The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 season ended on a bitter note, with a 30-27 loss at home to the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The disappointing finish, a 21-point comeback that fell apart in 42 seconds of game clock, was as turbulent as the rest of the season. The Bucs' offense dominated at an even higher level than the year before, but otherwise, the team's defense was inconsistent, injuries were constantly a factor, and a major distraction that could have been avoided caused headaches throughout the year.
Let's take a look back at the Buccaneers' 2021 season, with five takeaways to sum up the campaign.
There is no room left for debate: Tom Brady is the best to ever do it
At age 44, Tom Brady set the NFL's single-season record for completions and broke Drew Brees' record for career completions in 2021. He also became the oldest player in history to throw for 5,000+ yards as well as to lead the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43) in a single season. And the season before, Brady surpassed Brees as the league's all-time leader in passing touchdowns.
It was probably clear before he ever left New England, but in a new environment with new coaches and teammates, Brady solidified his status as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game over the last two seasons. As if his previous accomplishments weren't enough, the level to which he played in his 22nd season was absolutely remarkable.
There is no room for debate, at least until another quarterback wins seven Super Bowls and breaks Brady's seemingly untouchable records.
This team was never at full-strength
In all but three regular-season games this season, the Buccaneers were without at least one starter due to injuries. Add in Antonio Brown's three-game suspension while he was simultaneously dealing with an ankle injury, and you could say the Bucs were without at least one starter in every game of the 2021 campaign.
That simply isn't a recipe for success to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The 2020 season played out in a completely different fashion, as only two starters spent time on the injured reserve compared to six in 2021 and a total of 13 starters missed at least one game, but most of those contributors were not out for an extended period of time.
The Bucs' front office proved its worth
The year began with Tampa Bay doing something unheard of, as the Bucs were the first team in the Super Bowl ear to retain its entire starting lineup following a league title. But the front office had far more tricks up its sleeve than just roster retention.
As the team dealt with an onslaught of injuries, the Bucs resorted to practice squad elevations and in-season free agent signings to act as a bandaid at certain positions. Look no further than contributions from cornerbacks Dee Delaney, Pierre Desir and Richard Sherman, safety Andrew Adams, and wide receivers Cyril Grayson Jr. and Breshad Perriman, among others. Each of these players started at least one game for Tampa this season, and none of them (aside from Grayson, who was on the practice squad, and Delaney, who signed during minicamp) were members of the team during the offseason.
The strategy was successful, as Tampa Bay continued to win games and made it to the second round of the playoffs with a battered roster and contributors that were not exactly familiar faces to Buccaneers faithful. For that, general manager Jason Licht and Vice President of Player Personnel John Spytek, who was instrumental in the process and has since received general manager interviews across the league, deserve a round of applause.
The Antonio Brown saga was a predictable lowlight of the season
Who could have seen Brown's signing blowing up in the Buccaneers' face? Considering his well-documented history of off-field misconduct and antics he's displayed with previous teams, it didn't come as a total shock to see Brown's troubles and eventual departure come to fruition in Tampa.
Earlier in the season, Brown was allowed to return to a training camp joint practice with the Titans after starting a fight and throwing punches. Later in the year, he was suspended for three games after it was discovered that he faked his vaccination status, putting the entire team at risk of COVID-19 by committing a federal offense.
Yet, he was welcomed back by Arians, who said that he "could give a s---" about the criticism he was receiving for keeping the receiver around.
It took one and a half games before Brown would act up again, following Arians' vote of confidence, as seen by his sideline incident against the New York Jets where Brown seemingly quit on the team. There are different sides of the story, as Arians said Brown simply wouldn't listen to orders and go into the game, whereas Brown and his legal team have accused Arians and Co. of a cover-up related to an ankle injury.
Regardless, Brown was released the following week, to the surprise of no one.
Bruce Arians has something to prove in 2022
Bruce Arians quickly confirmed after the Divisional Round loss that he would return to Tampa Bay for a fourth season as the Buccaneers head coach. And in what could be his final season in charge, Arians will have something to prove.
The Brown situation, in particular, made Arians look foolish this past season, as he appeared to trade his values for talent. Arians said when Brown signed with the Bucs in 2020 that the wide receiver would have one chance with the team due to his off-field concerns, and if he crossed the line, he'd be cut.
But Brown was given more than one chance, as discussed above, and he blew each of them, yet was allowed to return to the team after numerous instances of misconduct. Now, the Buccaneers could face a lawsuit due to the nature of his release in January, and in the end, Arians looks silly for putting his trust in a player who hadn't earned it. It would behoove Arians to no longer give misconduct a pass and he will surely aim to shed that reputation next year.
In addition, considering the Bucs didn't meet their goal of a second Super Bowl title in a row, naturally, Arians would like to prove that he's capable of leading the team to another championship before he retires — even if Brady hangs up his cleats and Arians has to pivot to another quarterback, which would make a Super Bowl victory be an even more fulfilling challenge.
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