To be playoff contenders, the Buccaneers need more than Bruce Arians. Here’s the proof.

“What a fool believes, he sees.” — Michael McDonald
From 2013 to 2017, Bruce Arians' Cardinals teams won 66 percent of their games decided by one score, the third-best rate. [Associated Press]
From 2013 to 2017, Bruce Arians' Cardinals teams won 66 percent of their games decided by one score, the third-best rate. [Associated Press]
Published January 17
Updated January 18

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that it is one.

One of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ greatest faults is that they often skip that step.

They believed, for example, that their disappointing 2017 season was partly a function of bad luck.

“We have to figure out a way to win,” coach Dirk Koetter said.

“We didn’t close out games well,” general manager Jason Licht said.

“It was just one of those seasons where things didn’t go our way,” co-chairman Joel Glazer said.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is denial. It’s like scoring poorly on an exam and refusing to accept that there might have been a flaw in your preparation.

In 2017, the Bucs played 10 games in which the margin of victory came down to one score (eight or fewer points). No team played in more close games.

They won three of them.

A catch here, a play there? A kick here, a kick there? A bounce here, a bounce there?

That’s what the Bucs thought, that things would balance out.

Things didn’t.

They played 11 one-score games this season.

They won four of them.

This was a theme in Koetter’s three seasons as the Bucs coach. Since 2016, Tampa Bay has played in an NFL-high 31 one-score games. Its .419 win percentage ranks 25th.

One might conclude that’s a sign of bad coaching, of a coach who doesn’t know how to win or how to get the most out of his players.

Compare Koetter’s record with new coach Bruce Arians’ record. During Arians’ five seasons in Arizona (2013 to 2017), his Cardinals teams played in 37 one-score games, an average amount. They won two-thirds of them. Their .662 win percentage ranked third, behind only the Panthers (.679) and Patriots (.676).

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So there you have it. One coach succeeded in close games; the other failed. The talent must have been here all along. Koetter and his staff were in over their heads. Right?

Not so fast.

What if win percentage in one-score games is an imperfect way of evaluating coaches? What if we’re looking at that data and drawing the wrong conclusions?

Guess which team has had the best win percentage in one-score games over the past three seasons.

The Patriots?

Nope. They rank third.

The Steelers?

Nope. They rank fourth.

The Eagles?

Nope. They rank 23rd, only slightly higher than the Bucs.

How about the Dolphins?

Ding!

That’s right. Miami — Miami! — has won 20 of their past 26.

And Dolphins coach Adam Gase? He was fired the day after the end of the regular season.

This isn’t to say outcomes in close games are random. Good teams tend to win more of them. But there are outliers.

In any given season, a team can be unusually effective or ineffective. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s “due” to improve or decline the next season. That’s the gambler’s fallacy.

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Back to Arians for a moment. Just because he won a lot of close games in Arizona doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly start losing them in Tampa Bay. It also doesn’t mean that he’ll enjoy the same rate of success. A reasonable expectation? That the Bucs, in the long run, will be average in one-score games. In other words, they’ll regress to the mean.

Several teams experienced just that this season. A few examples:

• In 2017, the Panthers went 8-1 in one-score games. In 2018, they went 3-7.

• In 2017, the Steelers went 8-2. In 2018, they went 6-5-1.

• In 2017, the Browns went 0-6. In 2018, they went 5-4-1.

• In 2017, the Texans went 1-5. In 2018, they went 6-5.

Record in one-score games, 2017 vs. 2018
Team 2017 2018
Panthers 8-1 3-7
Steelers 8-2 6-5-1
Cardinals 6-2 2-4
Bills 6-2 3-3
Packers 6-2 3-6-1
Bucs 3-7 4-7
Bears 2-6 6-4
Texans 1-5 6-5
Browns 0-6 5-4-1

A better measure of the quality of a team is how often they win (or lose) games by nine or more points. In fact, Super Bowl contestants are almost always among the league leaders in this department. Take, for instance, this season’s Saints, Patriots, Chiefs and Rams. They each won at least seven such games.

Recent Super Bowl contestants and their regular-season wins by nine or more points
Season Champion Wins (rank) Runner-up Wins (rank)
2017 Eagles 8 (2nd) Patriots 8 (2nd)
2016 Patriots 10 (1st) Falcons 7 (2nd)
2015 Broncos 3 (14th) Panthers 8 (1st)
2014 Patriots 9 (1st) Seahawks 9 (1st)
2013 Seahawks 8 (3rd) Broncos 10 (1st)

Koetter’s Bucs? They won six in three seasons, tied for fifth fewest. Gases’ Dolphins? Only three, which explains why Coach Crazy Eyes has been banished to New York to help the Jets cycle between third and fourth place in the AFC East for the next few seasons.

As it turns out, the Bucs’ problem hasn’t been a lack of luck. No, their problem has been that they haven’t built good teams. Good teams don’t just squeak past the bad teams; they dominate them. Too often over the past few seasons, Tampa Bay has been on the wrong side of that equation.

At Arians’ introductory new conference last week, he said, “I think we have the core here to win quickly.”

He might have more work to do than he realizes.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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