A couple of days have now passed since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ complete mastery of the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.
As always, there’s more to uncover when the game tape is broken down and a there’s been some time since the result, allowing additional storylines to marinate.
Here are some of my thoughts on the Bucs, Chiefs and this year’s Super Bowl before we turn the page to the 2021 offseason.
🏈 TODD BOWLES’ BRILLIANCE
The awesome thing about Bruce Arians’ Tampa Bay coaching staff is that it is packed with a diverse array of men and women who are masters of their craft.
And among that championship-winning staff, one coach’s performance deserves extra praise.
Few defensive coordinators in NFL history have schemed up and executed a better game plan than Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ strategy to limit Patrick Mahomes to the worst game of his NFL career.
“I can’t give him enough credit,” Arians said of Bowles after the game. “You know, I think he got a little tired of hearing about how unstoppable they [Chiefs offense] were. I thought he came up with a fantastic plan just to keep them in front of us and tackle real well. Patrick [Mahomes] wasn’t going to beat us running …”
In Tampa’s 27-24 loss to Kansas City in November, Tyreek Hill victimized the Bucs via an historic performance, doing most of his damage in the first quarter versus single-high safety coverages with Tampa cornerback Carlton Davis in man or nearby zone coverage on Hill.
This time, with the state of Kansas City’s depleted offensive line, Bowles blitzed only situationally (Tampa blitzed on roughly 10 percent of KC passing plays, lowest for a Bowles defense in five years) and allowed his defensive front four (Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh) to feast on Mahomes and his undermanned blockers, which prompted Bowles to implement predominantly two-high coverage looks (Cover 2, Cover 4 or Quarters, 2-Man) to take away some of Kansas City’s staple offensive calls. Playing two-high safety looks would normally be an issue against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce underneath and in the middle of the field, but knowing the matchup with KC’s offensive line, this became the best move. Mahomes had no time to find longer-developing routes to Hill and others, and despite a garbage-time level stat line for Kelce (10 catches, 133 yards), the Kansas City tight end was largely kept in check underneath by Tampa linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, who also spent time chipping Kelce at the line of scrimmage (a strategy of Bill Belichick’s that seems to work versus Kelce).
Of course, pressuring Mahomes without blitzing makes any coverage look a lot better, but the two-safety shell implemented by Bowles was brilliant. Part of the reason Mahomes ran around the field for 497 yards on Sunday was because he was looking for pass catchers that weren’t open.
In all, Tampa played in two-high looks on 87 percent of Mahomes drop backs (according to NFL Next Gen Stats), pressured Mahomes a Super Bowl-record 29 times (52 percent of KC passing plays), and forced the Chiefs phenom into two picks, three sacks, a 49.9 Total QBR, and a meager nine total points without a touchdown. The loss was also the first double-digit loss of Mahomes’ career.
“Coach Bowles?” said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. “We call him the Mastermind. We were playing great defense throughout the playoffs, and (people) still doubted us.”
It’s time to give Bowles his due, in form of both praise and attention as a head-coaching candidate in 2022.
🏈 TOM BRADY’S PATRIOT-LIKE, WINTER RUN TO ANOTHER SUPER BOWL TITLE
For Tom Brady, duck boats in February New England weather turned to actual boats in 80-plus degree Florida sun. So even though things are different for the GOAT down in Tampa, some things stayed the same. The championship parades continued, as Brady celebrated his seventh Super Bowl title with a new club, and judging by the hilarious videos on Twitter, it looks like Tom ditched the TB12 method, at least for a day, to celebrate his incredible run to another championship.
Can you blame him?
After an up-and-down start to the season, the Buccaneers figured things out right after Thanksgiving, and Brady’s play went from uneven to spectacular for two straight months.
Of course, that’s a familiar story, as Brady’s Buccaneers took on a New England Patriots-like run in making necessary adjustments to go on a winter bludgeoning of the league’s best teams (and quarterbacks), with the Bucs looking much different in the months of December and January, as opposed to September and October.
