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Here comes Leonard Fournette...
We're finally seeing the dominant force of nature everyone expected five years ago. Here's why it's time for the Buccaneers to run through their running back.
Perception too often becomes reality with the “headcase” NFL player. This is written in Bennett Brauer-style air quotes, of course.
By no means should we completely absolve everyone who’s ever been the target of Daytime TV yammering. I just got back from Cleveland and there are people in the organization who still don’t have a clue what happened with Odell Beckham Jr. Maybe he was a problem. Maybe not. Either way, he’s gone. Obviously, his baggage was a factor to some degree.
Yet, then, there’s the curious case of Leonard Fournette. The Jacksonville Jaguars made him the fourth overall pick in 2017, he ran for 1,000 yards, he hit rock bottom, he bounced back, he clashed with his bosses again, he was released. And when Fournette was finally cut loose in 2020, then-head coach Doug Marrone made this damning comment that essentially closed the casket on Fournette’s NFL career.
“We exhausted all trade opportunities,” Marrone said to the local media. “We weren't able to get anything there, so I just felt that now we can work on the team and the plan and get ourselves ready for the season.
“My question was, ‘Can we get any value?’ and we couldn't get any. Fifth, sixth, we couldn't get anything.”
An unfathomable descent for a running back once touted as a modern-day Bo Jackson out of the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. Even by today’s standards, in which scouting services are close to studying sonograms for low pad level, the hype surrounding Fournette from high school to LSU was in another stratosphere. Lil Wayne tweeted about him when he was 18, former LSU coach Les Miles compared him to Michael Jordan before he even played in college. Twice. He was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. He lived up to the hype in college, too, with Archie Manning even calling Fournette the next Jim Brown.
And this is how it was really going to end? With a backhand swipe from Marrone? Someone was… off.
We should always be skeptical of the offseason reclamation project but 2019 seemed as real as it gets. Between Years 2 and 3 in Jacksonville, the two of us sat down for this story at Bleacher Report and Fournette explained in great detail how bad that first rock bottom really was. He exiled himself to Wyoming for three months to train like Rocky Balboa with the trainer (Ben Iannacchione) who helped him shred those SEC defenses and he also completely cut out hanger-ons back home. A delicate balance, to be sure. On one hand, Fournette estimated that 50 percent of his family and 90 percent of the kids he grew up with were in prison. He genuinely wanted to bring hope to the 7th Ward, but he also needed to get his life on track.
Then, he backed it all up with 1,674 total yards. Then, Marrone said he couldn’t give Fournette away? Please. The problem was never the player, it was the lack of a mirror in Marrone’s office.
We’re seeing that now.
Last season, “Playoff Lenny” was a huge reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. His 448 total yards and four touchdowns through the postseason supplied the balance Tom Brady needed to win his seventh ring. Now, it’s obvious the key to Brady winning his eighth ring is the entire Bucs offense running through this rock-solid back that sure resembled Jim Brown on Sunday. In Tampa Bay’s thrilling 38-31 win at Indianapolis, Fournette erupted for 131 yards and four touchdowns.
The numbers do not tell the tale, though. They rarely do.
When Tampa Bay trailed 24-14 at halftime, Fournette was the one who spoke up in the locker room.
“Just came into halftime and I had a speech for the team,” Fournette said at his press conference afterward. “I’m like, ‘You have to have a will and a want. You have to be willing to risk everything. Play by play, you have to want to win. You have to want to fight each and every play.’ And I think they understood that message and played their lights out.
“You could tell the mood. The energy was down. It’s not like we were out there getting our asses whupped. It was just the little things that were separating us to win the game from them. So, I just tried to boost everybody coming out. And Thank God it worked.”
Did it ever. This game felt like déjà vu.
