TAMPA — The Bucs have struggled mightily to create separation from 2020, reiterating to anyone who will listen that the success and spoils of that title season have zero bearing on this new one.
Problem is, each sound bite is offset by a Super Bowl sign (like the one emblazoned on the northeast side of Raymond James Stadium) or a pregame championship ceremony (like the one observed just before kickoff of the season opener).
As a result, detachment becomes darn near impossible.
“That really doesn’t matter, what happened last year,” tight end Rob Gronkowski stressed again Wednesday.
Yet in some ways, remaining tethered to the past might have its benefits. If the strategy and philosophy and mojo that made the 2020 stretch run so dazzling can spill into the ensuing season, is that a bad thing?
After all, the offensive components of that prolific stretch run — play-action, plenty of motion, clairvoyance between quarterback and receivers, pivotal chunk plays — again were prevalent against the Cowboys.
That come-from-behind, 31-29 triumph was the Bucs’ eighth consecutive victory in which they scored at least 30 points, tying an NFL mark shared by two other Tom Brady-led offenses (2007 and 2010 Patriots). They’ll try to seize the record all to themselves Sunday, versus the same Falcons franchise against whom this dazzling streak dawned.
Mid-afternoon, Dec. 20, 2020 — nearly nine months ago to the day.
“That was, I would say, one of the turning points of the season,” Gronkowski acknowledged.
Seems some carry-on items from that title odyssey — and oh how people have carried on and on about that offensive surge — are worth carrying over.
“That was a really important moment for us,” Brady said.
But that fateful day began in frustration.
Nursing a pedestrian 8-5 record entering Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Bucs went to halftime seemingly destined for 8-6. The offense was stymied by protection breakdowns (two Brady sacks) and an invisible rushing attack (no designed run went for more than 3 yards), while the defense let Atlanta mount three scoring drives of 65 or more yards.
After 30 minutes, the Bucs trailed 17-0, having failed to move inside the Falcons 40. Accounts conflict on what transpired in the locker room during intermission. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich recalled a businesslike deliberation, bereft of alarm.
“It wasn’t really any panic or anything,” he said. “It was like, ‘Hey, this is what we have to do. This game means a lot, and we have to make sure we do what we need to do in the second half to get the job done.’”
But Brady said veteran edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul took the floor — and sprinkled it in brimstone.
“I think JPP was kind of the real leader as he came into the locker room,” Brady said. “We obviously weren’t doing what we were capable of doing and we needed a big wake-up call, and we got it.”
The spotty, tentative, beleaguered unit that trudged into that locker room hasn’t been seen since. Emerging in their place for the second half were the 2007 Patriots, or a pewter variation.
Antonio Brown opened the half by turning a short Brady throw into a 20-yard gain, the Bucs’ longest offensive play of the afternoon to that point. Three plays later, Leonard Fournette ran off left guard for 9 yards, surpassing his team’s first-half rushing total by 2 yards.
Two plays after that, Brady tossed a play-action dart over the middle to Mike Evans for a 32-yard gain, setting up a 1-yard Fournette scoring run. Tampa Bay would score on its first five second-half possessions, capped by a Brady spiral to Brown (in single coverage) for a 46-yard touchdown.
The Bucs rallied for a 31-27 victory. Brady finished 31 of 45 for 390 yards and two touchdowns. Mike Evans, held to two first-half catches, finished with six for 110 yards.
“Oh, it was huge, it was huge,” coach Bruce Arians said. “That was the attack mode we kind of took and kept from there on out. It was a different mindset offensively.”
The Bucs haven’t relented — or lost — since, averaging nearly a yard more per play (6.6) in their last eight contests (including that Falcons triumph) than they did in the first 13 games (5.7) of Brady’s tenure in Tampa Bay.
Now, that momentum and mindset have seeped into a brand-new season, so why close the book on 2020?
After all, that last, prolific part never gets old.
“When we play that way, that’s when we’re at our best,” Leftwich said. “It came to, ‘Well, let’s just play that way all the time.’”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
Tampa Bay’s turning point?
A look at the Bucs’ primary offensive numbers in their first 13 games of 2020, compared to the eight games they’ve played since (including the 2021 opener):
Category; First 13; Last 8
Yards/game; 358.2; 429.3
Yards/play; 5.7; 6.6
Pass yds/game; 261.0; 329.5
Rush yds/game; 92.2; 99.8
Points/game; 28.5; 34.5
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