TAMPA – For six minutes, the running game was perfect.
The starters were in, the holes were visible and the potential was evident against Pittsburgh Friday night. It only lasted one drive, but the first drive is the one that matters in the preseason opener.
So feel free to be hopeful. And to be excited.
Also, to be wary.
There is a world of distance between August and September in the NFL, especially for a franchise that could get a patent for the 3-yard gain.
The truth is, the preponderance of evidence remains weighted against the Buccaneers running game. That would include their personnel, their track record and, even, their new coaching staff.
Head coach Bruce Arians has been emphatic the ground game will be solid in 2019, but Tampa Bay has been running in place for so long it’s hard to see beyond second-and-7.
Can Peyton Barber be a true workhorse? Can Ronald Jones have a breakout season? Can Arians’ offense be career-changing for either back? Yup, it’s possible on all three counts.
But here’s what you need to keep in mind:
Four of the five starters on the offensive line are the same as last season when the Bucs were 29th in the NFL in rushing yards and 30th in yards per carry.
And that was no fluke because Tampa Bay is the only team in the league to have averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in each of the last three seasons.
And during four of Arians’ five seasons as a head coach in Arizona, the Cardinals were in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing yardage.
There’s not a whole lot of cheerfulness in any of those sentences.
Perhaps the best reason for optimism is the Bucs do not have much choice. They absolutely have to run the ball better if they want to be in the playoff conversation come December.
Arians was hired to help Jameis Winston finally make the transition from a guy who throws for a lot of yards to a quarterback who wins games, and one of the quickest ways to do that is to give him a complementary running game. It keeps defenses honest, and lessens the need to throw a ton of passes while chasing the scoreboard in the second half.
“That’s what we’re striving for, we’re trying to get as much possession time as we can. Obviously, it’s hard to win any games when you’re not able to run the ball,’’ said running game coordinator Harold Goodwin. “Everybody knows today’s NFL is a little different from the old-school league we remember. But we’re going to do everything we can to help Jameis and keep that pressure off him.
“Bruce wants efficiency. If it’s first-and-10, we want four yards. If it’s second-and-1 or third-and-1, we want the first down. Friday night we fell a little short. We were at 48 percent efficiency and we need to be over 50 percent. That’s what we’re working for.’’
It’s a quarterback’s league today. No doubt about that. They get drafted high, they make the big money, they control the pace and, often, the outcome of a game.
But just because it seems like passing records are falling every season, do not assume the running game is an outdated notion in today’s NFL.
Look at the 10 teams that ran the ball the most in 2018. Eight of them reached the playoffs. Now look at the 10 teams that threw the ball the most. Only three made the playoffs.
The running game not only keeps a team’s defense off the field – which is critical considering how much the Bucs struggled defensively in 2018 – but it sets up the play-action passing game. If you have success running out of certain formations, you can lull the defense into cheating closer to the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a huge, huge part of our offense, and you can’t have the play-action pass if you can’t run the ball,’’ Arians said. “They go hand-in-hand. It’s the easy way to protect, it’s the easy way to get the ball way down the field.’’
The question is how do you take the same running backs, and nearly the same offensive line, and transform it into something new?
“We just have to keep harping on how important it is to run the ball. The foundation was laid last year … so I’m just trying to add on and get a little more out of them,’’ Goodwin said. “What I want to see on running plays is 10 guys who are willing to block. That’s where you’ll see success.’’
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow @romano_tbtimes.