Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia and head coach Jon Gruden had their fair share of disagreements this offseason, including Tampa Bay's decision to flirt with the idea of trading for Brett Favre, and Gruden's decision to bench Garcia after a Week 1 loss to New Orleans.
But Garcia and Gruden agree on at least one thing – Tampa Bay's red zone offense must improve, and in a hurry.
The Bucs have been inside the red zone (20-yard line) 31 times through eight games, but they've only scored 11 touchdowns. That lack of offensive production has played a significant role in Tampa Bay's three losses on the season at New Orleans, Denver and most recently Dallas. In fact, the Bucs lost those games by a combined 11 points and scored a total of two offensive touchdowns in the process.
"Everything definitely gets tighter," Garcia said of the red zone. "But that doesn't mean you become tighter in your thoughts.
"I've always been trained in a West Coast offense that it's a touchdown, check-down mentality, especially in the passing game. I think somehow, someway we need to find a way to be back in that sort of mode. With how we've played inside the red zone as of late we've missed out on a lot of great opportunities. Whether that's unfortunate penalties at times, not converting third-and-shorts, not completing a pass or whatever it might be, those are things that I know we're going to continue to work on and get better at and just have a better understanding of what we need to do once we get down there."
Tampa Bay currently ranks 29th in the NFL in red zone offense in front of only Oakland, Minnesota and St. Louis. The Bucs actually rank second in the NFL in trips to the red zone with 31, which is just three behind Arizona. But they have scored a touchdown just 35 percent of the time they were in the red zone this season. The Cardinals have scored 21 TDs.
The Bucs' only touchdowns vs. New Orleans and Denver came in the fourth quarter of those contests. Despite being inside Dallas' 25-yard line five different times on Sunday, the Bucs scored just three field goals and were held without a TD.
Tampa Bay's offense currently ranks 13th in the NFL. The Bucs are 5-3 at the midway point in the season, but Gruden has fielded some criticism for the team's lack of production in terms of scoring touchdowns, but his players attempted to defend his playcalling on Wednesday.
"Big plays were something we were able to capitalize on last year," said Garcia. "Obviously Joey [Galloway] was a big part of that. Having him back now, maybe that's something that becomes more a part of our offense. We haven't taken a lot of shots and we need to find ways to take more shots. I think it's a matter of finding ways to stretch defenses out and not allow them to play up inside the box, which takes away from our run game and lanes for our passing game. Coach Gruden is going to do a great job of putting us in those positions. It's time for us to take advantage of it."
Gruden concurred with Garcia's assessment regarding Tampa Bay's lack of big offensive plays and red zone production.
"We call shots, but it doesn't mean the shots or delivered and it doesn't mean the shots are open," said Gruden. "I watched the game on Monday Night Football [Colts vs. Titans] between two big homerun quarterbacks, and they were looking for shots. Shots will develop. We had a shot play called to Joey Galloway earlier in the game [against Dallas] and we had a couple of others called. Yeah, I'd like to throw more shots, too. I agree with [Jeff]."
Despite its struggle to score touchdowns (the Bucs have scored just 13 offensively this season), Tampa Bay's offensive players remain confident in the quarterback and offensive playcaller, in this case being Garcia and Gruden.
"Jeff is a playmaker," said Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton. "He's been under duress at times, and we as receivers need to stay with him and make plays outside the pocket. He knows we can make the plays. Jeff does a great job of getting the ball to the open wide receiver. We'll only get better from here.
"We feel like any given situation Coach Gruden has an arsenal of plays, especially for the red zone. We feel like we can take advantage of those plays, especially with a week of great preparation and knowing an opposing defenses' weaknesses. We've struggled a little bit, but we do have it and can get it done. It's as simple as getting the play called and executing."
Garcia did acknowledge that he needed to do a better job of trusting his receivers, particularly Antonio Bryant and tight end Jerramy Stevens, to make plays on passes that are thrown downfield.
"Sometimes we need to just be playmakers, and we need to allow our playmakers, our receivers and our tight ends, to just go up and outfight for the football, and we need to trust in that," said Garcia. "I think sometimes we get caught up into being such a rhythm-type team looking for the best outlet and open receiver that we lose sight of just taking shots at times and just taking chances. That's not saying you're going to throw into double coverage, but when a defender has his back turned and he may have decent coverage, your receiver has an opportunity there to make a play. I think that's something that can be a bigger part of our offense and may lead to bigger plays for our offense."
Tampa Bay's defense currently ranks fourth in the NFL in red zone play. In fact, the Bucs still have not given up a rushing touchdown through eight games.
While some might believe that Tampa Bay's stellar defensive red zone play in practice could have a negative impact on the offense in terms of its confidence and production, Garcia suggested that wasn't the case. It is just a matter of getting the job done on Sundays.
"They really are [surprising] because I feel like we have great red zone practices," Garcia said of Tampa Bay's red zone woes. "I feel like everything is efficient and we understand from a defensive perspective what we're going to see. We have routes that are good for what we're going to see, and then we go about executing it. I don't know why it's not carrying over.
"Sometimes we become our own worst enemy inside the red zone. Those are things that can be costly in tight football games. Had we ended any one of those drives in the first quarter in the end zone it's a completely different ball game [in Dallas]. It's on our minds and hopefully it's something we can correct quickly."