FAB 2. 5 Risks Arians Is Taking
New Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians told PewterReport.com and other local media outlets at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that the team’s roster won’t be overhauled this season. He likes the team’s talent and aside from a few tweaks in free agency and the 2019 draft class, last year’s football team will be expected to improve with better coaching from Arians’ staff.
After back-to-back 5-11 records, we’ll see if the problem in Tampa Bay was Dirk Koetter and his coaches or if it really is the talent that general manager Jason Licht has assembled. Arian, known for his “no risk it, no biscuit” mantra, is taking on five substantial risks this season.
Let’s take a closer look.
Believing In Winston
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston has already been named the starter for the 2019 season, and Arians said that getting to coach Winston was one of the attractions of coming out of retirement to come to Tampa Bay. Arians has already said that Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started a handful of games last year, won’t be back because he doesn’t want Winston looking over his shoulder during a $20.92 million contract year, nor does he want the potential for a quarterback controversy that could split the locker room.
Winston has struggled to hit the deep ball during his time in Tampa Bay, most notably with speedy 5-foot-10 receiver DeSean Jackson, who has a much smaller catch radius than Mike Evans or Chris Godwin. Arians, who is known as the “quarterback whisperer,” believes that Winston can become a better deep ball thrower under his tutelage, and with the help of quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.
“It’s part fundamentals and it’s part looking safeties off too long,” Arians said. “Your release timing for Mike, and then you try to have the same release timing for DeSean. DeSean is 10 yards further down the field. Now you are heaving, you’re not passing it. It’s just little things – getting it out of his hand faster, more work on the practice field. We’ll do a lot of deep ball drills. Then guys know they aren’t going to run a lot after those drills. We need to work full speed on this thing right here.”
Cutting down Winston’s interceptions will be an emphasis, but so will be hitting the deep ball, as that is a big part of Arians’ offense. Can Winston do it? It remains to be seen.
Speaking of hitting Jackson with the deep ball, Winston’s failure to do that caused Jackson’s attitude to sour in Tampa Bay. Jackson had a much better deep ball connection with Fitzpatrick, and there was a lot of speculation that the Bucs might part ways with Jackson this offseason and save $10 million in salary cap room. Arians and Licht met with Jackson and the mercurial receiver, who wanted out of Tampa Bay last December, has appeared to have a change of heart and now wants to play for the offensive-minded head coach.
I have my reservations about whether Jackson remains in red and pewter up until the start of the season or if all of this sudden love for Jackson is merely posturing to amp up his trade value. If Jackson stays, Arians is taking a big risk trusting that Jackson’s mood will take a turn for the worse if he doesn’t get the ball down the field from Winston. In an interview in Indianapolis, Arians said that the 31-year old Jackson didn’t need to lose his ego.
“I don’t think it’s losing his ego – I love ego,” Arians said. “He’s got a resume that goes with it. He’ll work. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t practice on Wednesdays the last two years I had him. I needed him on Sunday. When you hit an age, you don’t need Wednesday’s practice. The walk through is fine. Guys that are real pros – after a walk through, they got it. Now it’s my job to get them to Sunday at full speed.
“There are certain things we need to do full speed – not all day. Deep balls – maybe on a Thursday. The red zone – I’ve got to have you going full speed in the red zone – short fields. He can be a big threat down there with his speed.”
Can the no-nonsense Arians and Jackson coexist, or will Arians wind up eating his words and regretting keeping Jackson?
Banking On Barber
Arians had a dynamic playmaker in Arizona in David Johnson, who totaled over 2,000 yards in his second NFL season in 2016. Johnson was a do-it-all back with great size and speed. Peyton Barber is not nearly as dynamic a player as Johnson, and reminds some of former Bucs running back Earnest Graham for his physical running style and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Barber ran for 871 yards and five touchdowns last year, and with better blocking up front he’s probably a 1,000-yard back. But can Barber, who was an undrafted free agent, be a 1,200-yard or 1,400-yard Pro Bowl-caliber back? Probably not, but Arians has been talking him up this offseason – so much so that the Bucs won’t sign a starting-caliber running back in free agency, and may not draft a running back early, either.
“I’ve watched this guy now and I’m like, ‘Woof!’” Arians said of Barber. “He’s so subtle in some of the things he does for a big man. I love him. For a man that size, you know, when you watched the tape, you don’t see him as 230. You think he’s a 205-pound running back because he’s got great feet.
“Not every back’s going to be a home-run hitter. He gets those 10-, 15-yard runs breaking tackles, power runner – punishing runner. When we’re building something, that’s the kind of guy I want to build around.”
Is better blocking upfront the key to longer runs and better production by Barber, or is he truly a back that averages 3.7 yards per carry due to his lack of speed and explosiveness?
Having Faith In The Young Secondary
Without safety Andrew Adams, who has yet to be resigned and led the team with four picks last season, the Buccaneers secondary has a combined eight career interceptions between cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III, Ryan Smith, Carlton Davis, Javien Elliott and safeties Justin Evans, Jordan Whitehead, Isaiah Johnson and M.J. Stewart.
There is a decent crop of cornerbacks and safeties in the 2019 NFL Draft, but instead of getting younger and more inexperienced in the defensive backfield, the Bucs will need to sign a veteran cornerback to replace Brent Grimes and a veteran safety to replace Chris Conte. Can Tampa Bay find playmakers in free agency?
Perhaps more importantly, can the coaches develop the young talent in the secondary that is already on the roster? Licht has drafted four cornerbacks in the first four rounds over the last three years, in addition to two safeties in the first four rounds over the last two years.
“We’ve got speed at linebacker, we’ve just got a young secondary that has to grow up,” Arians said.
Can cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross and safeties coach Nick Rapone turn the existing talent into playmakers this offseason with better coaching and more experience, or are the Bucs overconfident in the players that they have on the roster?
Turning Over The Play-calling To Leftwich
Arians has been the offensive play-caller in each of his last three coaching stops in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Arizona. Producing a balanced offense that features deep shots and lights up the scoreboard with a “no risk it, no biscuit” style is part of the appeal of having Arians lead the Buccaneers. But at age 66, Arians has said he’s going to turn the play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who called plays for the first time last year over the second half of the season in Arizona after Mike McCoy had been fired.
Leftwich had to call plays that were in McCoy’s playbook, and now he’ll be running Arians’ plays in Tampa Bay. Arians got Leftwich, who was Pittsburgh’s backup quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger, into coaching and wants to develop him as a play-caller.
“I begged Byron for three years to get off the golf course and start coaching and he finally did because I knew he would be a rising star,” Arians said. “Finding that pool of coaches – that’s our job now. Identifying these guys – a lot of former players want to coach, but if they’re married, does she want him to coach?
“When I had him in Pittsburgh he helped me coach. Charlie Batch did the same thing. I could never talk Charlie into getting into coaching, but [Leftwich] was a natural born coach. He’s a leader. He was a brilliant quarterback. He didn’t have the scrambling ability, so he learned how to play from the pocket and he did a great job with Carson Palmer [in Arizona].”
Arians always reserves the right to overrule Leftwich on game days and retake the play-calling duties, but this is a big gamble to put the unproven Leftwich in such an important role in a critical year in which the team is evaluating Winston’s performance to determine whether he is a franchise quarterback-type worth a long-term contract extension or whether Tampa Bay has to start over at the quarterback position in 2020.