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As training camp dawns, could the 2022 Bucs be more driven than last year?

The sting from that playoff loss to the Rams remains acute six months later.
Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (10) hauls in a 44-yard pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) to set up the winning field goal on the final play of L.A.'s 30-27 playoff triumph at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 23. Nine of the 11 Bucs defensive players on the field for that play are still around.
Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (10) hauls in a 44-yard pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) to set up the winning field goal on the final play of L.A.'s 30-27 playoff triumph at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 23. Nine of the 11 Bucs defensive players on the field for that play are still around. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 25

His recent sound bite on the Rich Eisen Show, equal parts regret and resolve, served as a fitting prelude to training camp.

Shaquil Barrett established a tone — if not atonement.

“I was so hurt from the way we lost last year, I hated football for so long,” the veteran edge rusher said of his team’s 30-27 postseason loss to the Rams. “But yeah, I’m back now and I think that we’ll be hoisting that trophy up at the end of the year.”

Matt Gay’s 30-yard field goal — on the final play of that NFC division playoff game — barely had split the north end zone uprights when “unfinished business” surfaced as the Bucs’ recurring theme of 2022. Barrett was only the latest to speak of the torment of that defeat, arguably the most painful in franchise history.

That loss “is big motivation,” inside linebacker Lavonte David said in April. “Huge motivation because we (the defense) kind of got us back in that game. Then for us to end the game like that, that’s not what we want to be remembered as.”

Specifics of that surreal night remain lodged in the fan base’s psyche like a splinter. The Rams led 27-3 early in the second half before the Bucs pounced on L.A.’s self-infliction (three lost fumbles, a missed field goal) to storm back, tying the score on Leonard Fournette’s 9-yard scoring run with 42 seconds remaining.

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) remains down after being sacked and fumbling as Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (54) celebrates during the fourth quarter of January's playoff game.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) remains down after being sacked and fumbling as Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (54) celebrates during the fourth quarter of January's playoff game. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

On the ensuing desperation drive, Matthew Stafford connected with Cooper Kupp for 20 yards on second and 11 when cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting slipped while trying to cover the Rams receiver. The next play, the Bucs employed Cover-Zero — an all-out blitz — and Stafford found Kupp behind the coverage for 44 yards, setting up the field goal.

Second-year edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka called the loss “fuel to the fire.” Nose tackle Vita Vea indicated it made the team “more hungry.” Heck, Tom Brady mentioned it while un-retiring, ending his March 13 tweet announcing his return with “Unfinished business LFG.”

“(Brady) said there’s a sour taste left in his mouth,” receiver Mike Evans said during the team’s mandatory minicamp in June. “There’s one in mine as well.”

Barrett told Eisen he barely could bring himself to watch the Super Bowl — in which Stafford again found Kupp for a 1-yard touchdown in the final minutes for a 23-20 win against the Bengals — and didn’t want anybody to win.

“I was mad, I couldn’t believe we went out that way,” he added.

“I know this was a time for us to, like, really take our organization to the next level because we did win a Super Bowl that (previous) year. We could’ve done it again, and it just hurt so bad, man, to go out the way we went out.”

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The quest for atonement begins in earnest Wednesday, the first full-squad practice of the preseason. Nine of the 11 defensive players on the field when Stafford found Kupp for that 44-yard dagger are still around, and still ticked. The bile and bitterness of January still percolates in July.

This time around, the incentive is redemption, not a repeat.

“That taste is definitely going to be in our mouths for a while,” David said.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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