Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan continues to learn new role

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TAMPA — Like any good boss, Bucs coach Greg Schiano not only has evaluated the performance of his players through the first four games, but his assistant coaches.

Near the top of that list: offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, a first-time play-caller charged with rebuilding a unit and rejuvenating a quarterback.

So how is this critical process coming?

"I think he's doing a good job," Schiano said. "I remember the first time I called defenses. You just get better and better. It's like anything else: The more you do it, the more comfortable you get with it. The thing that stands out already to me — and I'm on the headset with him (during games) — is that he's a lot cooler than a lot of guys I've been around that have called a lot of plays. I'm excited."

Any time a coach gets his first crack at calling plays, there's a learning curve. The pace and complexity can't easily be prepare for. And not every scenario can be anticipated, no matter how many hours coaches spend meeting or poring over film.

Thus, Sullivan, 45, is learning to be nimble. He spent last week's bye scrutinizing the offense's performance in certain scenarios as well as the success rate of plays — all part of achieving the comfort level addressed by Schiano. There was plenty to analyze as the Bucs entered Thursday 30th out of 32 teams in yards per game and 20th in points per game.

"There's always going to be opportunities to look back and wish you had a certain call back," Sullivan said. "You take a look at the play list and you say, 'Holy cow! I thought we would have called that more often.' Or 'Geez! We really called that an awful lot.'

"I think it's really just been a really valuable experience."

Based on his findings, Sullivan is making tweaks.

"If it's something that we can correct, then we've gone about the business of trying to make those corrections; whether it's technique or the way a play might be designed," he said. "Those things that maybe aren't salvageable, we've put on the back burner."

Schiano considered many factors when hiring Sullivan for his first staff. Among those were his experience working with coach Tom Coughlin for 10 seasons, both with the Jaguars and Giants. Sullivan also produced impressive results with Giants quarterback Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP. It didn't hurt that the former Army Ranger appears to be well-respected by his peers.

But none of that was indicative of his play-calling ability. For evidence of that, Schiano looked for certain traits.

"Certainly when you hire people, you look at their whole skill set," Schiano said. "I had great confidence, and I have great confidence in Mike. He's as bright, intelligent and disciplined a guy as I know. I think (because of) all those things, he's able to lead a unit."

The most important member of his current unit is quarterback Josh Freeman. In attempting to help him bounce back from a significant backward step in 2011, Sullivan also must cope with both being in new situations: Freeman in a new offense, Sullivan in a new role.

Compare their situation to other quarterbacks and play-callers with years of shared history. Bucs guard Carl Nicks, formerly of the Saints, remembers watching in awe as quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton effortlessly worked in tandem; practically finishing one another's sentences, Brees often anticipating Payton's play calls.

"We didn't even have to think about plays," Nicks said. "Right now our coaches and players are actually still getting a feel for each other. Once we get to the point where we're not even thinking and it becomes like one plus one, that's when we'll start to click."

Sullivan said he believes that's beginning to happen with his quarterback. An episode on the practice field this week reinforced those feelings.

"I was getting ready to make a correction, and (Freeman) said, 'I got it,' " Sullivan said. "I love it."

If Schiano was grading his coordinator, Sullivan might draw an incomplete. But Sullivan is moving forward with conviction and the backing of his coach. His next test comes Sunday against the Chiefs.

For now, Sullivan remains steadfast: "I think we're headed in the right direction."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow him on Twitter at @BucsBeat.

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