There is more than just a championship on the line when the Buccaneers and Chiefs face off in Super Bowl LV this Sunday, and I’m not just talking about the diamond-studded rings or the cold, hard cash, either (winning players get a cool $130,000, with $65,000 going to the losers, by the way). The Super Bowl’s stakes are always wider-reaching and longer-lasting, and, at times, they even transcend the sport. This game is about building legacies; it’s where legends are born.
For Tom Brady, the Super Bowl is a chance to further cement himself as the greatest quarterback of all time, and for Patrick Mahomes, it’s an opportunity to gain a chunk of ground among the greatest. For Andy Reid, it offers the chance to bolster his résumé as one of the best coaches in NFL history, and for Bruce Arians, it could get him a foot in the door in that discussion. The Super Bowl gives stars like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, and Chris Godwin the venue to create signature, career-defining moments.
The Super Bowl can provide a much-needed spotlight for role players, too. For Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette, the game presents the opportunity to put an exclamation mark on his unexpected late-season resurgence, and another strong performance could springboard him to a free-agency payday―and help change the narrative around his career.
The 2020 season has been one hell of a journey for Fournette, whose release by the Jaguars just 13 days prior to the team’s Week 1 game was somehow both startling (considering he posted 1,674 scrimmage yards the year prior) and unsurprising (his relationship with the front office had been rocky for some time). The former fourth-overall pick landed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Buccaneers, and after playing second fiddle to starter Ronald Jones II for most of the season, injuries pushed him into the lead-back role down the stretch. With fresh legs and renewed focus, Fournette emerged like a truck-sticking phoenix from the ashes, providing a boost for Tom Brady and Tampa Bay’s offense in the team’s playoff wins against Washington, the Saints, and the Packers. Playoff Lenny arrived.
That nickname offers a strong contrast to trials and tribulations that Regular-Season Lenny had to go through to get to this point, and there was a time, early in December, when it looked like Fournette’s career was in danger of fading into oblivion. Following a three-carry, 10-yard performance in the Buccaneers’ Week 12 loss to the Chiefs (and a Week 13 bye), head coach Bruce Arians opted to bench Fournette and roll with the trio of Jones, 32-year-old veteran LeSean McCoy, and rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn for the team’s Week 14 matchup with the Vikings. That demotion was damning enough on its own; but it was especially significant when taken in the context of the hype that’s followed Fournette around since his high school days.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a minute. Calling Fournette a former five-star recruit doesn’t really even do him justice; the New Orleans native was the first high school freshman to earn a scholarship offer from LSU, a feat he accomplished after rushing for more than 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns as a then-15-year old. His next three seasons weren’t half bad, either. After completing a high school career in which he racked up 7,619 rushing yards and 88 rushing touchdowns for St. Augustine High School, the Louisiana Mr. Football for 2013 headed off to Baton Rouge ranked no. 1 nationally on ESPN’s top 300 list for the class of 2014. (Adding more context: Scrolling through that group, you can see Fournette ahead of future NFL superstars like Myles Garrett, Deshaun Watson, Marlon Humphrey, Jamal Adams, Dalvin Cook, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Marshon Lattimore; his teammate Chris Godwin is at no. 159, and Christian McCaffrey is at no. 218!)
Fournette didn’t disappoint for the Tigers, earning consensus All-American honors as a sophomore while setting LSU single-season records with 1,953 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns. He rushed for a total of 3,830 yards and 42 touchdowns in three seasons there, a performance that was impressive enough for a few pro scouts to slap him with the “generational” title―and for the Jaguars to take him with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, ostensibly with visions of making him the engine of the team’s offense.
For a while, it felt Jacksonville’s plan was working. Fournette rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie, and he played a central role in the team’s postseason run, rushing for 242 yards and four touchdowns in three playoff games—including the Jags’ disappointing 24-20 loss to Brady’s Patriots in the AFC championship game. But things started to fall apart for both Jacksonville and Fournette from there: The bruising back played in just eight games during the team’s 5-11 campaign in 2018, missing seven games to hamstring and ankle injuries and another to suspension (for his role in a skirmish with the Bills). He drew the ire of Tom Coughlin (then the VP of football operations) for sitting on the bench late in the game in the season finale (ironically, that incident helped lead to Couglin getting fired a year later). And while Fournette did manage to get back above 1,000 rushing yards in 2019, adding 76 catches for 522 yards as a receiver in the Jaguars’ 6-10 campaign, the team ultimately decided to move on just prior to the start of this season, apparently with an eye toward rebuilding with a clean slate. It was an ignominious end for a much-hyped and highly anticipated player-team marriage.
Okay, now let’s flash back to Week 14, when the Buccaneers made Fournette a healthy scratch. We’ve seen plenty of players who’ve encountered similar situations resort to wallowing in self-pity, checking out emotionally, or simply giving up on their team. To Fournette’s credit, though, he hung tough, stayed focused, and kept himself ready to play. His coaches noticed.
