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How the running game impacts the Bucs' offense, and the draft

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

With the season ending the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are set to inherit one of the top draft selections in the upcoming 2015 NFL draft. At this particular moment that I scribe this article, the Bucs hold the first overall draft pick. Due to such a deplorable record, Tampa Bay has the choice of the cream of the crop for talented players, but only choosing one, provided they do not trade down.

They can choose defensive ends Leonard Williams from the University of Southern California or Nebraska's Randy Gregory. There are notions to upgrade the offensive line with Stanford's Andrus Peat, Ronnie Staley of Notre Dame, or from Iowa, Brandon Scherff. And yet a majority of the draft hysteria swirl around the vortex of snatching one of the top two talented quarterbacks, Florida State University's gunslinger in Jameis Winston and multifaceted offensive machine in Marcus Mariota from Oregon.

Several months separate the start of the NFL draft and today.  On Bucs Nation, the discussion of which quarterback is better possesses an interminable shelf life till the draft, similar to that of predicting a star will evolve into a white dwarf, a neutron star, or black hole without knowledge of its mass - when said event happens, then there will be a solemn resolution.  That mass thing is pertinent to the result.  All this quarterback jaunting diverts the necessary reflection upon the offense, to which they will be indentured servants to every criticism, warranted and unwarranted.

That does not mean I would not participate in such a frenzied festivity!  A poster posed an incomplete assessment:

"It'll be next to impossible to replicate his [Marcus Mariota] 2014 TD/INT performance in the NFL, but it shows he takes care of the ball extremely well compared to his peers (esp. Winston)".

I find this odd because Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy last season. That performance was apparently dismissed in the poster's assessment. Being a ‘Nole fan, I know our offensive line has not helped the run game.  Also, I know Oregon has had trouble with its offensive line.  So I did some digging to see if there is something I can add to give the response more context and simultaneously tie it all back with the Buccaneers.

The Seminoles of Florida State had great difficulty establishing a run game due to their inconsistent offensive line play this season as opposed to the sheer dominance they imposed upon the country last year.  Hence, I decided to go on a hunch to discover if there exists any correlation between running the ball and turnovers.

Oregon Ducks

QB production and Total Team Rushing

Year

QB

TDs

INTs

Total Team Rushing (yds)

2012

Mariota

32

6

4098

2013

Mariota

31

4

3556

2014

Mariota

38

2

3085

2014 does not include post season.

Florida State Seminoles

QB production and Total Team Rushing

Year

QB

TDs

INTs

Total Team Rushing (yds)

2013

Winston

40

10

2844

2014

Winston

27

17

1753

2014 does not include post season.

After compiling the two charts, we can identify some items. Having watched Florida State all season long, I know the ‘Noles have had offensive line problems. Although I live on the west coast, I rarely watch any Oregon games, but I have read they have had offensive line problems as well. Both teams have seen their total team rushing take a dip from their previous year. Oregon's pace is down 471 yards where as FSU's rushing took a nose by 1091 yards.

A second look at those charts has me colored impressed with Oregon's offense. Despite not generating 471 yards like the previous season, it was able to amass over 3000 yards rushing! The Ducks are averaging 237.3 yards per game rushing, ranked 22nd in all of the NCAA. On the other end of the spectrum are the Seminoles ranking 104th overall, averaging 134.8 yards per game. Allow me to repeat that ranking for FSU, they rank at 104.  That is slightly more productive than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rushing offense.

Contemplating about the drop in both team's rushing, we can safely conclude that although Oregon's rushing dropped 471 yards, they still ranked 22nd out of 128 teams, identifying a healthy run game. Florida State's 1091 yard drop has them ranked 104th. Last year's FSU team rushing game was ranked 28th overall and Oregon ranked 9th overall in yards per game.

So with a strong run game, Winston can take care of the ball well enough - see his first year playing QB (2013).  Without a run game, Winston had to carry his team on his back. Recently, for the past few games, FSU converted their LT to play C because their original C fell to injury early in the season. That move (combined with a rookie LT) has paved way for an established run game.

