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Are Bucs becoming NFL’s version of Last Chance U?

Talented but troubled players such as Leonard Fournette, Antonio Brown and Richard Sherman have overcome off-field issues to find a home in Tampa Bay.
Leonard Fournette is on pace to eclipse his single-season record of 1,674 total yards from his final season with the Jaguars in 2019.
Leonard Fournette is on pace to eclipse his single-season record of 1,674 total yards from his final season with the Jaguars in 2019. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 23
Updated Oct. 23

TAMPA — The Bucs’ leading rusher was holding a conversation with the team’s hottest receiver the other day. A little more than a year ago, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown had been discarded and discounted. Now, they can hardly believe their fate.

They have been taken in by coach Bruce Arians, who has a reputation for improving teams by improving the fortunes of wayward players.

Fournette had such a bad attitude with the Jaguars that they released him just two weeks before the start of the 2020 season. Brown was looking for his fourth team in two years after being suspended for the first eight games last year for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following an altercation with a moving truck driver (he pleaded no contest to a felony burglary with battery charge and was sentenced to two years of probation, which were terminated a year early).

Both played enormous roles and scored touchdowns in the Bucs’ victory over the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.

Winning has replaced whining for two of the NFL’s most productive castoffs.

“Me and A.B. had a talk, and I’m like, ‘Man, this is really Last Chance U,” Fournette said. “And we’ve got Richard Sherman here now ― this is like his second chance. This organization is different. They take care of their people here. They understand their people and they understand their players, too. When you get that kind of love back, you’ll work your tail off for anybody that’s doing that for you.”

‘The best locker room I’ve been around’

Bucs cornerback Richard Sherman has 11 tackles and a fumble recovery since joining the Bucs.
Bucs cornerback Richard Sherman has 11 tackles and a fumble recovery since joining the Bucs. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | AP ]

Sherman was on the couch at his home in Seattle watching his phone not ring until injuries in the Bucs secondary forced their hand.

The five-time Pro Bowl player was arrested in July, accused of drunkenly crashing his SUV in a construction zone and trying to break into his in-laws’ suburban Seattle home. He pleaded not guilty to five misdemeanors, including driving under the influence and second-degree criminal trespass. He said he’s been getting counseling since his arrest.

Sherman played three games in 12 days before his hamstring gave out. He’s now hoping to return to the lineup in a couple weeks.

“He brought a lot of intelligence and experience,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “It’s unfortunate he got hurt. But he’s been big on the sidelines as far as coaching in practice and games. I think that has been worth its weight in gold.”

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How are the Bucs able to do it? What is it about this organization that affords them the opportunity to rehabilitate a player’s career without much hesitation or fear?

It has a lot to do with Arians, who shoots straight with players the minute they walk into the building. Also credit a strong and unselfish locker room that is led by Tom Brady, who personally lobbied for all three players at one time or another.

“Bruce is a rare leader,” general manager Jason Licht said. “He’s always been open to giving second, third — sometimes more — chances to people. And I feel very comfortable with it, because he can handle it. He makes it very clear with his players what the boundaries are, and the respect level couldn’t be any higher for him.

“We also have the best locker room I’ve been around. Obviously, Brady is a major reason. But it goes beyond that. It really started to become most apparent last year and the second half of last season.”

Letting guys be themselves

Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates a reception for a first down during a game against the Dolphins earlier this month at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates a reception for a first down during a game against the Dolphins earlier this month at Raymond James Stadium. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Brady was first to call Sherman after the Bucs lost Sean Murphy-Bunting to a dislocated elbow in the Week 1 win over the Cowboys.

He personally vouched for Brown, who spent all of one week with him in New England before being released. Brown lived with Brady until he could get settled in Tampa Bay and drove to work with him each day.

“I think the key is genuinely just caring,” Brady said. “And wanting to see those guys fulfill their potential. I think that’s part of being a veteran player. I’ve been very fortunate over the years to have people come into my life that brought the best out of me. That’s all I’m trying to do for a lot of these guys, too, to put them in a position in the best way that I know how to see them succeed.”

Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has known Brown since his rookie season with the Steelers and has witnessed the same energetic, workaholic player he remembered then.

“We let guys come in and be themselves,” Leftwich said. “Obviously, this is a team sport. We’re all together, so we have to do things as a group because there’s a bunch of us out there at the same time. So obviously, you have to have the team mindset. But at the same time, the players we’re talking about, I don’t see an issue.”

Feeling at home

Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown, left, and running back Leonard Fournette, center, leap to celebrate a touchdown catch by Chris Godwin, right, during a game last month in Tampa.
Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown, left, and running back Leonard Fournette, center, leap to celebrate a touchdown catch by Chris Godwin, right, during a game last month in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

All three are talented, but talent without maturity and stability doesn’t win. Fournette got a break when Ronald Jones went down with COVID-19 last season, leading to his playoff run that had everyone calling him Playoff Lenny and Lombardi Lenny.

In the past three weeks, Fournette has rolled up 376 yards from scrimmage, ranking third in the NFL during that stretch behind the Titans’ Derrick Henry (463 yards) and the Colts ‘Jonathan Taylor (441). He’s on pace to eclipse his single-season record of 1,674 total yards from his final season with the Jags in 2019.

Brown, 33, will miss Sunday’s game against the Bears with an ankle injury. He’s second on the club with 29 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns.

“He obviously helped us win a Super Bowl last year,” receiver Mike Evans said. “He was a big addition for us. We were banged up last year, and he came in at the perfect time. He’s one of the best receivers to ever play the game. He can work. I think he’s 33 years old. He never gets tired. He just runs his routes full speed every time.”

Sherman, 33, is expected to miss at least 2-3 games recovering from his hamstring injury. He has 11 tackles and a fumble recovery, even if his coverage has been below average. Quarterbacks have completed 12 of 16 passes on him for 162 yards and no touchdowns.

All three players will become free agents again next season, eligible to leave Last Chance U. Right now, it feels like home.

“Yeah, I’m happy here,” Fournette said. “I’m very happy. ... I’ve got the one year under my belt with a great group of guys and people, and I love it here. And they love me, so same.”

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