TAMPA — The Bucs are at a crossroads as they complete the bye week.
At 2-4, the next few games may determine if they’re a team that can climb back into some sort of contention or just a have-not which had a brief show of fireworks in Los Angeles against the Rams and then subsided back into obscurity.
Before the Bucs charter flight touched down last Monday after an eight and a half hour flight from London, coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht no doubt had already began formulating some kind of plan to right the ship.
So far, the only personnel moves include the no-brainer release of punt returner Bobo Wilson, who had two muffed punts against the Panthers, losing one, and was only averaging 2.8 yards per return.
They promoted former Michigan and Seahawks receiver Amara Darboh from the practice squad. They also signed outside linebacker Kazhin Daniels, center Anthony Fabiano, wide receiver Ishmael Hyman and running back Aca’Cedric Ware.
That’s not ground-breaking stuff. Either Scotty Miller, T.J. Logan, Breshad Perriman or Darboh could win that job, but they did nothing to take it from Wilson for six weeks, so how good are they?
The NFL trade deadline is Oct. 29, but it’s unlikely the Bucs would mortgage a first-round draft pick or two for players such as Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson or Redskins tackle Trent Williams for reasons we’ll get into later.
The good news is it appears outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul could be cleared to play at Tennessee.
So what should the Bucs had discussed during the bye week? Here’s just a few ideas:
Hold veteran players more accountable
Arians still is reeling from the six-turnover game he witnessed by quarterback Jameis Winston in the 37-26 loss to Carolina.
“If it happens again, yeah, it’ll concern the hell out of me,” Arians said.
But the Bucs have had nearly five years on the Winston rollercoaster. We’re nearly halfway through the season and Winston’s turnover-fest in Week 1 and Week 6 are inexcusable.
Yet what did you hear in the immediate aftermath? More coddling of the Bucs quarterback. While saying he should throw the ball away and three of the seven sacks were on Winston, Arians still went out of his way to blame at least one interceptions on Mike Evans and another on poor blocking, including the lack of blitz pickups by running backs.
While all of that may be true, other quarterbacks around the league have had receivers run poor routes and missed blocks. But no NFL quarterback has more turnovers since the start of 2015 than Winston.
That’s why Arians is here, the self-anointed “Quarterback Whisperer,” to salvage a No. 1 overall pick.
Unlike Tennessee, which is benching Marcus Mariota and turning to Ryan Tannehill, the Bucs aren’t about to bench Winston in favor of Ryan Griffin, who has never taken an NFL snap. Remember, they didn’t want Winston looking over his shoulder.
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But privately, after spending the spring and summer installing a new offense and trying to coach bad habits out of Winston, coaches are stunned at his lack of progress in that area.
Winston wants to be coached hard and there’s reason to believe offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen are doing that. But Winston can’t have another game like the stinker in London. Furthermore, it’s time to start acting like a fifth-year NFL quarterback instead of a rookie.
But don’t stop there. Guard Ali Marpet, left tackle Donovan Smith and even Ryan Jensen each had a hand in poor blocking vs. Carolina. When you’re missing two starters on the right side of the offensive line as they were in London, the other guys can’t have their worst game.
Get your best five receivers on the field
Arians’ offense, especially on passing sets, utilizes three receivers, one tight end and one running back. Chris Godwin leads the NFL in receiving yards (662 yards) and touchdowns (six). That’s because in this offense, the slot receiver gets the best matchups. It’s hard to use cloud coverage against him and he’s generally covered by the third best cornerback.
But the insistence of using a third wideout such as Miller, Wilson or Perriman (when he wasn’t injured) is ridiculous. The best pass catchers on this team are Evans, Godwin, Howard and Cameron Brate, who’s playing less than 30 percent of the offensive snaps.
Winston isn’t a pinpoint passer. He needs a big target with an expansive catch radius. Not diminutive players such as Miller or Wilson, especially on third down.
Reconfigure the offense to include both Brate and Howard along with Evans and Godwin and start getting them involved in the pass game. It took about six weeks to finally see a tight end screen to Howard that went for 25 yards and set up a TD vs. Carolina.
Brate is earning $7-million. Howard is a first-round pick. Both have drawn trade interest from other teams but so far, the Bucs have shown no interest in dealing them before the deadline.
It doesn’t matter what level of football you’re talking about, the best players should be on the field as much as possible.
Make Ronald Jones RB1
Does it matter which running back starts the game? Perhaps not. But isn’t the first possession one of the most important in the game? Why is Arians taking the football when he wins the coin toss rather than deferring as the analytics suggest you should do?
Peyton Barber is a serviceable running back. But he’s a 3.8 yard per carry guy for his career and owns a 3.5 average this season. He doesn’t have the speed to break big runs once he gets to the second level.
Jones is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has a 41 yard run this season. His catch percentage out the backfield is high. But the when the entire football team knows which running back should be getting 20-25 touches per game, there’s no reason to rely on Barber to get it started.
Shuffle the secondary
There has to be a reason why the Bucs used three more draft picks on defensive backs under Arians.
If the Bucs were so enamored with Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis, why are Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards here?
Hargreaves has made two memorable plays the first two games of the season. Since then, quarterbacks have attacked him in man coverage. Davis has the length, size and speed to give receivers a battle, but he’s still a clutch and grab guy with limited ball skills as evidenced by his zero career interceptions in 18 starts and 19 games.
The Bucs should consider moving Hargreaves to slot corner and trying Dean, Murphy-Bunting or even Ryan Smith outside at cornerback. When healthy, Edwards will be the starting safety. The Bucs are allowing 304.5 passing yards per game, the most in the NFL. C’mon now. That’s not all on the pass rush. The weird thing is the Bucs are first in the NFL against the run at 68 yards per game, so teams are one-dimensional.
Consider Arians calling plays
Arians believes in Leftwich and there’s a lot who believe he will soon be an NFL head coach. Very soon. It’s hard to determine how much is on the play-caller because the game plan is a collaborative effort.
But Arians was the play-caller in Arizona and Indianapolis, when he was the NFL Coach of the Year. This was one of the conditions Arians had before agreeing to come out of retirement. He wasn’t going to be the play-caller and he had to convince the Glazers Leftwich was ready. He may be. The Bucs are fifth in the NFL with 28.8 points per game. They’re 15th in total offense.
But there’s some disconnect. Not enough first down passes. Not a high enough percentage of completions. Poor utilization of the tight end position, which is a strength. It’s something to watch.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud.