Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea may have enjoyed a healthy 2021, earning his first Pro Bowl nod and starting 16 regular-season games compared to just five due to a fractured ankle in 2020, but it's the playoffs that make the difference between fulfillment and an empty pit in one's stomach.
In that 2020 season, which was believed to be destined for a premature end due to injury, Vea miraculously returned to the field just in time for an NFC Championship Game upset over the Green Bay Packers, followed by a subsequent Super Bowl victory. In 2021, Vea and the Buccaneers' roaring 24-point Divisional Round comeback bid against the eventual-champion Los Angeles Rams fell short in the game's waning moments.
"Yeah it did, it hurt a little bit," Vea admitted when asked about the loss during Tuesday's organized team activities, per Scott Reynolds of Pewter Report. "I think anybody in that situation would hurt. I think it was a good learning point for all of us. And it was tough to get over. It was tough to watch any other playoff game.
"There's always a greater hunger. I think every team comes in every year expecting to win. I think that's the reason why we play is to win. If not, you shouldn't be playing at all."
Vea's hunger led him to show up to Tampa Bay's OTAs, which are voluntary, to install himself as a leader and lay the groundwork for a more successful 2022 season. Fellow DT Ndamukong Suh's departure, as well as Vea's four-year extension worth over $73 million, necessitates the fifth-year DT assume that mantle -- and it's a responsibility he welcomes.
"I like to play around a lot. (I) think I've just got to cut that down a little bit, and try to step into that leader role and try to take control," Vea said. "(I) feel pretty comfortable with it. I think we've got some other guys in our group who are older than me who also play that position. And I don't think it's all on me. I think as a collective group, I think we do a good job of working together of taking that leadership role when there needs to be leadership. I think that's the best thing about it."
With Tom Brady back under center after a brief flirtation with retirement and Vea assuming a larger leadership role on the opposite side of the ball, the Bucs are surely setting their goals beyond the scheduled rematch with the Rams in Week 9.
Both teams have rosters that are primed for a playoff push. If the Buccaneers are to obtain the nourishment another Super Bowl brings, it wouldn't be surprising if they have to vanquish the reigning champs, who just happen to have won the teams' last three meetings.