clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Buccaneers are rebuilding, but they will get better

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't have the right personnel for their current schemes. But that will change, in time.

Jonathan Ferrey

I can’t say I am overly disappointed in the 2014 Version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Not that the complete shellacking that happened last Thursday wasn’t humiliating, it most certainly was. All weekend commentators and announcers talked about us as the "worst team in professional football". To a large extent they are correct. That still doesn’t make me disappointed. While I have not written much for the site recently, I have to say on gamedays when I do stop by for more than an article and quick read, I’ve been pretty shocked by some of the disappointment.

I just simply asked the same question I did week one: What did you expect?

I guess it starts with my believing, but really understanding what Lovie Smith meant when he said that they're not rebuilding, but trying to play the best product. Of course he said this, he’s an NFL head coach. NFL teams can and do rebuild, but if you’re the head coach of one how could you honestly expect your players to follow your leadership and give the infamous 110% had your answer been "Well we're gonna try really hard but quite frankly our talent isn’t a fit for what I want to do as head coach". Would your sales meeting go well if the team lead said, 'Well we'd like to hit these goals but the company literature is so outdated.

"Best product" is also a really interesting term, I’ve always read that statement to mean "The best product we can put on the field at this particular moment though I intend to get better with more appropriate personnel".

We do not have the right type of talent for the systems we want to run. We just transitioned from what was supposed to be a smash-mouth, man-on-man-blocking, bell-cow-running, deep-ball-chucking offense to a scheme which emphasizes more zone blocking concepts, open-space agility, fast-action plays, and being able to run or pass out of the same formation.

Defensively we’ve shifted from a 43 base with linebacker blitzes and tight press coverage, to a Tampa 2 where the front four by themselves are responsible for pressure, the linebackers contribute in coverage and make tackles all over the field, and the safeties have the responsibility of not getting beat deep.

We have changed personnel to players who fit this scheme (many of them); but finding talented players who excel in your scheme is more challenging than just finding guys who have the ability to play it. The roster simply has not been built for it over the past 5 seasons which is why we have such a large disparity between the personnel we have and the personnel we wish we had.  If that’s a nebulous concept think of it this way:

Peyton Manning is a Hall of Fame QB, how effective would he be running Seattle’s offense including the occasional sprint option? Given how well he reads a defense while passing I’d say pretty good. However; excelling? - probably not so much.

The first thing any NFL head Coach has to be is a competent leader who understands the league, way it operates, and what it takes to win. However, after that, new coaches offer one of two paths to victory:

  • · Either they bring an innovative approach
  • · They offer tried and true methods

Innovative approaches are like fast acting viruses, whether you are talking the bird flu, SARS, EBOLA , or Polio , they spread quickly, are effective killing/incapacitating infections, and scare the hell out of everyone because no one has developed effective counter measures yet or truly understands how to stop them. Yet unless they mutate and become refined, sooner or later mankind figures out a vaccine or antidote.

Tried and true methods are more like knives; despite being surrounded by several dozens of them at your local steakhouse no one suddenly ducks under their table when the waiter brings the steak knife for table 6’s entrée.  We’ve been killing people with knives since at least 3,300 BC and over the past 5,000 years plus have gotten really good at it. Oh we’ve added some wrinkles, made them longer and called them swords, put them at the end of a rifle and called it a bayonet, switched from bronze to copper to steel, made the steel Ginsu sharp, but at the end of the day it's still a knife. A single-edged cutting blade made for dismembering or stabbing flesh (animal or human), and they are highly lethal.

It is still highly effective today, despite years of hard work and the last century being the safest in the history of humankind… 5,000 years of evolution has not made it any less lethal. It does have to be precision work however if you plan to use it often, a butter knife isn’t going to get the job done in most cases, it has to be honed, sharpened, and practiced. You also need the right type of knife for the right type of job, the Parthians needed a scimitar a curved sword for use on horseback, the Romans a short Gladius for stabbing in tight formation, the American Revolutionary a bayonet for his charge at Yorktown. To be effective with a knife you have to have the right type of blade, in the hands of the right person, at the right time and unlike a virus which can jump from host to a host, a knife takes practice and repetition.

