And so, it is.
The makeshift, occasionally exciting but mostly disappointing Tampa Bay Buccaneers season has come to an end. A shell of the team that won a Super Bowl two seasons ago now has more questions to answer than any other franchise headed into 2023.
In typical reactionary fashion, I felt it only appropriate to outline the question marks facing this team and (woe is us) offer some solutions to what was, and perhaps, what shall be.
There exists no more vital question to the future of this franchise than who takes snaps behind center in Week One of 2023. Three off-seasons ago, Buccaneers fans wondered who would take the place of their interception-prone, top draft pick Jameis Winston. That question was answered once Tom Brady rode into town and changed a culture. Upon his arrival came other stars at multiple positions that helped the franchise win an unanticipated Super Bowl. In time, those stars, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh all left for greener pastures, Brown to CTE’sville, Gronkoswki to reality TV, JPP to the Baltimore Ravens and Suh to the Philadelphia Eagles. The loss of these impact players cannot be understated.
That left Tom Brady, and the culture he once instilled, a shadow of its former self. The Brady-led Bucs went from Super Bowl winners to NFC runners-up to being bounced in the first round in a matter of three seasons. The 45-year-old Brady still produced pass-happy numbers but for a variety of reasons, they paled in comparison to the previous two seasons. The Buccaneers finished the regular season a sub-par 8-9, backing into an NFC South crown won primarily because the division was the worst in football.
The question remains… how much Brady has left in the tank and whether he’ll want to return. These conversations will likely happen, if they haven’t already, but will have to be among the most important, if not the earliest, this franchise will have. Does Tom Brady want to return? Does the franchise want him back? Does the team want him back? At his age, does he want to retire or look elsewhere to compete for another title?
Brady has experienced incalculable personal trauma this year and it’s hard to say it didn’t affect both his performance and the direction of the franchise. From retiring, then coming out of retirement to leading this team to a first-round playoff loss, the disconnect was a slow-footed, 180-degree turn from the mojo he brought to Tampa three years ago. Brady once again led the league in pass attempts and completions in what can only be deemed an offense that fell short of expectations.
The Tom Brady rumor mill has him looking elsewhere, including the broadcast booth, but if he looks elsewhere, how badly does he still want to play, what other teams might be a fit and will he want to learn an entirely new offense with a team that might be better suited to compete, if that team even exists. Most importantly, how soon will these conversations take place so that the team can either plan around his return or prepare for his departure?
For the objective fan (present company possibly included), it was only a matter of time before this offensive line showed its inconsistencies. The loss of key personnel (Alex Cappa to Cincinnati, Ali Marpet to retirement, Donovan Smith to uselessness, Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs to injury) hampered this team’s inability to stabilize an offense. A season-long shuffling of linemen debilitated Tampa’s ability to put forth any semblance of a consistent offense, and far too often a quarterback that had to release the ball prematurely.
A team that averaged nearly 31 points per game their Super Bowl season averaged only 18 points per game in 2022. That’s significant drop-off in offensive production can largely be credited to the instability of the protection the line provided.
Which leads us to…
THE RUNNING BACKS
“Playoff Lenny” entered everyone’s vernacular just three seasons ago. Fournette’s drop-off in production, like everyone else’s, was considerable from last season. In 2020, the Bucs running attack accounted for 16 touchdowns. In 2022, they managed only five. To put that into its proper perspective, 25 players had as many or more rushing touchdowns than the Buccaneers this season, including Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers, who went six straight games without finding the end zone at all! While rookie Rachaad White had what most Buccaneers fans would consider a successful campaign, he had not a single rushing touchdown. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked dead last in the league in running the football. Blame the line, blame the backs, blame the offensive coordinator or any combination of the three… the numbers don’t lie. Despite the team’s pass-heavy offense, the team was unable to score in the red zone, ranking 25th in the league when they got close to the goal line. Their inability to run the football was yet another reason this team failed to be as formidable as they were two years ago.
