Bruce Arians wasn’t the head coach of the Buccaneers when they traded for Jason Pierre-Paul three years ago, so instead of being pleased by what the team did – acquiring a play-maker on defense for what was essentially a third-round pick – he was surprised.
"I thought he was playing well there," Arians said on Wednesday of Pierre-Paul’s final days with the Giants.
He did have 8.5 sacks in 2017, his last year in New York. The year before that he had 7.0 in just 12 games.
But getting rid of Pierre-Paul was the first big personnel move new general manager Dave Gettleman made. It also happened to be the first move the Bucs made in their quest to reach the Super Bowl that they will play on Sunday.
Long before they ever signed Tom Brady as the difference-maker, they made that March 2018 deal for Pierre-Paul to start setting the stage for a new era in the franchise. That same offseason they signed center Ryan Jensen and drafted Vita Vea, Ronald Jones and Jordan Whitehead. The next year they signed Shaq Barrett and Ndamukong Suh. Finally this past offseason they put on the finishing touches with Brady, Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski.
There are about 15 key players for this year’s Bucs team who have been acquired in the past three offseasons via trade, free agency or the draft. Pierre-Paul led the way.
He is leading them on the field now, too.
"The guy is the epitome of perseverance," Arians said, referring not only to Pierre-Paul’s infamous fireworks accident but a car accident that nearly ended his career. "JPP, he plays with a heart that is big as a lion’s and high, high energy. Guys just love playing with him. When he speaks, they listen. He doesn’t speak a lot, he lets his football do his talking, but when he speaks everybody listens."
Brady said Pierre-Paul is "a relentless guy, a relentless competitor. He has incredible mental toughness."
He also has something that can’t be described in a scouting report or a spreadsheet: Charisma. And it is infectious.
"Everyone loves seeing JPP out there making plays because when he is making plays the whole defense is making plays," Brady said. "JPP is absolutely a ring-leader of that group. When he’s going, everybody is going. He brings a lot of juice."
He is the only Pro Bowl player on the Bucs’ roster this year after recording 9.5 sacks in the regular season. He added two in last week’s NFC Championship Game. But the thing that has stood out to his new team the most is a real kick in the teeth to the Giants. One of the reasons they traded him was because they were converting to a 3-4 defense and did not think he could play outside linebacker. Well, guess what system the Bucs play.
"He has just done everything he can to become an outside linebacker," Arians said. "He’s been a defensive end most of his career, but I think the two best plays he’s made all year are his two interceptions. To hell with the sacks, those interceptions are so amazing to me. Reading that screen against the Rams and dropping in coverage against the Panthers. That smile on his face when he held onto the ball. He is playing lights out and I expect a great game out of him."