TAMPA — Sometime around midday on Sunday, the Bucs will officially reach the halfway point of the regular season.
And by the time the sun sets that evening, we should know whether the second half of 2023 will be worth your faith and angst.
Yes, the game against the Titans is looming that large. The Bucs cannot afford to lose a home game against a fellow 3-5 team, particularly with a road trip to San Francisco on the agenda the following week.
Do you know how many teams have made the playoffs after starting 3-6 in the last 30 years? Seven. Out of 149. That works out to 4.6%. On the other hand, 27 of 164 teams have made the playoffs after starting 4-5. That’s still not encouraging, but a win on Sunday more than triples Tampa Bay’s postseason odds.
So consider the Tennessee game the ultimate midterm exam. It could keep hope alive, it could help Todd Bowles’ ongoing job prospects, it could determine whether Baker Mayfield finishes the season in the huddle or whether the Bucs finally decide to see what they have in Kyle Trask in December.
With all of that riding on the final nine games, it feels like a good time to review what we have learned so far in the 2023 regular season.
Too many defensive backs have slipped away
The Bucs invested a ton of draft capital in defensive backs from 2018-20. They used four second-round picks, two third-round picks and one fourth-round pick to select cornerbacks and safeties in those three drafts. And the return on investment was strong.
In 2020-21, while the Bucs went 24-9 in the regular season and won a Super Bowl, they had a top-10 secondary when it came to opponent passer rating and they were tied for seventh in interceptions.
Unfortunately, the rookie contracts for most of those draft picks have since expired and a lot of them have left town. M.J. Stewart was the first to go. Then Jordan Whitehead, followed by Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mike Edwards. Some of the departures were clearly salary cap-related, but the Bucs have not done a good job of bargain-hunting for veteran replacements.
Logan Ryan was a disappointment at safety last season, and Ryan Neal has one of the worst pass-coverage grades in the NFL so far this season. That top-10 secondary from 2020-21 is now 31st in the league in yards and 25th in passer rating.
Camarda is a marvel
At 24 years old, Jake Camarda is already the best punter the Bucs have ever seen.
Camarda set a Tampa Bay record with a punting average of 48.8 yards as a rookie last season, and he’s only gotten better in the first half of 2023. His current punting average of 52.3 yards is tied for the best in the league and is less than a yard away from the NFL’s all-time record of 53.1 set by Tennessee’s Ryan Stonehouse last year.
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Not trying to sound snarky, but Camarda’s pursuit of the record could be the most interesting storyline in the second half of the season if the Bucs don’t end this losing streak soon.
Leftwich may be due an apology
I wouldn’t say it exonerates him, but Tampa Bay’s ongoing scoring woes suggest former offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich wasn’t the only problem in 2022.
It’s now clear that Tampa Bay’s inability to run the ball last season was an offensive line issue and not totally Leftwich’s fault. Failing to replace Rob Gronkowski at tight end and Chris Godwin’s post-knee surgery production also were not Leftwich’s doing.
Having acknowledged all of that, the offense has been more diverse under rookie coordinator Dave Canales in 2023. And while the Bucs are 21st in the NFL in scoring this season, they have boosted their points per game from 18.4 under Leftwich to 19.8 under Canales. And that’s without Tom Brady.
History probably won’t be kind to Leftwich, and he’ll never get proper credit as the offensive coordinator of a Super Bowl winner, but fans should realize the debacle of 2022 should not be dropped at his feet.
Tryon-Shoyinka is not the answer
He plays hard and he’s got elite tools, but the results just haven’t been there for Tampa Bay’s 2021 first-round pick.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka was supposed to be a pass-rushing specialist, but he’s got 11 sacks in 42 NFL games. The numbers have gotten better each season, but he is nowhere near the disruptive force the Bucs were hoping he would be coming out of Washington.
To be fair, it hasn’t helped that Shaquil Barrett’s production has also slipped on the other side of the defensive line. Barrett had 33 sacks in his first 38 games in Tampa Bay but has only 10½ in his last 24 games.
Bowles is taking one for the team
Social media chatter grew pretty intense after the Bucs blew a late lead against Houston on Sunday, and few fans were defending the head coach.
I’m not sure Bowles has done much to help his own reputation the past 18 months, but he is not the reason the Bucs are floundering in 2023. Since he’s taken over as head coach, the Bucs have lost a Hall of Fame quarterback and a Hall of Fame tight end to retirement, a Pro Bowl center to injury, a starting guard to free agency, another starting guard to retirement, a potential Hall of Fame nose tackle, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker and half his secondary.
Oh, and the team has $70 million in dead money against the salary cap, which has severely hampered the ability to find replacements.
But it’s Bowles’ fault the Bucs are 3-5?
Like I said, I’m not sure the coach has distinguished himself during his tenure. There’s not a lot he can point to as examples of his leadership as head coach. But this team was heading for a rebuild, and Bowles is the unfortunate soul who must pretend the Bucs are better than they really are.
That, more than anything, should be the greatest lesson of the first half.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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