Wed Jan 27 4:19pm ET
By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans cheer during a military fly over before an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers in Tampa, in this Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009, file photo. Hall of Famer Warren Sapp wishes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could pack the stands for the first Super Bowl played in a host teams home stadium. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco, File)
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Warren Sapp wishes fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could pack the stands for the first Super Bowl played in a host team's home stadium.
Because of coronavirus pandemic concerns, the NFL's decision to limit capacity to 22,000 at Raymond James Stadium, and soaring prices for a limited number of tickets available for the league's title game will prevent that.
All's not lost, though, for an excited though sometimes fickle fan base embracing a bittersweet opportunity to enjoy the NFC champions on football's biggest stage after being forced to follow the Tom Brady-led Bucs, as well as playoff runs by the region's other two major pro franchises, from afar.
The NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup while playing the entire postseason in Canada, then was unable to fully celebrate with hometown fans, who were left to salute the team during a boat parade and outdoor stadium rally that replaced a more traditional-style celebration on the streets of downtown Tampa.
Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays played two playoff games in neighboring St. Petersburg before winning the American League pennant in California and losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a neutral-site World Series played in Texas.
The Bucs won three straight playoff games on the road to become the first team to advance to a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Tampa Bay has a reputation nationally for supporting the Lightning, but not the Bucs and Rays, who routinely rank near or at the bottom of baseball in attendance.
The past year truly has been special for all the franchises, though, and fans are celebrating any way they can.
''The Bucs in the Super Bowl with the game at home doesn't even seem real. Usually there's a buildup. A team goes to the playoffs, loses and goes back and loses again. It takes time to get good,'' long-time fan Justin Heaven said.
''The Bucs go 7-9 with Jameis Winston, haven't won a playoff game in 18 years and haven't been to the playoffs in 13,'' Heaven added. ''Tom Brady comes to town and it's basically: `You want to go to the Super Bowl? Come on, let's go.'''
Fans happily are following, even if they won't be able to get in or mingle around the stadium with a game-day crowd that'll include 7,500 vaccinated health care workers given tickets as a thank you for their service during the pandemic.
Restaurants and bars figure to be busier than they've been in months, though much of the glitz and glamour usually associated with the Super Bowl will be muted with some events canceled and city officials urging local residents and visitors to practice social distancing.
''We've got the biggest game in our house, we're in it and can't fill it? I know that's disappointing for a lot of fans. But people have got to be smart and stay safe,'' Sapp, one of the stars of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl championship run 18 years ago, said.
''You want that place rocking. 22,000? And then 7,500 of that are going to be neutral, and the rest maybe split even. That's just our luck,'' the Hall of Fame defensive tackle said. ''I'd like to see all 65,000 - at least 60 - in there pulling or us.''
Derrick Brooks, another Hall of Famer and defensive star with the 2002 Bucs, is co-chairman of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Host Committee, which has worked closely with the NFL and local sponsors to prepare the community to host the title game for a fifth time.
It's the 55th Super Bowl, and Brooks wore No. 55 for the Bucs.
''Obviously, it has got everybody excited. Warren and I were on the phone practically every other play last week watching them beat Green Bay. That was a whole lot of fun,'' Brooks said.
''With the Lightning winning the Cup and Rays coming within a couple of games of winning the World Series, it's kind of fitting with the Bucs making the first part of history,'' Brooks.
''I say that because the story's still being written. They're still making history and can finish it by being the first to win it in their home stadium.''
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and several teammates took in a Bucs game in early October and even brought along the Stanley Cup.
Super Bowl Sunday will be a travel day for the hockey champions, so they won't be in town during the game.
''It's been amazing to watch and obviously be a part of. This city is very deserving of that. We have very loyal fan bases and it's a great sports town,'' Stamkos said of the success of the Lightning, Rays, and now the Bucs.
''At the end of the day we're all sports fans. I grew up playing all those sports as a kid. You kind of dream that you could be a professional athlete in a different sport too,'' Stamkos added. ''I watch those guys, I admire them. It's inspiring for us as athletes to watch what they have to go through to achieve their dreams.''
