ROMANO: York High graduate Bruce Arians brashly leads Tampa Bay Buccaneers into playoffs

Tampa Bay Times (TNS)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians watches during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Lon Horwedel)

He told us he had a plan.

He told us the future was near.

When he was hired to be the head coach a little less than two years ago, York High graduate Bruce Arians hinted there would be days like this when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the world outside seem a little more bearable.

Of course, he also told us the team was going to be built around Jameis Winston.

Maybe the journey wasn’t exactly the way he planned it, but danged if the ol’ geezer didn’t deliver. Arians, 68, accomplished what Dirk Koetter, Lovie Smith, Greg Schiano and Raheem Morris could not. For that matter, what most of the head coaches in Tampa Bay history could not.

Through 45 years of a largely painful existence, only John McKay, Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden have ever led the Bucs to the playoffs. Until now. Until 2020. Until a cocky, slightly off-beat, offensive wizard landed on our doorstep.

With an afternoon befitting a natural showman, Arians punched his first Tampa Bay playoff ticket with a lavishly entertaining 47-7 victory against the Lions in Detroit on Saturday. For three hours, it seemed like the Bucs could do no wrong. There were bombs and sacks and a modest running game. Heck, even Blaine Gabbert got to throw a couple of touchdown passes.

When it was over, the Bucs were in the playoffs for the first time since Devin White was an 8-year-old schoolboy.

“We’ve gotten smarter, we’ve gotten more disciplined,” Arians said. “And it’s starting to show.”

Even with Brady, playoffs weren't guaranteed: Bringing Tom Brady in may have made the postseason seem like a fait accompli, but this moment should not be taken for granted around here. The Bucs have had high expectations before. The Glazer family has spent money before. The roster has been remade before.

But it took the brashness of someone like Arians to pull it off. To shake up the locker room by cutting loose a handful of high draft picks, including the underachieving Winston, while gambling on past-their-prime stars such as Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

“Obviously, Tom was huge, Rob was huge. They were more: ‘We know how to win.’ That’s what they brought. ‘We know how to win.’” Arians said. “Tom’s done it a couple of times this year where we’ve gotten down and brought us back.

“I like where we’re at now in the second year. I think we’ll continue to build. Anything can happen. I’ve been a six seed and gone all the way to the Super Bowl and won it right here in this stadium (as an assistant coach with Pittsburgh in 2005). Anything’s possible. Now that we’re in the dance, we’re going to see what next week brings and where we’re going.”

Arians in elite crowd: So now Arians joins George Halas, Pete Carroll and Marv Levy as the only coaches to take a team to the postseason at age 68 or older. And, it should be pointed out, those other guys already were entrenched with multiple playoff appearances in their towns at that point.

No, Arians is unlike anything the NFL has seen in a while. He’s like an aging gunslinger with a crooked grin, showing up to save the town from another desolate January.

The Bucs scored a franchise record number of points in their first season under Arians, and likely will break that record next Sunday with a 43-year-old quarterback in his first season with Arians.

But the real trick is the defense has gone from giving up 464 points in Koetter’s last season to 449 last year to 328 with one game remaining in 2020. A lot of the praise should go to general manager Jason Licht’s recent drafts and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ schemes, but Arians also deserves some credit there with the offense eliminating turnovers under Brady.

“We needed a defense if we were going to win,” Arians said. “I knew we’d score points — we’ve always scored points. It was just a matter of getting a defense.”

Quick turnaround: Win next week at home against Atlanta, and the Bucs will have gone from 5-11 to 11-5 in the span of two seasons. That’s a quick turnaround, but it was also necessary.

The window for opportunity is not terribly wide in Tampa Bay. Arians is not likely to be here beyond the 2021 season. There’s a pretty good chance Brady, Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Antonio Brown could be gone by then, too.

So as celebratory as today feels, there is still unfinished business with a loudly ticking clock.

The gunslinger won another one Saturday, but sunset is not far away.