Todd Bowles took over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and what seemed like a Super Bowl roster. On paper, Tampa got Tom Brady back out of retirement, re-signed key pieces that they were on the cusp of losing to free agency, and positioned themselves for a third consecutive year of highly competitive football.
One of the issues Bowles faces is although this is his team, the games being played still feel as if they are an extension of the Bruce Arians era. Bruce Arians retired from coaching but, for the most part, this is still the team that he and Jason Licht built. A rebuild that dates back to 2019 when Todd Bowles was just a defensive coordinator watching the team’s quarterback, Jameis Winston, enter his own 30/30 club. Further adding to the unorthodox nature of the transition, despite being in retirement, Arians’ presence is still felt and even seen, see New Orleans week two. With the general feeling being that he took over a ready-made roster Bowles, now as a head coach, has to deal with unreasonable expectations and a standard which most head coaches would not be held to in their first year on the job. “It’s Super Bowl or nothing,” -Devin White, back in May.
The good news for Todd Bowles is the team is extremely talented, with a roster from top to bottom that is as deep as the Atlantic, they are able to shift and put players in different positions and still see success. The bad news is when the expectation, in your first at bat, is a grand slam it becomes a little more difficult to change your batting stance. The team has attempted to take on a new identity with their new coach. The Buccaneers have shown that they want to run the football on offense, a style of play far off base from what we saw in the Bruce Arians ‘no risk no biscuit’ methodology. Todd Bowles faces a difficult dynamic though because while he may be attempting to alter the identity and concept of the team, Tampa's roster was not built by him nor built to play that way. He is also dealing with a fanbase and an organization that can feel the pressure of a championship window still cracked slightly open but closing, which is not prone to manifesting patience.
Through the first five weeks of the 2021 season Leonard Fournette had 56 carries and 19 catches. The Buccaneers are now five games into the 2022 season and Fournette has run the ball 74 times and caught the ball another 26, an even 100 touches through five games compared to his 75 touches in as many from a season ago. To further emphasize the disparity of those numbers, if we were to calculate his projected totals just off the first five games over a 17 game season, 2021 Leonard Fournette would have ended the season with 255 total touches. 2022 Leonard Fournette is on pace to touch the ball 340 times. The offense has done all it can to recalibrate its focal point, shifting focus to utilizing Leonard Fournette in a more substantial role.
This season, Tampa Bay has only fully abandoned the run game in one contest. When the Kansas City Chiefs came to Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers only gave Leonard Fournette three rushing attempts. In a conceivably detrimental turn of events for the installation of the team’s newfound philosophy, week four versus the Chiefs was the only game where Fournette had less than 15 touches and was actually Tampa’s most functional game on offense, so far this season. The Buccaneers scored 31 points with Tom Brady throwing three touchdown passes and almost 400 yards. A lot of this can, of course, be attributed to the score and feel of the game as well as the team they were matched up against. Tampa Bay spent the entire game playing from behind and their defense was being thoroughly outplayed by Patrick Mahomes on the other side, likely altering strategy and play calling throughout the game.
Now that we’re in the pool, if we were to take a deeper dive into this season’s full game-by-game stats they show that the Bucs may have already stumbled onto their identity unwittingly. The Atlanta Falcons, who Tampa Bay played in week five, do not have a remarkable run defense. For a good portion of the game, Tampa was in control, with a sound lead and even still, Leonard Fournette rushed for just 69 yards while the Buccaneers chose to drop Tom Brady back to attempt 52 passes. This is only the second time all season that Brady has thrown over 50 times in a game (Kansas City, 52). At its bottommost point, our deeper dive reveals that Tom Brady’s passing attempts per game have actually increased steadily each week, crescendoing at 52 in each of the Buccaneers’ last two games. Coinciding with this, the last two weeks have been Tampa Bay’s highest scoring outputs of the season, while simultaneously, Leonard Fournette hasn’t seen over 20 carries in a game since week two. The Bucs’ pattern of play calling has gone from run, run, run, to run, run, pass and now has become run, pass (to Lenny), pass.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 2022 may have wanted to come into the season playing a certain way, but that does not mean that that style is sustainable. Todd Bowles has the unenviable task of taking over a team with Super Bowl expectations in his first year, coaching a roster that is accustomed to playing high-level football a certain way, and trying to invert what has already been deeply ingrained, while still competing for a championship.
This offseason the Buccaneers signed up for one more go around with Tom Brady, while of course there have been injuries on the offensive line and across all of the offensive skill positions, sometimes the ball just needs to be in the hands of your best player. If the pattern of play calling were to remain what it was at the season’s start it comes off as a statement that the offense’s best player is Leonard Fournette. The running back is talented and the ground game has shown flashes this season but he and it have to operate behind the same offensive line as Tom Brady and the passing game, navigating the same difficulties.
This prompts a very simple question, who can navigate these issues more successfully: A. The very good running back in Tampa Bay? Or B. The Hall of Fame quarterback in Tampa Bay? The Buccaneers’ game planning, at the onset of the year, would lead spectators to believe the Bucs answered with A. The very good running back or that perhaps over confidence led them to a third option C. All of the above, however, the steady climb in Tom Brady’s passing numbers coupled with his season high in attempts coming in each of the last two weeks may be an indication that the Buccaneers have just learned the hard way that the answer is B. The Hall of Fame quarterback.