TAMPA — For the better part of three months, we have picked at the carcass of the Bucs offense.
It fell prey, we assumed, to a lack of Bruce Arians and a shortage of Rob Gronkowski. It suffered from a weakened offensive line and an absence of imagination.
And, as the highlights and celebrations faded by the week, it felt as if hope would eventually disappear, too.
But what if the offense’s demise was premature? What if, as Miracle Max famously taught in The Princess Bride, the offense was just mostly dead?
What if, as the weather begins to turn cold, the offense has just enough heartbeat to survive into late January?
It’s possible, you know. There is still a lot of talent, and there is still a little time. The current offense is not going to revert back to the glory days of 2020-21, but it could combine with a stout defense to enable Tampa Bay to create a nice little stack of victories.
As players such as Julio Jones get healthier and a plan of attack crystalizes, what can we reasonably expect from the Bucs offense in the final seven games of the season?
“That’s a good question,” receiver Chris Godwin said this week. “The biggest thing is that everything in this game takes time. It takes time to build chemistry, it takes time to develop your identity, right? The last two years we were just clicking. So people were still expecting that. But we’re a different team. So, now, we just have to figure out how to win some games.
“Sometimes, it might be ugly. Sometimes, it might be a challenge to score points. But, whatever the challenge is, we have to step up and execute. Sure, everyone wants to go out and score 50 points a game, but the reality is we have to do whatever we can to make sure we win the game.”
Challenge is an appropriate word. This offense clearly has its challenges. The running game has been elusive. The passing game has struggled to produce explosive plays. The red zone has been a mess.
In Tampa Bay’s first 39 games with Tom Brady at quarterback, the Bucs were held to 21 points or fewer just five times. In 10 games this season, they already have scored 21 or fewer eight times. To get an idea of how rare that is, the last time a Brady-led offense had so many low-scoring efforts, he was 24 years old.
But there’s a caveat to all of those struggles. While the Bucs have had trouble putting points on the board, they have done an outstanding job of avoiding calamity. Brady doesn’t get sacked a lot, and he’s got the lowest interception rate — by far — in the NFL.
The offense rarely puts the defense in a bad situation, and that’s helped keep the Bucs within distance of winning just about every game. They have gone from a team with a no-risk-it, no-biscuit persona under Arians, to a team that is content to play low-scoring affairs.
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Tampa Bay is 5-1 (.833) when scoring between 16 and 21 points, which is remarkably efficient. The rest of the NFL is 32-58 (.356) when scoring in that range.
“Of course, we’re always trying to score, be it in the air or on the ground,” head coach Todd Bowles said. “We want to try to get back to how many points we were scoring (last year) but things have changed and we just have to approach it differently. But we’re expecting to score a lot more points than we scored in the first half of the season.”
And how will they do that?
“Schematically, we’ve changed some things to help people, and certain people have gotten healthy,” Bowles said. “So, it’s just coming together all at the same time.”
None of this means fireworks are on the way. The Bucs played their most complete offensive game of the season against Seattle in Germany, and still only scored 21 points.
But that game provided a blueprint for the Bucs to follow heading into the home stretch. They ran the ball more, which took pressure off Brady and the passing game.
He had his fewest passing attempts since the season opener, but the threat of the run allowed him to throw downfield more. That means he gained more yards per attempt than in any game in the past 12 months.
“I think the group is getting better,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “Sometimes, it takes time. Especially when it’s in-season.”
Is the offense capable of doing what it did in 2020 or 2021? Not by a long shot. But can it improve enough to make some noise in December and January?
Let’s put it this way:
The Bucs still have a pulse.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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