TAMPA — Clear the dusty books off the shelf, and tear yesterday’s posters from your wall. Here is the football tale that will top all those that came before it in Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers are Super Bowl champions.
If you lived through the jokes and heartaches of so many disappointing seasons, you know how preposterous that sounds. A generation has passed since the last time Tampa Bay danced on Super Bowl Sunday. Eighteen years and a half-dozen coaches between postseason victories and somehow, today, that cost doesn’t seem so high.
The Bucs crushed the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl 55 behind a feisty Tom Brady and a relentless pass rush to become just the fourth wild card team to win three road games on the way to an NFL championship. And to complete the fairy tale, they did it as a 3.5-point underdog in front of a pandemic-sized crowd at Raymond James Stadium as the first hometown Super Bowl host.
“We came out and proved the world wrong,” linebacker Lavonte David said.
In retrospect, the entire season seems like a fantasy. A preposterous plot performed by an unlikely cast. Brady? Rob Gronkowski? Antonio Brown? Leonard Fournette? Ndamukong Suh? These were stars in somebody else’s orbit. The story of how they found themselves together in Tampa Bay will be told by parents to children on a thousand Sundays to come.
“It is hands down one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history,” Gronkowski said.
If the Bucs’ last win in a Super Bowl in the 2002 season was a reward for years of anticipation and near-misses, this one felt like finding a winning lottery ticket on the ground. Someone threw away a Tom Brady? Yeah, sure, we’ll cash that sucker in.
This doesn’t happen here. Tampa Bay is the place that usually misplaces Super Bowl quarterbacks. The Bucs are the team that whiffs on gifted opportunities. And yet everything coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht has touched in the past 24 months has turned gold. Or, considering the Lombardi Trophy Arians held aloft Sunday night, maybe that should be silver.
“When you start by adding Tom, then Robby, and Leonard went to the championship game, AB has been in playoffs. They brought that confidence to all our guys,” Arians said. “We are a very talented football team. Nobody wants to give us credit for that. We just needed to believe. The hardest thing is to build a culture where people believe.
“We started believing pretty early in the season … all we had to do was get in the playoffs.”
The night was unbelievably brilliant in Tampa Bay and so was the Bucs’ game plan on both sides of the ball.
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The team with an array of pass-catching options, pounded the Chiefs with an old-school attack. After a pair of aborted drives early in the first quarter, Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich committed himself to the ground game.
Three consecutive runs began the next drive, followed by three consecutive play-action passes set up by the run. As they moved down the field, Brady remained under center for the first eight plays of the drive. And the first time the Bucs went to the shotgun, Brady hit Gronkowski on a crossing route on his way to the endzone.
It was the beginning of a one-two combo that Kansas City could not stop. Fournette kept the Chiefs honest with punishing runs between the tackles, and then Brady burned the secondary with play-action throws.
The Tampa Bay defense, meanwhile, hounded Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes like no one has done in ages. Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dialed up some blitzes early in the game, but Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea and Suh were getting enough pressure with a four-man rush that the Bucs were able to flood the secondary with defenders.
All for a team that, less than two months ago, looked rudderless with a 7-5 record and little hope of winning a division crown.
Teams do not just arrive in the Super Bowl after wandering a decade in the wasteland. Typically, the drums begin banging years in advance. Only four teams have won a Super Bowl while coming off a losing season, and the common factor is usually a Hall of Fame quarterback.
The 49ers went from 6-10 to world champions when Joe Montana replaced Steve DeBerg. The Rams went from 4-12 to a Super Bowl title when Kurt Warner replaced Tony Banks. And the Patriots won their first Super Bowl after going 5-11 and switching from Drew Bledsoe to Brady.
And now Brady has done it again. Even more remarkably, 19 years after he first pulled it off.
“We’ve been grinding pretty hard so I haven’t had a lot of time to think about things like that,” Brady said. “I’m just blessed, and grateful for my teammates.”
The victory was so overwhelming, the tears began to fall long before the confetti on the Tampa Bay sideline. Arians, who began the day pushing his 2-year-old grandson on a swing in the backyard, had his headset off and was blowing kisses to his 95-year-old mother on the stadium’s club level as Brady was still killing the clock on the field.
A little over two years ago, Arians was retired and working in the broadcast booth. Now, at 68, he is the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl.
“I would have been smoking something illegal to really imagine this,” Arians said.
Every close call went Tampa Bay’s way. Even some calls that probably shouldn’t have. And, of course, the world will insist that the NFL cooked the books for Brady and the Bucs.
The proper response to such accusations?
A subtle heeheehee. Followed by a louder hahahaha!
Tampa Bay has seen a lifetime of crappy calls and unfortunate breaks. There will be no apologizing for yellow flags, homefield advantage or substitute tackles on Kansas City’s offensive line.
“Nine years of grinding, I’m finally here,” said David, who was drafted by the Bucs in 2012 and played 137 regular season games before his first playoff game last month. “I see why this is a special moment and I wouldn’t want to enjoy it with any other football team. Through the hard times, I was able to keep my head held high, understanding those moments wouldn’t last.
“To finally be here and all the hard work paid off. I’m a world champion. You have to put that next to my name: world champion Lavonte David.”
Of the 32 teams in the NFL, none have ever lost a greater percentage of their games than the Buccaneers. For the better part of 45 years, they have boomeranged between ridicule and disregard.
Yet now they are one of 14 teams to have won multiple Super Bowls. They have won more than the Eagles and Bears. More than the Rams and Jets. They may not be the darlings of Madison Avenue, but they have got more bling than bluster.
So let the rest of the world cackle at Florida Man. All I know is Lord Stanley’s Cup lives here now. And the Rays brought the American League pennant home to Tampa Bay, too.
Now, you can clear space on the trophy shelf for another Lombardi Trophy.
And start thinking about how you’ll tell this story again and again and again.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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