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Yeah, I said it. The Bucs should be better in 2021

John Romano | Bringing back their entire Super Bowl lineup intact does not guarantee a repeat performance, but the Bucs were just hitting their stride when last season ended.
Why wouldn't Bruce Arians be back on a stage holding the Lombardi Trophy 10 months from now? The Bucs were just hitting their stride when the 2020 season ended.
Why wouldn't Bruce Arians be back on a stage holding the Lombardi Trophy 10 months from now? The Bucs were just hitting their stride when the 2020 season ended. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 30
Updated Mar. 30

TAMPA — A year ago, it was the stuff of dreams. Outrageously happy thoughts, and little more.

The Bucs fan in you had this crazy notion that Tom Brady could show up in Tampa Bay and magically reverse a dozen years of suckage, even though he was leaving Bill Belichick and a ton of birthday candles behind in New England.

So what does that make this year?

I mean, now that the dream has come true, and the Bucs are bringing back an exact replica of their lineup, how are you supposed to view Tampa Bay’s chances of becoming the first team in more than 15 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls? Is it a fantasy? A romantic’s delusion?

Or is it this: An even better bet than a year ago.

“With a little luck, with health, I think we can be better,” coach Bruce Arians said Tuesday. “If we can keep all of our guys healthy through the preseason, I think we’ll be much, much better than we were Week 1 last year. And by Week 20, we should be measurably better.”

As much as the NFL strives to penalize good teams while helping out the dregs, the Bucs have put themselves in a stronger position to win Super Bowl 56 than they were to win Super Bowl 55.

That doesn’t mean it will happen. Doesn’t even mean the Bucs will come close. The 49ers were five minutes away from winning Super Bowl 54 and found themselves at 6-10 and trading up in the draft a year later.

But this has a chance to be different. Special. Unique. First of all, teams rarely remain intact from year to year. Free agency, salary cap, injuries, retirement all conspire against teams hoping to recapture a previous season’s magic.

The Bucs have already cleared that hurdle. Because they had wisely managed the salary cap coming into last year, they were able to manipulate it in 2021 for their benefit. They’ve essentially refinanced with a balloon mortgage that could force them into salary-cap poverty in the coming years, but they have reasonably concluded another Super Bowl run is worth the risk.

The folks in Las Vegas were certainly impressed with Tampa Bay’s ability to hold on to free agents. In the days after the Super Bowl, the Bucs were frequently listed as 9-to-1 favorites to repeat as champions. Without playing a single game, you can now find odds as low as 6-to-1 for Tampa Bay.

And yet the spending spree that brought back Shaquil Barrett, Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh and others is only part of the reason for out-of-touch optimism.

There were two major factors that carried the Bucs to that makeshift stage at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7. The first was a young defense that has grown by insane proportions since Devin White and a handful of defensive backs arrived. The second was an offense remade in Brady’s image that struggled to find its identity without a normal offseason and preseason before hitting its stride in December.

Given the career trajectory of those players on defense, and recognizing that Brady is now comfortable in Arians’ offense, why wouldn’t the Bucs be a better team in 2021?

“When you go back and look at the film, we have so many things to correct from last year,” Arians said. “There was steady growth, but we are nowhere near where we can possibly be if we have a great offseason.”

Sure, there are a few dark clouds. At some point, age will matter. The world will obsess about Brady turning 44 in August, but Suh is 34, Jason Pierre-Paul is 32, Gronkowski will soon be 32 and David is 31. If you did not detect any slippage in 2020, that doesn’t mean it won’t be there in 2021.

Plus, the Bucs survived 2020 with only a handful of injuries. They lost O.J. Howard for nearly the entire season and Vita Vea for a good chunk, but keeping Brady upright and the offensive line in relatively good shape involved quite a bit of good fortune.

There’s also the possibility that a team loses its edge in the offseason after winning a championship, although if anyone is familiar with how to handle that particular pitfall it is Brady.

So what does it all mean? Should you start decorating your dinghy for next year’s boat parade? No, there are still a few small weaknesses in the lineup. And the Bucs will not dramatically improve their roster while picking No. 32 in the draft.

The point is the Bucs were a bit of a long shot to have everything come together as quickly as it did in 2020, and they managed to pull it off. Now, they’re in even better shape in 2021.

So, yes Tampa Bay, dream away. Your fantasies aren’t so crazy, after all.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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