DLT’s Doubloons – The Eulogy of the 2021 Buccaneers

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The 2021 season came to a crashing end for the Buccaneers as former Buc kicker Matt Gay kicked a 30-yd field goal with no time left to give the Los Angeles Rams the dethroning of the defending Super Bowl champions.

What I Liked

  • Down a seemingly insurmountable 24 points to a team that had pretty much kicked your backside all day, the Buccaneers didn’t quit, fought back, had some good fortune, and battled to the bitter end.
  • Playoff Lenny.
  • Mike Evans playing his heart out.
  • Tom Brady’s ability to will his team back into a game.

What I Didn’t

  • The Bucs defensive gameplan vs. Matthew Stafford.
  • Donovan Smith playing his worst game of the season when they needed his best.
  • Sean Hochuli.

Pieces of Eight

One

I’m going to start here. If this is the last we see of Tom Brady, my God, what a ride it was for the past two seasons, wasn’t it Bucs fans? While this game definitely won’t go down as one of Brady’s finest performances, the 44-year-old legend did squeeze one more Brady magic moment for football fans around the world to see (with a little assist from the Rams, who inexplicably imploded from the pressure).

It was a privilege to see Brady in a Buccaneers’ uniform. In two short seasons, the legend of Brady will last a lifetime here in Tampa Bay. He’ll be on the Ring of Honor – there’s no question about that. He led the team to their first playoff appearance in 14 years, to five straight playoff wins, their first Super Bowl title since 2002, and their first division title since 2007. There were so many memories created, moments that will live forever for Buccaneers fans.

I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to go back to Bucs B.T. (Before Tom). I’m hoping he decides on one more year – but reading the tea leaves, it really does feel like change is coming for Tampa Bay. We’ll talk more about this in a bit, but let’s just say thank you, Brady. Thank you for making the Bucs relevant again. It was magic. It was Haley’s Comet, streaking beautifully through the sky for a brief moment in time. You just had to enjoy it before it was gone.

Two

Like so many, I am utterly confused by the Bucs’ defensive gameplan in this football game. Apparently, with both Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul nursing injuries, Tampa Bay had no faith in getting pressure on Rams’ QB Matthew Stafford, so they blitzed and blitzed and blitzed some more.

The problem is – Stafford is the best QB in the league vs. the Blitz. He torched the Bucs’ blitzes in the first meeting and he did it again on Sunday, completing 11 of 16 passes vs. the blitz (per PFF), for 136 yds, a touchdown, and the game winning throw to Cooper Kupp to set up the field goal that ended the Bucs’ season. He would not be sacked on a blitz.

That last one was perhaps the most egregious. The Rams, despite Kupp getting out of bounds on his previous 20 yd reception to get the Rams to their 44-yard line, hurried to the line of scrimmage and caught the Buccaneers a bit off guard, some guys blitzed, other guys played zone, Sean Murphy-Bunting seemed to blitz late, allowing Kupp to streak down the middle of the field alone. Stafford caught Antoine Winfield, Jr. clueing (watching his eyes), as Kupp streaked past him with no support behind him. Winfield did his best to recover, but Stafford’s pass was perfect and like that – Matt Gay was set up at point-blank range. He would not fail this time.

Live by the blitz, die by the blitz is the old football cliché. The Buccaneers have lived off of it all season and Bowles decided to go down firing all his bullets. Go down they did.

Three

One thing became abundantly clear on the cold, blustery day at Raymond James Stadium. The Rams, who basically sold everything this season to win a championship, were indeed the better team on both sides of the ball. Yes, there are arguments about the poor officiating by Sean Hochuli and all the injuries the Bucs’ had to endure – but hey – we’re not Saints fans here. We don’t whine about refs or make excuses. Football is a war of attrition and up to this point, the Buccaneers have overcome all of their injuries and bad penalties in the past. Sometimes, the other guys are just better than you.

