Fans aren’t the only ones scrutinizing Byron Leftwich’s play-calling

With 45-year-old Tom Brady under center, coaches also bemoan the Bucs’ lack of run plays.
Published Nov. 5, 2022|Updated Nov. 5, 2022

TAMPA — Byron Leftwich is being doubted by Bucs fans from Palmetto to Palm Harbor and from St. Cloud to St. Petersburg.

Is some of that disillusionment about the offensive coordinator spreading to the offices at the AdventHealth Training Center?

It’s not that the Bucs are only averaging 18.3 points per game, which ranks 25th in the league.

Part of the problem, a shared belief by members of the coaching staff, is that they shouldn’t be last in rushing attempts at 20.4 per game.

In the 27-22 loss to the Ravens on Oct. 27, they ran the football effectively five times on the opening drive, including a 1-yard touchdown by Leonard Fournette.

But despite leading at halftime and not trailing until late in the third quarter, the Bucs only attempted 10 more rushing plays.

Since the arrival of Bruce Arians as head coach in 2019, a staple of the offense has been a inside run called 22 or 23 Double. It is a double-team block that often enables the running back to reach the second level of the defense.

The Bucs used it to crease the Eagles in a 31-15 win in last year’s wild-card playoff game.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn (21) takes a handoff from quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the first quarter against the Eagles last season, when the Bucs seemed to implement running plays more consistently into the offense.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn (21) takes a handoff from quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the first quarter against the Eagles last season, when the Bucs seemed to implement running plays more consistently into the offense. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Fournette missed that game with a hamstring injury, so things fell to Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard. On the first play from scrimmage, Vaughn ripped off a 17-yard gain.

“It’s in there. I can’t control what the play-caller calls,” said Bucs assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin. “But it’s in there every week. It’s basically our base play. You start with that to create everything you do in the run game, from play-action passes to what we’re doing running-wise.

“We have it in there. We have a lot of runs. It’s just whether we get to them or not. It’s how the play-caller is feeling. It’s my favorite play by far because we’ve have a lot of success with it. It just depends on whether Byron is feeling like calling it that day or not. I can’t control that.”

Even Bucs head coach Todd Bowles lamented the season-low rushing attempts against the Ravens.

“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping tabs with that, especially when the game is within reach,” Bowles said.

Limited time to shine

For his part, Leftwich doesn’t seem to care if Tom Brady throws the football on every down so long as the Bucs score points. The problem is, they’re not.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“I never count runs,” Leftwich said. “I think you’ve got to score points, and however you get to runs … I see certain passes as runs. I see everything as a way to get rushing yardage. ... I don’t think you need to run it this certain amount to win or pass it this certain amount to win. We’re always trying to do whatever we need to do, or feel as though we need to do, to win that football game that day.”

Leftwich’s current plan, which would have his 45-year-old quarterback on pace to lead the NFL with a career-high 722.5 pass attempts, has produced just a 3-5 record. Bowles admits that’s never been his plan.

“Not for a 45-year-old man, no,” Bowles said. “We’ll make some adjustments that way.”

And when they do run, are the Bucs using the wrong running back on the bulk of the carries?

Are the Bucs getting the ball to rookie running back Rachaad White enough?
Are the Bucs getting the ball to rookie running back Rachaad White enough? [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

In the offseason, Fournette was an unrestricted free agent who the Bucs had shown only moderate interest in re-signing. Then Brady came out of retirement and texted Fournette when he was visiting the Patriots: “What’s your a-- doing up there, man?”

Fournette rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries in the season-opening win at Dallas (6.05-yard average). Since then, he has run 91 times for 259 yards, or 2.84 yards per carry. In the last two games, rookie Rachaad White has been the better back with 10 carries for 43 yards.

“I think we did a decent job in the first half (against the Ravens),” Goodwin said. “The second half maybe, (five) total. I can’t control that. The players can’t control that. If you get the opportunities, make more of them because you don’t know how many you are going to get.

“Guys are trying their a-- off. Yeah, we screw some things up sometimes. A guy may get beat. But for the most part, guys are where they need to be. We just need to win those matchups and ... when we get those opportunities, make sure you’re getting the job done so Byron feels more confident to call more.”

Passive plays

Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich observes players during pregame warmups before facing the Ravens.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich observes players during pregame warmups before facing the Ravens. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The play-action passing game also has been seldom used this season.

Leftwich says because the Bucs are so bad at running the football, with a league-worst 3.0 yards per carry, defenses won’t honor the play-action fakes.

“There’s no such thing as play-action pass without running it (well) enough for it to be true,” he said. “We’ve got to play better across the board. We can run it better. I can call it better. ... That’s really how we look at it. ...

“(Play-actions) come off how well you’re running the ball. It’s always been. Or you’re just wasting time doing a (play-action). It won’t do the job that you’re setting out for it to do.”

The numbers tell a different story.

The Bucs have attempted 42 passes off play-action out of a league-high 340 attempts. That’s fourth-fewest play-action passes in the NFL. But the total quarterback rating, which measures the impact of passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties, is 85.6 when Brady uses play-action, fourth best in the league. He is ranked 17th in quarterback rating otherwise. Moreover, Brady averages 8.48 yards per attempt on play-action (eighth best) as opposed to 6.7 yards per attempt on all passes.

Another possibility is that Brady doesn’t trust his protection. Unless it’s out of the shotgun, play-action would require him to turn his back to the defense and execute the run fake before snapping his head around.

Goodwin spent the mini-break evaluating everything about the run game. While it has been far from perfect, he insists there just has not been enough emphasis on it.

“I looked at everything in the run game, from a call standpoint, formation standpoint and just kind of double-checked to see what was good and what was bad,” Goodwin said. “A lot of the stuff we had in there we’ve just got to get to. Last year, we had two backs I think over 4 yards a carry and now we’re somewhere at the bottom of the league in attempts. This is just how it’s going right now.”

Bowles doesn’t think the onus is on Leftwich, but knows something has to change.

“It’s about more than Byron,” Bowles said. “Obviously, we get in situations where we get behind some. But certain situations, we’ve got to run the football better. We’re not going to advertise it. We’ve got work to do to fit it in our offensive scheme. We’re comfortable there as far as understanding what we have to do and we’ll make sure we get that done.”

• • •

Sign up for the Bucs RedZone newsletter to get updates and analysis on the latest team and NFL news from Bucs beat writer Joey Knight.

Never miss out on the latest with the Bucs, Rays, Lightning, Florida college sports and more. Follow our Tampa Bay Times sports team on Twitter and Facebook.