TAMPA — When it comes to plotting offensive strategy and formulating a game plan, there is a fine line between recognizing your weaknesses and running scared.
And the Bucs, you might have noticed, were last seen cowering in Cleveland.
This, my friends, is what a crisis of faith looks like.
Tom Brady doesn’t trust his offensive line, Todd Bowles doesn’t trust his quarterback and nobody trusts the offensive coordinator. The result? The Bucs are trying to avoid losses rather than grabbing victories.
How else are we to interpret what we saw — and the explanations we later heard — after Sunday’s overtime disaster against the Browns?
The Bucs had a chance to take a two-score lead in the fourth quarter but opted to punt while relatively deep in Cleveland territory. They had a chance to score at the end of regulation but opted to let precious seconds tick off the clock. They had a chance to open a two-game lead in the NFC South but opted to play it safe and hope for a lucky break in overtime.
Now, to be fair, there are legitimate reasons for reticence when it comes to trusting this offensive unit. Tampa Bay, after all, has taken a 40-percent cut in scoring from 2021 to 2022.
The offensive line was remade in the offseason, dinged in the preseason and is now pretty much decimated with Tristan Wirfs’ ankle injury. The offense also lost its greatest mismatch (Rob Gronkowski) along with its mastermind (Bruce Arians), and the unit’s average age can be measured in gray follicles.
But acknowledging shortcomings doesn’t mean you need to wave a white flag.
You just need to find a workaround. You need more imagination. Mostly, you need to give defenses something to worry about. And the Bucs have failed miserably in that sense.
If you were looking at Brady’s numbers and not watching the actual games, you might think Tampa Bay was having a fine offensive season.
His interception rate is the best of his life, and the second-best in NFL history. His completion percentage ranks among his top five seasons, while his sack percentage and yards-per-game are better than his career average, too.
So what’s the problem?
There is no danger. No fear. No swagger. There is no confidence that the Bucs are going to score when the game is on the line.
The Bucs are passing for more than 265 yards per game while averaging 18.2 points. Since the NFL merger in 1970, no team has ever thrown so much and scored so little.
And because the Bucs are flinging the ball around, they don’t think they’re being conservative. But all of those pass attempts are a false flag. The Bucs have just substituted swing passes and wide receiver screens for off-tackle runs. They do not push the ball down the field, and opposing defenses know it.
Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly that routes do not have a chance to develop. That’s a good thing in terms of avoiding sacks, but it also explains why Bucs receivers rarely seem to get separation.
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So why are the Bucs in this predicament?
It could be that Brady worries about staying healthy behind this offensive line and is taking it upon himself to dump the ball off quickly. It could be that Bowles prefers a low-risk passing game because he’s intent on winning with defense. It could be that offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich hasn’t adapted the game plan to the new reality of a less-talented roster.
Whatever the reasons, there is no faith in this offense.
And that’s why the Bucs behaved like a scared team Sunday in Cleveland.
They will never admit this publicly, but the coaches are putting all of their trust in the defense. You know this, because you’ve seen it before. This is the way the Bucs played back in 1999-2001. The difference is that that Tampa Bay defense was dominant, and the offense could at least crack 20 points a game.
Neither is true in 2022.
The idea that Bowles handcuffed the offense at the end of regulation because he was worried about Brady throwing an interception is almost incomprehensible. There may not be a better quarterback in NFL history than Brady when it comes to protecting the ball and finding a way to win.
And, even knowing that, Bowles still chose to put the game in the hands of his defense. He opted to take the 50/50 chance that the Bucs would win the coin toss in overtime.
Which leads to this basic query:
If the head coach has so little faith in his Hall of Fame quarterback, Pro Bowl receivers and offensive coordinator, then what are the rest of us supposed to believe in?
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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