Cooper Kupp has become the ultimate Buc-killer, having his best games against Tampa Bay. His two catches on the final drive killed Tampa Bay’s hopes after the comeback. Odell Beckham, Jr. seemed to rediscover his big play ability. The Rams’ third receiver Van Jefferson was the fourth-best wide receiver on the field after Mike Evans, Kupp, and OBJ.  Even Tyler Higbee and Kendall Blanton made plays.

There was a reason why the Rams were up 27-3. It wasn’t by accident. They kicked the Bucs’ backsides up and down the field in the first half and for most of the third quarter. The game honestly wasn’t competitive until Brady hit Gronk on a 42-yd bomb that set up a field goal that at the time felt pointless, cutting the game to three scores at 27-6. Then, on the very next drive, Kupp fumbled, opening the door wide open for Tampa Bay to rally and frankly, the Rams to implode.

It was astonishing to see. Perhaps it was the Bucs’ heart of a champion, bloodied (literally), bruised, getting up off the mat one last time for a “Rocky”-like moment. Tampa Bay battled back thanks to the Rams continuingly giving them chances, a missed field goal, fumbles, the stars aligning. Whatever it was, it seemed that the Bucs had one punch left.

Heck, even on the Rams’ final drive, Stafford was sacked by JPP and seemed to cough up the football, TV color guy Cris Collinsworth exclaimed, “He fumbled!” with play-by-play guy Al Michaels adding in disbelief, “Nooo!”, as if to say, “Not like this, Rams. Not like this.” Whether he did or didn’t was mute, as he recovered it. It wasn’t ruled a fumble on the field anyway.

In the end, the Buccaneers had no business being tied at 27 in the waning moments of the game, and the team that should’ve won did.

Four

Lost in the defeat will be the gutty play of Leonard Fournette and Mike Evans. Both players gave every single ounce of what they had left. So did so many Bucs’ players playing through an injury like Lavonte David, Sean Murphy-Bunting, JPP, Shaq Barrett, Ryan Jensen, and others we didn’t even know about.

Fournette would finish the game with 107 total yards and 2 touchdowns. Evans would finish with 8 receptions, 119 yds and a 56 yd touchdown in a one-on-one matchup with All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey where Evans torched Ramsey to give the Bucs hope down by seven with 3:20 left.

Fournette, like so many other players, may never be in a Buccaneer uniform again. If not, it’s a shame, he’s a heck of a football player.

Five

Thinking back on the 2021 season, there were some amazing moments this season.

  • The absolutely thrilling season opener against Dallas, with Ryan Succop winning it on a walk-off FG.
  • Mike Edwards’ 2 pick-sixes in one game.
  • Brady’s revenge in New England.
  • The unbelievable comeback vs. the Colts.
  • The overtime classic with the Bills.
  • The improbable last-minute game-winning drive against the Jets where Cyril Grayson became a folk hero.
  • The utter domination of the Eagles in the wild card round.
  • And yes, even though it fell short, the unreal comeback against the Rams.

And that was just the team performances, we can go down the individual performances all day. By Buccaneers’ standards, it was a great year. No, it didn’t end the way we hoped, but dang was it fun.

Six

It’s been 14 years since Bucs’ fans felt the sting and finality of a playoff defeat. It sucks, it really does. A season with so much promise, hopes, and dreams comes to a sudden stop. Today, the players are emptying their lockers, saying goodbye for the final time knowing that many of them will not return for the 2022 season.  Off-season mode begins. What’s going to happen?

It’s painful. A lot more painful than a 6-11 season where your team just played out the string. It’s a good pain though. I’d rather have this type of season than one of those lost years. Then again, some view this as a wasted year. The old Ricky Bobby quote, “If you ain’t first, you’re last”, is true. No one remembers the team that lost the Super Bowl or teams that lost in the playoffs.

Yet, we as fans of this beleaguered franchise, don’t take these years for granted. We know how much worse it can be and how special watching Tom Brady do his thing was.

