NFL

‘It’s a great story I can tell my kids’: Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette reflects on worst-to-first team shift

Leonard Fournette still thinks it’s crazy.

He was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who finished a league-worst 1-15, on Sept. 1. He signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now the Super Bowl champions, less than a week later. Fournette’s regular-season load dropped from 22 touches per game in three Jacksonville seasons to 10 this year in Tampa. He wondered, at times: Was he even helping his new team?

“From being cut to going through my trials and tribulations throughout the season and now I’m a world champion? I’m blessed,” Fournette said Sunday night after the Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9, in Super Bowl 55. “It’s a great story I can tell my kids about keeping faith, staying focused, a whole bunch of things.

“I thank God each and every day, man, that the Bucs gave me a second opportunity.”

The Bucs offer thanks as well.

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Leonard Fournette takes on Chiefs cornerback Bashaud Breeland as he carries the ball in Super Bowl 55. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

After averaging 46.5 yards from scrimmage in 13 regular-season games, Fournette — or, “playoff Lenny,” as his endearing moniker goes — averaged 112 yards and a touchdown per game in the Bucs’ four-game stretch to the Lombardi. He became just the third player (2008 Larry Fitzgerald, 1997 Terrell Davis) in NFL history to score a touchdown in four postseason games in a single season, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

“It was amazing how he performed in the biggest moments,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “Just so proud of him.”

Fournette ran with vision and power on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, his dominance especially evident in the second half when the Bucs looked to control the clock and maintain their lead. Fournette finished the night with a game-high 135 yards from scrimmage, including catching all four targets from Brady for 46 yards. He rushed 16 times for 89 yards including a 27-yard touchdown with 7:51 to play in the third quarter. His wheel route off play action prompted the longest touchdown of the game —and the third longest play.

SUPER BOWL LENNY. #GoBucs

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Fournette said Brady schooled him well during the week on the Chiefs’ defensive tendencies.

“Tom preached all week that they were 31st in the league in yards after carry, yards after catch … their run defense wasn’t that good,” Fournette said. “So I take pride in knowing that those guys didn’t want to tackle. Sometimes you make a guy miss. But at the same time, punch them in the mouth and at the end of the game, they’re not going to want to tackle.”

Never mind it’s Super Bowl Lenny Now….

Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens praised Fournette’s complete game, the versatility and athleticism with which his 228-pound frame maneuvers. Add in Brady’s knack for run-pass options, and Chiefs defenders found themselves stumped at times.

“We need to do a better job of making sure we’re in position to cover him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “But give the kid credit, he did a nice job.”

Fournette, when thinking on the bright side, acknowledges that his limited regular-season opportunities did keep him fresh. He ended the regular season with more than 300 touches in each of his two full seasons in Jacksonville. That number dropped to 133 this year as Tampa’s lead back Ronald Jones clocked 978 rushing yards, but Fournette stayed ready. He and Jones delivered a one-two punch Sunday, Jones pitching in 61 rushing yards on 12 carries.

“Both with Leonard and Ro, you know you’re going to get someone who’s going to run some people over, keep their feet hot and if it looks like a 1-yard run, they’re going to get 3, 4, 5, 6,” said guard Ali Marpet, who helped clear the lane for Fournette’s touchdown.

“Then they also both have the ability to make really, really big plays and make us all look really good.

“Those guys are phenomenal, and they just balled out.”

Fournette was at ease in his postgame, smiles and laughs with surrounding teammates intermingling with his scheduled press availability. He praised Brady for drilling a winning belief in teammates with 11 p.m. texts this week ensuring simply: “We will win this game.” He jabbed former LSU teammate Devin White for wearing oversized shining red glasses in his interviews, imploring White: “Take them big-ass glasses off.”

Tom Brady was texting Buccaneers teammates throughout the week at 11 p.m., per Leonard Fournette.

Brady’s message: “We will win this game.” pic.twitter.com/pPSK2gfHbp

“What you doing?” he asked the linebacker. He addressed reporters: “I wish y’all could see Devin. He’s got goggles on doing interviews.”

Fournette’s future is murky after a one-year, $2 million deal to join the Buccaneers. His past confounds him, too, the Jaguars waiving him was a topic he preferred to stay brief on while insisting: “Y’all know. We all know.” But in the present, after elevating his game throughout the postseason to drive a Super Bowl-winning offense, Fournette seemed as comfortable and at peace with teammates off the field as he did gashing defenses each week on it.

He shakes his head in disbelief.

“In the long run, playoff Lenny came alive,” Fournette said. “Man, I’m blessed.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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