The two main pass-catchers on the Bucs, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, are locked up contractually through next season but as we know, that means little in the NFL if a player wants out or if the owner wants him out. In addition to the absent running game, the wide receivers’ numbers also paled in comparison to previous seasons. While Evans kept his 1,000-yard season streak alive, he only hauled in 6 touchdowns passes, compared to 13 and 14 the last two seasons. Chris Godwin caught only three. Something was off. Considering how often this team passed the ball, one would like to have seen those numbers maintain when, in fact, they were nowhere close.
The loss of Rob Gronkowski cannot be understated. Serving as Tom Brady’s most reliable security blanket, rumors swirled all season long (mostly among Buccaneer’s faithful) about a potential return. That didn’t happen and the Bucs plodded along looking for alternatives that never surfaced.
Gronkowski accounted for 13 touchdowns and 100 receptions his two years in pewter. The four-headed tight end corps of Otton, Brate, Kieft and Rudolph who replaced him accounted for four touchdowns this year. They were hardly a substitute. The loss of arguably the best tight end in history is difficult to replace and that was no more evident that in 2022.
Where to begin. The 2020 champion Buccaneers praised their defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles. They bought into his system, from the line to the secondary and everything in between, and it showed. In Super Bowl LV, they held the NFL’s best quarterback touchdown-less. It looked as if this defense might be the wave of the future on a team that’s known for its historically great defenses.
They did not sustain that momentum. This year’s defense, while impressive at times, was consistently put in some bad positions. There also seemed a disconnect as Bowles went from defensive coordinator to head coach. The team went from sixth in the league in takeaways (-8 in 2020) to 21st in the league (+2 in 2022).
A top ten defense in terms of points allowed their Super Bowl season (22.2 points per game), this year’s defense actually allowed fewer points per game in 2022 (21.1 points per game) but they were consistently put in worse positions behind an inept offense. Most key players on this defense are locked up contractually (Vea, Tryon, Hall, Barrett, Davis, Mason, White, Winfield) but once again, anything can happen. A defense can only do so much if the offense doesn’t do them any favors. Tampa Bay ranked 28th in the league in time of possession meaning their defense worked overtime to keep this team in games. Again, none of that matters if your team can’t score.
Bruce Arians won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Buccaneers, then handed over the reins to Todd Bowles, and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. The offense suffered. As fans, we’ll never truly know how much of the offense was dictated by Brady versus Bowles and Leftwich. It’s fair to assume the substantial loss in offensive output can be blamed on all parties. Scoring ten points fewer per game leaves a lot of fingers to be pointed. Someone will take the fall and that person will likely by Byron Leftwich.
Personally, and I’m in the minority, I feel the organization is loyal to Bowles and, pending a Brady return, I would be less surprised than most to see major changes. After all, this was still a playoff team despite its gross inabilities to score consistently like it did two years ago.
I don’t see ownership running Bowles out of town, regardless of what happens with Tom Brady. Losing all three would considerably upset the applecart, which might not be a horrible thing, unless you consider the alternative, i.e., who is throwing passes next season and who is calling the shots.
Again, these are crucial decisions that will determine whether the team wants to start anew.
Backup quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask attempted 17 passes in 2022. Compare that to the 733 times Tom Brady threw the ball and we have a problem. A Brady retirement means this team will have to scramble to find a quarterback and it appears unlikely that man is currently on this roster. Free agency is an option with the inevitable off-season shuffling that will ensue, but Brady’s decision will have to come sooner rather than later so that ownership can determine who they want leading their offense, how much they’ll have to spend to get him and how long it will take to redesign the offense accordingly.
This all leaves the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with some huge question marks heading into the offseason. Although much of the team’s core will remain intact, the man taking snaps, who’s going to protect him and those on the sidelines coaching him remain the biggest questions.
In an increasingly competitive NFL, young teams are making their mark. These slowly getting older Buccaneers head into the off-season looking to revamp their identity or establish a new one. Pieces are in place. But teams don’t win without quarterbacks and there’s not a team left in the post-season with a quarterback over 30 years old.
Whether Brady and the Buccaneers decide one last time to run it back, or whether this experiment has run its course, will leave fans waiting to see what the Bucs will look like in 2023.