There are so many studs on the 2020 Buccaneers. They have reached the Super Bowl for the first time since 2002, and they can attribute it to their balanced talent throughout their roster. In form of young stars like Jordan Whitehead, Devin White, and Shaquil Barrett, or their veteran anchors like Mike Evans, Lavonte David, and of course Tom Brady, this team’s talent is unmatched throughout the league.
But among the recognizable vets on the team, one stands out: Jason Pierre-Paul.
A 10-year veteran and an anchor of those 2011 Giants who took down Tom Brady in Super Bowl 46, Pierre-Paul has come a long way since his sophomore campaign. From disappointing seasons and injuries to horrific off-field accidents that have cost him dearly, JPP has had a career arc for the ages.
As the pass rusher looks to play in his second Super Bowl, let’s revisit his unbelievable story.
JUCO to Division I
A true son of the JUCO (Junior College) system, Pierre Paul started his collegiate career at the College of the Canyons in California. He went to JUCO since grades weren’t up to par with the expectations of DI programs, but was an immediate standout, putting up 14 sacks and earning All-America honors. In his sophomore season, he played for the Fort Scott Community College Greyhounds in Kansas and put up a solid 10.5 sacks.
His impressive performances at both JUCO programs landed him a spot at the University of Southern Florida, a solid DI destination.
Pierre-Paul’s huge 6’4”, 270 lb. frame gave him the looks of DI stud, but he seemed too big at times. Finishing his junior season with USF with just 6.5 sacks, JPP could’ve had many more. Time after time on big stages, he would penetrate the offensive line, but fail to move laterally quickly enough to tackle the QB or RB. Many scouts loved his quick first step but hesitated on calling him a top 10 pick because of his inexperience (due to a single year of Division 1 play) and lack of effort against the run.
Still, his freakish size and raw talent were enough for the New York Giants to pull the trigger on him at 15th overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. The JUCO product would finally have his shot at the big leagues.
Rookie season and Super Bowl win
As a rookie, Pierre-Paul was treated like a raw prospect. The Giants had veteran talent in Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora at either defensive end spot. Both absolutely thrived in 2010, combining for 23 sacks and 15 forced fumbles. Coming out in a 4–3 defense, Tuck and Umenyiora were instrumental in creating pressure from either defensive end spot, and as they would find out later, having depth at that crucial position would come in handy.
The result of the exceptional play from Tuck and Umenyiora was a lack of starts from Jason Pierre-Paul, who would instead sub in here and there. He finished with 2.5 sacks and the Giants barely missed the playoffs at 10–6.
The beginning of the Giants' 2011 championship run though started with an unexpected predicament. After Umenyiora’s Pro Bowl-worthy 2010 campaign, he wished to revisit the 8-year, $32.9 million deal he signed way back in ’05, as he felt his worth was now well above the $4.1 million average salary he was making. Neither side budged, and Umenyiora held out (while also dealing with a knee surgery).
In his place for the first 4 games, JPP seized his moment. He posted 4.5 sacks in 4 weeks and solidified his spot as an integral piece of the defense. Pierre-Paul went on to finish with 16.5 sacks and an All-Pro nod. Going into the playoffs, the Giants expected JPP to be a force. Surprisingly enough, he only compiled 0.5 sacks throughout 4 postseason games but still had an impact, finishing the postseason with 18 tackles and 4 TFL’s. Umenyiora (who had returned without a deal) and Tuck, however, were used to the big stage and shined. They combined for 7 sacks through the playoffs and tormented Tom Brady in a 21–17 Super Bowl victory.
As Umenyiora signed a 1-year extension to run it back with the Giants in 2012, there was a feeling that JPP was set to take over his spot completely in the coming years.
8.5 sacks in 2 seasons?
Despite getting a career-high 15 starts in 2012, JPP had just 6.5 sacks and had trouble getting to the QB at the same rate as he had in 2011. His frustration was voiced by Justin Tuck:
His early-season struggles continued throughout the year as he learned what it was like to struggle on a stage as big as New York. Despite his regression, he returned to the Pro Bowl that year on a Giants squad that finished 9–7 and missed the playoffs.
Dealing with a herniated disc surgery and shoulder issues going into 2013, Pierre-Paul had a terrible campaign. He put up just 2 sacks and didn’t look like himself in 11 appearances, even with Osi Umenyiora off the squad at this point. The Giants finished 7–9 and Pierre-Paul’s promising young career seemed to be on the ropes.
He would need to have an electric 2014 season if he wished to get that lucrative second contract young players dream of.
Reemergence with NY
Finally healthy and the undisputed top pass rusher on the Giants, 2014 was not only a contract year but a year to prove to the league’s hierarchy of pass rushers that Pierre-Paul belonged.
And that he did.
Pierre-Paul had 12.5 sacks and looked as though he may have earned that elusive second deal. Unfortunately, the Giants decided to use the tag on Pierre-Paul, which got him paid $8.7 million over a single year but with only $1.5 million guaranteed. In a career where he’d already been dealing with injuries and didn’t have the healthiest track record, this wasn’t the worst-case-scenario for JPP, but it was a far cry from the lucrative deal that would’ve set him for life.
In the same offseason where Pierre-Paul had gotten franchise-tagged and still lacked long-term financial security, he suffered a trauma that could‘ve ended his career.