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In Week 12 last season, you may recall, the Buccaneers were getting similarly waxed by the Kansas City Chiefs. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill dropped the deuces on cornerback Carlton Davis, did a backflip and, as a homage to Shannon Sharpe, told Bucs fans, “Help is on the way!” We were sure to crown Patrick Mahomes in this space. What people tend to forget is that the Bucs defense fought back to make this a game. Down 27-10, Tampa Bay lost 27-24… and Tampa Bay never lost another game. When the two teams met again in the Super Bowl, the Bucs smacked the Chiefs.
If you have a chance, check out the team’s “America’s Game” documentary on NFLN.
Linebacker Devin White cited that Week 12 loss as the key turning point.
“We played supposedly the best team in the NFL, the reigning Super Bowl champs, and that was the best shot they gave us?” White said. “They let us come all the way back and almost win? I feel like we’re the best team in the NFL.”
Moments like this are when an entire season can swing either direction.
Your identity, for better or worse, becomes clear when the calendar flips to December.
Week 12 this season felt like another tipping point for Tampa Bay and Fournette is the reason why. He is now embracing a leadership role after everything he’s been through, too, with teammates confirming that his words made a huge difference against the Colts. Defensive end Shaq Barrett, whose sack-fumble-recovery on the first drive of the second half ignited the comeback, said Fournette’s words “got us going.”
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who led all players in targets (10), catches (seven) and receiving yards (123), was hesitant to share the content of Fournette’s halftime message, but assured this is what electrified the team.
“The energy wasn't there,” Gronkowski said. “The second half, we just went out there and played together as a team — offensively, defensively. The defense was creating turnovers, we were scoring, Lenny was just running the ball amazing, and we just stuck together, too. And to have a win on the road like that, that was a playoff-caliber win. The atmosphere here, what a game to be a part of.”
“It was excellent. It got everyone fired up. He went out there and he backed it up, too. And it just shows just how much we respect Lenny.”
Fournette’s running style is violent, yet explosive. He’ll ditch defenders with a stiff-arm, yet also leave them in the dust.
Honestly, this all could’ve ended last season, too. After Bruce Arians offered Fournette a career lifeline, the back struggled with his new part-time role. Relegated to scout-team reps around the same time Tampa Bay started turning its season around, Fournette’s frustration mounted. And mounted. In that same America’s Life doc linked above, he noted that Arians was willing to release him if that’s what he wanted.
Arians told Fournette, however, that a release would not be the best thing for his career. Fournette agreed.
Fournette got his mind right.
Fournette was celebrating a Super Bowl win in no time. Now, he’s not just another shiny ornament on this Christmas tree. He’s the one who can bring the Bucs back to the Super Bowl.
Iannacchione first met Fournette when he was LSU’s strength coach, and the two hit it off. They reunited for that ‘19 offseason in Wyoming when the trainer worked for that college program and now Iannacchione is an assistant strength coach at Pitt. Over time, their relationship has evolved. Iannacchione says he’s more of a friend than a trainer at this point — the two speak regularly with Fournette more apt to Facetime him from his daughter’s birthday party than ask for a lifting schedule.
Iannacchione is thrilled the world is now seeing the running back he’s always known.
“Being around Tom Brady is going to bring out the best in anybody,” he said, “but I also know Leonard. I know he’s a guy who values trust. If he has a coach he trusts, he’ll run through a wall for you. I just think he really likes Coach Arians and loves Tom Brady, so he’s in a really good place right now.”
Iannacchione added that Fournette, was undeniably “at a low point” when the Jaguars moved on.
“I feel like he was questioning himself,” he says, “which I don’t think he has ever done before because he’s always been so good. And even when he got to Tampa, I think it was hard for him because he had to split time with somebody and he had never really done that before either. But, again, he trusts Coach Arians. So when Coach Arians tells him, ‘Get right or (get out)’ that really kicked him into gear because he wanted to do right by him. That’s what he needs. He needs somebody he trusts. He needs somebody who’ll push him. That always brings forth the best of him.
