Analysis

Not Even Tom Brady Can Overcome Buccaneers’ Play-Calling Issues

In a season of surprises, there might not be a more mystifying team in the NFL than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have fallen well short of preseason expectations.

I worked with Todd Bowles two decades ago in Philadelphia when he was the Eagles’ defensive backs coach and interim defensive coordinator. I like him. He got a rare second chance with the Buccaneers to be a head coach, with a really good roster and a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

We know Bowles is an outstanding defensive-minded coach. However, it’s the Buccaneers’ offense that looks hardest to fix. 

The Buccaneers have been hurt by injuries along their offensive line, inconsistent play by their wide receivers, and Tom Brady’s performance this season. Still, the coaching staff has made major alterations to what has worked well in the past.

Coming into the season, the common belief was, “Well, they’re keeping the same offensive coordinator, same quarterback and largely the same skill players. They should be fine.” But they’ve gone from an aggressive, offensive-minded coach in Bruce Arians to a pretty conservative, defensive-minded coach in Bowles.

The impact a head coach has on an offense can be underestimated. Core team philosophy impacts play calls coordinators end up making. Fans rarely see how much coordinators are affected by the head coach in charge. You watch coordinators move around from team to team, and they have completely different results. 

In the Buccaneers’ case, they have the same offensive cast from last year, yet we’re witnessing a completely different strategy in terms of play-calling. That’s likely because Bowles is dictating to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich he likes running the ball on first down to get to reasonable down-and-distances on second and third down. Leftwich’s job is to get that done. That’s what coordinators do.

Buccaneers’ Run Game Puts Them Behind

The Buccaneers went from passing the ball on first down in the first half of games 56% of the time last year to 51% through 14 games this year. Even though it might not sound like a lot, that is a significant difference during a 17-game season. 

First Half Offense
Category 2021-22 2022-23
Rank Rank
1st Down – Pass Rate 56.0% 3rd 51.3% 11th
% of Rushes with Zero or Negative Yards 12.6% 1st 23.6% 27th
2nd Down – Distance to 1st Down 7.1 1st 7.6 14th
Average Points Scored 15.41 2nd 7.46 31st
1st Down – Yards per Rush 4.8 6th 3.2 32nd
Average Yards per Pass Attempt 7.41 9th 6.89 19th

 

Second Half Offense
Category 2021-22 2022-23
Rank Rank
1st Down – Pass Rate 50.0% 14th 62.0% 1st
% of Rushes with Zero or Negative Yards 24.4% 32nd 25.0% 27th
2nd Down – Distance to 1st Down 7.3 4th 7.5 24th
Average Points Scored 14.29 4th 9.77 23rd
1st Down – Yards per Rush 4.3 14th 3.8 24th
Average Yards per Pass Attempt 7.31 14th 5.73 32nd

Tampa is averaging 3.2 yards per rush on first down this year compared to 4.8 in 2021, putting them more than a yard and a half further away from picking up a first down every time they run. That’s an astounding 40% decline, which clearly has impacted their offensive performance in a meaningful way.

Think about that. They’re running more on first down in the first half of games this year and getting fewer yards per play when they do. So what does that tell you? The first-down runs are not working because opponents know they’re coming. Last season, when the Buccaneers were running less, they were gaining more. With their current strategy, they’re hurting their running game significantly and putting the quarterback in a far less advantageous second-down situation.

In the first half of games this season, the Buccaneers have gone from averaging 15.4 points in 2021 to 7.4 in 2022.

Does coaching explain everything going on in Tampa? Absolutely not. The offensive line injuries have hurt the Buccaneers badly, their wide receiver play is down due to both injuries and inconsistency, and Brady is missing more throws than ever before. But the team’s offensive strategy is also having a big impact.

Running on first down is supposed to leave you with manageable distances on second and third down. However, due to the ineffectiveness of their run game, it’s leading to much worse down and distances.

Coaches talk about putting players in the best position to succeed, but when you’re consistently running more for fewer yards and you keep doing it, you’re setting up longer and longer second and third downs for your quarterback. Even Brady can’t overcome that type of inefficient play-calling.

The second-half numbers are even more compelling. Because the Buccaneers are falling behind in most games, they’re forced to pass a league-high 62% of their first-down plays in the second half of games. Last season, they only threw the ball 50% of the time on second-half first downs because they were often playing with a lead.

Even though they may still win their division, clearly the Buccaneers aren’t who we thought they would be this season. The early play-calling is causing them to fall behind, which forces the need to pass a ton in the second half. This has a big impact on teams not achieving their potential – and we see it all too often. 

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