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New blood from old players pumps life into Bucs

Players such as Julio Jones, Akiem Hicks and Kyle Rudolph are chasing a Super Bowl ring and bringing needed urgency.
Bucs tight end Cameron Brate (84) visits with safety Keanu Neal (22) during organized team activities in May at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa.
Bucs tight end Cameron Brate (84) visits with safety Keanu Neal (22) during organized team activities in May at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 11, 2022|Updated Sept. 11, 2022

TAMPA — Super Bowl hangovers are real. Repeating as champion is rare.

A year ago, the Bucs returned all 22 starters from the team that won the 2020 season title in hopes of repeating.

They came close, but injuries were a big story. So was the slippage of details that crept into their performance.

The result was a 13-4 record, the NFC South title and a win over the Eagles in the playoffs’ wild-card round.

But the Bucs fell to the Rams by a field goal in a division-round game.

Nothing provides a bigger boost to a team than a bunch of players hungry for a first Super Bowl ring before their careers end.

The Bucs got an infusion of that this offseason with the signing of veterans Julio Jones, Russell Gage, Kyle Rudolph, Keanu Neal and Akiem Hicks. Hicks (along with Tom Brady) was part of the Patriots team that lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game for the 2015 season.

As a result of that infusion, the Bucs have the oldest team in the league; the average age is 27.1 years.

It’s not just because Brady is 45, though that helps them skew older. Some of it is intentional. The Bucs value proven production over potential right now. It’s unlikely they will remain healthier, but they may be hungrier.

“It’s good to have, as long as you can play,” coach Todd Bowles said of the newcomers. “We’re not an old folks home. We’re not bringing people in just to bring people in, so to speak. We’re bringing in talented guys that understand team ball, that know how to play football still and are great teammates. So that helps out a lot. For those guys to get rings, that would be great.”

Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said he likes the way the current team works, though he doesn’t think it has ever lacked fire.

“I think this has always been a hungry team,” Leftwich said. “We were hungry, too, last year. It’s just when you don’t win, it (doesn’t) mean you weren’t hungry. This group comes to work. We don’t have to get on these guys about showing up, coming to practice with the understanding of how important practice is. They understand that.”

Credit Williams for Bowles’ coaching path

Bowles, 58, didn’t plan to go into coaching after his NFL playing career ended following the 1993 season. He was working as a scout for the Packers when the trajectory of his career shifted.

A former Washington teammate and ex-Bucs quarterback was persistent, and it paid off.

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“The guy who got me into coaching was Doug Williams,” Bowles said. “Doug was my teammate at Washington. He came out of the USFL, and I came out of college. There was an age difference (Williams is a little more than eight years older), but he lived down the street, and his mother made sweet potato pies for me at Thanksgiving.

“We were both scouting in the eastern region, him at Jacksonville and me in Green Bay, and he asked me if I would be his defensive coordinator (at Morehouse College). I told him no five or six times. I had never coached before.

“He could’ve had his pick of the litter. But he said, ‘I see you in practice every day, and I want that to be you.’ And I finally said, ‘Let me give it a shot,’ and I went down to Morehouse with him.”

Bowles will be profiled tonight on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football;” he had a chance to sit down with former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy. It’s a fascinating interview, and you realize how many philosophies and principles they share.

“I was thinking the same thing as we were talking,” Dungy, 66, said. “A lot of common sense in his philosophy. Old school, sure, but just common sense.”

Rookie to watch

All eyes will be on rookie Luke Goedeke, who makes his first NFL start at left guard in tonight’s opener against the Cowboys. But another rookie to watch will be running back Rachaad White. Not only did he win the job as the backup to Leonard Fournette, he is the new kickoff returner and the personal punt protector.

White had a 33-yard kickoff return against the Titans in the preseason to win the job over receiver Jaelon Darden, who will continue to return punts.

“He’s been really impressive,” Brady said. “Now it really matters, so this is where you’ve got to go see what you’re all about. I think the guys that do well in this league go from being an amateur to being a professional. … There’s a different level of commitment at the professional level, when this is your job and you’re required to show up every day and do it. We play 20-plus games a year. That’s very different.

“There’s a lot of physical preparation. There’s a lot of mental work you need to do to maximize your opportunity, and emotionally you’ve got to be in a good place. (White is) a good young player. He’s got to establish it every day. He’s got to gain the trust of his teammates and the coaches in order for him to be confident and for us to be confident in him. … He’s worked really hard, put himself in a good position, and we’ll see how he does (tonight).”

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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