The decision on Thursday by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to sign Leonard Fournette is so patently on-brand for the team that it felt inevitable. This team wants to win, right now, and it’ll worry about the future when it comes.
It flies in the face of all traditional football knowledge. In a league that rewards the patient grooming, and training of players inside a system — the Bucs are instead going all in on free agents, de-emphasizing the draft, and hoping this all comes together quickly. It’s a fascinating experiment, one we’ve seen before, but never quite to the prolific nature that Tampa is doing it.
The turnover from the first depth chart of 2019 to now is unreal. Four starters on offense have changed, the entire secondary has been overhauled — but what makes this situation unique is understanding just how good the Bucs were in the trenches in 2019. That’s what will anchor this team, and why their “all-in” strategy could actually pay off.
Naturally, there’s a ton of risk here too — and that all begins with Tom Brady. Coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, the Bucs are hoping this was an aberration and not true regression. That said, Brady’s worst was still better than Jameis Winston’s best — especially when it comes to taking care of the football, which is critical to a team hoping to win on the strength of its lines.
Then there’s Rob Gronkowski, who has an equal chance to completely take over any game he plays in, or miss it entirely due to injury. Gronk hasn’t played a full 16 game season since 2011, his second in the league, and most-recently has shown a penchant to get banged up at critical times. There’s familiarity there with Brady, and that’s enough to make the switch at tight end and hope the pair recapture their former glory.
We tend to associate all-in signing frenzies with desperation, but that’s not quite fair when it comes to Tampa Bay. The bones of this team were extremely good in 2019. Solid on both lines, a young devastating pass rush. While their 7-9 record seems at first glance like a mediocre team in desperation mode, there’s more to this at second glance.
Six of the team’s losses came by a touchdown or less. This is unheard of when considering Winston turned the ball over 33 times. Football logic tells us that those kind of prolific turnover should give far too much power to opposing teams, and yet the Bucs managed to hang in games on the back of their defense, and arguably league-best wide receiving corps. This means that while the major shift in personnel may seem like throwing things against the wall and hoping they stick, there’s real potential that a few tweaks, with a move towards ball security and reliability will do enough to turn the tide.
This thinking isn’t dissimilar to the team’s 2002 Super Bowl run, when it learned that defense was enough to win a Lombardi Trophy, even with someone like Trent Dilfer under center. The NFL may have changed a lot since then, and it’s unclear if anyone at this point can stop Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but this kind of team building was enough to get the 49ers to the Super Bowl a year ago.
There’s also a reality that the window in the NFC South could be open in a way we haven’t seen in a while. Traditionally one of the most random, and unpredictable divisions in the NFL, it’s now being propped up on all fronts with houses of cards, with teams hoping they can just hold it together. At this point the Panthers are in a full rebuild mode, and even if Teddy Bridgewater proves he can remain the quarterback he became in New Orleans, realistically it’s going to take a year or two for that team to mesh. Matt Ryan and the Falcons are one of the most consistently inconsistent teams in the NFL, and its Jekyll and Hyde act is impossible to predict. Perhaps they’ll be dominant like they were in 2016, or they’ll continue their middling absurdity that makes you question how they’re losing games they should be obviously dominating on paper.
This leaves us with the New Orleans Saints. Back-to-back-to-back division champions. Dominant to be sure, excellent to be certain, but with the ever-present reality that eventually Drew Brees is going to fall off a cliff and the team will crumble. Plans are already in the works to move on and transition, should this struggle manifest — but for now the Saints are a team deserving of belief they’ll win the division, but with the caveat that it could crumble at a moment’s notice.
Enter the Buccaneers. It’s here where they can make their mark and perhaps take everyone by surprise when they shouldn’t. This team can’t be judged by simple win-loss records alone, and requires a little more depth to understand how they lost games, not simply that they lost them. This is what makes the 2020 season feel so different in contrast to other “all-in” strategies we’ve seen before. There’s a tangible possibility the door opens just enough for the Bucs to smash it down, and prove this entire offseason, full of change and splash big-name signings will pay off.
That is where this will truly get interesting. Should Tampa Bay be able to have success, or dare say make it to the Super Bowl, it will send a message to the rest of the NFL that traditional team building is great, but there’s another path that involves isolating all a team’s weaknesses at once, and make a wholesale switch. There’s no patience here, all the chips are in right now — but it doesn’t feel like desperation, it smells of confidence. That is why Tampa Bay is going to be one of the must-watch teams this fall. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it all pans out.