The Legend of ‘Playoff Lenny’: Revisiting Leonard Fournette’s rise with Buccaneers on road to Super Bowl 55

Leonard Fournette couldn’t beat Tom Brady for an AFC championship. Joining him on the Buccaneers has resulted in an NFC championship and a Super Bowl ring.

Fournette, the Jaguars’ fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft out of LSU, was released by that team before the 2020 season. Tampa Bay wasted no time signing him and in less than two years, he’s back up there again. of his strong pedigree as a top running back.

During the 2020 regular season, Fournette looked like a limited running back. He missed three games and averaged just 3.8 yards per carry with his 367 yards and 6 TDs. He saw limited use in the passing game, catching only 36 balls for 233 yards.

The Bucs will never think about that again. Fournette blew up as “Playoff Lenny” in his wild-card run to win Super Bowl 55 over the Chiefs. In the 18 games since last year’s wild-card round against Washington, Fournette has been as effective as most of the league’s top running backs as he ever was early in his Jacksonville career.

How ‘Playoff Lenny’ started

Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich changed their plans and decided to feed Fournette 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 receptions for 148 receiving yards. That averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 112 yards from scrimmage 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 little more than a complete list. That’s better than Fournette’s two best seasons with the Jaguars, his rookie year in 2017 and his break in practice in 2019, in which he surprised many by improving his hands to become such a dependable receiver.

The Bucs split Fournette’s job a lot with Ronald Jones last season. That wasn’t the case as much in 2021, with Fournette immediately starring in Week 1 against the Cowboys. Despite signing Giovani Bernard to help out as a receiver off the field, Brady relied more on Fournette as his short-passing outlet.

The Jaguars had a great winning season under Fournette, but there were unfair questions about whether he was still motivated to play at a high level and his availability issues were also exaggerated. 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 an indication that they were going to take advantage of his use given the way he crushed playoff competition. He has gone from being a safety player to an essential producer for Brady and the Bucs’ offense.

Brady was responsible for recruiting Fournette to the Bucs. “Playoff Lenny” became “Lombardi Lenny” when Fournette’s teammates elevated his nickname.

How is the ‘Playoff Lenny’ going?

The Buccaneers enter this year’s playoffs with two wide receivers, Chris Godwin (torn ACL) and Antonio Brown (released). Fournette (hamstring) won’t be activated off injured reserve for Sunday’s wild-card game at home against the Eagles (1:05 ​​p.m. ET, Fox), but he has a good chance to play in the divisional round. Jones is also suffering. He missed Week 18 against the Panthers with an ankle injury sustained in Week 17 against the Jets. Jones, like wide receiver Cyril Grayson (hamstring), who replaced Brown, also will not face Philadelphia.

Brady will need to rely heavily on wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski as his main 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 major role, with Bernard, second-year player Ke’Shawn Vaughn and insurance Le’Veon Bell as replacement options. Fournette was a major factor in the Bucs’ 28-22 victory over the Eagles in Week 6, with 127 scrimmage yards and 2 TDs on 28 touches, as he also caught all 6 of his targets.

Missing time with a hamstring problem also came with the blessing of freshening up Fournette a bit for when he can return to the playoffs. He averaged just under 18 touches per game, down from 16 per game 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 only had 14 touches for 69 yards in that game, but Dallas finished only 16th against the run. The Rams and Cardinals, playing in Game No. 4 vs. No. 5, have also proven vulnerable against the run.

Ultimately, Fournette and the Bucs would love to have the Packers and Chiefs back-to-back NFC championship and Super Bowl rematches, knowing he was so key to both wins on the field. As a receiver, with the attention Evans and Gronkowski draw in downfield coverage, short engineered passes and controls from Brady to Fournette will remain a staple of the Bucs’ offense to offset personnel limitations elsewhere.

If the Buccaneers make another deep run, there’s no question Fournette will lean on to become “Playoff Lenny” again.