Devin White can’t remember exactly when Bruce Arians said it, but he knows it was some time in late November, after the Buccaneers had suffered their only multigame losing streak of the year. Following Tampa Bay’s divisional-round win against the Saints on Sunday, a reporter asked White, a second-year linebacker, how the Bucs have come together in the past two months. White responded by drawing on the message his coach had shared during that losing streak.
“We had to look ourselves in the mirror and challenge ourselves on who we wanted to be,” White said. “Everybody always asked, ‘What was our identity?’ And we didn’t have an answer. But Coach B.A. had an answer. He said, ‘We’re some motherfuckers who are gonna find a way to win the game.’ And that was the best thing I’d ever heard. When he said that it just kinda clicked.”
Since their Week 13 bye, the Buccaneers have found ways to win plenty of games. They’re on a six-game winning streak, and this weekend, they will face the Packers in the NFC championship game. They’ve gotten this far not only because of the addition of Tom Brady, but also in large part because of the outstanding supporting cast surrounding him. And, perhaps just as Arians and general manager Jason Licht hoped, the pieces are coming together at just the right time.
Brady was the Bucs’ noteworthy offseason addition for one obvious reason—he’s the greatest quarterback of all time. But Tampa Bay presented a roster worthy of courting NFL royalty. That started with the defense, a unit that Licht has taken to an elite level thanks in part to exemplary draft choices in the past three years. The 2018 class featured defensive lineman Vita Vea, defensive backs Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead, and linebacker Jack Cichy. In 2019, the team picked up linebacker Devin White and defensive backs Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, and Mike Edwards. The 2020 draft brought safety Antoine Winfield Jr. into the fold. Each of those players serves a key role in a unit that finished as Football Outsiders’ no. 5 defense in DVOA. The Bucs defense sealed last Sunday’s divisional-round win over the Saints by forcing a fumble and intercepting Drew Brees three times.
“We might be young, but we can get after it when we’ve got our mindset to it,” White said. “It wasn’t nothing Brees did. It was everything our defense did.”
The young Bucs secondary held its own against a Saints offense that averaged 235.5 passing yards in the first two meetings between the teams this season. Coordinator Todd Bowles trusted his defensive backs in man coverage, forcing Brees to make throws into contested windows. According to NOLA.com’s Luke Johnson, Tampa Bay played press-man coverage on 12 of Brees’s 17 second-half pass attempts, and overall Brees went 9-of-20 for 80 yards, one touchdown, and two picks—a 33.3 passer rating—against man coverage. Murphy-Bunting, who registered a second-quarter interception to set up Tampa Bay’s first touchdown of the game, said he considered the performance a “very” validating effort for the Bucs secondary.
“We couldn’t rely on Tom to just put up points, put up points, put up points,” he said. “We knew we had to hold up our end, no matter what the situation was. We just had to do our part.”
Brady was exceptional during the back end of the regular season, but he wasn’t consistent against New Orleans’s defense, going 18-of-33 with 199 yards and two touchdowns. Following Sunday’s victory, Brady struck an appreciative tone for those around him.
“The defense was incredible all game,” Brady said. “The turnovers were huge. Last time we played them, we gave them—we lost the turnover [battle], minus-three. Today was plus-four. You’re not going to lose many games when you’re plus-four [in turnover margin]. Offensively, we made some plays when we needed to. Line was great up front.”
This is the 14th time Brady has reached a conference championship game. On this Bucs team, he has one of the most talented supporting casts in his career. Some teams would be lucky to have just one offensive playmaker of the caliber of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, or Rob Gronkowski. Tampa Bay has placed all four around the game’s greatest quarterback. It’s certainly an upgrade from the skill players Brady worked with in his final game as a Patriot: James White, Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and Phillip Dorsett.
“Our guys really come together,” Brady said Sunday. “It’s a really unique team. We have great chemistry, we have fun at practice, and we work really hard to get to it just like the other three teams remaining.”
Brady has been in this position before, and his veteran leadership will be helpful for Tampa Bay: The Bucs’ starting offense and defense features 11 players with five years or fewer of NFL experience. The Bucs haven’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season, so this is the first postseason for most of the roster. “When you’ve been there and done it,” Arians said Tuesday, “guys just follow you.” Last week, a pair of young wideouts came up with arguably the biggest catches of the game. Rookie Tyler Johnson made an acrobatic adjustment to convert a third-and-11 early in the fourth quarter; a few plays later, second-year slot man Scotty Miller made a crucial catch on a third-and-5. Those completions helped set up a field goal drive that put the Bucs in the lead.
“Tom put it out there and he knew Tyler could make that catch, and he’s got a great, great future.” Arians said Monday.
Brady called the performance of the young players on Sunday “incredible,” noting that they showed up in a big spot. “It’s a team effort,” Brady said. “It speaks to the commitment level of everyone in the organization and the coaches, the players—everyone coming together.”
The Bucs are now on the precipice of the Super Bowl, and that’s a testament to the job that Licht has done in constructing this team. According to Pro Football Focus, pass rusher Shaq Barrett finished second in total pressures (77), and fellow front-seven members Ndamukong Such (50), Jason Pierre-Paul (48), and William Gholston (47) each finished in the top 35 of the category. Winfield and right tackle Tristan Wirfs were both named to the Pro Football Writers Association’s all-rookie team. White and linebacker Lavonte David were named second-team All-Pro. Evans became the first receiver in history to record 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first seven seasons. Running back Ronald Jones II rushed for 978 yards (5.1 yards per carry) in a breakout campaign. And because of how well Licht has drafted, the Bucs are projected by Over the Cap to have the 13th-most cap space this offseason, fourth most in 2022, and eighth most in 2023. There’s a chance that the franchise parlays the Bucs’ success beyond Brady’s time with the team, no matter how brief that might be.
“Jason is the main reason I came back into coaching,” Arians said. “I knew how good of an evaluator he was, having worked with him. And we shared the same vision: We were gonna build this thing on defense, we’ll score enough points. Just building the roster the way he has and then being able to get Tom, Gronk, Leonard [Fournette], and still be really cap-friendly with this roster we have. … Can’t say enough about what Jason’s done. To me, he’s executive of the year, just pulling off stuff he did.”
The job still isn’t complete. When the Bucs signed Brady, the expectations for Tampa Bay this season instantly became Super Bowl or bust. Because of the players surrounding the legendary quarterback, a championship isn’t a far-fetched possibility—Tampa Bay routed Green Bay in their earlier meeting because of a talented squad, and that’s the same reason they won last week when Brady wasn’t perfect.
“We’ll be prepared,” Brady said. “The team that plays the best [Sunday] is gonna win—not the team that is the coldest. We’re gonna have to go out there and play well. We’re going to be challenged, and it’s going to be a good game.”