Leonard Fournette couldn’t beat Tom Brady in an AFC championship. Joining him on the Buccaneers has resulted in an NFC championship and a Super Bowl ring.
Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick of the Jaguars in the 2017 draft out of LSU, was released by that team before the 2020 season. Tampa Bay didn’t waste time signing him and in less than two years, he’s back living up to his strong pedigree as a feature back.
During the 2020 regular season, Fournette did look like a limited committee power back. He missed three games and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry with his 367 yards and 6 TDs. He had limited usage in the passing game, catching only 36 balls for 233 yards.
The Bucs will be never thinking about that again. Fournette blew up as “Playoff Lenny” in their wild-card run through winning Super Bowl 55 over the Chiefs. In the 18 games going back to last year’s wild-card round against Washington, Fournette has been as effective as most top backs in the league, like he once was early in Jacksonville career.
How ‘Playoff Lenny’ started
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich changed up their plans and decided to feed Fournette with consistent double digit touches in the 2021 postseason. The result in the four playoff games was 64 carries for 300 yards. Fournette also added 18 catches for 148 receiving yards. That averaged to 4.7 yards per carry and 112 scrimmage yards per game
Add that to his 13 games in the 2021 regular season before injuring his hamstring late, and that’s 1,714 scrimmage yards and 14 total TDs in just more than a full slate. That’s better than Fournette’s two best seasons with the Jaguars, his 2017 rookie year and 2019 scrimmage breakout, in which he surprised many in improving his hands to become such a reliable receiver.
The Bucs split Fournette’s work with Ronald Jones a lot last season. That wasn’t the case as much in 2021, with Fournette starring right away in Week 1 against the Cowboys. Despite signing Giovani Bernard to help as a receiver out of the backfield, Brady trusted Fournette most as his short passing outlet.
The Jaguars did have one big winning season with Fournette, but there were unfair questions about whether he still was driven to play on a high level and his availability issues also were overblown. Fournette has had elite talent for a long time. The Bucs just gave him the ideal second chance along with the best possible motivation, playing with a GOAT and pushing for a Super Bowl.
Fournette signed a one-year, $3.32 million deal to return to the Buccaneers in 2021. That should have been indication they were going to build on his usage given how he smashed the playoff competition. He’s gone from depth player to essential producer for Brady and the Bucs’ offense.
Brady was responsible for recruiting Fournette to the Bucs. “Playoff Lenny” became “Lombardi Lenny” as Fournette’s teammates elevated his nickname.
How ‘Playoff Lenny’ is going
The Buccaneers enter this year’s playoffs down two wide receivers, Chris Godwin (torn ACL) and Antonio Brown (released). Bernard (hip), like Fournette (hamstring )is back at practice ahead of Sunday’s wild-card home playoff game vs. the Eagles (1:05 p.m. ET, Fox) and set to be designated to return off injured reserve soon. But it’s not good news however, for Jones, who missed Week 18 against the Panthers with an ankle injury he suffered Week 17 vs. the Jets. Jones, like wide receiver Cyril Grayson (hamstring), who flashed filling in for Brown, won’t be facing Philadelphia.
Brady will need rely a lot on wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski as his primary passing targets. After that, it’s a committee of Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman and Tyler Johnson.
That means Fournette will need to return to a massive role, with Bernard, second-year player Ke’Shawn Vaughn and insurance addition Le’Veon Bell as the other possible options. Fournette was a major factor in the Bucs winning 28-22 at the Eagles in Week 6, with 127 yards from scrimmage and 2 TDs on 28 touches as he also caught all 6 of his targets.
Missing time with a hamstring issue also came with the blessing of refreshing Fournette for the playoffs. He averaged a shade below 18 touches per game, up from the 16 per game he got during the Super Bowl run last year.
The Buccaneers, as the No. 2 seed, would be in line to face the Cowboys again in the divisional playoffs if they beat the Eagles as expected. He had only 14 touches for 69 yards in that game, but Dallas ended up only No. 16 against the run. The Rams and Cardinals, playing in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game, also have proved vulnerable against the run.
In the end, Fournette and Bucs would love to get the Packers and Chiefs back-to-back in the NFC championship and Super Bowl rematches, knowing how he was so key to both victories on the ground. As a receiver, with the attention Evans and Gronkowski draw in downfield coverage, designed short passes and checkdowns from Brady to Fournette will remain a staple of the Bucs’ offense to compensate for personnel limitations elsewhere.
Should the Buccaneers make another deep run, there’s no question Fournette will be leaned on to turn into “Playoff Lenny” again.
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