This will be a Super Bowl like no other. For the first time in my 11-year career covering the NFL, the week will not begin with Opening Night, né Media Night, where reporters jostle shoulder-to-shoulder with people dressed in superhero costumes to ask Chiefs coaches about various play-calling minutiae while EDM music blares over the loudspeaker and fans scream nonstop at Michael Irvin. It’s more fun than it sounds, and I’ll miss it dearly. Everything about the event and its fabricated heft will be missing, even as the NFL breaks a sweat trying to shove its very existence into every quantifiable space in our (now virtual) lives anyway, because that’s what good businesses do.
It will be a fascinating Super Bowl for many reasons, though. Fascinating because Tom Brady is here without Bill Belichick. Fascinating that Andy Reid is back, no longer the coach who needs a championship for you to see his true genius. Fascinating that it will take place at all, marking the end of a season when the largest and most complicated sports property in the nation managed to ship hundreds of people across the country with regularity and somehow avoided canceling games (or a major health catastrophe).
In that spirit, here are the 20 most fascinating people in and around Tampa this week.
The Buccaneers’ coaching staff
The Buccaneers’ staff includes two women, assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar. All of their top coordinators, Byron Leftwich (offense), Todd Bowles (defense), Keith Armstrong (special teams) and Harold Goodwin (assistant head coach), are Black. Their arrival here feels especially prescient given how the latest round of coach hirings and firings have slipped away without any tangible sign of progress on the horizon. Black head coaches are woefully underrepresented and are often forced into nonpipeline roles as a means of survival in the business. Yet, this team that would not be here without its group of talented coaches. The focus will certainly be on Tom Brady, but without Bowles, Leftwich, Armstrong and the rest, there is no way the Buccaneers would be here hosting a Super Bowl.
The Chiefs’ coaching staff
To build off the last point, Reid’s top offensive disciple, Eric Bieniemy, is also Black. He gracefully answered questions for hours last year about why he was not a head coach, as if the problem was somehow his and not due to some of the most obviously entrenched biases in U.S. professional sports. One day, Bieniemy will get his chance to pilot an NFL franchise, but for now, he will continue to design some of the most dazzling and innovative offensive packages in the sport. Having Bieniemy’s work on the game’s grandest stage once again will hopefully serve as a lesson to owners out there struggling with their milquetoast offenses that they may want to try hiring outside their box once in a while.
Since his departure from New York, which was an effort to save the Giants some desperate cap space, Pierre-Paul has been quietly dominant, logging 12.5, 8.5 and 9.5 sacks in his three years with Tampa Bay. The 2010 first-round pick, who burst into football consciousness as part of the Giants’ legendary NASCAR pass-rush package, Pierre-Paul has refined his game and plays nicely off Todd Bowles’s assortment of interior and edge pass rushers. Five years after Pierre-Paul nearly lost his hand in a fireworks incident, he is back at the Super Bowl.
Arguably the Buccaneers’ most consistent offensive lineman, Marpet’s stellar play may have led us to forget where he came from. The second-round pick hails from Hobart College and is the son of a rock ’n’ roll mom and video producer dad. He and Chiefs tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who will likely not play in the Super Bowl, are among a small number of Jewish NFL players. So much of Brady’s success over the years has been thanks to stellar interior line play, which prevents the quickest blitz schemes from traversing the shortest distance to the quarterback. Marpet is the next man up in a proud line of Brady bodyguards.
Le’Veon Bell and Leonard Fournette
Two running backs once at the height of the sport, Bell and Fournette will be relegated to uncertain role player status in this game. The setup has worked out slightly better for Fournette, the 2017 No. 4 pick who was waved by the Jaguars before the season. In recent weeks, his carry total has been 19, 17 and 12, respectively, signaling the dwindling likelihood that he may continue to act as the offense’s power component. Bell, meanwhile, logged a pair of carries against the Browns and missed last week’s game against the Packers. His season high for touches was 15, in a game against the Saints back in December.
The league’s head of officiating didn’t seem to be in the crosshairs as much this season, but that changed quickly in the playoffs. A bungled call in the divisional round game between the Bills and Colts that handed Philip Rivers an extended comeback attempt perked up antennae. A questionable pass interference call in the Packers-Buccaneers game also roiled fans and brought into question the consistency of the foul-calling process. Riveron and his crew, in a moment this bright, will not be able to hide behind the fact that people are simply grateful for the distraction.
Thomas, a 47-year-old referee from Pascagoula, Miss., will make history as the first woman official in Super Bowl history. She first began traversing the ranks in 1996 and broke the NFL’s officiating gender barrier in 2015. Now, she will be a key component of official Carl Cheffers’s crew.
Perhaps a moment of unity that this country desperately needs: We will all watch with bated breath to find out whether he has a song that isn’t “Blinding Lights” during the halftime show.
You knew we’d get to the quarterbacks at some point. A lot will be written about torch-passing this week, which is fine. It is the simple narrative that is most easily digestible for the casual viewing public. However, I would caution all of us about projecting anything too deeply into the future. Andrew Luck retired early. A swath of promising talent in recent years has decided that the game’s rigors are not worth sacrificing their lives for. Mahomes had a front-row seat to the highs and lows of an athlete’s lifestyle, watching his dad, an MLB pitcher. Will he want to be on that ride forever? Instead, we should borrow a lesson we all hopefully learned during this pandemic and apply it to a great player like Mahomes in his prime. Enjoy it now. It’s happening now. What will happen in the future? Who knows. If Mahomes wants to be Tom Brady, that is great and lucky us. If he wants to be something else in five years, all the better.
