TAMPA — Heavy are the arms that hold the Lombardi Trophy. That’s what Bruce Arians realized during the Bucs’ Super Bowl boat parade when he gave it to general manager Jason Licht.
“I gave Jason a big hug and handed him the trophy because my arms were getting heavy holding it over my head,” Arians said.
Even with all the talk about “going for two,” Arians confirmed what history has taught us: That silver football you get for winning the NFL title is hard to hold onto.
Since the NFL introduced the salary cap in 1994, only two franchises ― the 1997-98 Broncos and the 2003-04 Patriots ― have repeated as Super Bowl champs.
It just so happens the last team to do it also was quarterbacked by Tom Brady.
While Brady and Arians are confident the Bucs won’t be one-year wonders, they also know keeping the band together is critical but almost impossible.
The Bucs have about two-dozen players who are set to become unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins March 17.
In fact, in his last address to the 2020 team, Arians made it clear that the Bucs don’t stand on top of the NFL mountain. They must find a way to scale it all over again.
“When I said goodbye, we said goodbye to this (2020) season, this team,” Arians said. “Next year is a different team. When we come back we’re not the Super Bowl champions, we’re just the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. ... Next year is a whole new ballclub, man. We ain’t done (crap).”
A big reason for the Lombardi backslide has everything to do with the inability to hang onto key players in the free agent era.
When you win a Super Bowl for the first time, players are asked to sacrifice either money or playing time or both. When it comes time to do it again, the opportunity to repeat is not as high of a priority as the opportunity to achieve generational wealth.
It’s also an allotment system with a hard salary cap, so retaining one player could mean losing a couple others.
When the Ravens beat the 49ers in Super Bowl 47, quarterback Joe Flacco was signed to $120.6 million contract, the largest in NFL history at the time. In part due to retirement and reduced salary cap space, the Ravens parted ways with eight starters, including Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed, Matt Birk and Dannell Ellerbe.
Flacco struggled mightily the next season, throwing 19 touchdowns and a career-high 22 interceptions.
The Bucs don’t have a quarterback to overpay. Brady has another year left on his contract for $25 million. But a number of players are expecting to cash in on their Super Bowl fame and their game.
Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who certainly earned a long-term contract extension after leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019, was given the franchise player tag of $15.8 million for 2020.
Barrett was a key performer with eight sacks in the regular season before dominating in the playoffs with four sacks and six quarterback hurries.
While the Bucs could use the franchise tag on Barrett again, he is talking about “breaking the bank” and clearly wouldn’t accept that designation quite as easily after having won a Super Bowl ring for the Bucs.
But the same could be true for Chris Godwin. Still on a rookie contract that paid him $2.13 million in 2020, the Pro Bowl receiver is a free agent. He has his Super Bowl ring. Now Godwin, who is 24 and engaged, knows it’s time to get paid.
As a free agent, even though he missed four games with an assortment of injuries in 2020, Godwin would be among the most coveted receivers on the market with the Ravens and Colts as likely suitors.
Godwin also had to share the football not just with Mike Evans, but players such as Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Scottty Miller. His production fell from 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019 to 840 yards receiving and seven TDs.
The franchise player tag at receiver is $16.43 million. That’s a healthy raise for Godwin, who would have the ability to become a free agent again in 2022 when the salary cap is set to increase dramatically.
Each player is in a different stage of his career. Lavonte David waited nine seasons to reach the playoffs and now has his Super Bowl ring. At 31, David has one big contract left in his career.
David was rated as the fourth-best off-ball linebacker in the league last season by Pro Football Focus. Salaries have increased since his last extension. Bobby Wagner tops the market at $18 million per year. David made $10.75 million last season.
“I don’t know if Devin (White) would be the player he’s evolving into without Lavonte,” Licht said. “Lavonte behind the scenes is a phenomenal leader … we’re going to try our damnedest to have him back.”
Ryan Succop went 28-of-31 in field goal tries last season (90.3 percent). Given the Bucs’ history with place-kickers, what will it cost to continue to reverse the curse?
Does defensive end Ndamukong Suh, with twins on the way, want to play another season now that he has his Super Bowl ring? Is Gronkowski, who earned $10 million last season, willing to take less to play another year with Brady?
Leonard Fournette became Playoff Lenny and Lombardi Lenny, but would he accept the role as No. 2 RB behind Ronald Jones?
Brown was suspended the first eight games and took a pay-as-you-play deal. Would he do it again as the club’s No. 3 receiver?
The Bucs have an estimated $13.36 million in salary cap space, which could grow by releasing players or restructuring some deals.
But when you’re looking for reasons why it’s hard for Super Bowl teams to repeat, losing players to free agency may top the list.