When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers open defense of their Super Bowl LV title tonight, they will display more than the first championship banner at Raymond James Stadium in 19 years. They will also be the first defending champion in 42 years to retain all 22 starters from that championship game.
Whether that means anything remains to be seen. But defensive coordinator Todd Bowles knows that familiar lineups, like that new banner, guarantee them nothing.
"Even with 22 [starters returning], it's still a different team,’’ Bowles cautioned only days before the Bucs were to begin their title defense against the Dallas Cowboys in Thursday night’s NFL Kickoff season opener. “It's a different team.
“We tweaked some things for us to get better at. We know some things that hurt us. As a team, we have to re-jell, re-do our chemistry and everything else to try to get better from there and start from the bottom up. I think if you go into the season saying that we're top dog, we've already lost. We're starting at the bottom, and we're going to work our way back up."
Bowles understands the truth of that better than most of his players, maybe all of them save quarterback Tom Brady. That’s because in 1987 Bowles was part of a Washington team that won the Super Bowl, only to fail to make the playoffs the following season after tumbling to an injury-riddled 7-9 season.
The Bucs are the only team in the salary-cap area, which began in 1994, to return all of its Super Bowl starters after locking up defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Antonio Brown with one-year contracts. That signaled their interest in keeping together a lineup that rallied at midseason a year ago to go on a championship march.
Although team building, and rebuilding, was far different before the advent of the salary cap, retaining all your players after a Super Bowl run doesn’t necessarily mean anything, as the 1977 Oakland Raiders of the pre-cap era learned. That team crushed the Minnesota Vikings the year before in the Super Bowl but lost its chance to defend its title in the AFC championship game the following season.
The same was not true, though, for the 1979 Steelers, the last team before the Bucs to open its title defense with the same 22 starters that won the Super Bowl the year before. The Steelers returned their entire Week One starting lineup from their championship team and managed to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.
The Buccaneers will now attempt to pick up where they left off a year ago, which was playing their best football down the final stretch of last season. Tampa Bay capped an eight-game winning streak by avenging a Week 12 loss to the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs at the same Raymond James Stadium where they open their title defense tonight with two huddles full of familiar faces.
"The sky’s the limit for us,” Suh said after re-signing with Tampa for $9 million. “At the end of the day, I wanted to have an opportunity to come back with a group of guys that have an opportunity to potentially go back in and earn another ring. We just got to continue to hone in and understand what Coach Arians wants from each one of us and really embrace our roles."
That, quite often, is the problem for defending Super Bowl champions. With success come inflated egos and mounting pressures to repeat one of the most difficult journeys in sports. No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots managed to do it in 2003 and 2004. The one advantage Tampa has is the quarterback who led that team now leads its club 17 years later.
No one in the league understands the cost of winning better than Tom Brady, which is why he’s way past seeking “one for the thumb” and is working on closing in on “three for my other hand.”
Can he lead a team that managed to bring back all its weapons a year ago on another championship run? Oddsmakers in Las Vegas give him only a 14 per cent chance. Worse, the Bucs are not even the betting favorite of the Vegas wise guys. Familiar faces don’t seem to mean much to them.
Whether they mean anything to the Bucs and, more importantly, to the 17 regular-season opponents they face is a question everyone in football is anxious to see answered. Can they do it? Like those Vegas’ wise guys, I wouldn’t bet on it.