Every year, we get the chance to ask Football Outsiders’ analysts a bunch of questions about why they’re down on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and how they can justify not going along with the reigning optimism. The annoying thing about them is that their answers make sense, and they tend to be a lot more accurate than the more optimistic fans.
This year’s no different: Football Outsiders has been pretty skeptical of the Bucs’ playoff chances as well as their overall quality, while other third-party analysts are pretty optimistic.
So one of the answers I asked Andrew Potter, who wrote the Bucs chapter of this year’s 2017 Football Outsiders Almanac, was about that split between Football Outsiders and many other analysts—and the answer’s so long and involved that it deserves its own post, and a full quote.
Most analysts are fairly optimistic about the Bucs’ chances. Football Outsiders really hasn’t been, at least in your models. Can you explain where this disconnect comes from?
That’s the first question I asked myself too when writing the chapter! There’s a lot of different factors at play in answering this, so there’s no quick and easy reply. I’ll try to summarize what our model said as best I can.
Most analysts are affected by a degree of recency bias: they look at last year’s Bucs, with great defensive numbers throughout the second half of the season, adding DeSean Jackson in place of whatever set of crutches was trotted out at wide receiver alongside Mike Evans, with healthy running backs and a first-round tight end, and think it’s a sure thing that the Bucs will be better.
Our model sees a team that suddenly had one good half-season of pass defense after several years of mediocrity – and it really was a half-season: the pass defense’s worst seven games all came in Week 11 or earlier, whereas five of its best six came in Week 10 or later (the other was opening day, against Atlanta). We see a pass rush where the sack rate outperformed the pressure rate by a lot, when pressure rate is more consistent year-on-year than sack rate. We see that the unit also had well above-average health in 2016, and that opponents had an above-average number of turnovers. None of those factors on their own are especially massive, but all of them together suggest that the Bucs pass defense is a candidate to regress next year.
On offense, we see a line undergoing major reshuffling as a potential problem area, especially as it wasn’t great last year either. The pressure numbers on offense are the inverse of the defensive equivalent: Jameis Winston took a lot of hits and pressures but relatively few sacks, and our model doesn’t like that. (Subjectively, there are additional factors in play here: hits that Winston creates on himself by holding the ball instead of throwing it away, should-be-sacks that Winston escapes when other quarterbacks wouldn’t, and so on.) We see, again, a lot of turnovers – turnovers being more consistent on offense than defense, and something new receivers won’t necessarily fix. We see injury-prone, ineffective running backs, and an unsustainably high DVOA on screen passes to those backs. Again, it’s not just one thing, like say if Ben Roethlisberger had retired in Pittsburgh, but a combination of smaller factors that all add up.
Finally, the Bucs special teams are horrible. Roberto Aguayo grabs all the headlines for that, and his well-documented miscues have now led to his release, but he was far from the only problem. The kickoff team was passable, but the Bucs set a league record for lowest average kick return last year, and haven’t scored either a kick or punt return touchdown since 2010. Only an above-average performance by the punting unit kept them out of the bottom three in our special teams rankings for 2016. A lot of analysts forget about special teams when making their predictions, but they are an important part of the game – enough to make a difference in the win/loss column, especially for a team with playoff ambitions.
Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic for the Buccaneers – they have a good, young core with the likes of Winston, Mike Evans, Ali Marpet, Lavonte David, and Kwon Alexander. I’m a believer in both Chris Godwin and Jeremy McNichols. I love the aggressiveness of signing Jackson to give the young quarterback another top target, the resources devoted to the team’s biggest need at safety, and the addition of Chris Baker on the interior defensive line. That said, we’ve seen enough teams win the offseason every year and disappoint when the action starts – Jackson’s former employer used to be famous for it – to be wary of the hype until we see how all of those pieces actually fit together.