Now, in the Super Bowl, five plays showed how all the work paid off:
Brady to Brown, stop route, KC up 3-0, 3:14 left, first quarter. Classic Brady favorite. He torched the Atlanta secondary four years ago in the comeback Super Bowl win with stop routes. Receiver runs what looks like a go route, puts his foot in the ground, turns back and catches the ball two or three yards shy of where he stopped. Brown sprinted 19 yard down the ride sideline, Charvarius Ward in tight coverage, Brown stopped, ball already in the air . . . Brown caught it 16 yards past the line of scrimmage. Looked so easy. And it is—if you’ve practiced it a hundred times. Which very likely they had done.
Brady to Gronkowski, flat-screen route, KC up 3-0, 0:41 left, first quarter. “Byron couldn’t wait to call this play,” Christensen said. “We were so sure it’d work.” This is something I’d never seen—Gronk the tight end in fast motion, right to left, in front of the quarterback, in motion as a receiver and not as a seal-blocker cutting off the edge-rush. You can see on replay defensive end Frank Clark anticipating Gronkowski cutting off his motion just after the snap to seal him off from rushing Brady; Clark girds for contact from Gronkowski, and the contact never comes. Gronkowski, swift from a soft practice year coming out of retirement, turns to Brady for the soft toss, and he turns upfield for the easy 8-yard touchdown. How many touchdowns in his tremendous career has Gronk done this—sprint motion, catch in the flat, score, without being touched? Well, never. When Gronkowski got to the bench after the play, he was excited, like a kid. “That’s so cool!” he said. “I always wanted to run that route! No one’s ever called that play for me before!”
Brady to Gronkowski, improvised route, Tampa up 7-3, 6:11 left, second quarter. At the KC 17-yard line, Gronkowski was supposed to run a corner route—to the back right corner of the end zone. But he was closely guarded by cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who had outside leverage. (Meaning it’d be fruitless to run to the right corner, because Sneed would be all over Gronkowski.) “Now it’s just playing ball,” Christensen said. “Tom and Gronk have had to do this a lot in their career. The defense had the perfect design. They get paid too.” Gronkowski knew to turn left, across the back of the end zone, and Brady knew that’s what Gronkowski would do. As soon as Gronk began trolling the back of the end zone, Brady released a line-drive spiral exactly 32 yards in the air. It was on Gronk before KC could help Sneed. Touchdown.
Brady to Brown, improvised route, Tampa up 14-3, 0:10 left, second quarter. The idea was for Brady, under center at the 1-yard line, to play-action to Fournette, and turn around and fire to Brown, single-covered by Tyrann Mathieu, alone two-yards deep in the end zone. Brown was supposed to run a different route to get to the spot, but you can see on replay why he did what he did. Mathieu had no help behind him and Brown figured with a hard jab step to the right coming off the line, Mathieu would have to respect an outside throw. For a split-second, Mathieu jabbed with Brown—just long enough for Brown to be able to box out Mathieu. Brady fired it low, and Mathieu didn’t have time to deflect it away. “There’s something to getting an A in recess,” Christensen said. “Tom and Antonio are on the playground there, and the play doesn’t happen the way you’ve designed it. But they’ll figure it out, because they’re parks-and-rec players.”
Fournette run, Tampa up 21-9, 7:45 left, third quarter. When I asked Leftwich for his favorite play of the game, he picked this one. “That Leonard Fournette run in the third quarter was something that was really set up throughout the game,” he told me. “What they were doing defensively . . . the great thing for us, we had a lot of things that we talked about throughout the week that showed up in the game. It was just amazing, all the conversations we had for two weeks, and how the game turned out on Sunday evening.” Leftwich wouldn’t say what exactly he saw, but it’s likely that on Fournette runs to the right of center earlier in the game against certain Kansas City defensive looks, the Bucs would have a totally open second level. So if they blocked it right and opened a gap, Fournette would have an open field ahead. That’s exactly what happened, and that was the game.
I would not call these five plays the most important of the game. The defensive vise-grip on Patrick Mahomes was gigantic; holding KC to three field goals is a career achievement for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and his troops. But for a new quarterback to learn a new team after 20 years in one place, and for four brand-new players to score every point in a Super Bowl upset when nothing was normal . . . that, to me, is truly extraordinary about the 2020 season and the Bucs winning Super Bowl LV. In a rout.
The defense was picture perfect all day too. Devin White said after the game he felt he was the best linebacker in football, and who’s disagreeing with him now? After missing the wild-card game in Washington, White led the Tampa defense in tackles against the Saints, Packers and Chiefs and had a ridiculous three-game stat line: 38 tackles, 3 for losses, two interceptions, two passes defensed, two fumbles recovered. At 22, the second-year player from LSU is turning out to be one of the great defensive players in football. Altogether, the Bucs’ youth all over the field will make them big factors so long as they have a quarterback to keep the offense humming. After seeing Brady in this Super Bowl, you’ve got to figure he’s got two years left in Tampa. Maybe more.