Tampa mayor Jane Castor and counterparts from St. Petersburg and nearby Clearwater, meanwhile, stress the importance of everyone balancing having a good time and staying safe during a pandemic.
''The only people we want leaving disappointed,'' the mayor said, ''is the Kansas City Chiefs.''
Interview with a Champ
New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis knows it will be a "daunting" offseason if the team has to replace quarterback Drew Brees, who is expected to retire, but Loomis made it clear that the club isn't going into rebuilding mode after winning the last four NFC South titles. The Saints could also be close to $100 million over the salary cap. There is no official word yet on whether Brees will retire, but the Saints plan on waiting for his decision before deciding on how they will approach the position in 2021 and beyond. Quarterback Jameis Winston, safety Marcus Williams, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and tight end Jared Cook are all scheduled to be free agents. But the Saints could save at least $13.5 million in cap space if Brees retires. They could also consider a blockbuster trade to free up cap space and add draft picks like they did in the past with Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks.
The Buffalo Bills will have very little wiggle room and are unlikely to make any big free-agent signings or trades this offseason with a projected salary cap space of less than $2 million (with a projected cap of $180 million). "We'll fill in here and there some holes, but I would not anticipate any blockbuster moves of Stefon Diggs type, or some of the moves we made the year before in free agency," general manager Brandon Beane said Wednesday. Buffalo will hope to retain some of their players this offseason while continuing to build through the draft as they hope to catch the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021. According to Spotrac, the Bills are expected to have the 19th-most cap space heading into next season, and they'll have the 30th overall pick in the first round after not having one in 2020 because of the Diggs trade.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff has 45 wins since 2017 (second-most behind Tom Brady), but he was wildly inconsistent in 2020, and the Rams are expected to have an open quarterback competition between Goff and John Wolford during training camp this summer, according to sources. Wolford was much more mobile and added a new dynamic to LA's offense late in the regular season when Goff's thumb was injured, so they will give him another chance to impress this summer. If Goff isn't traded and remains with the Rams, he'll have to show more explosiveness and limit the turnovers in order to keep his starting job. The former first overall pick had his moments in 2020, but he just wasn't consistent enough for fantasy managers and did very little with his legs. If he wins the job in training camp, he'll be a middling QB2 target in fantasy drafts.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree (knee), who tore his ACL in a Week 12 win over the Ravens on Dec. 2, said that he plans to be ready for training camp and is ahead of schedule in his rehab. "I'm feeling great right now," Dupree said. The star pass-rusher had eight sacks and 31 tackles before suffering the season-ending injury and had formed a two-headed pass-rushing monster with teammate T.J. Watt. After Dupree's injury, Pittsburgh's defense fell off the rest of the way. The 27-year-old played the 2020 season on the franchise tag for $15.828 million and will hit the free-agent market this offseason. The Steelers are unlikely to tag Dupree again, as they are projected to be well over the 2021 salary cap. Dupree should be in play in IDP leagues, if he's healthy, wherever he winds up playing next season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said he doesn't plan on retiring from the NFL if he wins Super Bowl 55 over the Kansas City Chiefs. "Hell no. I'm going for two. If the Glazers will have me back," Arians said. The 68-year-old already retired following the 2017 season with the Arizona Cardinals due to medical concerns, but returned to coach the Buccaneers in 2019 after a year away from the game. If Arians were to retire, he'd likely leave the head-coaching job in the capable hands of either defensive coordinator Todd Bowles or offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. But with future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady on a two-year deal with Tampa, Arians might see things out for one more season in 2021.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead (shoulder), who is dealing with labrum and additional shoulder issues he suffered during the NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers, has not been ruled out for the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, according to a source. Whitehead is going to try and play, but his practice status will be something to keep an eye on next week. The Buccaneers Defense, particularly their secondary, is going to need all the help they can get in order to try and slow down the Chiefs high-flying offensive attack. Standout rookie Antoine Winfield Jr., who missed the NFC Championship, is expected to return, so that's a plus for the Bucs defense. Whitehead had 74 combined tackles (nine for loss), two interceptions, two sacks, and a fumble recovery in 16 regular season games for Tampa.
