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Tom Brady and Bucs give fans a chance to finally revel in Super Bowl title afterglow

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans cheer during the first half of Thursday's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans cheer during the first half of Thursday’s season opener against the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium.
(Mark LoMoglio / Associated Press)

This stadium was Raymond James Library seven months ago, the NFL’s final stop in an eerie season of silence.

But the site of Super Bowl LV crackled with energy Thursday night as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played host to the Dallas Cowboys in the Kickoff Opener, the league’s first full house since the Super Bowl in Miami about 1½ years ago, back when COVID-19 was but a murmur.

From the moment quarterback Tom Brady whipped the hometown crowd into a froth with his jugular-bulging hype video before kickoff, Buccaneers fans made little use of their seats. They erupted when he punctuated the clip with an unmistakable F-bomb — with a G-rated “Let’s go!” dubbed in its place.

In a game that was closer to a darts tournament, Brady and Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott used surgical precision to put their teams in position to win.

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NFL Week 1 roundtable: Can Rams, Chargers end up in Super Bowl in SoFi Stadium? NFL writer Sam Farmer, Rams beat writer Gary Klein and Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller discuss.

The Buccaneers clinched the 31-29 victory with a clutch, last-minute drive capped with a 36-yard field goal by Ryan Succop with seven seconds remaining.

“We executed a lot of really good plays at the right moment,” Brady said. “It was great to see. It’s going to give us a lot of confidence.”

Though there were sloppy elements — a combined five turnovers and 19 penalties — the game’s entertainment quotient was in midseason form, especially considering most starters sat the entire preseason.

In the stands, pure playoffs. In the announced crowd of 65,566, fans chanted, cheered and waved the souvenir pirate flags placed on every seat. Seemingly undeterred by mounting Delta variant numbers, the rollicking crowd rocked the sports world back onto its axis, if only for a moment, a replay of the scenes from college football last weekend.

“It’s a coming-out party,” said Tom Dart, a Buccaneers fan from Sarasota, Fla. “We got deprived last year, won the Lombardi Trophy and didn’t get to enjoy any of the events. It’s a lot of pent-up emotion and fervor and all that. You’re seeing it tonight.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski beats Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski beats Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to the end zone to score a touchdown on Thursday.
(Mark LoMoglio / Associated Press)

Before the game, just outside the stadium bowl, music thumped and carefree fans partied like the pre-pandemic days, huddling in tents to escape the intermittent showers, lounging in giant chairs shaped like pink flamingo pool inflatables, piling barbecue onto plastic plates and lining up for drinks at the Malibu Beach Bar.

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The vibe was as jubilant and uncomplicated as a Gronk spike — there were two of those incidentally, as Brady twice hit tight end Rob Gronkowski with touchdown passes.

Cowboys fans were sprinkled among the acres of red jerseys, and face coverings were even more scarce. No temperature screening at this stadium this season, and masks are only suggested in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

All restrooms have been retrofitted with touchless fixtures and Plexiglas dividers at all concession stands separated fans and masked staff. For convenience and safety, the Buccaneers have gone to cashless parking lots and mobile ordering for food.

The NFL had a plan to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic; in the face of the Delta variant, that plan—and the alliance that made it a success—will be put to a new test

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“Our top priority has been, and continues to be, the safety of all players, coaches, staff and fans at our games,” said Brian Ford, Buccaneers chief operating officer.

The NFL sees this season as a reunion of fans and teams, a welcome change for a league that not only lost $4 billion in revenue last season with all those empty stadiums, but had to resort to cardboard cutouts in the seats and artificial crowd noise.

“People are really looking for the NFL to be a unifying force to bring people together,” said Tim Ellis, the league’s chief marketing officer. “I think it’s been particularly important over the last 18 months. We have been balancing entertainment and escapism, and even distraction, with corporate responsibility.”

Before Thursday’s game, the last one that counted was played in the same stadium, Super Bowl LV in February, when Tampa Bay beat Kansas City. That crowd was composed of 24,000 people — including vaccinated healthcare workers — sitting in predetermined clusters, interspersed among 30,000 cutouts.

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“It wasn’t a surprise to me but the biggest takeaway for me last season was the lack of fans and how important they are to the experience, both at games and on television,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was in attendance Thursday and will be at SoFi Stadium on Sunday night when the Rams play host to Chicago. “We’ve always stressed how important that is, but that clearly shone through.”

Broadcasters, like players, feast on that energy.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers uncover their 2020 Super Bowl banner before an NFL football game.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers uncover their 2020 Super Bowl banner before Thursday’s game.
(Mark LoMoglio / Associated Press)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans tailgate outside Raymond James Stadium before Thursday's game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans tailgate outside Raymond James Stadium before Thursday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.
(Mark LoMoglio / Associated Press)
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“It was so different for us,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, calling Thursday night’s game for Westwood One radio. “We would talk about it after every broadcast. It was hard for us to feel the game. I can’t imagine showing up and trying to play in one of these big games without having any fans.

“We could definitely feel it in the box when we were calling games. We didn’t leave with the same energy.”

Major themes for the NFL this season are unity and inclusion, forming the spine of its “We Run As One” campaign.

That’s the tone of a commercial that will run throughout opening weekend with players, influencers and real fans answering, “Who’s got my back?” with a resounding “We’ve got your back.”

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The ad features the Rams’ Aaron Donald and Chargers’ Justin Herbert, along with DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals, Cam Jordan of the New Orleans Saints, Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans and DeVonta Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles. Youth football’s Watts Rams make an appearance, as do the Apex Predators, a female flag-football team from Las Vegas.

The Times’ Sam Farmer analyzes each matchup and predicts the winners of Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.

“The brief to the agency was to get people pumped and excited about this season, but let’s not forget that last year happened and that we’re still experiencing the pandemic,” Ellis said.

What’s more, there’s been a concerted effort in recent years to familiarize fans with the faces of players, not easy to do in a sport in which the players wear helmets.

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“Not surprisingly, a lot of fans don’t recognize our players, even our most famous players,” Ellis said. “So you’ll notice that in pretty much all of our campaigns we almost always have the helmets off.”

The fans had no problem Thursday identifying the players. Or those old familiar feelings.


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