The main reason for Tampa’s sketchy 7-5 start was the abnormal offseason, which consisted of a truncated training camp with extra rules, and no preseason, due to COVID-19. Considering the team was welcoming a new quarterback, and several other new faces, it was tough for them to gel in the way they wanted. Especially with the differentiating methods of Tom Brady’s calculated passing attack and Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” deep-ball-flinging jamboree.
Still, Brady proved that even at age 43, he could still throw the ball downfield, leading the league in air yards per attempt (9.6), throwing downfield to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller.
But somewhere amidst the Bucs’ valiant effort to make their last loss of the season (to the Chiefs in November, 27-24, in Tampa) a close one, CBS Sports‘ Tony Romo apparently figured out that the Buccaneers offense had found a groove that would later vault them to the Super Bowl.
Tampa would go on to win their last eight games of the season, culminating in their 31-9 beatdown of the Chiefs to win Super Bowl 55.
The offense averaged 33.9 points per game over that stretch, as Brady and Arians became synced and in tune with each other’s styles.
Sure, Brady’s downfield dart to Scotty Miller to stun the Packers at the end of the first half of the NFC Title Game, and Tom’s pass interference-drawing deep heave to Mike Evans late in the first half of the Super Bowl were Arians-like decisions, but in the Super Bowl, Brady reverted to his old ways derived in New England.
Despite having one of the league’s best receiver duos in boundary extraordinaries Evans and Godwin, Brady targeted them just five times for three connections on 40 yards in Super Bowl 55, compared to a combined 15 passes completed to Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 17 targets. (Fournette also ran in a score.)
Brady is especially efficient throwing in the middle of the field to tight ends, slot receivers and pass-catching running backs. Brady also excels in the play-action passing game.
With the help from his trusted pal (Gronk) and another old friend he brought in (Brown), Brady utilized play-action and quick passes to pick the Chiefs apart.
Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich even let Brady bring back some of New England’s staple play-action passing plays designed for Gronkowski (see second part of Bill Barnwell’s tweet below).
It was Brady’s highest play-action passing rate in a game since 2016, and all three of Brady’s touchdowns, and nearly half of his completions (he went 10-for-13 on play-action passes for 135 yards) and over half of his yards came on such passes.
After the game, Brady stood on the podium and deflected a Jim Nantz question regarding if this was his most special Super Bowl win.
We know of course, that it’s because he was being modest, or maybe even because he knows how special Super Bowl 51 was to him.
But maybe it’s also because this championship performance, and title run, was quite similar to some of his past performances as a Patriot.
For Brady, the motto was again figuring things out in December and January, trusting your most-trusted targets, and playing the game though the air on your own accord.
🏈 WHAT’S NEXT FOR MAHOMES, CHIEFS? ARE THE RUSSELL WILSON-ERA SEAHAWKS A VALID LOOSE COMPARISON? WHAT ABOUT PEYTON MANNING-ERA COLTS?
The Chiefs fell short in their quest to win consecutive Super Bowls, leaving a sour taste to another fantastic season for them.
Considering they’ll return next season with the NFL’s best player (Patrick Mahomes), and their core group still intact, it’s easy to envision them making a third straight Super Bowl. But if you look a little closer, the cracks, no matter how small, are visible.
To loosely compare, when the 2014 Seattle Seahawks were thwarted by Tom Brady in their attempt to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-2004 Patriots (led by Brady), Russell Wilson’s playoff record went from 6-1 to 6-2, just like Mahomes’ recently did in this similar scenario. (And let’s be honest, Wilson came closer than Mahomes to winning his second Super Bowl title).
Since going from the young, clutch leader at quarterback to a top-flight field general who has elevated an undermanned team in recent seasons (I liken Wilson’s arc to a young Tom Brady in that way), Wilson has since become frustrated with the Seahawks team-building strategy and subpar win-loss success, compared to Wilson’s standards.
