What’s the hang-up? Bruce Arians still expects Bucs to produce a banner year

The former head coach is bullish on the team winning only the eighth division title in club history this season.
Published Dec. 21, 2022|Updated Dec. 24, 2022

TAMPA — Three games are left in the Bucs’ regular season and already fans are lowering expectations when, by January, the team could be raising another banner as NFC South champion.

“How many banners have we hung?” asked former coach Bruce Arians, now the team’s senior adviser to general manager Jason Licht. “Your job as a head coach is to hang a division banner. This team is just finding itself. So many injuries and swapping personnel.

“I think (coach) Todd (Bowles) has done a great job. Once you win the division, then let’s go play. How many Super Bowls can you get out of it? The present isn’t as bright as the future, but the future will be real bright in a few weeks.”

For the record, the Bucs have won their division — be it the NFC Central or NFC South — only seven times in the 46 previous seasons.

Even at 6-8 this season, they have a one-game lead in the South with games at the Cardinals on Sunday night, home against the Panthers on New Year’s Day and at the Falcons on Jan. 8.

Arians won Super Bowl 55 as the Bucs coach two seasons ago before stepping aside March 30 to let Bowles take over. He flew to Arizona with his wife Thursday to spend Christmas with his son, Jake; daughter, Kristi; and his four grandchildren. The family will fly back together next week to attend Arians’ induction into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor at halftime of the Panthers game.

In an exclusive interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Arians explained Tuesday why he is so optimistic about the Bucs not only winning the NFC South but possibly advancing in the playoffs as well.

Injuries continue to hurt the Bucs, who will be without left tackle Donovan Smith, defensive tackle Vita Vea, cornerback Jamel Dean and linebacker Carl Nassib on Sunday night.

Arians believes those players will be back in time for the final two games and certainly for the playoffs.

If the Bucs sweep the final three games, they will finish with a winning record. But even that isn’t as important to Arians as earning a home playoff game.

“Who cares if our record is 8-9?” he said.

In 2014, Arians coached the Cardinals to an 11-5 record in the regular season but had to travel to Carolina to play the NFC South champ, which was 7-8-1 at the time, in a wild-card game. The Panthers won 27-16, in part because the Cardinals were down to their fourth quarterback due to injuries.

‘”I look back at Carolina beating us,” Arians said. “We were 11-5, but we did have our fourth quarterback and still with a chance to win. But I look at the (2008) Cardinals. They were 9-7 and got hot and went to the Super Bowl (in Tampa, losing to the Steelers).”

Stay updated on the Buccaneers

Stay updated on the Buccaneers

Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter

We’ll deliver a roundup of news and commentary on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers weekly during the season.

You’re all signed up!

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

Explore all your options

Of all the injuries suffered by the Bucs this season, none probably loom larger than the ones on the offensive line.

The knee injury suffered by center Ryan Jensen on the second day of training camp has been particularly devastating. Tackle Tristan Wirfs returned to practice Wednesday after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. Smith has had one of his worst seasons playing with a hyperextended elbow suffered in the opener against the Cowboys.

“Tristan has been in and out,” Arians said. “(Guard) Shaq (Mason) is a really good player. We miss Jensen. He was the heart and soul. I love (Robert) Hainsey. He’s going to be a fine center. We might have thrown (rookie guard) Luke (Goedeke) out there early, but Luke won the job.

“(Smith) has been playing hurt the entire season, and we switched guards. That’s hard on him. Get (Smith) a little bit healthy. (Get) Tristan back. Keep Shaq. Keep that interior, and we’ve got good backups now.”

The Bucs’ offense has averaged only 17.6 points per game, which ranked 28th in the 32-team league entering this week’s games. They also were last in rushing yards (1,040) and yards per carry (3.3).

But in the first half of last weekend’s 34-23 loss to the Bengals, quarterback Tom Brady came out firing. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns in the first half to help Tampa Bay build a 17-0 lead.

“Tom has played great. He played really good the first half,” Arians said. “We got our shots downfield. We looked like us. The first half was the first time I’ve seen this year when (offensive coordinator) Byron (Leftwich) said, ‘Screw it, I’m going back to being me.’ This was a game (receiver) Mike (Evans) should’ve had 200 (yards).”

Evans had five catches for 83 yards on seven targets in the first half but did not catch a pass in the second half on only three targets.

“We had more play-action on first down, and we blocked up pretty good, and (Brady) had more time to throw the ball downfield,” Bowles said Wednesday. “(The Bengals) were playing Cover 3, so there was going to be some zones open in Cover 3, and they were giving him time to throw, and he connected with Mike.”

Four turnovers by Brady — two interceptions and two lost fumbles — led to 31 points in the second half by the Bengals.

But all the Bucs’ goals are still attainable, starting with a rare division title.

“Regardless of whether you’re 17-0 or 4-13, you win the division and you have a division banner and then you try for your next goal, to get to the Super Bowl,” Bowles said.

Arians is pretty confident the Bucs will string together enough wins to take the NFC South. A banner year awaits. After that, who knows?

“This is going to be one of those seasons where (fans) say, ‘I hate you! I hate you! Oh my God, I love you! I love you!’ " Arians said. “Todd will win the division. Whatever happens after that? I hope we get rings.”

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLSTROUD.

• • •

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.