When the Bucs offense remained on the field after Tyler Johnson’s incredible third down stretch left him one yard short of a first down with 11:54 remaining in the second quarter of a game Tampa Bay was already leading 10-0, my heart leapt into my throat.
To this point in the game, the Bucs had seemed in complete control. Bears quarterback Nick Foles was missing passes left and right, the Bucs had already scored on two of three drives and the Tampa defense was flying high after a nifty interception by Carlton Davis. Even though it appeared the Bucs second three-and-out of the game had just occurred, it still felt like the Bears’ offense wasn’t going to be threat unless the Bucs put them in prime position to score.
Bucs WR Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Getty Images
So you can understand my immense hesitation when Brady stepped under center and the ball was actually snapped, as a 4th down stop for the Bears defense would not only give them renewed hope of winning the game, but would also give them the ball just 19 yards from the end zone.
It felt like an unnecessary risk given the time, score, state of the game and nature of the opponent, and 95 percent of me knew this with complete certainty. This was not a risk worth taking at this point in the game.
But five percent of me…oh, five percent of me LOVED it. I loved that head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were tired of seeing an offense that would march the length of the field one drive and then go three-and-out the next. I loved that the Bucs wanted to go for the jugular on that drive; crush the Bears soul with a third score in four attempts and put Foles and a struggling Chicago offense in a position where they had to be one dimensional all game.
But mostly, part of me loved it because it was a sign that Arians and Leftwich were embracing the type of offense they can be. Not a ball-control, run-heavy, just-don’t-turn-it-over group, but one that took chances, lived with a few mistakes and never stopped coming all game long. We’ve seen the team inching in the direction of a more aggressive through every week of the season so far, but this was a clear statement about who the coaches believed this team could be if they got out of their own way.
So…what the heck happened after that?
First, we had the completely bizarre approach to the end of halftime, as the Bucs took over at their own 25-yard line down 14-13 with 36 seconds left in the first half and two timeouts. You’re an aggressive offense with tons of weapons, an elite quarterback and an offensive line that had just posted an exceptional first half…you’re going for points here, right? You just went for it on 4th-and-1 from your own 19 with a ten-point lead! Surely you’re going for points now that you’re trailing by one and the game has completely swung against you, right?
No. Or maybe, yes? Regardless of Arians and Leftwich’s intentions, a first down run call to Ronald Jones basically eliminated any chance of scoring on the drive. Jones gained six yards, and the clock wound to 20 seconds before the ball was snapped again.
And the Bucs went hurry-up to snap it and then passed the ball!
What is the approach here? If Arians and Leftwich simply wanted to run out the clock on the half, get to the break and make adjustments from there, ok. I would have completely disagreed with their decision, and there would be almost no analytical logic to it, but at least their intentions would have been clear and decisive.
Instead they opted to run the ball in what was clearly a conservative decision that flew completely in the face of the identity they had just tried to develop earlier in the same quarter. After that approach netted only six yards, the team then tried to go hurry-up and throw the football? Why? If you were going to be aggressive, why not do it when the chance of success was greatest?
After an eight-yard pass to Jones, the Bucs decided to call their second timeout with eight seconds left in the half. So they didn’t call a timeout after a bizarre first down run call, allowing 16 seconds to run off the clock before your next snap, but then did decide to call timeout with eight seconds left, and the ball at your own 39-yard line? There’s no logic to this approach.
Brady’s next pass attempt fell incomplete, and the quarterback knelt on the following play to run the final three seconds off the clock before halftime.
The conservative coaching approach was almost as strange in the second half, with the Bucs trailing 17-16, but in position to re-take the lead with a first-and-ten at the Bears 16-yard line with around five minutes left in the game. After a first down sack (thanks, Donovan Smith) and a second down incompletion, Brady threaded the needle between two defenders to Rob Gronkowski on 3rd-and-17, picking up almost 16 yards to set up a 4th and about one-and-a-half to go for a first down, with the ball at the Bears 7-yard line.
If the Bucs coaching staff trusted their defense to hold a two-point lead with just under five minutes left in the game, they should have trusted them even more to hold a Bears offense to minimal yardage if the Bucs offense couldn’t convert the fourth down. Yes, there’s an element of risk involved, but it’s substantially less risk than going for it on a 4th down you’re likely to get, and then getting four cracks at the end zone from six yards out.
Bucs DC Todd Bowles – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Asking the Bears offense to score a touchdown rather than kick a field goal would have made it an extremely difficult task for the opposition. The Bears had driven the field for a touchdown just once in the game, and they needed two terrible calls from the officials to even do that. Their second touchdown came on a 27-yard drive after the Ke’Shawn Vaughn fumble.
If the Bucs could have scored a touchdown there, it would have delivered a deadly blow to Chicago’s hopes of victory. Instead they settled for three and took the conservative approach, once again flying in the face of the agenda they had prescribed to earlier in the game. The rest is history.
Who is this team? The Bucs coaching staff had multiple opportunities to solidify their identity as an aggressive football team that would “risk it for the biscuit”, as Arians’ loves to say. At best they sent mixed messages in that regard, and at worst they defied it completely. With ten days to prepare before playing the Green Bay Packers in a huge showdown, this team needs to decide who they are and then operate consistently out of that identity.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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