“All he said to me was that he wasn’t in the right head space. I took that as he was feeling sorry for himself and being wanted to be given something that he hadn’t earned. That’s how I took that.
“He can’t get complacent and I don’t think he will.”
The Buccaneers still have an abundance of weapons but they’ll need to keep leaning on Fournette because, frankly, Fournette is giving them no choice. His blunt force trauma gives Tampa Bay a sharp edge in the NFC and, surely, these Bucs know they cannot engage in any shootouts. Not with how injuries have ravaged their secondary. Indy’s Carson Wentz threw for 197 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone. Asking Brady to throw 40-plus times a game is not smart in the big picture and, chances are, Brady knows this himself.
Expect a motivated, vocal, focused Fournette to become the centerpiece of the Bucs’ bid to repeat. The Green Bay Packers didn’t bat an eye against Matthew Stafford and a L.A. Rams team that’s not interested in playing with any semblance of physicality but Fournette could be a different animal. A 44-year-old quarterback still performing at this level is unprecedented but the Bucs have to ride the hot hand. There aren’t many large backs in the game who move like this.
Everyone should get used to the sight.
“He did that every week at LSU,” Iannacchione says. “So it’s really cool to see him do it in the NFL and see him vindicated for being cast as… I don’t know what Jacksonville was trying to cast him as.”
At the risk of sounding like a Baker Mayfield apologist, I don’t think the Browns should bench the former No. 1 overall pick. That 16-10 Ravens win last night was extremely hard on the eyes. I think everyone needed to take a shower after watching that. But Mayfield’s receivers aren’t doing him any favors. They rarely got separation and suffered some bad drops down the stretch. Now isn’t the time to declare Mayfield finished.
Mac Jones had a potential pick-six dropped but he took yet another step in New England’s 36-13 win over Tennessee. I think my podcast co-host Jim Monos put it best on this week’s episode — Jones is a mentally tough Kirk Cousins. Against one of the best defenses in the NFL, he continued to take more shots downfield with 310 yards and two touchdowns. Next up? The biggest game of his young NFL career.
Cincinnati has officially left Pittsburgh in the dust. What an evisceration that 41-10 win was. While we obsessed over the quarterbacks all offseason long, the Bengals quietly built one heck of a roster around 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow. In addition to hitting the bull’s eye on the skill-position players in the draft — i.e. selecting wideout Ja’Marr Chase over tackle Penei Sewell — they poured millions of dollars into the right veterans in free agency: Defensive end Trey Hendrickson, corner Mike Hilton, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, corner Chidobe Awuzie and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Every team with a quarterback on a rookie deal should be spending in free agency. Whereas the New York Giants spent on the wrong players, and now must rebuild again, the Bengals are positioned to compete in the present and future. I don’t think any team in the AFC wants to play the Bengals right now, and when’s the last time anybody’s said that?
We need to give it up to the Dolphins, a team we declared dead a while back. They are fighting and head coach Brian Flores has scripted some spectacular gameplans of late. In this 33-10 win over Carolina, Cam Newton was an absolute disaster of a quarterback with a 5.8 passer rating. Don’t look now, but Tua Tagovailoa has actually been extremely efficient, too. He went 27 of 31 for 230 yards with a touchdown. The Dolphins can easily get to 8-7 with winnable games against the Giants, Jets and Saints up next.
One other team that’s peaking? San Francisco. No wonder Kyle Shanahan has been playing Elijah Mitchell over Trey Sermon at running back. The sixth-round pick out of Louisiana continues to be a revelation, blistering the Vikings for 133 yards on 27 attempts in a 34-26 win.
The Vikings are still the Vikings. Cousins is still Cousins. This is a .500 team bound to tease.
What now for the Rams? They gutted their draft capital to compete with a team like the Packers and lost on Sunday exactly as they did in the playoffs last year. Matthew Stafford looked like the same quarterback he was for 12 seasons in Detroit. The stat line will be pretty but he’s bound to make a back-breaking mistake.