During a July 4th party in 2015, Pierre-Paul lit a firework that unexpectedly exploded. Witnesses of the horrifying scene said they saw his entire body engulfed by the flames. Fortunately, considering the circumstances, Pierre-Paul’s entire body was relatively unscathed.
But, his right hand had been mangled seemingly beyond repair. His index and middle fingers were barely attached to the rest of the hand and Pierre-Paul would later have to make the decision to amputate half of his middle finger and his entire index finger.
His prospects for a return to the league looked much better after a successful surgery and recovery, but Pierre-Paul’s performance was the pressing question for the Giants. With 8 and a half fingers and the prospect of wearing a cast for the rest of his career, JPP’s status was the number 1 question on the young 2015 Giants roster.
After missing the first 8 games of the Giants’ 2016 season while recovering, the franchise-tagged Pierre-Paul returned in a contest against Tampa Bay. In a 32–18 win, Pierre-Paul’s first game in 11 months saw him hit the QB twice while playing 71% of defensive snaps. It was a promising first game back for JPP, but his performance was obviously hindered by the massive club he wore on his right arm.
The rest of the season didn’t amount to much for JPP. He finished with a single sack but played an average of over 88% of defensive snaps. At the very least his conditioning would not be an issue going forward.
Pierre-Paul re-upped with the Giants on a one-year deal in 2016 and found himself exactly where he was before his tragic 4th of July accident. He would need to perform well in the coming season if he hoped to regain his status as one of the better pass-rushers in the NFL. His chances of doing so were greatly increased by the quick recovery of his hand.
After undergoing surgery that made his damaged hand more flexible, JPP set the record straight in March of 2016.
“I can use whatever I want, whatever makes me comfortable,” Pierre-Paul confidently stated. “I’m not going to use a club next year.”
Without the club hindering his pass rush moves and a solid 12 games played in 2016, the Giants went 11–5 thanks to their top 5 run defense and dynamic pass offense. Pierre-Paul registered 7 sacks but missed the last 4 games of the season and the Giants’ lone playoff game. Relatively quiet for the first 9 games of the season, Pierre-Paul snapped in Weeks 10 and 11, putting up 5.5 sacks and a fumble recovery TD in the consecutive wins. Although he wasn’t superman in the other games of the season, those 2 monster performances that were crucial to getting NY to the playoffs earned JPP the long-term deal he had been waiting for. He signed a 4-year $62 million contract with $40 million guaranteed. Getting this deal despite the adversity he had overcome was an accomplishment in itself.
After some scary and uncertain few years, JPP finally had the financial security he thought he may have lost in 2015.
JPP to TB
After another solid season that saw him play 16 games for the first time since the accident, Pierre-Paul looked locked in and ready to continue earning his money in New York. He produced the 3rd highest sack total of his career in 2017, so the Giants' gamble to extend Pierre-Paul looked to have paid off just a season later.
But New York saw it differently. Hiring a new defensive coordinator, the Giants decided to switch to a 3–4 defensive front. This new defense relied on nickel DB packages more than 4 man fronts, so the Giants decided to save some money and traded JPP to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 3rd round pick.
In Tampa Bay’s 4–3 defense and with veteran pass rusher Gerald McCoy on the defensive line, Pierre-Paul enjoyed a 12.5 sack season. On a 5–11 team though, Pierre-Paul looked destined to be on a mediocre squad, much like how he was for all those years in NY.
Another serious setback
In May 2019, Pierre-Paul suffered another devastating injury. He was involved in a car crash that left him with a broken vertebra in his neck. Unsure of whether he’d play in 2019, Pierre-Paul opted to forego surgery and let the neck heal on its own.
As a result, he missed the first 6 games of 2019 but was able to finish out the last 10. He totaled 8.5 sacks even with the missed time and Pierre-Paul was able to show his defining resilience yet again as the Bucs missed the playoffs.
But, under new head coach Bruce Arians the Bucs had the aura of a contender just a few pieces away from the playoffs.
The road back to the Super Bowl
Acquiring Tom Brady via free agency and drafting some solid young defensive pieces like Antoine Winfield Jr. in the draft, the Bucs immediately went from a 7–9 squad to a contender.
After a rocky start to the season where the Bucs went 7–5, they found the gas pedal after their late Week 13 Bye and won out to finish the season 11–5. Defeating Washington, New Orleans, and Green Bay all on the road, the Bucs are one step away from completing a magical Super Bowl run.
Pierre-Paul has been as impactful as ever, as his dominating 2-sack performance against Aaron Rodgers in the NFC championship game helped propel the Bucs back home to Tampa Bay to face the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.
9 years after defeating Tom Brady on football’s biggest stage and earning his first ring, JPP will attempt to go for number 2 on Sunday with the GOAT as his teammate. Truly a career arc for the ages, win or lose, Jason Pierre-Paul will be remembered as one of the most resilient players to ever lace up a pair of cleats in the National Football League.
His interview with the AP this week summed his personality up the best:
“To those people who are facing something — six years ago I went through a hand injury, fireworks injury. Last year I had a broken neck. People say you can’t do it because they can’t do it. But you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you want to do in life. It’s easier said than done, but I never quit on anything in life. I am going to give everything I can until [I] can’t.”