The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to play old school football under Greg Schiano. They want to play stout, Cobra Kai defense, run the ball and throw deep. Those are the basic tenets of Greg Schiano's philosophy, one he has shared on many occasions. It's almost Dungy-esque: play smart football, don't turn the ball over and be stingy on defense - and you have a chance to win every game. According to NFL Films' Greg Cosell, this clearly shows in their draft picks. I'll let him do the explaining, before I dig into the remarks and show a few ways why this could work, and the downsides of this approach.
In an NFC South division that features Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, plus a number of high-level wide receivers, the Bucs selected safety Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick. Barron is an outstanding player, one of the 5-7 best prospects in the draft. Then, with the 31st selection, they chose running back Doug Martin, another very good prospect. Think about it: a safety and a running back. Two positions, in the larger context of NFL football in 2012, that are not seen as premium or priority positions. The reason: Their value in the passing game is perceived to be minimal. Beyond top RB Trent Richardson, Martin was the only other true feature back in this class. You do not draft Martin without the expectation of having him carry the ball 15-plus times a game as the foundation of your offense.
Cosell contrasts this philosophy with that of both the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, who both see everything through the lens of the pass. The league, to them, is a passing league. The Eagles build their offense and defense that way, and it's hard to argue with the success they've had over the past decade. The Lions were a surprise success last year, after spending two years building their team to work through the air.
Yet the Bucs are taking the opposite route, trying to win on the ground in a league dominated by the pass. Can they make this work? Let's examine a few of the sides to this argument.
What are the downsides to this approach?
I'll start with the negatives: old school football is old school for a reason. That reason is simple: it is inefficient in the modern NFL. Passing is inherently better for an offense than running the ball, and recent rule changes have only exacerbated that difference. Teams produce more yardage more consistently when they pass than when they run. Of course, this does mean you need one thing: a quarterback who can pass the ball. That's why teams spend so much time, money and draft picks trying to find that franchise quarterback. If you have Tom Brady leading your offense, you're going to win a lot of games, almost regardless of what the rest of your team looks like.
The teams that run the ball as a primary strategy are the teams that can't pass the ball very well. In 2011, only five did not pass more than they ran the ball: the Denver Broncos, the Houston Texans, the San Francisco 49ers, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins. The common denominator for all of those teams, except the Houston Texans: a quarterback who can't be relied upon to pass often. Why don't the Houston Texans pass the ball more? Well, for one, the Buccaneers knocked out their quarterback by midseason. More importantly: the basis of their offense is a zone-based running game augmented by play-action passes. This is a solid strategy, but it has gotten the Texans to the playoffs exactly once: this past season, when they had an elite defense.
In fact, that's another common denominator: all of these teams had a good defense to allow them to run the ball that often, although the Jaguars' defense fell off at the end of the year. You cannot have a run-first offense if your defense cannot keep the score down, as you'll be forced to pass to keep up. That's a painful lesson we saw time and again this season as the Bucs managed to rack up impressive first-quarter deficits, forcing them to abandon the run much too quickly. By contrast, a powerful passing attack can rack up wins despite a horrible defense. The 2011 New England Patriots are an easy example, as they allowed more yards than all but one team. Can you think of a single example of a top-notch rushing attack making it to the Super Bowl despite a terrible or even mediocre defense in the past 20 years? I can't. Yet I can think of multiple examples of outstanding passing offenses with mediocre defenses making deep playoff runs.
Of course, the one problem remains: you need a good quarterback to have a powerful passing attack. Which brings me to the positives of the approach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are taking.
It's easier to build an old-school football team
This, to me, is the main point of old-school football: it's easier to build a team this way than it is to build a team with a massively successful passing attack. You need only one component for a terrific passing attack, but that one component is awfully hard to come by: an elite quarterback. You need to surround that quarterback with good weapons and decent protection, but ultimately that's what it comes down to. If you have the elite quarterback, you can basically just mess around with the rest of your team and still win games. See: the Indianapolis Colts.
By contrast, building an elite defense requires a lot more players, but you can go about it in various different ways, and the loss of one player will never be devastating to a great defense. It's also easier to come by a group of very talented defensive players than it is to find a single very good quarterback. To find a very good quarterback you either need to absolutely bomb one year to get one of the top draft picks, or you need to get lucky with a later quarterback selection. You will almost never find a great quarterback in free agency, and certainly not one who's a long-term answer. Yes, there's Drew Brees - but he was coming off a shoulder injury so bad, that the Miami doctors didn't think he could play anymore. That, too, was a massive risk.
But, racking up talented defensive players is relatively easy - they're available in free agency frequently, and you can pick up quality defenders throughout the first two rounds of the draft. And if one of them goes down, you're not in so much trouble. There's also a different advantage: once you've built an elite defense and added a quality rushing attack, you can plug in mediocre quarterbacks and still get good results. And if you somehow manage to find yourself a good quarterback, you're immediately a title contender.
