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Canales to Kiffin: Ranking the greatest coordinators in Bucs history

Where does one-year wonder Dave Canales rank on our list? Let the deliberation ensue.
 
Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) and offensive coordinator Dave Canales jog together in January at  AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa.
Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) and offensive coordinator Dave Canales jog together in January at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Feb. 1

His Tampa Bay tenure spanned 11 months. Dave Canales came and went without ever experiencing a Gasparilla Parade or even a good tropical storm. Yet his impact was as profound as it was fleeting.

In his lone season as Bucs offensive coordinator (and first as an NFL play-caller), Canales helped resuscitate the career of Baker Mayfield and perpetuate the greatness of Mike Evans. He remained unflinching in his resolve and unflappable in his demeanor. And while his unit’s final stats seemed pedestrian, they were playoff-worthy.

Today, he’s the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. And that improbable, breakneck evolution got us to pondering where Canales ranks on the list of most impactful Bucs coordinators ever.

To be sure, this franchise has had some legendary and laughable ones — on both sides of the ball — during its 48-year existence. Does Canales’ whirlwind-but-winning tenure catapult him to the upper tier of the top coordinators to ever wear pewter or creamsicle? We assessed them all and came up with a list of our top six.

Bear in mind, the list includes offensive and defensive coordinators. Head coaches who called their own plays (i.e. Jon Gruden, Sam Wyche) were excluded. Candidates also were assessed only on their Buccaneers tenures, which explains why Joe Gibbs (offensive coordinator, 1978) and Todd Monken (offensive coordinator, 2016-2018) didn’t make the cut.

6. Wayne Fontes

Defensive coordinator, 1982-1984

Longtime John McKay lieutenant Wayne Fontes officially served as Bucs defensive coordinator from 1982-84 before a successful stint as Lions head coach.
Longtime John McKay lieutenant Wayne Fontes officially served as Bucs defensive coordinator from 1982-84 before a successful stint as Lions head coach. [ STAFF | Times files ]

One of the most beloved coaches in Bucs lore, Fontes remains one of only four assistants in franchise history to move directly from Bucs coordinator to NFL head coach (Canales, Todd Bowles and Dirk Koetter are the others). As a John McKay assistant, Fontes helped mold those dominant defenses of the late 1970s, and his 1982 unit (19.8 points per game) helped Tampa Bay reach the playoffs in a strike-shortened year. While the Bucs won only two games in 1983, it was hardly the fault of Fontes’ group, which allowed 23.8 points a game and forced 41 turnovers, tied for fourth-most in franchise history.

5. Dave Canales

Offensive coordinator, 2023

In his lone season as Bucs offensive coordinator, Dave Canales oversaw a unit that tied for 10th in the NFL in third-down efficiency (41.5%).
In his lone season as Bucs offensive coordinator, Dave Canales oversaw a unit that tied for 10th in the NFL in third-down efficiency (41.5%). [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Statistically, Canales’ modest body of work in Tampa Bay won’t wow anyone. His other accomplishments will, and did. In addition to helping restore stability — and star power — to Mayfield’s vagabond career, he convinced veterans such as Evans and Chris Godwin to stay the course as his system took shape. While the offense never achieved the rushing consistency Canales envisioned (88.8 yards per game), it committed only 18 turnovers (tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL) and tied for 10th in the league in third-down efficiency (41.5%). The result: a third consecutive division title, playoff victory and promotion for Canales (to Panthers head coach).

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4. Tom Bass

Defensive coordinator, 1978-81

Bucs defensive coordinator Tom Bass (left) discusses things with defensive backs coach Wayne Fontes during a 14-9 win against the Falcons in 1978.
Bucs defensive coordinator Tom Bass (left) discusses things with defensive backs coach Wayne Fontes during a 14-9 win against the Falcons in 1978. [ STAFF | Times files ]

Bass’ name may not ring a bell, but his units of the creamsicle era rang several. Tampa Bay’s surreal transformation from national punchline to playoff team was due primarily to its defensive menace. The 1979 unit that reached the NFC title game held seven opponents to 10 or fewer points and still ranks first in franchise history for fewest total yards allowed in a 16-game season (3,949). The 1981 and 1978 units still rank first and second, respectively, in forced turnovers (46 and 43).

3. Byron Leftwich

Offensive coordinator, 2019-2022

The three highest-scoring offenses in Bucs history (2021, 2020, 2019) were produced on the watch of coordinator Byron Leftwich (left).
The three highest-scoring offenses in Bucs history (2021, 2020, 2019) were produced on the watch of coordinator Byron Leftwich (left). [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Before gnashing your teeth over this ranking, consider the thankless nature of Leftwich’s job. Any Bucs offensive success in his final three seasons (2020-22) was going to be attributed to Tom Brady; any shortcomings would be laid at Leftwich’s feet. Equally unfair was the presumption Bruce Arians was the de facto coordinator during this time. Arians may have designed the no-risk-it-no-biscuit blueprints, but he left the game-planning and play-calling to Leftwich. The result: one world title, two division championships, five playoff wins and the three highest-scoring offenses (2021, 2020 and 2019, respectively) in franchise history.

2. Todd Bowles

Defensive coordinator, 2019-2021

Bucs coach Todd Bowles gives a high-five to linebacker Shaquil Barrett (7) after the defense recorded a third-quarter safety in its playoff triumph against the Eagles on Jan. 15.
Bucs coach Todd Bowles gives a high-five to linebacker Shaquil Barrett (7) after the defense recorded a third-quarter safety in its playoff triumph against the Eagles on Jan. 15. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The greatest blitz orchestrator in Bucs history, Bowles’ units produced three of the franchise’s four highest sack totals during his tenure as defensive coordinator. Only the 2000 team (55) had more than the 2019 (47), 2020 (48) and 2021 (47) defenses. In fairness, Bowles was calling the defense this past season, when the Bucs amassed 48. Bowles helped mold Antoine Winfield Jr. into an All-Pro and helped Devin White realize his potential before he became a pariah. Five different defensive players earned Pro Bowl nods on his watch, and his unit’s shutdown of Patrick Mahomes and Co. remains one of the greatest defensive efforts in Super Bowl history.

1. Monte Kiffin

Defensive coordinator, 1996-2008

Bucs longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 19, 2021.
Bucs longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 19, 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The only Bucs assistant in the Ring of Honor and patriarch of one of the most fabled defensive systems (“Tampa Two”) in football lore. While Tony Dungy has acknowledged the defense was based heavily on concepts he picked up from Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, he and Kiffin installed the wrinkles and personnel that made it legendary. During his 13-year tenure that spanned two head coaches (Dungy, Jon Gruden), Kiffin’s units allowed 17.4 points per game, fewest in the NFL during that stretch. To date, four members of his defense (Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Ronde Barber) are in the Hall of Fame.

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