When asked how Fournette managed to not only work himself back into a role with the offense down the stretch, but emerge as a major factor for that unit, running backs coach Todd McNair told the media this week that the team saw Fournette make a fundamental shift in his mindset. “I believe the biggest thing was him accepting his role,” McNair said. “The biggest thing with Leonard was him accepting that he wasn’t the superstar, the only guy, and that he wasn’t the man, you know? Once he accepted that, he’s been a trooper. He’s been a soldier.”
Fournette agreed with that assessment. “I just think it was difficult for me,” he told the media this week. “You’re coming from a team where the offense ran through you, and you come to a team where you’re, like, a part of the offense—and so it’s different.” Fournette noted that it was a humbling experience, but added that his teammates helped him get through the low points. Guys like Brady, McCoy, and Antonio Brown offered support, continually reminding Fournette to stay ready, because his time to shine would come. And when Jones landed on the COVID-19 list following the team’s Week 14 game, Fournette got that chance to step up and into a bigger role.
Fournette wasted no time in capitalizing in the team’s Week 15 win against Atlanta, rushing 14 times for 49 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-27 win. The next week, he found the end zone again in a 47-7 win over the Lions. Jones returned to the lineup for Tampa Bay’s regular-season finale, forcing Fournette back into his ancillary role, but then Jones suffered a quad injury in warm-ups prior to the Buccaneers’ wild-card matchup with Washington. Thrust back into the spotlight yet again, Fournette produced, carrying the ball 19 times for 93 yards and a touchdown while adding four catches for 39 yards in the 31-23 victory. Fournette showed off a newfound pep in his step in that game, and seemed to run the ball with more urgency and decisiveness than he had in recent memory.
The team seemed to notice. Jones dressed for the team’s divisional-round matchup with the Saints the next week, but Arians stuck with the hot hand, giving Fournette a chance to keep things rolling. The former Jag led the way with 17 carries for 63 yards in the win, adding five receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown through the air. His ability to factor in as a pass catcher was a big boost for the Buccaneers, who mostly struggled to move the ball against New Orleans’s suffocating defense. Three of Fournette’s receptions went for first downs, and a fourth—a touchdown grab late in the third quarter—helped Tampa Bay tie things up as the game went into the final frame. The Buccaneers never looked back from there, outscoring the Saints 10-0 in the fourth quarter to win 30-20.
Fournette wasn’t done. He showed up big again in the Buccaneers’ NFC championship win over the Packers, rushing 12 times for 55 yards and a touchdown while adding five catches for 19 yards. His rumbling, tumbling touchdown run early in the second quarter was one for the ages—an improbable scamper that Next Gen Stats gave a 0.4 percent chance of ending up in the end zone. Fournette leaped over a pile of players, broke a tackle bouncing it out the outside, cut back downfield with a sick spin move to the inside, then jumped up to twirl his way to the score.
That run, his longest run since Week 7, was emblematic of Fournette’s raucous return to relevance with the Buccaneers, and conjured memories of the guy we saw trucking defenders back at LSU. It served as a good reminder, too, that what Fournette has done for the Buccaneers this postseason, both on the ground and through the air, isn’t just some run of the mill, rotational-back-type performance, either. In three playoff games, Fournette has now gained a combined 313 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns, becoming one of just three players in a single postseason to rush for 200-plus yards and two-plus touchdowns while adding another 100-plus yards and a touchdown through the air. The other two? Hall of Famers Marcus Allen and Emmitt Smith. If Fournette scores again on Sunday, he’ll join another pair of legends Terrell Davis (1997) and Larry Fitzgerald (2008) as the only players to score touchdowns in four consecutive playoff games in the same postseason run.
Now, I’m not predicting Fournette goes out and wins the Super Bowl MVP on Sunday, but every Super Bowl–winning team is made up of a collection of integral pieces. Playoff Lenny’s recognition of his role, and his place in that puzzle, could prove key.
Fournette, perhaps more than anyone playing in Sunday’s game, knows that players have the power to shift the narrative. He alluded to that fact last week after doing his part to beat the Packers. “Whatever was out there on my name, hopefully it will change,” he said. “I’m not the a—hole that they say I was. I just love football and I love winning, that’s about it.”
Had things gone a little differently this year―had Jones not landed on the COVID-19 list in early December or subsequently gotten hurt―there’s an alternate history in which Fournette’s unceremonious fall from grace in Jacksonville ended up defining his career. Instead, this postseason run—and Sunday’s Super Bowl—has provided Fournette a blank slate. When he was asked this week about how he’d describe his career so far, his reply was simple: “It’s not done yet. It’s still unwritten.”