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As injuries go, Bucs had depth and darn good luck in Super Bowl season

Twenty of the 22 Bucs who started the season opener played extensively in Super Bowl 55.
Bucs nose tackle Vita Vea (50) fractured his ankle in early October, but returned in time to play in the team's final two games including Super Bowl 55.
Bucs nose tackle Vita Vea (50) fractured his ankle in early October, but returned in time to play in the team's final two games including Super Bowl 55. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 28
Updated Feb. 28

They completed the five-month marathon constituting an NFL season with nary a shin splint.

Of the 22 Bucs who started the season opener at New Orleans on Sept. 13, all except one (injured right guard Alex Cappa) played in Super Bowl 55, and 20 played extensively (19 or more snaps).

In the context of a 20-game grind, the Bucs were resilient, rugged and really, really fortunate. The tattered sports adage about a championship requiring skill and luck? As it pertains to injuries, the Bucs possessed the latter in bulk.

In most weeks, their injury list would have fit on an index card. Even the coronavirus had a minimal impact, with inside linebacker Devin White and tailback Ronald Jones (each of whom missed two games) the most significantly affected.

“It’s a hard league,” quarterback Tom Brady said the morning after the Super Bowl. “This league is good. There’s talented players, talented coaches. You need a lot of good fortune with injuries and stuff like that always play a part.”

Related: Repeat after us: It’s hard to win back-to-back Super Bowls

Question now becomes, will the good fortune stretch into 2021? As it attempts to become the NFL’s first repeat champion in 17 years, is it reasonable to expect Tampa Bay to go through another season with nearly its entire starting lineup intact?

The answer may lurk along the playoff road the Bucs just navigated. Consider the significant injuries afflicting every Tampa Bay playoff foe in the postseason.

Washington was forced to start its third-string quarterback (Taylor Heinicke) against the Bucs after starter Alex Smith was de-activated due to a calf injury (and onetime starter Dwayne Haskins was released in late December).

The following weekend in New Orleans, the Bucs encountered a shell of future hall-of-famer Drew Brees, who had been sidelined a month during the regular season with 11 broken ribs and a collapsed lung, and played through a torn rotator cuff (according to his wife).

They then faced Green Bay minus three-time Packers Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari (who tore an ACL in late December), and ran into a Chiefs team missing three injured starting offensive linemen (including both tackles) in Super Bowl 55.

By contrast, no physical calamity of similar magnitude befell the Bucs. And when adversity did strike, the team possessed the depth to compensate.

Related: As Bears, Bucs and Brett Favre can attest, repeating is a rarity in NFL

When Cappa fractured his ankle against Washington, third-year backup Aaron Stinnie’s performance represented no dropoff. Even the most significant injury of the season — nose tackle Vita Vea’s broken ankle that sidelined him 15 weeks — was partially offset by solid play at the spot from former Chiefs draftee Rakeem Nunez-Roches and veteran Steve McLendon.

“We felt like we had a very strong team last year and I think last year proved that a lot of depth at key positions helped us get to our goal of winning the Super Bowl,” general manager Jason Licht said last week. “Right now, as BA (Bruce Arians) said, we’re trying to keep the core together.”

Conventional wisdom suggests that depth will be difficult to preserve, even with the strong financial flexibility Tampa Bay possesses.

At tailback, for instance, McCoy is almost certain not to be re-signed, and Fournette likely priced himself out of the Tampa Bay market with his resurgent postseason performance. Defensively, quality depth might have to be sacrificed if the Bucs are to have any shot at securing the unit’s most prominent free agents (Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David).

Once the roster is set, who can say whether it will remain a picture of health from wire to wire for the second year in a row? The Tampa Bay Times first reported earlier this month that Tom Brady, who turns 44 in August, is set for maintenance surgery on his left knee, and may not be ready for seven-on-seven work until mid-summer, Arians indicated.

“I think he’s probably looking somewhere around June right now, from what I’m hearing,” Arians said. “But I mean, his leadership, he doesn’t have to be out there throwing with anyone, he can be sitting there coaching the (crap) out of them.”

Additionally, veteran outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul just underwent similar surgery. Safety Jordan Whitehead had a procedure to repair a torn labrum.

Conquering the virus is one thing.

Conquering the law of averages is another.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.