The 43-year-old quarterback has transcended the traditional idea of sports greatness and has raised the bar for any generational talent in the future who hopes to have their name synonymous with athletic success. Brady has played in roughly half of the Super Bowls that have occurred since some of his teammates were born. His 10 trips will likely be untouched by any quarterback in NFL history. His success outside of the Patriots’ dynasty, without bringing with him any of the coaching infrastructure, will boldly underline the tail end of his narrative arc.
Speaking of which, the simpletons will associate Brady’s presence here with the idea that he was more responsible for the success of the Patriots’ dynasty. This was a difficult year for Belichick from a personnel standpoint, but it’s hard to imagine New England will not rebound in the future. Still, for the moment, it will be hard for the larger football audience, which checks in periodically through the lens of their fantasy football team or DraftKings account, to keep Belichick’s contributions in their proper perspective when two weeks of Brady shine start to create some overgrowth.
Before the Patriots and Rams met in Super Bowl LIII, I talked to the then Rams DT about his pregame mental processes. He smiled and discussed his affinity for Animal Planet as a tome of information on the psychological battlefield. When I talked specifically about “poking the bear” referring to Brady, Suh said he wouldn’t consider Brady a bear at all. Now, Suh is playing with Brady and brings his penchant for in-game agitation to a Chiefs offensive line that is reeling from several serious injuries. It is often crafty veterans like Suh who have the biggest, though underdiscussed, impacts on critical moments in big games. Might that be the case this year?
The 82-year-old Buccaneers consultant is still rolling. His Super Bowl appearance in 2021 will come a full 60 years after he began his coaching career at Iowa as a graduate assistant. Moore won a pair of Super Bowls as a position coach with Chuck Noll’s Steelers and another as Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. The soft-spoken Midwesterner once told a reporter that he had no interest in retiring, as it meant he would just “hang around old people.”
The Buccaneers’ kicking coach is one of a small handful of former kickers employed by teams to specifically coach kickers. It’s a relatively untapped field, but an interesting one. Very few staffs have someone who is capable of addressing the psychology of kicking. Maybe it seems like an unnecessary cost, but when the game is on the line and you’re down by two, would you pay a few thousand dollars to have someone there to comfort your all-of-a-sudden most important player?
Fascinating might not be the word here, but the mercurial star receiver, who is still facing allegations of sexual assault and rape in a pending trial set for early December 2021, ended up being a subtly important on-field piece of Tampa Bay’s late-season run. During a typical Super Bowl with a crush of media, Brown would probably be confronted about his recent past, as would Tampa Bay’s decision makers. This year, he may very well be able to fly under the radar despite the fact that he’s still been causing trouble.
The Chiefs’ defensive coordinator is an interesting historical footnote here. As the defensive coordinator of the 2007 Giants, he managed to spearhead the effort to shut down one of the greatest teams in NFL history—the undefeated Patriots helmed by you-know-who. He is the only coordinator to have inherited the league’s worst defense at multiple stops and coached them to a Super Bowl. While his time as a prospective head coach may be over (Spagnuolo was the Rams’ head coach for three seasons and held the interim gig in New York), his presence behind the scenes as a man who knows Brady well will be interesting to keep an eye on.
While Jon Gruden won the Bucs’ franchise its only Super Bowl to date, Dungy built the roster and assembled the fearsome Tampa-2 defensive scheme that provided the team with its lasting identity. Dungy went on to become the first Black head coach in NFL history to win the Super Bowl, with the Colts in 2006. Now, as an outspoken advocate for minority hiring, Dungy’s presence looms large in Tampa. His former team is loaded with talented Black coaches, only one of whom got a legitimate interview for a head coach opening following the season (Bowles). His legacy in Tampa should serve as a reminder about the spirit of the Rooney Rule.
Chiefs’ backup offensive linemen
The performances of Mike Remmers (in for Eric Fisher) and Andrew Wylie (likely in for Schwartz) will be factors against a Buccaneers defense that can create a ton of pressure. Reid has praised his general manager’s ability to layer depth across this offensive line and, indeed, having someone like Remmers or Stefen Wisniewski around to fill in has been a boon for Patrick Mahomes throughout the stretch run. But we’ve seen offensive line play targeted and exposed so many times in the Super Bowl, especially when good coordinators have an extra week to prepare and isolate matchups. Can this pair hang on against Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett?
A quick stroll through StubHub before publication showed seats in the 300 section of Raymond James Stadium going for roughly $6,800 per ticket. These prices have a tendency to calm down once the market resets before the game and inventory is left, but it will create a strange spectacle. The stadium will be populated by vaccinated health care workers sitting alongside the deep-pocketed traveling elite, who are, in theory, subverting the very idea of safety in solitude that will aid health care workers moving forward through the (hopeful) tail end of this pandemic.
What does the Super Bowl mean to you this year? The NFL has been in an ethical tug-of-war throughout one of the worst stretches in modern U.S. history. Personally, it was difficult to watch players and coaches openly flout mask policies that could contribute to the societal disinformation gap and hard not to feel anxious for people in a huddle breathing all over one another during a pandemic. But at the same time, Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays were often a release amid months of lockdown. Catharsis. I complained about the draft taking place and then devoured it. I rattled my fist at the Ravens’ taking the field after Dez Bryant’s last-minute positive COVID-19 test and then watched the entire game. Never did I feel myself more twisted around this idea of good and bad sort of devouring itself whole. It was a complicated relationship that preyed on our lack of things to do. Am I looking forward to watching the Super Bowl with my kids? You bet. If you had asked me to wager money in September on whether we’d actually have a Super Bowl, would I have bet in the affirmative? No way.