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Lost in the applause was the man responsible for the Bucs’ Super Bowl

John Romano | He didn’t win an executive of the year award or get a lot of headlines, but Tampa Bay’s championship roster was constructed almost entirely by Jason Licht.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht, right, raises the Lombardi Trophy as head coach Bruce Arians, left, hugs his wife, Christine Arians, following the Bucs' win in Super Bowl 55 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht, right, raises the Lombardi Trophy as head coach Bruce Arians, left, hugs his wife, Christine Arians, following the Bucs' win in Super Bowl 55 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 9

TAMPA — Now that the applause has died down and we’ve retaken our seats, it’s time for the final bow.

The owners held the Lombardi Trophy, the players danced on the stage and the coach had his moment in the spotlight. All were deserving and, hopefully, the cheering will echo in their minds forever.

But now we pull the curtain back a little further. To the gentleman who has stood in the wings for most of this production. He’s been around longer than most and suffered as much as anyone. And no matter how brightly the other stars shined, this is his moment, too.

So before we go back to our lives, the residents of Tampa Bay should gratefully acknowledge him:

Well done, Jason Licht.

The Buccaneers general manager has kept a low profile throughout much of the 2020 season, and perhaps that is a habit borne of ducking so many insults from years gone by.

He did not get a lot of the same plaudits or huzzahs of Super Bowl general managers of the past, and there are logical reasons for that. To begin with, his report card from 2014-17 is spotty, and the team’s record was dreadful. And it’s at least worth raising an eyebrow that his personnel decisions grew noticeably more successful once Bruce Arians became the head coach.

But the bottom line is this:

No general manager has had a better run of acquisitions the past two years. And, honestly, I don’t even think it’s close.

Let’s start with the free agents. Was there a better signing in 2019 than Shaquil Barrett? He was a part-time starter in Denver, came to Tampa Bay for a modest $4 million salary and ended up leading the NFL in sacks. How about 2020? Joke all you want about how hard it was to spot Tom Brady on the scrap heap, but Licht is the guy who signed him and won a Super Bowl.

Now consider the draft. You might quibble about offensive players, but was there a better pick on the defensive side of the ball than Devin White in 2019? And of the four or five offensive tackles supposedly worthy of first-round status in 2020, Tristan Wirfs had the best rookie season of them all.

That doesn’t even include the trade for Rob Gronkowski, the signings of Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown, or finding Antoine Winfield Jr., Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson in the past two drafts.

As the Super Bowl week unfolded, it almost seemed as if Arians was cognizant of the lack of attention on Licht. Every day, whether the subject came up or not, Arians found a way to praise his general manager.

One day it was, “Jason gets all the credit for the roster, and I just try to get out of the way and not screw it up.”

Another day it was, “Jason Licht has done a great, great job of putting depth throughout this whole roster.”

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Yet another day it was, “Jason did such a great job of adding pieces as we went along with Rob, Leonard, Antonio and other guys.”

Even if you are inclined to give Arians a share of the credit for deciding which players he wanted — or for recruiting Brady to come here — the story’s origins still begin with Licht. It was his friendship and working relationship with Arians that convinced the coach to come out of retirement and take over a roster that he clearly saw potential in.

It’s also noteworthy that Licht built this Super Bowl roster without mortgaging future drafts. Think about the Seattle Seahawks, for instance. They clearly had visions of a Lombardi Trophy on their minds when they gave up two first-round picks and a third-rounder to acquire Jamal Adams from the Jets last summer, and yet they didn’t even survive the wild-card weekend.

Tampa Bay’s salary cap may be stretched taut, but this team should be a Super Bowl contender again in 2021. The biggest worry is they have no clear answer at quarterback once Brady finally starts playing his age, but if that was the cost for the Super Bowl 55 victory, then so be it.

The last time the Bucs won a Super Bowl, they paid dearly in trades with two first-round picks and two second-round picks in the 2002-04 drafts. Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Rich McKay also clashed on philosophies and eventually split up. Meanwhile, the Bucs did not win another postseason game for 18 years.

That doesn’t seem likely this time around.

And you should probably thank Jason Licht for that.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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