A year ago, the Bears and Buccaneers sat in similar messes. And while the former remains mired in mediocrity, the latter has made it to the Super Bowl.
The Bucs will face the Chiefs for the championship Sunday only one season removed from going 7-9 and finishing six games back in their division. Their 2015 No. 1 overall pick at quarterback had flopped and was on his way out the door, and their defense allowed the fourth-most points in the NFL.
In some ways, their outlook was bleaker than that of the Bears, who at least gave themselves a chance by having one of the league’s best defenses.
Obviously, the Bucs’ quick turnaround started where most turnarounds start: They hit the jackpot on Tom Brady. Finding an accomplished veteran quarterback is the key to anything the Bears hope to accomplish next season, too. It’s difficult to recruit someone like that, though, without significant pieces already in place.
“The first thing we wanted to do when we came in was stop the losing culture and [emphasize] that the little things matter,” said coach Bruce Arians, who inherited a 5-11 team when he took over in 2019. “Our team got better and better. We wanted to keep the defense intact. . . . Then we put Tom in the mix.
“But the guys have bought in. They know what accountability means. That’s the only way you can get to this game is by being accountable to each other.”
Between Arians’ structure and Brady’s star power, the Bucs were able to rapidly revamp their roster.
After Brady came aboard and gave the team immediate credibility as a Super Bowl contender, the Bucs landed tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Antonio Brown. They were three of the team’s top seven players in yards from scrimmage.
A lot of teams talk about culture — perhaps none more so than the Bears. As coach Matt Nagy memorably put it, “We don’t have turds on this team.” It’s safe to assume they’d never consider Brown, and they didn’t appear interested in Fournette. But culture is less about signing problem-free players than it is setting a clear course toward a championship. That’s what compels players to get on board.
Brady might have helped the Bears establish that, and NBC Sports’ Dan Patrick reported that his choices were down to the Bucs, Bears and Chargers. In the end, the Bears’ future wasn’t bright enough to persuade him. The Bucs, meanwhile, with an impressive coaching staff, high-potential players on defense and significant players secured offensively, were a more attractive destination.
“I’m not really shocked that we’re here in this game,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “We had a good football team last year — a young football team that was learning how to win. I remember telling my offensive staff, ‘If I’m a free-agent quarterback, I’m coming to Tampa.’ You saw the talent that we had. I just knew this would be a nice spot.
“I wouldn’t say that I knew it would ultimately lead to being in the Super Bowl, [but] once you get Tom Brady, that’s automatically [possible]. He’s in it all the time. We knew we had to put the work in, though. A bunch of talent don’t get the job done. Guys pulling together, coming together and committing to each other — we knew that was the way we would ultimately get a chance to play in this game.”
The Bears will spend the rest of the offseason trying to find their version of Brady, and there’s nothing easy about that. Nick Foles wasn’t even close. They’ll have to do a lot better than that, and if they don’t, it’s hard to see them making the kind of jump the Bucs did.