Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Alright, I should probably explain that title right away so you guys don’t get mad at me.
I’ll give you the main message of it now and explain it as we go on.
This entire rebuild – or reload, whatever you want to call it – was never meant for 2019, we just fell for the bait.
Every year there is that surprise team that makes the playoffs. There are the six or eight teams across both conferences that make the postseason that most could’ve called at the beginning of the year. But we all know that there are always one or two teams that shock the world and make it in with an unexpected great year.
We told ourselves that could be the Buccaneers.
Instead, it’s the undefeated 49ers, who won the season opener in Tampa Bay, 34-17, to kick off an 8-0 run to start the 2019 campaign.
Now, in our defense, the formula was there for such a reality. Head coach Bruce Arians had been a part of two very quick turnarounds, first in Indianapolis in 2012 and then in Arizona the next year. Both of his Coach of the Year Awards in ’12 and ’14 came in his first few seasons with each team, part of which was because of how incredible it was that he was able to get things going early on. If Arians had done it before with other teams, why couldn’t he do that in Tampa Bay?
There were also positives of this particular situation in Tampa that show signs of a successful first year. Arians had never been an NFL head coach before when he took over the Colts on an interim basis, and look at the success he had making the playoffs in Andrew Luck’s rookie season. Then he had never been a full-time NFL head coach before his tenure with the Cardinals; he had quite a bit of success there, too.
Coming to Tampa Bay, Arians had way more head coaching experience under his belt, and on top of all that, had just taken some time off of coaching to really sit back, view what the rest of the league was doing, and digest it. Throw in the fact that he had assembled his dream coaching staff to implement what he wanted to do and we all believe that the process to success under this new regime was about to be streamlined. Playoffs? Heck, we were even convincing ourselves 2019 could hold double digit wins for the Buccaneers.
That also came from the confidence in the roster. When Arians took the job here in Tampa Bay, he did so singing the praises of their quarterback Jameis Winston. He talked about Winston being a big reason why he came back to coach. “The quarterback whisperer,” as some people call him, identified Winston early on as a player he could win with.
Bucs fans took those words and ran with them, envisioning Winston taking a giant leap into being the consistent franchise player we thought he could be back on draft night in 2015. Arians also went on to say that he had never taken over a team with as much talent as he saw top to bottom on this Bucs roster before the season.
So let me get this straight. A guy who has a track record for quick turnarounds bringing in tons of experience with him on his coaching staff to a roster already set with a quarterback he liked and a depth chart around him that he boasted to be the most talented starting point he’s ever had.
After wandering the NFL postseason desert for over a decade, in search of any sign of water, Arians offered Bucs fans an oasis of hope.
But it turns out it was a mirage – and it always has been. This team was not built to win with a new regime in 2019. It was always about beyond that. But I want be very clear and emphasize that all of that is okay – our expectations are what made us think it wasn’t.
Arians came to Tampa Bay reiterating that he wasn’t about rebuilding but rather reloading. That’s great to hear in training camp. That’s the kind of stuff that gets you fired up as a fan and fosters belief in a roster full of players he has to win over.
But it’s just a cliché, and certainly was here, in a place where the culture of losing is deeply rooted. What does that kind of statement say – that he wants to win? Of course he does, every team does. But this Bucs team wasn’t built for it in 2019. It had to get exposed before it could grow, and now it’s showing.
The big stat in this section of the Cover 3 is number 25.4. That was the average age of this Buccaneers’ roster at the end of training camp. That number made them the second-youngest team in the NFL behind the Miami Dolphins, and after moving on from a couple veteran players since, the Bucs might be even closer to the No. 1 spot in terms of youthfulness.
That’s showing on the field. This team doesn’t have much experience, certainly not much winning experience. The young players don’t know how to win yet. Sure, some of the veterans do. Winston is having a decent year, all things considered. When things have been stable and supportive around him, he’s at times looked his best as a Buccaneer.
Left tackle Donovan Smith is quietly having a good year, too, as now one of the vets on the team. Center Ryan Jensen, left guard Ali Marpet and linebacker Lavonte David have all been solid this season with their presence, while wide receiver Mike Evans has been spectacular. But outside of those guys and maybe a handful of others, this team doesn’t know how to start, it don’t know how to win, and it certainly don’t know how to win in Tampa Bay.
No many do.
The big take away quote from Arians’ press conference after the Seahawks loss was that at one point they were playing six rookie defensive players on the field at one time. I believe that number was actually five, but the point still stands. A team can’t win with that. And yet here the Bucs are throwing five or six rookies out there no defense because it’s their best option.
That’s why this was never about 2019. It was always about 2020 and beyond, whether they – or we – realized it or not.
That’s why you also heard Arians talk about how proud he was of his guys and their fight after this week’s loss: “I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
I’m not calling Arians a liar at all, and I’m not even saying that he shouldn’t feel that way. He can, he should and it was true. But trying hard wasn’t the message at the beginning of the year. The message was winning. I think we’re all coming to grips with the fact that 2019 isn’t about winning in the now with this team and its disappointing 2-6 record. It’s about making sure what the Bucs are going through means something for the future.
The 2019 season is a weed-out year. It’s a year where Arians can see which guys he can win with and which guys he can’t. And I’m not talking about just talent. I think a lot of these player have talent.
But winning in this league is more than that. It’s about experience. it’s about reps. It’s about mindset. It’s about mentality. It’s about finding out who is going to buy in and which players are smart enough not to get this team beat. For years and years, Tampa Bay has had talent (some years certainly more than others), but as it went through its struggles it never matter because the guys they had weren’t struggling in an effort to build towards something greater. That’s what 2019 has to be for Arians and the Buccaneers, especially now.
The Bucs are not going to make the playoffs in 2019. What they have to do for the rest of this season is find out who is worth keeping and investing time in. A bunch of their players are on one-year deals, or contracts that are not fully guaranteed after this year.
Outside linebackers Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib, defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Beau Allen, tight end Cameron Brate, linebacker Lavonte David, right tackle Demar Dotson and quarterback Jameis Winston to name a few. All but Brate and David are free agents, and who is worth bringing back?
I didn’t say who has talent to play in this league. I said who is worth bringing back? Then there are a handful of younger players who, despite having cheaper rookie deals, this franchise should not put up with if the play and the mentality from them does not advance this team’s cause.
No, 2019 isn’t a postseason year. It’s a “Come To Jesus” year. Winning is a lot more than just what you’ve done in the past, and these young Bucs are realizing that. Even with the most experienced coaching staff they’ve ever had, it’s going to take time. If they make the most out of their struggles this season and point them in the right direction for next, perhaps a Coach of the Year and playoff run could be coming in Arians’ second season as head coach – just like it did when he was in Arizona.