a starter to being unemployed in the span of a couple of days because Arians wasn’t happy with his effort.
At that point, the Bucs had gone 3-6 in their first nine games under Arians. They are 18-8 since then.
“It’s accountability. It’s accountability to the cause and honest-to-God caring for each other,” Arians said. “If you don’t care about each other, you won’t be accountable to each other. This team is really, really close.”
There is also the tough love Arians brought to the locker room. There have been times when he has defended players who might have been having a crisis of confidence, but he is also one of those rare coaches who is not afraid of ripping players publicly.
It might have seemed odd to hear him single out Brady for criticism at different points this season, but that kind of honesty goes a long way in the locker room for players who are accustomed to seeing stars treated differently.
Are the Bucs a more talented team in 2020 than they were in 2018?
No doubt about it. Tristan Wirfs is a future star at tackle, Ronald Jones has grown as a running back, Barrett was the best free-agent signing of 2019, White has been a difference-maker at linebacker and several of the defensive backs are definite upgrades. Not to mention, Brady has exceeded expectations in the past two months, which is a remarkable thing to say for a quarterback with a resume from Mount Rushmore.
But the Bucs haven’t just posted a winning record in the standings, they have become a winning team in their own minds. That’s not an easy feat for a franchise with as many dreadful memories as Tampa Bay.
The Bucs have made this transition once before, going from 14 consecutive losing seasons to the playoffs in Tony Dungy’s second year in 1997. But, even then, it took another five years of winning and growing — not to mention a coaching change — before they reached a Super Bowl.
So should you be impressed with this Tampa Bay turnaround?
What do you think?
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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