If you want fast success in the NFL, the "innovative viral approach" is the quickest way from worst to first, though that approach comes with drawbacks. You are trying a new method, so chances are you will catch some teams before they can adequately prepare to counteract what you are attempting to do to them. Faced with highly ineffective quarterback play and middling receivers, Tony Sparano turned to the wildcat, invented in the early 1990s by Billy Ford. The result, the Dolphins went from a 1-15 laughing stock to an 11-5 playoff team. The problem: soon enough the league did indeed figure it out, and while you still see some wildcat every once in a great while, it’s a gimmick play now and not an offense.

How about 1999 and a young offensive coordinator named Mike Martz? Say goodbye to 4-12 and dead last, hello to first place at 13-3 and Super Bowl XXXIV. The greatest show on turf combined Joe Gibbs' multiple look offense with spread formation concepts and sprinkled in an unknown fast release QB named Kurt Warner. You can still use this offense today, but as Jay Cutler and Jon Kitna can tell you, if you are not prepared to get rid of the ball quickly you had better have some backup QBs who can play because the system leaves the QB vulnerable to every 6-man blitz.

Perhaps the most innovative guy in the NFL is on the opposite side of the ball in Rex Ryan. While his 34 base version of his Dad’s 46 defense has been in the league for a considerable amount of time, every week the Jets have a wholly new blitz package it seems for someone. His first two seasons in New York led them to AFC title games while trotting out Mark Sanchez at QB. Two of the biggest turnarounds last season were by Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman, from the college ranks and CFL respectively both brought in new concepts that the league has yet to fully adapt to.  Whether and how long they’ll be able to sustain their success is a whole other matter.

When you talk about tried and true methods though, what you are really talking about is precision. Precision is not built overnight. How exact and flawless can you perform your scheme? Going back to 1999 for a moment, if you recall the NFC Title Game we tried to win 9-6, going into the 4th QTR we had missed 0 tackles, the Greatest Show on Turf scoring 30+ points a game was suffocated. The Cover 2, the same concept Lovie employs now has been a tried and true method in the NFL since the 1950s. Our personnel in 1999 was built for it, understood its responsibilities, and had been refined for four seasons under Tony Dungy.

If you are tempted to say that the tried and true method is dead, look 2,529 miles to the northwest. Pete Carroll in Seattle is doing the exact same things he did at USC, which is the exact same thing he did with the Jets in the 1980s. Find a whole lot of guys who can rush the passer, find some tall, man-press corners, get a QB who can make good decisions and run the ball with a bell-cow back.  It took a while to stockpile the talent that fit his scheme but after 4 seasons nearly 2/3rd of the roster was drafted by Carroll along with some choice free agent signings and trades to push him over the top. Or for those with a more historical bent, of the 94 NFL head coaches with more than 50 career wins; Marty Schottenheimer who has not had a new idea since Nixon was president ranks 6th with 200 wins. Nothing special about Marty Ball, just extremely refined and precise.

This Buccaneer turnaround is going to take time, and quite frankly a lot of it.  We have the wrong personnel to run the tried and true method Lovie wants to run. The reason we have the wrong personnel: those players simply were not available this off-season in the quantity we needed working with the resources we had. Nor will all of them be available next off-season if your ultimate goal is the Super Bowl. Examine our last Super Bowl roster, even if you look to just the All-Pros and Pro Bowlers from the 2002 season you are left with 7 key players (Lynch, Sapp, Brooks, Alstott, Barber, Rice & Johnson).  They were acquired from 1993-2001 (8 seasons) with 5 draftees, and two free agent signings.

If you look back to the 2007 NFL draft we have… well no one left from that draft, the same can be said of 2008 and 2009. It is not until the 2010 draft and Gerald McCoy that we have anybody left. Going beyond the superstars, Seattle has the right depth to run and play the way they want. It took 4 full seasons to build that level of depth. We still have several key deficiencies in virtually every major area, not necessarily for overall talent, but certainly not the talent the fits our new(old) scheme:

Defense with round pegs and square holes: Tampa Bay does not have the right depth or starters on defense.  Lovie has used Hardy Nickerson, Shelton Quarles, and Brian Urlacher successfully as his cover 2 middle linebacker. This is a position that requires a very good pass coverage skill set as their job is to remove the deep middle third of the field from the offense (otherwise the cover two would always get shredded). Mason Foster is a good run stuffing mike linebacker for Schiano, however he lacks the skill set to provide coverage support. Most cover two schemes rely more on the cornerback than the safety in terms of overall talent, yet clearly Barron and Goldson, acquired under the previous regime are splashier than Banks or Verner. Our strong-side backer Casillas is best used in a different scheme, again not providing much in the way of coverage skills or range.  The defensive line, outside of McCoy it is a collection of role-players coming well short of a Rice or McFarland to compliment McCoy.