The Seattle Seahawks are planning to hire Los Angeles Rams passing-game coordinator Shane Waldron as their offensive coordinator, according to a source. Waldron will take over for Brian Schottenheimer in Seattle. This is also notable for the Rams, as they are losing Waldron, Brandon Staley, Brad Holmes, Ray Agnew, Joe Barry and Aubrey Pleasant as assistant coaches this offseason. Head coach Pete Carroll said he'd like Seattle's offense to get back to more of a run-first approach next season, which is part of the reason why they parted ways with Schottenheimer after the offense crumbled in the second half after putting up huge passing numbers earlier in the year. Waldron was the Rams pass-game coordinator for the last three seasons, and he'll work closely with quarterback Russell Wilson to find out why he regressed late in the 2020 season.
The San Francisco 49ers re-signed restricted free-agent running back Jeff Wilson Jr. to a one-year deal on Tuesday. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. The 25-year-old has 974 rushing yards in his three seasons with San Francisco and posted career- and team-highs of 126 carries, 600 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. He saw more playing time throughout the year due to injuries to Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, but Wilson also played in just 12 games (three starts) due to ailments of his own. He finished with 733 total yards and 10 touchdowns. Wilson could have a bigger role to begin the year next to Mostert, as both Coleman and Jerick McKinnon could leave in free agency. If Wilson is sharing backfield touches only with Mostert, he'll be an RB3/flex with more upside in PPR formats.
Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph expressed unhappiness with his role in the offense over the last two seasons and isn't willing to accept a pay cut heading into the 2021 season. Rudolph went from being the team's second- or third-leading receiver from 2015-18 to being an afterthought in the passing attack. The Vikings would gain $5.1 million in salary cap space if they were to release Rudolph, and they are projected to be $12.8 million over the cap. He has three years remaining on his deal, so they could also look to restructure his deal. The 31-year-old played in just 12 games in 2020 and finished the year on Injured Reserve with a Lisfranc sprain in his foot, while fellow tight end Irv Smith finished third in receiving with 365 yards and five touchdowns. Rudolph had 28 catches on 35 targets last season, his lowest output since 2014. With Smith on the rise, Rudolph is off the fantasy radar in redraft leagues heading into 2021 if he remains in Minnesota.
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores said that Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith's size -- he's listed at just 175 pounds on Alabama's roster -- is not a concern. "If you're a good player -- I mean, you can nitpick all you want about a guy's size -- good players are good players are good players," Flores said. Flores is coaching Smith's national team in the Senior Bowl this week. Smith won't practice or play this week due to a finger injury he sustained in the national championship against Ohio State, but the young pass-catcher is arguably one of the most productive college football wideouts and won the 2020 Heisman Trophy Award. He's an excellent route-runner with incredibly strong hands and could be an option for Miami at No. 3 overall in the draft, although he's expected to go a little later in the top 10 of the first round.
Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi plan to build the Chargers offense in 2021 around second-year quarterback Justin Herbert. But Herbert will also be learning a new offense with a new head coach and offensive coordinator in just his second season. The Oregon product finished sixth in passing yards (4,336), 10th in touchdown passes (31), 12th in passer rating (98.3) and had only 10 interceptions in his rookie season. "He has a skillset that is elite," Lombardi said. "It appears that there's nothing that he can't do. He has an incredibly strong arm, good accuracy and he is very athletic." Herbert's 31 passing touchdowns was the most for a rookie QB. With his arrow pointing firmly upward, the 22-year-old will be a midrange QB1 with upside in 2021.
Teams are already reaching out to the Detroit Lions to initiate trade talks to figure out what it will cost to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford, according to sources. With a new general manager in place and a new coaching staff for 2021 and beyond, it was reported last weekend that the Lions have mutually agreed to part ways with Stafford, so teams are already reaching out for the 32-year-old. Stafford missed eight games due to injury in 2019, but he was able to play a full 16 games this season despite dealing with multiple injuries. He finished the year with 4,084 yards on a 64.2 completion percentage with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Stafford doesn't have a ton of upside at this stage of his career, but the 2014 Pro Bowler could offer some nice value in fantasy drafts in 2021, depending on where he winds up. Stay tuned.
Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead was non-committal on quarterback Jared Goff's future when asked if Goff might not be on the team next season. "Not going to get into specifics on those. That's the beautiful mystery of the future. Jared Goff is a Ram at this moment. It's way too early to speculate," Snead said. The Rams could add a veteran at the position to push Goff in 2021 if he's still on the roster. While Goff wasn't terrible last season -- 67 completion percentage, 20-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 90 -- he was too inconsistent in both real life and fantasy. It's unclear who Goff will be playing for in 2021, but if he stays in LA, he'll be a midrange QB2 for fantasy managers unless proven otherwise.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (elbow) underwent successful elbow surgery in late December, according to a source. The damage wasn't as extensive as initially feared and did not require Tommy John surgery. Mullens is expected to be 100 percent recovered for the start of training camp. It's great news for the 25-year-old, as Tommy John surgery would have likely kept him out for most, if not all, of the 2021 season. He was forced into eight starts with Jimmy Garoppolo injured last season, throwing for 2,437 yards, 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a QB rating of 84.1 in 10 overall games. Mullens will be a restricted free agent in 2021, but if he returns to San Francisco, he'll continue to hold the clipboard for Jimmy G.
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner and one of the top prospects in the 2021 NFL draft, declined to be weighed or measured for height at the Senior Bowl weigh-in on Tuesday. However, he plans to do so at Alabama's pro-day workout this spring. He was listed at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds during the season, and his size is his lone scouting concern heading to the next level. Smith has 9 3/8-inch hands, 31 1/3-inch arms and a wingspan of 78 1/2. The talented pass-catcher injured a finger in the national championship game against Ohio State and will not compete in practices or the game this week. Smith caught 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior and is projected to be a top-10 pick in the first round because of his exceptional route-running skills and strong, sure hands.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was uncertain about his future with the team after the NFC Championship loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday, but chief executive officer Mark Murphy said the team won't let him go. "There's no way in heck Aaron is not gonna be on the Packers," Murphy said. "He's going to be the MVP of the league, might have had his best year ever, he's our unquestioned leader, and we're not idiots." Rodgers is 37 years old and has three years left on his deal after the Packers drafted his expected successor, Jordan Love, in the first round last year. Green Bay won't take on a huge dead salary cap number in 2021, but they could go in another direction in 2022 when his number drops to $17.2 million. After his MVP season, Rodgers isn't going anywhere just yet and will be more expensive in 2021 fantasy drafts as a QB1 than he was heading into the 2020 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) and rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle) are expected to be ready to play in the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 7, according to sources. Both players missed the NFC Championship win over the Packers. Brown was injured in the Divisional Round against the Saints and played just a handful of snaps in the second half. The 32-year-old had five touchdowns in his last five games and will be a touchdown-dependent fantasy play in the Super Bowl. His return could mean fewer looks for Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller. Winfield was injured in practice late last week and was unable to play on Sunday. His return to Tampa's secondary will be a welcomed addition as the Bucs attempt to slow down KC's high-flying aerial attack with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Le'Veon Bell (knee) and wide receiver Sammy Watkins (calf) are expected to be ready to play in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Feb. 7, according to sources. Both players were inactive for the AFC Championship win over Buffalo. Watkins played in just 10 games during the regular season and also missed time with a sore hamstring and didn't play in either of KC's playoff games. He finished the regular season with 37 catches for 421 yards and two touchdowns and will be a boom/bust dart throw in DFS for the big game. Mecole Hardman will be a much more attractive play than Watkins. Bell had 254 rushing yards in nine games for the Chiefs and will likely see scraps behind rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams against Tampa.
Free-agent WR Martavis Bryant (Raiders) signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League Monday, Jan. 25.