As winter segues to spring, the Bucs’ bid to repeat as Super Bowl champs features some promising early indicators.
The entire coaching staff except for offensive assistant Antwaan Randle El (now the Lions receivers coach) remains intact. Financially, the team’s salary-cap status appears conducive to re-signing most of its prominent free agents. And unlike 2020, it should have at least a variation of a conventional offseason.
But those factors in themselves won’t determine the trajectory of 2021. An assortment of variables — some beyond the Bucs’ control — also will come into play. We examine five key intangibles, all of which favored Tampa Bay in 2020.
The Bucs have struck oil on each of their last three first-round selections (Vita Vea, Devin White, Tristan Wirfs). Thing is, all were early-round picks (Wirfs, at No. 13 overall, was the lowest of the three). Now, as reigning world champs, they’re relegated to the 32nd overall selection. Odds are long they’ll find an immediate-impact player — much less a franchise-altering one — at that slot. Coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht might even be inclined to trade the pick.
The bye week
A random scheduling quirk might have helped fuel the Bucs’ late-season surge. They had dropped three of four to fall to 7-5 when their bye week — the franchise’s latest since 1990 — finally arrived the first weekend of December. Arians said the team used it to do a “major” self-scout on both sides, and to simplify some things. That type of significant self-evaluation probably doesn’t occur in a late-September or early-October bye week; it’s simply too early. In the eight games that followed the off weekend, the Bucs totaled five turnovers (matching their total from the three games before the bye) and averaged 33.9 points — a five-point increase from the first 12 games. Did we mention they won all eight games?
After drawing the AFC West last season, the Bucs face every AFC East team in 2021. In addition to Tom Brady’s globally overhyped return to New England, the Bucs also host the AFC runner-up Bills and upwardly trending Dolphins. As the 2020 NFC South runnerup, they also face the No. 2 teams in the North and West divisions, meaning they’ll play the Bears and Rams again. The real key is how the schedule shakes down. Following their bye last season, the Bucs faced Atlanta (twice), Minnesota and the Lions, who finished a collective 16-32. A similarly soft December in 2021 would be a gift. Not likely.
Meteorologically, the Bucs’ fortunes had nary a touch of frost. Their coldest regular-season contest was a Monday night game in New Jersey against the Giants (39 degrees at kickoff), and both their December road trips were to a dome (Detroit, Atlanta). Even the NFC title game in Green Bay, where earlier snowfall had subsided, wasn’t nearly as frigid as feared (29 degrees). With road contests at Foxboro, Philadelphia and Jersey (Jets) in 2021, one must presume the fair weather will become foul at some point.
The NFC South
Face it, the Bucs’ division was down — way down — in 2020. The Falcons (4-12) fired coach Dan Quinn after an 0-5 start, and the Panthers (5-11) struggled with injuries (Christian McCaffrey played only three games), run defense (4.7 yards per attempt) and unsteady quarterback play from Teddy Bridgewater. Moreover, Saints icon Drew Brees’ injury-ravaged body was exposed by the Bucs in the playoffs. While Tampa Bay should be favored to win the division in 2021, the challenge becomes far more stern if a franchise QB (Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, etc.) finds his way to Carolina or New Orleans.