FAB 3. An Open Letter To Ali Marpet
It’s been a big year for you, Ali.
That fourth year in the league to me is when players truly become veterans, and you became a veteran this year, mastering the left guard position just as you did the right guard position two years ago. The average NFL life of a player is three years, and players who make it to their fourth year in the league demonstrate staying power. The fourth year is the contract year, and that’s when your team – and the league – determines your worth as a player.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg deemed you to be one of the NFL’s best guards at age 25, and made you the seventh-highest paid interior lineman with a hefty contract extension worth an average of $10.85 million per year. Over half of your five-year, $54.125 million contract is guaranteed, and you’re worth it, Ali.
You’re easily the best offensive lineman on a very underachieving offensive line in Tampa Bay. Now, you are the highest-paid lineman in Tampa Bay and the third-highest paid Buccaneer on offense behind Jameis Winston and Mike Evans.
You are now part of the captain class, taking the C off of Winston’s chest this year when your teammates voted you to be an offensive captain alongside Evans while Winston started the season with a three-game suspension. I’m guessing you didn’t necessarily want to be a captain – that it wasn’t on your personal goal sheet heading into 2018, but here you are with that C on your chest for the last time this year as you prepare to host Atlanta on Sunday.
As I write you this letter I will admit that I didn’t spend one minute in a team meeting with you, nor was I in the huddle with you at practice or on game day one single time. I wasn’t near you in the locker room as you talked with your offensive line teammates. I didn’t hear what was said by you to them at any point this season.
I truly cannot gauge how effective or ineffective you were as a leader and a team captain. I’m guessing it might have been a little weird as a 25-year old to be a team captain for the first time, especially on a line that featured 33-year old Demar Dotson, the offense’s elder statesman, and 32-year old Evan Smith. Those guys have done it longer than you in this league.
The only thing I can gauge is how the offensive line played. I saw you do your part and do it very well for most of the 2018 season. Oftentimes you were the only one it seemed to play consistently well from play to play and game to game. I can’t remember you having a bad game the way Dotson and center Ryan Jensen and left tackle Donovan Smith and certainly right guard Caleb Benenoch had bad games this year.
Despite the impressive stats that come with the league’s third-best offense (414.3 ypg) and the NFL’s top-ranked passing game (318.9 ypg), far too often Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick had to escape a crumbling pocket and run for their lives. You saw that on film, too, right?
Giving up 40 sacks is one thing. It’s about average in the league. But allowing your quarterbacks to get hit 105 times, which was fourth-most in the league, is unacceptable, right? You get that, don’t you?
At this point it doesn’t matter what Dirk Koetter says or offensive line coach George Warhop says. The guess here is that won’t be here past Monday. You’ll have a new coach and thankfully a new offensive line coach, as I’m not impressed with the job Warhop has done. But you, as a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive lineman, will remain in Tampa Bay long after they are gone.
This isn’t Warhop’s offensive line, Ali.
This is your offensive line.
Age is nothing but a number. You’re the highest-paid lineman and team captain for a reason. You’re the best offensive lineman in Tampa Bay and now it’s time you demand better from your linemates.
I know that must be hard when you simply want to be one of the guys. The offensive line has to be a fist – not five fingers – and you probably just view yourself as one of those fingers. But as a team captain you are also the glove that goes on that fist. You are responsible for each finger making sure it fits and does its job in forming the fist.
You have to hold older players like Jensen and Dotson accountable. You have to get on Benenoch and make him play at a higher level. Allowing 9.5 sacks and over two dozen quarterback hits and pressures is simply unacceptable regardless of whether or not he’s a first-year starter.
And more importantly, you need to get on your best friend, Donovan Smith, and hold him accountable. Smith is in a contract year this season, but hasn’t played like it. He’s given up 6.5 sacks this year according to Stats Inc., which is a career high, and it seems like more than that, honestly. You’ve known Smith since the Senior Bowl and came to Tampa Bay as second-round picks in 2015 along with Winston. You’ve roomed together in training camp and do a show together on Buccaneers.com.
Heck, the Bucs moved you to left guard so you could help Smith on that side of the ball.
You know how dominant Smith can be and how he can have momentary lapses of laziness in games that can prove to be deadly, such as allowing a sack-fumble-touchdown at Dallas in a seven-point loss last week. You have to put friendship aside going forward and demand more from Smith. You have to demand excellence from Smith. You have to demand that he plays at your level.
As a leader you have to help him reach his full potential for the good of the team. You have to be willing to get in Smith’s face, Benenoch’s face and even Jensen’s face in games, in practices and in team meetings now as a team captain and hold them accountable for their play.
Did you do that? Did you do that enough this year?
I realize your captainship might have come as a surprise to you when it happened after the season started. Maybe you weren’t quite prepared for it. I want you to reflect on what was said and done this year, and more importantly what wasn’t said and what wasn’t done during the season from a leadership standpoint.
Use this offseason to not only refine your game to a Pro Bowl level, but also to hone your leadership skills.
Read some leadership books. Make some calls around the league to other offensive linemen you respect that faced similar challenges with their units. Pick their brains.
If I were you I would call former Patriots and Bucs guard Logan Mankins and ask him for some leadership advice. You played with him for one season during your rookie year in 2015 – his last year in the league that ended with a Pro Bowl berth – and I’m sure he would be willing to share some of his vast knowledge with you.
You and the offensive line played a role in helping Tampa Bay convert a bunch of third downs and average over 400 yards per game. But too often the offensive line wasn’t good enough, as the Bucs couldn’t run the ball, or score in the red zone or protect the passer at a critical juncture in games that turned out to be losses – 10 of them. Those things have to change if Tampa Bay is going to make the playoffs in 2019.
And Ali, you will have to lead that change next year. This is your offensive line.