Keys to the game: Cowboys-Bucs
Can the Bucs get out of their own way? Can they block anyone?
No one wants to see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs. And by no one, I mostly mean fans hoping to watch smart, talented football teams that are reaching their strategic peaks after a season of tweaks. That ain’t the Bucs. But by the grace of the horrific NFC South and some good old-fashioned Tom Brady Magic™, Tampa will host a playoff game anyway.
As has been the case all season, just about every question I have leading up to this matchup pertains to the Bucs’ offense. Yes, the Cowboys looked awful against the Commanders in Week 18. Dak Prescott may have played his worst game since, welp, he played Todd Bowles’s defense to open the season. But Dallas finished fourth in points per game on offense and second in EPA/play on defense. By all measures, they’re a good team on both sides of the ball. The same can’t be said for Tampa Bay.
Over the two-season stretch from 2020 to 2021, the Bucs had the fourth-best offense in the league by EPA/play and they averaged over 30 points per game. Brady’s ruthless precision married perfectly with Bruce Arians’s relentless verticality. The result: an offense that kept successfully seeking chunk gains while minimizing turnover-worthy plays and sacks. In other words, not fair.
In 2022, they plummeted to 23rd in EPA/play and they’ve scored more than 30 points only once all season. Submit yourself to the surface-level discourse of Twitter, Reddit, or TV talking heads, and the causes are “obvious”: Brady is washed; losing Arians’s pink-faced sideline tirades sapped the team of passion. I disagree on both counts. Leading up to Monday night’s game, it’s worth going all the way back and seeing how Tampa Bay got here.
They lost a heap of talent before this season even started. Ali Marpet, one of the best guards in the league, hung it up after only seven seasons. Alex Cappa signed with the Bengals. Ryan Jensen suffered a knee injury in camp and has yet to play a snap. As you could imagine, offensive line woes are a big part of why the Buccaneers went from seventh in EPA/rush in 2021 to 31st in 2022.
Rob Gronkowski retired… again. Antonio Brown – who, I hate to admit, was easily the Bucs’ most talented receiver – was halfway into his birthday suit and waving deuces to the crowd the last time we saw him on a football field.
Regression was inevitable. Besides Shaq Mason, no replacement has adequately filled the shoes of his predecessor. Rookie left guard Luke Goedeke was an absolute disaster over the early part of the season, though Nick Leverett has since played at a respectable level. Rookie center Robert Hainsey has been fine, but Jensen might’ve been the league’s best player at the position. The tight end spot has become a non-factor with Cade Otton and Cam Brate at the helm. Julio Jones has shown flashes when he’s not in street clothes, but AB was at a whole different level.
Returning players haven’t played to their elite standards, either. Chris Godwin, the pivotal “power slot” around whom this offense is structured, has played while trying to recover from a devastating ACL injury that he suffered late last season. Although he’s tallied up receptions from screen passes and contested catches, he hasn’t been the shifty underneath separator he used to be.
So much of this offense is predicated on 3x1 sets that create a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma for defenses. Isolate Mike Evans and put Godwin as a part of the trips set to the field. Do they double Evans, thus giving Godwin space to operate one-on-one underneath, or do they leave Evans singled up to the boundary? That proposition falls apart when even linebacker types can tightly contest Godwin’s targets.
While Godwin, understandably, needs time to return to form, Donovan Smith’s decline came out of nowhere. He went from being very good in 2021 to a frequent liability in 2022. He’s fourth amongst tackles in penalties this season – including multiple penalties on would-be touchdown plays. After seeing what Myles Garrett did to Smith in Cleveland, I don’t like his chances against Micah Parsons.
And finally, there’s Brady. No, he’s not washed. But he has been inconsistent. He has looked antsy in the pocket, particularly in the Goedeke era, and he has missed plenty of downfield throws – even when considering the inherent volatility of long passes. But Brady has also made far too many jaw-dropping throws with drive, accuracy, and anticipation that would be impossible for a quarterback who no longer has the physical capability of being a top NFL passer.
I do think there’s something that’s caused a dip in consistency – possibly the speculated weight loss during his 10-day preseason absence, or the injury to his throwing shoulder against Kansas City – but it’s an issue I’d expect him to recover from at some point (whether it’s possible to do it this season, I don’t know).
Whatever the reasons are, Brady’s decline took him from playing quarterback at the highest level possible in 2020 and 2021 to a roughly top-10 level in 2022. That’s a long way from being washed, but it’s also a decline exacerbated by the demands of this passing attack.
Already, that’s a lot for this team to overcome. However, underneath all this are legacy issues. The same problems that have held the Buccaneers offenses of the past two seasons to being amongst the best in the league rather than amongst the best ever; the same issues that leaped out when Arians patrolled the sidelines remain with the Todd Bowles-Byron Leftwich axis.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Read Optional to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.