Sure, Mahomes’ career arc has been different, seeing as ever since he became the Chiefs starter, he immediately rose to a level of success and jaw-dropping-talent-meets-efficiency stardom that Wilson, and maybe no other young quarterback other than Dan Marino (without the Super Bowl ring), has achieved.
But soon, the older talent around him (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, etc.) will dissipate in the form of erosion or retirement, leaving a whole new era for Mahomes to take on, without the all-time unique Hill (best speed WR ever, most unique deep threat ever) and Kelce (best route-running tight end ever) to throw to.
As it stands, the salary-cap strategy of these Chiefs can be likened to the Peyton Manning-era Colts of the 2000s.
In those years, Indianapolis filled up most of their annual cap space by spending on their core players — Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis — leaving little cap space to sign top-tier or mid-level free agents or in-house players with expiring contracts.
For most years, this left those Colts as top-heavy squads lacking depth and competence on defense, save for a few players like Freeney and Mathis that could get after the quarterback, but still struggled in run defense. Because of this Indianapolis won just one Super Bowl during the Manning era, and often fell to the likes of more complete (and tougher) teams like the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers or talented San Diego Chargers.
The Chiefs are in a similar position. As it stands, Kansas City is heading into the 2021 offseason with roughly negative-$20 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. And that’s without a set-in-stone cap figure for next year to account for lost revenue for the league in 2020, due to the pandemic.
Here is a list of the top 15 cap hits on the Chiefs roster next season, taken from Spotrac:
Frank Clark ($25.8 million)
Patrick Mahomes ($24.8 million)
Chris Jones ($21.9 million)
Tyrann Mathieu ($19.7 million)
Tyreek Hill ($15.9 million)
Eric Fisher ($15. 2 million)
Travis Kelce ($13.3 million)
Anthony Hitchens ($10.7 million)
Mitchell Schwartz ($10 million)
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif ($4.8 million)
Harrison Butker ($3.9 million)
Damien Williams ($2.8 million)
Clyde Edwards-Helaire ($2.5 million)
Alex Okafor ($2 million)
Chad Henne ($1.6 million)
Mecole Hardman ($1.4 million)
Notice the gap between Schwartz and Duvernay-Tardif’s contract. The Chiefs are built very top-heavy, and with their structure, and Mahomes’ record contract over the next few seasons, GM Brett Veach will suffer some cap casualties, while also being strapped, in terms of signing free agents.
Like the Manning-era Colts, the Chiefs struggle mightily in run defense, and rely on a couple big names (Jones, Mathieu) to help elevate an underwhelming unit. The Chiefs are also built offensively-minded, like those Colts. To be fair, Kansas City was one win away from back-to-back titles, but still, this team setup is not sustainable long-term.
Kansas City will have to counter with impeccable drafting skills. The Colts drafted a bevy of defensive backs (Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, Kelvin Hayden, etc.) during those years that helped give them an improved secondary as the decade went on.
The Chiefs have already begun drafting well under Veach, with L’Jarius Sneed —a fourth-round pick from this season who had an incredible rookie year as a do-it-all boundary/nickel cornerback — being an example of the type of player that Veach will need to find once or twice per draft in the middle rounds.
Because of their hamstrung situation in terms of spendable cash, things will get more difficult, but it’s tough to blame the Chiefs for locking up players such as Hill, Kelce, Mathieu and Jones, who are all at, or near, the top of their respective positions.
The Chiefs have some great players, but they may lack in enough good ones to help give them a sustainable roster in the long-term. But like any franchise, things change quickly.
In three to five seasons, Mahomes will be attempting to get back to the Super Bowl by throwing to wide receivers and tight ends that are probably currently in high school, while the Chiefs attempt to build their roster with cap space that was once not there. For now, Kansas City will attempt to sustain themselves on the backs of a few. It’s worked so far, but how long will it last?