Crazy big is today’s NFL. Bucs head coach Bruce Arians continues to assemble big million-strong staff. What it will do to turn 5-11 into 11-5 remains to be seen, but it is not boring, at least not yet. Arians might not be done. In fact, there is a 1-in-4 chance that Arians hired you while you were sleeping.
Meanwhile, far from our Have Not, there are the remaining Haves, the Saints, Rams, Chiefs and Patriots, who on Sunday will play for conference championships, valuable cash prizes and a trip to Super Bowl LIII. There’s a lot the Bucs can learn from these four teams.
Coaching matters: It’s not a coincidence that Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Sean Payton and Sean McVay have their teams in this game. The Bucs seemed to finally get that bright idea by hiring Arians. He will not be in over his head. The same probably goes for his staff. These are grown coaches. “I’m a scared,” won’t be heard a lot. I’m more skeptical of this franchise’s ability to make the roster into what it needs to be. Arians can put pieces in the right place.
Defense matters: All we heard about all season was the new NFL, where offense rules. But the Bucs and their lousy defense don’t get off easy, because in the playoffs, defenses rise up. Belichick and the Patriots D were made for this time. The Rams have Aaron Donald, the presumptive defensive player of the year, and now a healthy Aqib Talib in time for New Orleans. The Saints defense has come a long way since the Bucs blew them out in the season opener. Even the Chiefs play good situational defense. It matters.
Running matters: As great as the Bucs’ vertical passing game was, they couldn’t run the ball and paid for it. Now, look at last weekend, the divisional playoff round. When the games get serious, so does ball control. Sony Michel, a late first-round pick by New England, ran for 129 yards and three TDs. Kansas City’s Damien Williams, once an undrafted free agent, also ran for 129 yards. The Rams ran the ball 48 times for 273 yards and three TDs against Dallas, including 115 yards from Todd Gurley, as expected, but 123 yards and two TDs from C.J. Anderson, who had been cut loose from three teams. But Bucs still GM Jason Licht and his staff can’t find a running game.
Drafts matter: There are guys on all these Final Four teams who were drafted out of nowhere. True, the Rams hit on future offensive and defensive stars Gurley and Aaron Donald in consecutive drafts, but they weren’t high picks. Gurley just made the top 10 and a lot of teams thought Donald was undersized. Remember when?
The Saints hit on Alvin Kamara and corner Marshon Lattimore (who had two picks against the Eagles). The Chiefs moved up in the first round of the 2017 draft to take a QB. Kid named Patrick Mahomes.
Then there are the Bucs. The last draft was an opportunity missed, with player after player who stood out. The Bucs couldn’t get one. They needed one, heck, they needed two, but didn’t get one, Vita Vea notwithstanding. And when the Bucs look at this next draft, which will be stacked on defense, they’re going to wonder why they didn’t stockpile more picks when they had a chance.
Pieces matter: The Saints added off-the-radar free agent linebacker Demario Davis, a fast, good tackler. In the middle of the season, New Orleans picked up cornerback Demario Davis. Then there are the Patriots, who picked up Cordarrelle Patterson, a first-round bust with Minnesota, and turned the kick returner (who returns kicks anymore?) into a jet sweep specialist. He even sometimes lines up at running back.
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Not resting on laurels matters: Not that this has anything to do with the Bucs, who have no recent laurels, but it’s still instructive. Learn from Kansas City, which blew up a successful team, a 10-win cinch under QB Alex Smith. Give Reid credit. He knew KC was good, but that it wasn’t going to win a Super Bowl. Now it has a chance, with Mahomes. Now it has a dynamic offense, not an efficient one.
The Patriots matter: You’re sick of hearing it, but everyone, not just the Bucs, can learn from New England. It’s more than Tom Brady. It’s way out ahead of everyone. On the Patriots, there are multiple roles, versatility. The Patriots are a great running team one week, a great passing team another week. The Patriots game plan to stop the run one week, game plan to stop the pass the next. Belichick brings in guys smart enough to turn on a dime, in one or two practices, to put in a system to beat the team they face next. Makes former Bucs DC Mike Smith’s static sets look prehistoric.
B.A. matters: Arians wasn’t born yesterday. He didn’t win in this league by avoiding education. He can teach, but he can learn, too. These Final Four teams are an open book, one worth looking poring over. Arians will probably do that as he puts the finishing touches on his staff.
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Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.