The inevitable has happened - Mike Sullivan has been handed his marching orders by the Buccaneers. Despite overseeing a stretch of six games in 2012 where the Bucs had the best offense in the NFL, his overall tenure has been poor, as can best be seen by the fact that the team had the league's worst offense in 2013. While many of us can speculate that Greg Schiano had a big say in the offensive gameplan, it still remains that Sullivan's playbook, combining archaic run-first philosophy with convoluted, complex scheme, was the chief architect of his downfall in Tampa Bay.
The first coordinator to be hired by Greg Schiano, Sullivan came to the Bucs from the Giants after their 2011 Super Bowl season. He had served first as Big Blue's receivers coach for six years, and then their quarterbacks coach for two, winning two Super Bowl rings in the process. He brought with him a lot of elements from Kevin Gilbride's Giants playbook, in particular a heavy use of read and option routes, which he combined with Schiano's already-stated philosophy - run the ball hard and take deep shots down the field.
This commitment to the run plagued Sullivan throughout his tenure. It may have been particularly notable in 2013, with the team running often on first and second down regardless of the distance (runs on 2nd & 10+ were called far too regularly), but it began almost immediately - you only need to re-watch the Week 3 game against Dallas from 2012 to see the blueprint for the kind of gameplan that would ultimately lead him to be fired.
There have been times when Sullivan did appear capable of some minor adjustments - in 2012, by airing the ball more he appeared to have revived Josh Freeman's fortunes while turning Doug Martin into a star, there was a stretch of games that made the coordinator look like a genius. Unfortunately, teams soon wisened up to the new gameplan - the Rams' James Laurinaitis in particular mentioned, in the aftermath of a game that saw them intercept Freeman four times, how easy it was to read the Bucs' offense - contributing to the team losing four of its final five games.
The 2013 season picked up where the previous season left off on offense: offensively. The Bucs didn't even reach 20 points until Week 6, and with the exception of their Week 11 stomping of the Falcons, where the offense scored 34 points, the Bucs didn't score more than three touchdowns in a single game all season.
The biggest issue early on in 2013 was that the passing plays Sullivan dialed up were fairly ridiculous, consisting primarily of multiple vertical routes outside the hashes, using little in the way of crossing routes, routes in the middle of the field, hot routes, safety valves or check downs. This was hardly helped by Sullivan's propensity to run the ball up the middle on early downs, leading to both quarterbacks facing far too many 3rds-and-far-too-longs.
That said, Sullivan did again being to show the ability to adapt, even if it was at glacial pace; when the quarterback switch was made to Mike Glennon, Sullivan began to have more checkdowns on pass plays. Eventually he began throwing in more crossing routes - mesh concepts on third downs being a particular favourite - and it was when he started introducing more complementary underneath routes the the offense began to pick up a little, bringing the team four wins.
It was all for nowt, however, as Sullivan, buoyed by getting a few wins with Glennon, began to phase those concepts back out of his gameplan, while appearing to be even more stubborn with dialing up running plays early - and, worse, more often than not just straight runs up the middle with little-to-no variety, and generally with paltry results. In an age when the air over every NFL field is thick with footballs sailing through the air from quarterback to receiver, Mike Sullivan was more interested in pounding his running backs into an impenetrable wall of offensive and defensive linemen. It's a gameplan drawn from the mists of time, by NFL standards, and like all dinosaurs, the Bucs' offensive production simply became distinct.
Most distinct of all this season was the clear disconnect between his offense's first- and second-half production. According to the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman, the Bucs' averaged just 2.1 points in the third quarter of games in 2013. We all know that Schiano believes that there isn't enough time during halftime to make meaningful adjustments to the gameplan. Whether it was because he was told by Schiano to keep the gameplan the same, or whether he was simply incapable, it's clear that when the other team changed their defense, Sullivan was regularly at a loss to find an answer.
The issues with Sullivan's offensive coordinatorship were manyfold. From the too-slow rate of adapting (which, compared to his head coach, was still break-neck speed), to a stubbornness in refusing to help out his quarterbacks by removing the reliance on read routes and options routes, or attempting to set up third-and-short instead of third-and-long, to the predictability of the playcalling, to, ultimately, the 32nd-ranked offense in the league, Sullivan's tenure has been a failure, simple as.
We wish Sullivan luck with wherever he ends up, but it's time for a change in Tampa Bay. There is no more damning an assessment of his time in charge of the team's offense than this: Mike Sullivan, you made Greg Olson look competent.