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The Buccaneers’ Unfamiliar Quest to Repeat

Tampa Bay brought back all 22 starters from its championship-winning squad—and now heads into 2021 with big expectations

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A few days after winning Super Bowl LV, Lavonte David stood in front of a crowd of Buccaneers fans and told them he wanted to be back for the 2021 season. Coach Bruce Arians pulled the mic from him and declared, “Your ass ain’t going nowhere.” Arians wanted everyone back. “We’re going for two!” Arians said. David, who was due to hit free agency in just a few weeks, chalked Arians’s quote up to drunken confidence.

In the next two months, Arians and GM Jason Licht started working on getting everyone back. By March 31, the Bucs had re-signed David, as well as Tom Brady, Shaq Barrett, Aaron Stinnie, Kevin Minter, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Rob Gronkowski, Donovan Smith, Ryan Succop, and Leonard Fournette. They also franchise-tagged Chris Godwin. In doing so, Tampa Bay became the first Super Bowl champion in the salary-cap era (since 1994) to bring back all 22 of its starters. Bringing everyone back was significant to the players practically, competitively, and emotionally.

“It’s still mind-boggling to me,” David told me in March. “[The front office] said they wanted to do that and they went ahead and they got it done. And I feel like with that, right there, they earned the respect of a lot of the players in the locker room even more. Just understanding that they wanna keep this team together, they want to try to win as many championships as they can with us, who they have. They trust in us.”

The defending champions will open the season Thursday night against the Cowboys. The franchise’s journey back to the top of football was long and laborious, and David, Tampa Bay’s longest-tenured player, has seen the entire process. It’s now clear that the foundation of the Bucs’ core rests on an all-in squad culture. This offseason provided a period for that mentality to soak in, and now that the Bucs have won last season’s Lombardi Trophy, they have a clear blueprint for how to earn another one.

“I think our coaches put us in a great position to be successful,” Brady told reporters last week. “Our personnel department, [general manager] Jason [Licht] has done a great job. We have a lot of continuity. We have a lot of things to build on and a lot more experience together. That’s really all you can ask for as players is to be in the position that we’re in. I’d just like us to go out and take advantage of that.”

Expectations for the Bucs entering the new season are as sky-high as those of any recent defending champion. Only the Chiefs, whom they beat in the Super Bowl last season, have shorter odds to win the title. Tampa Bay ranked no. 2 overall in Pro Football Focus team grade and in Football Outsiders’s team DVOA ratings. The Bucs defense finished with top-five marks in ESPN’s pass-rush win ratings and run-stop win ratings. Tampa Bay’s 30.8 points per game ranked third and its 22.2 points allowed per game ranked eighth. According to Athletic writer Ben Baldwin’s database, the Bucs offense ranked fifth in both offensive (0.150) and defensive expected points added per play (-0.043).

Tampa Bay is not only returning its entire starting units, but also retained offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The team had a proper offseason to prepare for what ESPN projected as the NFL’s easiest regular-season schedule. The rest of the NFC South is in flux: Drew Brees left the Saints, Sam Darnold is joining the Panthers, and the Falcons are switching head coaches. The biggest question marks surrounding the Bucs are health related: Tampa Bay experienced no significant serious injuries last season, a stroke of luck that is unlikely to occur again.

From every angle, the Bucs look like the best team in the NFL. That wasn’t the case for many years, and being at this point is astounding for the veterans on the roster. David, 31, was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2012. He experienced one winning season—a 9-7 record in 2016—through his first eight years in the NFL before Brady arrived in 2020 and the Bucs won the Super Bowl. He admitted it was tough sledding in the early stages of his career, even as he established himself as one of the league’s best players. The wins were few and between. He didn’t collect accolades like his peers.

“As you get older, you try to do all that stuff just to try to win,” David said of his first seasons in the NFL. “You’re doing all this good stuff on the field and it feels like it’s not paying off, as far as wins. I had my down days at the beginning of my career where [I was thinking], ‘Man, I’m not trying to be a part of this losing stuff. I’m not with it.’ But I guess just the positive side is always thinking things are gonna get better. And just understand that this is not gonna be like this forever.”

David, who’s entering his 10th season with Tampa Bay, wasn’t alone in enduring the rough times. Defensive end William Gholston is entering his ninth season with Tampa Bay; receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate are going into their eighth; offensive lineman Ali Marpet and offensive tackle Donovan Smith are each entering their seventh with the team. “Obviously you go out there each year, leaving it all on the field to compete to play to win,” Smith told me in July. “And sometimes it don’t work out that way. But throughout the process, you learn a lot. You see the building of a team. You see what is trying to be done upstairs and what they’re trying to accomplish.”

But even as the Bucs developed talented players, the team’s direction still wasn’t entirely clear as recently as two years ago. David was seriously considering leaving the Bucs, but then Arians was hired ahead of the 2019 season. Arians hired Bowles as his defensive coordinator, and the unit blossomed under his direction. The offense was boom-or-bust, too often the latter. Then Brady arrived and stabilized the passing game, complementing what was already one of the NFL’s top defensive units. In the playoffs, David’s unit did plenty of lifting and held the Chiefs to nine points in the Super Bowl.

“I will always say this, man: Playing in our own home stadium in a Super Bowl for a chance to make NFL history—sports history—I think that kind of added a little fuel to it,” David said of the 31-9 rout. “And then I understand what that same team did to us earlier that season in the same stadium. We were just like, ‘Nah. We can’t let that happen again.’ We just felt a different kind of vibe that whole weekend. Once we stepped on the field, man, everybody’s energy was unmatched.”

The players who were around through Tampa Bay’s growing pains take pride in their tenure. According to Over the Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald, the Bucs are the NFL’s third-oldest roster, featuring 15 players over 30. (Though to be fair, the 44-year-old Brady brings up the average age.) And while the veterans’ experience is crucial to immediate team success, the Bucs also have a collection of young core players who can maintain the championship culture that was established in the past year. Players such as Godwin, Devin White, Tristan Wirfs, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis, and Antoine Winfield Jr. are each 25 years old or younger. First-round pass rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has flashed through preseason enough that he could be a difference-maker, too. Spotrac currently projects Tampa Bay to rank no lower than 20th in future cap space through 2025, suggesting there will be financial wiggle room to accommodate new deals.

“They’re set up real nicely, man,” David said. “They’ve got a great core and a great culture they could build around. Man, I’m thankful to be a part of that for the next two years. The young boys hit me up when I signed my new deal and they were so happy for me to be around them again. And I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m thankful for y’all, man! Y’all keep me young. I just wanna continue to see y’all excel in the league as young men.’”

The Bucs remain focused on the present and motivated to maximize the opportunity available now. The same team-first approach that willed them to a title was exhibited at the negotiating table this offseason, when players and management found a way to bring all of the team’s core players back. It was exhibited again as the preseason closed—all Bucs are 100 percent vaccinated against COVID-19, allowing players maximum interaction. As Arians recently told reporters, the Bucs are “willing to do whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t affect our team.”

“Guys came back with the same hunger,” Smith said. “They tasted it and it feels good. So you know what it takes and you put more into it to get there.”

On Tuesday, Brady best epitomized just how motivated he is, even at this stage in his career. The Bucs have transitioned out of celebrating last season’s accomplishments and are looking forward to what they can achieve this season.

“It’s not about a bunch of hype or a bunch of build-up and B.S.,” Brady said. “We’ve got to go do it. I think that it’s about a bunch of guys that are really mature and we see ourselves as professional athletes. We want to go out there and put our best out there.”