Are the Bucs a throwback? Or will they be thrown back?

John Romano | Tampa Bay is atop the NFC South playing low-scoring, defensive-minded games reminiscent of the 1970s NFL. Can it last?
Published Dec. 6, 2022|Updated Dec. 10, 2022

TAMPA — Turns out, the Bucs have discovered a formula for winning. An unusual, illogical, nerve-wracking, potentially unsustainable formula for winning.

Can I get a WHOO-HOO!?

Yes, it’s December and the Bucs are still alive. In fact, you could make the case that they are thriving in the NFC South. The Bucs may be 3-5 outside of the South, but they have mostly beaten the snot out of their pitiful division mates.

Tampa Bay is only 6-6 overall but has a larger division lead than Buffalo or San Francisco or Baltimore or Cincinnati and all their splashy records.

So what is Tampa Bay’s secret, besides shacking up in the league’s low-rent division?

The Bucs have found their sweet spot by scoring between 16 and 21 points most weeks. They’ve topped 22 points only once in the entire season, but they also have avoided scoring less than 16 in most weeks.

They’ve stayed away from turnovers, they’ve won the field position battle and they’ve played mostly great defense. In other words, they are doing just enough — BARELY ENOUGH — on offense to stay afloat.

Here’s what I mean:

Tampa Bay is 6-2 when scoring between 16 and 21 points. That’s a .750 winning percentage which, frankly, deserves a standing ovation. The rest of the NFL is 35-66-4 when scoring in that range, which translates to a .352 winning percentage.

It’s not hard to spot the difference, right? The Bucs are more than twice as successful as the other 31 teams when falling in that 16-21 point window.

Maybe that’s luck. Maybe that’s the benefit of playing a steady diet of woeful opponents. Or maybe that’s partially by design with a head coach who is defensive-minded and has a beat-up, aging offense.

The question is whether the Bucs can continue to succeed while living on that razor’s edge.

“In the NFL, you’re not going to blow a lot of people out,” head coach Todd Bowles said on Tuesday. “We won a lot of close games when we won the Super Bowl, as well. Every year, it’s going to come down to a score or two. You’ve just got to (pay attention to) details and win the ballgame.

“If you win enough of them consistently, they’ll start turning into larger (margins) when the confidence grows. But it’s going to be a dogfight every week from here on out.”

It’s true the Bucs won a handful of close games during their Super Bowl run in 2020, but they also blew out a lot of opponents. They won seven games by two touchdowns or more. The last time — the only time — these Bucs have won by 14 points or more was the season opener against Dallas.

The last four victories have been by 1, 5, 3 and 6 points.

Of course, it helps when you have Tom Brady in your huddle. The Bucs are 13-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less since Brady arrived. He’s had 11 game-winning drives in his three years in Tampa Bay, which is more than he had in his last six seasons in New England.

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You don’t want to count on a quarterback that much. You do not want to turn the fourth quarter into a coin-flip too often. But that’s who the Bucs are today.

The offensive line is not good enough to dominate, and the receiving corps has been surprisingly inefficient at creating mismatches in the secondary.

Over the next five weeks, the Bucs will face three teams with losing records and a fourth team with a third-string quarterback. Each one of those games is winnable. And, based on the way the Bucs have played this season, all five games are also losable.

To be fair, this isn’t a new formula. Teams used to win this type of game all the time in the 1970s. But in the last 20 years, the 2016 Giants are the only team to have won as many as six games while scoring 21 points or less. That makes the Bucs an anomaly in today’s NFL. It means their margin for error is slim.

But it doesn’t mean they can’t succeed.

“Everybody leans on each other,” said defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches. “We had hiccups on special teams? The offense came out and gave us a drive. We had turnovers? The defense had to hold up. So it’s complementary pieces everywhere on the field, never looking at one guy and saying, ‘Oh you could have done this.’ No. It’s, ‘What can I do better?’ Everybody just takes it upon themselves.

“And look at what we did. Overcome and find a way. Great teams always find a way.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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