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Take a strategy out of the “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” playbook and wrap a sweat-soaked rag over your eyes, Vince Vaughn-style.
You have a team in front of you that averaged 320.4 yards per game last year through the air. They possessed not one, but two wide receivers that netted over 1,000 yards last year, and neither played all 16 games.
On the other side of the ball, the same team possessed one of the nastiest defensive fronts you could lay eyes on, with the team’s defensive line allowing the least amount of running back yards per carry in the NFL last season (3.02). In the pass rush, the team was tied for 5th in sacks (48).
As a result, the team was able to put together its best win-loss record since 2016 and its second-best win-loss record since 2010. You would expect this team to have multiple playoff appearances and victories.
Bold strategy, Cotton. That assumption didn’t pay off, though, as you have the 7-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers from last season, a team that was ravaged by a porous secondary and a quarterback in Jameis Winston who tossed 30 picks. The same Tampa Bay Buccaneers that have not garnered a playoff berth since 2007. The same Tampa Bay Buccaneers that have not picked up a playoff win since Jon Gruden was in his first stint as a head coach, “Stacy’s Mom” was on the verge of becoming a top music hit and the average cost for a gallon of gas was $1.83.
That was 2003 during Super Bowl XXXVII where the Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders, 48-21.
However, despite the tranquility and gloominess surrounding the bright and sunny Tampa Bay franchise, there is reason for belief that it could be Tampa Bay’s time to prove everyone wrong.
For Tom Brady, their new quarterback, it is also his time to prove everyone wrong.
To start with Brady, the numbers for him last season were low compared to the premium Tom Brady from year’s past. Brady passed for only 4,057 yards, the least amount in his career since 2010. His 24 touchdowns were his lowest total since 2003. His quarterback rating of 88 was his worst since 2006. In the wild card game against the Tennessee Titans last year, Brady’s final pass in a New England uniform found the hands of Titan’s cornerback Logan Ryan for a pick six.
While it is true that 2019 Tom Brady was not vintage Tom Brady, there are reasons for the down season. In fact, through the first eight games of the season, Brady had a quarterback rating of 95, a solid rating to work with. From week nine to the end of the season, though, his quarterback rating dropped to 80.8.
While the quality of opponents got stronger for the Patriots and Brady, that and the numbers do not tell the whole story. What does tell the story, though, is the personnel (or lack thereof) the Patriots had at wideout as the season progressed.
At the start of the season, the Patriots had several mainstays and up-and-comers that looked promising. They had James White who came off a career-year in targets, receptions and receiving yards (123 targets, 87 receptions and 751 yards, respectively). They had Josh Gordon coming back and looking to build off half a season of 720 receiving yards and over 18 yards per reception. First-rounder N’Keal Harry was looking to build off of two consecutive first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Antonio Brown came up north. And, of course, you had Julian Edelman, one of the best slot receivers in the game.
Everything looked swell, but Harry started the season on injured reserve and did not record a snap until November. Gordon left the team in December to focus on his mental health. White was solid but he was not as productive as the year before. Everyone knows how the Brown saga went (and is still going). Edelman, in addition to the likes of Phillip Dorsett, Rex Burkhead and Mohamed Sanu (brought in via trade midway through the season) were forced to take on the catching burden.
But it was not enough, as none of the options were deep ball outside perimeter threats. The slot was covered, sure, but opposing teams had no reason to go into a deep cover set to protect the downfield.
It even goes beyond the lack of a receiver that can run a long go, though.
The chemistry wasn’t there.
Even when Brady and the Patriots got into end-zone territory, the team’s red zone scoring percentage sat at 49.21%, 26th in the NFL and the worst among NFL playoff teams last year.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, scored in the red zone 64.81% of the time, 3rd in the NFL. Their receiving trio of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Breshad Perriman combined to take care of the slot and outside spots of the field. Their tight end duo of O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate combined for over 750 yards and five touchdowns (another weakness of the Patriots personnel last season).
The Buccaneers, even with their elite offense and defensive line, still come with their warts. Their running group (despite not being a prime area of use in Bruce Arian’s offense last year when compared to the receivers), ranked 24th in rushing yards per game. The secondary allowed the third most passing yards last season (4,322). Their offensive line, particularly at right tackle, was thin on the depth chart.
Luckily for the Bucs, though, several of their problems could be fixed through the upcoming draft. A Cam Akers or a Clyde Edwards-Helaire (both prominent running and receiving threats) in the second round (where Tampa Bay possesses the 45th overall pick) could give the Buccaneers a more diverse running game. It could also reinforce the passing game. To solve right tackle, the Bucs (who also have the 14th overall pick) could stand pat or trade up to get a Andrew Thomas, Tristan Wirfs, Mekhi Becton or Jedrick Wills, Jr to fill the right tackle void and not only open up more hole and screen opportunities, but also protect their new 42-going-on-43-year-old quarterback. In regard to the secondary, perhaps the Buccaneers take a lottery pick on a raw corner or safety late in the draft and run with it.
When looking at the rest of the NFC South, the Panthers are in a rebuilding phase with a college staff looking to bring the next best offense to the NFL. The Falcons look to bounce back from a down year and produce with the majority of their core that vaulted them to Super Bowl LI coming back. And then you have the Saints, who look for one final hurrah with Drew Brees at the helm. For the Buccaneers, their is promise to potentially raise heads against a wide-open division.
No matter what happens, though, both the Buccaneers and Tom Brady have a golden opportunity to prove it is their time. For the Bucs, it is to show that they can be a playoff threat. For Brady, it is an opportunity to drown the notion that father-time is catching up and that he is, and always will be, a “system quarterback” that Bill Belichick cracked the code to.
For the Bucs and Brady, it is their time to prove their pundits wrong.