You have a chance to win
every most games
If you build your team around a run-first offense and an elite defense, you have a chance to win most games. The Bucs did that for years under Tony Dungy. The Baltimore Ravens made a living off elite defense and a good rushing attack. If you hold the opponent to few points and don't turn over the ball yourself, you'll grind out a lot of close wins. But those two teams have just two Super Bowl wins between them because of one problem: elite offenses.
As soon as a team built on defense and running the ball faces an elite offense, they're in trouble. Sometimes they can keep those elite offenses in check and grind out a win. More frequently, though, the opposing team's elite offense will start to score on them. It's hard to keep an elite quarterback in check. And when that happens, a run-first offense will struggle to keep pace.
So, this is only a problem against elite teams, right? Sure. But if you want to win Super Bowls you must beat those teams too. It's good to beat every bad team you face - just ask the Atlanta Falcons. But it's no use if you just lose in the playoffs to the first quality passing attack you encounter. Again: just ask the Atlanta Falcons.
Defense does not win championships - and neither does offense
At the end of the day, having a great defense and a bad offense is not going to win you a Super Bowl. Similarly, you won't win a Super Bowl with a great offense and a terrible defense either (although the Patriots did come awfully close). No, what wins championships is the combination of a good defense and a good offense. You cannot neglect defense and then expect to have enough quality on offense to outscore everyone. Similarly, you cannot neglect offense and expect to keep elite offenses in check. You need both.
But is this really the Bucs' approach to building a team?
Note how I haven't spoken about the perception that the Bucs want to build their defense around stopping the run. Greg Schiano preaches that all the time, but he knows as well as any mean that stopping the run is meaningless if you can't stop the pass. The Bucs' coaches and personnel men are smart, and have been in football for ages. They are not under the delusion that they're going to stop Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Eli Manning or even Cam Newton by plugging the run. The Bucs haven't hired Mike Singletary as their head coach, after all.
This shows in their draft selections. Yes, Mark Barron will be of tremendous help against the run, and so should Lavonte David if the Bucs can protect him with a quality three-technique defensive tackle (a healthy Gerald McCoy fits the bill). But both those players stand out in another way: they're both impact against the pass. Lavonte David may be the single best coverage linebacker in the draft, although Luke Kuechly could earn that title as well. Similarly, Mark Barron has the ability to play man coverage on tight ends and slot receivers, something Greg Schiano spoke to explicitly in his press conference after the selection was made. No, the Bucs don't want to neglect the pass defense. They want to stop the run and the pass both.
On offense, though, their priority is clearly to establish the running game. Almost every move the Bucs have made on offense this offseason speaks to that. The signing of Carl Nicks gives the Bucs perhaps the best run-blocking offensive line in the entire NFL. Vincent Jackson is a great deep threat, but also an outstanding run-blocker as a receiver. Most importantly, the addition of Doug Martin gives the Bucs a true feature back who can share carries with Legarrette Blount for an outstanding power-based rushing attack.
But those three additions also help the Bucs in the passing game. A strong running game will force the opponents to bring an eight man into the box more frequently, while Carl Nicks will help Freeman's protection, Doug Martin will give the team a more reliable third-down blocker and receiver, and...well, what Vincent Jackson brings to the passing game should be obvious.
The Bucs speak of a run-first approach, and we have every reason to believe they will operate that way. But the team they're building can function as a pass-first offense as well - provided Josh Freeman turns into who I think he can be.
Can the Bucs win with this approach?
Absolutely. But this is not going to be simple. It is hard to build a good defense and keep it good from year to year. It is hard to get a good rushing attack going, and keep it relevant in games against elite offenses. Mind the lessons of the Atlanta Falcons: beating bad teams is good enough to get to the playoffs, but if you have no explosive element to your passing game and lack a great pass defense, elite teams will crush you to teensy bits.
The key question the Bucs should ask themselves is: will Josh Freeman be an elite quarterback? He has the tools to be one, and he showed consistent play in 2010. In 2011, he improved in a few ways, but everything but his pocket presence basically fell of a cliff. I believe he'll rebound. And if I'm the Bucs, I try to put an offense around him that allows him to succeed. In my mind, that offense is more like the Lions' spread attack than the 49ers' power-rushing, throw-a-little offense.
But, a run-first offense with a stout defense gives them more security, in case Freeman does not pan out. This is not a possibility we can simply discount. A run-first, defense-focused is the best approach if Freeman is not a franchise quarterback. If he is a real franchise quarterback, the Bucs must unleash the beast as soon as they find out, and allow him to take the reigns. But until that day comes, a run-first, defense-based approach may help them win more games.