That mess we call an offensive line: Our offensive line is and probably will be a considerable disaster area for the foreseeable future.  I take Sander's point well that it is not only a lack of talent but also of communication.  That said, we are chronically under-invested in the position.  Between the 155th pick of the 2009 NFL Draft when Mark Dominick took Xavier Fulton (his only offensive lineman drafted) and the 143rd pick of this year when we drafted drafted Kadeem Edwards 1,259 players were selected. In that span of picks, other NFL teams drafted 193 offensive lineman(6 per team, give or take) including 30 in the first round, while Tampa Bay selected zero.

Super Bowl champion Seattle took 5, runner up Denver took 7, previous Super Bowl winner Baltimore took 5, the previous winner, the Giants took 5. In my count I have not found a team that took less than 4 during that span. It is particularly noteworthy, because contrary to popular hyperbole, offensive linemen, by position, have the shortest NFL careers after only defensive backs. Most teams carry 8 active on gameday so they account for 17.4% of your 46 man active roster yet with issues both in the starting lineup and depth, under previous regimes our solution has been to try to go out and sign high-priced free agents(with high flameout rates) or dumpster dive the waiver wire.

The result is as sad as it is predictable, a flaming dumpster fire. This is one area of football where quality and quantity matters. You can sign Peyton Manning and have a passing game tomorrow, trade for Marshawn Lynch and you can run the ball, sign Vincent Jackson and get a deep ball #1 WR. However, finding 8 guys (because we know injuries happen) that can work together and have the talent to block the way you want them to block certainly won’t be done in one season.

Do we have a Field General: I really wish we had started our rebuilding under center with a quarterback. Knowing who our QB of the future is would give this team talent and direction. That said, I respect their (L&L’s) obvious opinion that that QB was not in this past draft. Apparently we did find a young-at-heart QB in Josh McCown and I say that because he’s demonstrated a propensity for rookie mistakes even despite his 12 years of NFL experience.

Mike Glennon will get a chance to impress the new coaching staff, but having watched him in college and last season, I’m less than optimistic. Having a clear direction at QB would go a long way towards establishing an identity. We would know what kind of support personnel the offense needs and could work on stockpiling that skill set. Getting it right at QB is another thing that sometimes takes time.

Harbaugh in San Francisco started with Alex Smith and groomed Kapernick before handing him the reigns. Pete Carroll used Tarvaris Jackson as a caretaker, and tried developing Charlie Whitehurst and Matt Flynn, before striking gold with Russell Wilson. Whatever you think of Joe Flacco, the Baltimore Ravens went through Kyle Boller, Steve McNair, and Troy Smith before getting to him. I guess if you can’t tie a knot, tie it a lot. I hope we don’t see that approach here in Tampa but until we have a direction under center that everyone inside One Buc Place is committed to, establishing the sort of offense we can be proud of is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Finding a QB, new offensive line pieces, a half-dozen starters on defense and depth virtually everywhere is going to take time. Licht could have been as good as Ted Thompson or Ozzie Newsome but one season, fixing this roster to work for all the changes Lovie Smith was going to make was simply not going to happen. We were and are short on draft picks, have money tied up in high priced free agents who don’t best fit the new scheme, and have several areas of past personnel under performance to fix in general.

Our "fan metrics" are simply wrong. Some days it is going to look downright ugly (like last Thursday) but contrary to popular opinion, the season is not over. The real judge of it all is do we look better the second four games than we did the first four, better the last eight than the first eight? That is how we’ll know if we are making progress. We cast off the MRSA last season, but in my opinion, if you were expecting playoff glory or some quick easy wins to start the season, you might as well be asking Lovie Smith to carve Thanksgiving Dinner with a butter knife. He has the wrong tool for the job so please be patient.