To add more perspective to this argument, Oregon ranks 11th overall in passing yards average per game with 308.9 yards.  Now, take a moment and ponder what FSU ranks in passing yards with such an abysmal run game. The ‘Noles passing game averaged 299.8 yards per game, ranking them 14th overall. That means the Seminoles are passing as much as the Ducks, but are devoid of a run game like the Ducks. Opposing defenses can easily plan around defending a team that is limited to having only a passing game.

We can follow this logic with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the past three years.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

QB production and Total Team Rushing

Year

QB

TDs

INTs

Total Team Rushing (yds)

2012

Freeman

27

17

1834

2013

Glennon

19

9

1612

2014

Glennon

10

6

McCown

9

11

Both

19

17

1025

*2014 has three games yet to be played

The 2014 season has produced the worst running game in the past three years. I went three years back because that is Doug Martin's first season in the NFL with the Buccaneers, his Pro Bowl year. The following year, three running backs were used because injuries hit Martin and Mike James, in that order, and it made Bobby Rainey shine as well. That happened to be Glennon's rookie year and took care of the ball with a somewhat competent run game.  Actually, Glennon won a game with only 22 yards total rushing for the Bucs that same year against the Detroit Lions.

Going into the 2014 season, the Bucs already had three good running backs and added another running back in the draft in the third round, Charles Sims. The Bucs also have a new coaching staff and offensive coaching scheme much different than the previous coaching staff, a zone scheme. The staff also made several changes on the offensive line.  The run game currently ranks second worst in the league.  With three games to go, the Bucs' quarterbacks can still make that touchdown to turnover ratio even worse.

The run game is a pertinent aspect to controlling turnovers. That is why most teams want to establish the run game.  That is how play action becomes more effective because of the threat of the run game.  Let us look at the opposite side of the ball when talking about running, as in run defense.  In 2012, the Bucs' defense was ranked 1 against the run and finished with 7 wins.  For 2013, the defense dropped to 15th in rank and won only 4 games. This year, we're currently ranked 19th with 2 games won. There are many variables in winning and losing, but depreciating in both run offense and run defense year after year are keys to losing faster.

Back to Mariota, Winston, and taking care of the ball, there are many factors involved in taking care of the ball.  Sometimes, the QB has no choice in the matter of controlling some of those factors.  Look at the difference in our turnover ratios between this year and last year for the Bucs.  The biggest variable change was the offensive scheme along with Offensive line personnel.  We have Glennon, the three RB's, and Vjax as part of the control group consistent between the two offenses.  There are no signs of improvement either to this offensive scheme, unlike the defense's improvement.  Similarly, Winston shared the same dilemma the Bucs' offense had this year with no real run game.  Winston's touchdown to interception ratio also took a dive with the barely existent run game.

Question to ask is if Mariota's run game is taken away, then how well can he perform?  Oregon averages 237 yards per game rushing this season.  Oregon's lone loss was to Arizona.  Arizona's defense held Oregon to 144 yards rushing, almost a hundred yards less than their average rushing game.  In the PAC-12 Championship game, Arizona played Oregon again.  Oregon ran away with a win, literally.  Oregon gained 301 yards on the ground with 4 rushing touchdowns.

I believe Tampa Bay has much bigger issues than drafting either Winston or Mariota.  Without establishing a competent run game, we fans will be subjected to witness yet another offensive debacle.  The Bucs can improve faster by finding an offensive coordinator that can establish the run with the plethora of running backs already in tow for the organization.  The Bay had a mediocre offensive line roster in 2013 and yet produced better than this year's offensive line roster.  Finding improved personnel or a scheme that improves the play of the current personnel on the offensive line is high on the priorities to fix.

Although changes will surely come this off-season, it is not a guarantee that those changes will pay immediate dividends.  If the Bucs do not establish a competent run game, then it cannot protect its quarterback nor protect him from making turnovers.  With that said, which quarterback in the draft do you feel comfortable with when there is no run game consistently: the quarterback who is usually in an ideal situation or a quarterback who thrives in not so ideal situations?  Even so, there remains a lot of other factors that are just as important as which quarterback to draft.