Watching a season come to an end without a Super Bowl is never fun. To look at the year the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had and grade it solely on whether or not they won it all is both a massive oversight and a total misreading of just how successful their season was.
The Bucs season ended in a place absolutely nobody though it would: In the Divisoinal Round of the playoffs.
This was a team that was picked to be one of the worst teams in the league, that had no plan at quarterback, had just lost Tom Brady and had no cap space to try and rebuild in the wake of that era ending.
It’s impossible to overstate how bleak things looked, and to have watched the Bucs put together a season in which they won the NFC South, went to the playoffs, beat the defending conference champions by 23 points, and did so with a roster of under-appreciated players was nothing short of pure ecstasy.
Tampa Bay was playing with house money in a playoff game just shy of the Super Bowl. That’s how the season ended and it’s how it should be proudly remembered.
Jason Licht was the man who orchestrated the most impactful free agent signing in NFL history, with the payoff for bringing in Brady being a Super Bowl. While the end result wasn’t the same, Licht pulled off the Sam trick twice, signing Baker Mayfield to a contract that paid for itself and then some with what it means for the future of the franchise.
There didn’t appear to be a path forward, and the Bucs were saddled with so much dead cap that it’s not a surprise that experts predicted they’d be so bad. After all, finishing the season with a losing record last season with Brady at quarterback didn’t exactly paint a pretty picture for what was to come.
Instead of folding, the Bucs fight on and in doing so found a new identity. The chief complaint when Brady retired was that it appeared Tampa Bay wasted a chance to install a new culture. It turns out that the pieces were already firmly in place, and adding Baker was missing ingredient to mix everything together.
Bucs season might be over, but it’s impossible to see it as any other than a success
Licht’s masterful navigation of the $55 million salary cap bill and $80 million in dead cap space should be studied until the end of time. He might have reset the status quo, as teams like the Broncos are now seriously pondering eating massive amounts of dead cap by copying the Bucs blueprint.
In forcing the team to take its medicine, Licht also challenged the pieces he had put in place over the years to cultivate the culture everyone said would be missing. Veterans old and young like Lavonte David and Tristan Wirfs emerged as leaders in the locker room and Baker’s gritty everyman energy was fully embraced in ways it never could have with Brady.
All of the pieces to move forward as competitive contender are in place, and all the Bucs need to do is sign some checks to keep things moving. The buy-in on Baker as a leader — and his career year — will make his free agent contract rank up there alongside Brady’s if the Bucs can continue to build on this year’s momentum.
It doesn’t take that deep of a philosophical dive to see why this season was a success, though. Tampa Bay was expected to win fewer than four games this year, but ended up with a winning record and a third-straight NFC South title. The Bucs punched a playoff ticket for the fourth consecutive season, but also displayed an ability to adjust and adapt that we hadn’t seen before.
One thing that made last season feel so much like a lost year was how the Bucs seemed to never learn from their mistakes. The few comebacks that Brady led them on were more giant sighs of relief than an indication that anything meaningful was being built or learned.
That changed when Tampa Bay fell into its 1-6 midseason slump.
Much of the anxiety during that time was rooted in how fans had seen the team respond to adversity like that before — and it wasn’t good. This time around, Todd Bowles coached the team out of its mistakes and players were able to identify things that were going wrong and correct them.
Typically a locker room is lost at a time like that, and everything seemed like it was headed toward the cliche collapse experts predicted before the season. Tampa’s locker room rallied, and the result was a four-game winning streak that saved the season and showed that the pieces Licht put in place were there for a reason.
Bowles saved his job, Baker proved he was the quarterback of the future, and Dave Canales flipped the script so hard that the first-year offensive coordinator is getting head coaching interviews.
That’s why everyone should be so proud. There are so many things to consider when assessing why this season was a success, but if you have to point to one thing it’s the way the Bucs picked themselves up off the mat and didn’t give up.
Everything about this season felt earned in ways it couldn’t have with Brady here. That era will forever rank as one of the greatest in franchise history, but the one that’s on the horizon feels like it’s going to be just as exciting.