Tampa Bay returns home, but loss has it searching for answers
By Emmanuel Morgan
Leonard Fournette, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back, remembers passing dead bodies while wading through the flooded streets of his native New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
Ten years old at the time, he lived on a bridge with his family for nearly a week after the storm, he said, and they looted local grocery stores to survive. When Fournette, now 27, evacuated to the Miami area with his teammates last week ahead of Hurricane Ian — which left a trail of death and destruction that is still being assessed — the moment evoked memories that he would like to forget.
“I know how serious it is, I know how it can turn for the worse,” Fournette said last week. “I’m just happy we got ourselves out of there, that our families and everyone is safe.”
In those nervous days before the hurricane hit Florida, it was not even clear where, or when, Sunday’s rematch of Super Bowl LV would be played.
As a precaution, the Buccaneers’ players, coaches, staff and their families had fled south last week — out of the storm’s projected path. Setting up a temporary camp in Miami Gardens, they practiced at the Dolphins’ facility, which was available because the team played Thursday night on the road. There, the Buccaneers tried to prepare for the biggest game of their early season while wondering whether the hurricane would sweep away their homes.
“It’s a lot different when there are little kids running around the hotel and everyone was dealing with their dogs or their babies,” offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said of the lead-up to Sunday night’s prime-time game. “It was a lot.”
When Ian’s path altered, sidestepping Tampa and leaving the city essentially unscathed, the team returned and — with city officials urging the NFL to play it as scheduled — the game went ahead. When it did, it was Kansas City — which won the highly anticipated matchup, 41-31 — that looked much more comfortable on the field.
Patrick Mahomes passed for 249 yards and three touchdowns, favoring his tight end Travis Kelce and leading a new-look offense as Kansas City (3-1) turned in a statement performance.
The Buccaneers (2-2), meanwhile, now face questions after another unbalanced outing in which Tom Brady passed for 385 yards and three scores but the running game struggled to gain ground and the defense repeatedly failed to slow down the Chiefs.
The game had nearly kicked off in another state. The NFL had selected U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis as the contingency site because its home team, the Vikings, played Sunday in London against New Orleans. But the storm’s path swung south, battering Fort Myers and the surrounding areas instead of Tampa. The airport and most other businesses, which closed ahead of the hurricane, resumed normal operations by Friday.
A league spokesman said Thursday that state and local officials “encouraged” the NFL to keep the game in Raymond James Stadium. Mayor Jane Castor of Tampa said in a statement that the city could responsibly host the game while deploying aid to other areas in Florida, where the hurricane killed at least 80 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. Before the game, fans raised their cellphone flashlights in a moment of silence for the victims, and Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles wore a white shirt emblazoned with the slogan Florida Strong.
Yet even as the game went ahead, the disaster hung over a marquee matchup between two of the league’s best teams in the same stadium where they had met in the Super Bowl in February 2021. The Buccaneers won that day, 31-9, helped immensely by their ability to pressure and sack Mahomes.
Each took the field on Sunday with a very different team. Brady, the 45-year-old quarterback who retired and unretired this offseason, now throws to a receiving corps without Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown, who were key weapons during Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl run. Bowles became head coach in March after Bruce Arians retired and took a front-office role.
Kansas City has made changes, too, most notably by additions to its offensive line and the loss of receiver Tyreek Hill, who was traded to Miami in the offseason. His absence hardly seemed to matter against Tampa Bay: Kansas City burst to a 21-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Kansas City separated from Brady and Tampa Bay in the second half with two field goals and another touchdown pass by Mahomes. The performance enforced Kansas City’s belief that the offense can win without the speedy Hill: Eight players caught a pass from Mahomes.
“When you have a new group of people, you want to see how everyone battles through adversity,” Mahomes said. “I think guys responded.”
The Buccaneers had been led by their defense the past two games, but the unit struggled against Mahomes. Tampa Bay’s defense allowed more points than it had in its first three games combined, and its offense rushed for only 3 yards.
For a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in what — like every year — could be Brady’s final season, that formula will not yield success. And the Buccaneers know it.
“It doesn’t matter what we did last year or the year before that— nobody cares,” Brady said. “When you come up short, obviously we didn’t do a good job in any area and we have to do a better job.”