Seven

Welp, change is coming. We know Bruce Arians will be back. We can’t say the same about coordinators Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, who may get head coaching opportunities. If they do, they may take some of the Bucs’ assistants with them. For example, defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers has followed Todd Bowles wherever he’s gone. He likely will follow him if Bowles becomes a head coach elsewhere.

Then there’s Tom Brady. He is 44 years old but he just completed an MVP level season. He has in the past said he would play until he’s 45 and that he’d complete his contract with the Bucs (he’s signed through 2022). Yet in the past couple of weeks there’s been a rumble in the distance that something may have changed. Brady may really want to walk away to spend time with his family and begin his life after football. No one could blame him. Hell, no one has ever done what he’s done. What else is there for him to do?

If Tom goes, likely so does Gronk. We know Gronkowski unretired to join Brady for one last ride. If Brady hangs it up, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Gronkowski do the same. Like Brady, what does Gronk have to prove? He’s been one of the most dominant tight ends in NFL history and is a future Hall-of-Famer. He’s also dealt with some serious injuries this season.

Then there are the 27 free agents the Bucs will have to deal with. Per OverTheCap.com, Tampa Bay has just $19 million dollars in cap space to work with and only 35 players under contract. Bucs Cap Guru Mike Greenberg will need to really create some magic to get the Bucs out of cap hell. If Brady walks away, he has his cap hit accelerate into the cap, giving the Buccaneers even less room to work with (although, there are a few tricks the Bucs can do with Brady’s contract to ease the pain for the 2022 season).

The Bucs have to re-sign starters Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Jordan Whitehead, Carlton Davis III, Jason Pierre-Paul, William Gholston, and Ndamukong Suh. There doesn’t appear to be enough for all of them.

Then you have key contributors like Ronald Jones, Giovanni Bernard, Aaron Stinnie, Kevin Minter, Josh Wells, Breshad Perriman, and Dee Delaney.

We haven’t even mentioned former 1st round pick O.J. Howard or backup QB Blaine Gabbert.

And that’s the thing – if Brady retires, the Buccaneers will need a replacement at quarterback, as no one, I think, believes Kyle Trask is the answer in 2022. Maybe down the line, but not on Opening Day in September 2022. So the Bucs will need to find that answer on the market. Could they lure another big fish to Tampa Bay like Rodgers or Russell Wilson? If they do, can they surround him with weapons as they did with Brady? Needless to say, Bucs GM Jason Licht has his work cut out for him.

Add to that – have you seen the Bucs’ schedule for 2022? In addition to their NFC South foes, the Bucs take on all four teams in the conference championship games, getting the Rams, Chiefs, and Bengals in Tampa and the 49ers on the road. In addition to that, they’ll take on Ravens (at home), Cardinals (on the road), Browns (on the road), Steelers (on the road), Packers (at home), and Cowboys (on the road). Sheesh. 7-10 might win the NFC South next year.

Eight

Thank you to Bucs Report’s Keith Larson for inviting me to join you this season. It’s been a real blast, I’ve enjoyed it so much. Who knows what the future holds? I’ve retired and unretired more times than Brett Favre. I would expect to be back next season if they’ll have me, but maybe they find their Kyle Trask and put this old horse out to pasture.

I want to thank you, the Buccaneers Krewe, for taking the time out to read one old Buc fan’s opinion. It’s been a heck of a sailboat ride, hasn’t it? We’ve highs of highs and lows of lows but we’ve been through it together.

Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll meet again soon. Go Bucs!

Tweet of the Game

The funny thing is I sent this tweet out with the Buccaneers down 27-13 with 4:26 left in the game and the Bucs were unsuccessful on 4th down. Then, of course, they score two touchdowns in the final two minutes to make me look like an idiot. In the end, the meaning of the tweet remained the same. Thank you, Tom Brady. Oh, and yes, I meant *Two of the best seasons, not “to of the best…”.

 

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