Welcome to The Hook, my weekly column that hooks you into a different Tampa Bay Buccaneers topic each Thursday, as well as some of my thoughts on the Bucs and the NFL at the end in a section called Cannon Blast.
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Tampa Bay’s star-studded lineup of Pro Bowlers is impressive. The national media is abuzz, heaping praise on the new-look Buccaneers on football shows on NFL Network or ESPN. Fans are dying to see these guys in action. For the first time in a long time Tampa Bay feels like a legitimate playoff contender.
And the Bucs should be.
On paper, it looks like general manager Jason Licht, head coach Bruce Arians and the front office has done a terrific job this offseason in building a playoff-caliber team.
Maybe even more.
And while Tampa Bay looks like it can make some noise in 2020, the one unit that will control how far they will go is the offensive line – the big boys up front.
Football has been, and always will be, about which team can tackle the best and which team can block the best. We tend to over-complicate things at times and love to talk about 1,000 yard receivers, Hall of Fame quarterbacks and double-digit sackers. But without the beef up front a team won’t win many games, much less make a Super Bowl run.
A team doesn’t have to have five Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, but it needs five smart, tough and technically sound linemen if it wants to win in the NFL. And while there has been talent on the offensive line for the Buccaneers over the last several years, getting all five on the same page has proven difficult.
The results speak for themselves, evidenced by 40, 41 and 47 sacks surrendered in each of the past three years, in addition to a running game that has ranked in the bottom third over that span of time, too.
The old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That definitely applies to offensive lines as well. If four of the five linemen do their job, but the fifth fails, a running back get stuffed for a loss or a quarterback ends up with grass stains on his jersey.
Tampa Bay has three offensive lineman – Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen, who all make at least $10 million a season. There’s no excuse for a quarterback to get sacked 47 times in a season or only average 95.1 yards per game rushing as we saw in 2019. This unit has under-performed over the last few years and contributed to the team’s 12-year playoff drought.
The O-line isn’t the only reason. Quarterback turnovers, average running back talent, a porous defense until last year, and questionable coaching have all contributed to Tampa Bay’s decade-plus of futility. Until the Bucs’ offensive line improves, chances are the record won’t get much better either.
Yet there is cause for optimism that will be changing.
One of those things is the Brady effect.
With Brady – who is widely regarded by most as the greatest quarterback in NFL history – accountability will be greater moving forward. Brady’s resume speaks for itself and proves if given enough time and protection he can win a lot of ball games.
Brady elevates players around him. Below average players all of a sudden become average players. Average players all of a sudden become above-average players. Through leadership – some vocal but much by example – the other 10 players on New England’s offense tended to up their game when No. 12 was on the field over the past two decades.
Nobody wants to be the offensive lineman who whiffs on a block that gets Brady drilled and out for the season with an injury. Accountability will be big in 2020 – bigger than it has been in Tampa Bay since Jon Gruden was the head coach. That is something that hasn’t always been the case on the Bucs’ offensive line as of late.
“I was super excited to hear it when we signed Brady and everything,” Smith said. “Basically me and my guys are going to have the opportunity to block for the greatest quarterback of all time, in NFL history. So I was super excited about it and I was ready to go. It gave us something to look forward to with all of these things going on, in terms of the pandemic and everything, it just gave us a boost to look forward to come season time.”
Adding first-round selection Tristan Wirfs should also make the offensive line better. Maybe not right out of the gate, but certainly in the future. The addition of Wirfs should also help to motivate Smith to up his game. While his job is safe for 2020, Smith is under contract in 2021, but without any guaranteed money. There is a chance that Wirfs, who played both left and right tackle at Iowa, but mostly on the right side, could be pushing to possibly be Smith’s replacement.
Teams don’t tend to normally draft a tackle in the Top 15 to be long-term right tackles. The premium position on the offensive line is still on the left side, as evidenced by the money left tackles make versus right tackles. Tampa Bay’s front office and coaching staff would love nothing more than for Smith to elevate his game to the point where Wirfs has to stay on the right side for the next few years.
This isn’t a column to just pick on Smith. The guard and center positions will also need to elevate their play as well if the Bucs want to see a deep playoff run in 2020. Ali Marpet has been somewhat hindered by the previous staff’s musical chairs they have played with him since he was drafted, having played both guard positions and a year at center.
But Marpet will be going into his third season at left guard, sandwiched between Smith and center Ryan Jensen. Those three are paid handsomely and need to fully live up to their potential in 2020. Jensen’s play improved last year after a disappointing 2019 campaign, which was a good sign.
Another promising sign that gives hope to the offensive line improving is that four of the five – Smith, Marpet, Jensen and guard Alex Cappa – have played together for a while, and now will be entering their second year in Bruce Arians’ offense. Their confidence should grow, and also the coaching at the position should also be better.
Joe Gilbert and Harold Goodwin have had a year to evaluate their unit and now know what each player does well and what area they have deficiencies in. Part of being a great coach is maximizing every ounce of talent from their players and recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and playing that to their advantage.
Gilbert and Goodwin must get the most of out their guys in 2020, and should be able to after a year with these guys.
Playing offensive line in the NFL is no easy task. Having five players being on the same page for 70 plays a game is even more difficult.
Think about it – what is the only position in the NFL that can’t tap their helmets to signal to the sidelines they need a breather? What unit in the NFL can play perfectly for 69 of those 70 plays, but make one mistake and they draw the ire of fans who scream and cuss them?
Yep, offensive linemen.
No one is feeling sorry for them however. They signed up for the job, and most get paid rather well. Criticism comes with the job. That’s just life in the social media world.
While most offensive linemen will always be under-appreciated by the average fan, make no mistake they will impact how far this team goes in 2020 just as much as Brady, Gronkowski and the other Pro Bowlers on this team. And who knows? If the O-line plays well, especially with more national exposure this year, and the Bucs make the playoffs, there could be a Tampa Bay offensive lineman or two that joins Brady and Gronkowski in the Pro Bowl this year.
The complete success or failure of the 2020 Buccaneers won’t lie solely on the offensive line. Luck and team health are involved, Tampa Bay’s defense needs to continue to develop, and the Bucs need their kicker to not miss three kicks in the season finale or any game.
This Tampa Bay team has a chance to put it all together and go far in 2020, and it all starts with the five guys upfront.
Cook’s musings and ramblings about the Buccaneers and the NFL. Good stuff. Check it out.
• Maybe I am dreaming too much, but I believe the Tom Brady-to-Tampa Bay move is going to make Donovan Smith a better football player. For the record, Smith isn’t a bad football player. He’s actually pretty good at times. If you think he is overpaid, just see what he would get had he been an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Left tackles don’t grow on trees, and durable ones like Smith are even more rare. Yes, he could be frustrating at times. A lot of the times, honestly.
Well here’s my workout !! I kinda turned the music down pic.twitter.com/ZEsAlxR4CE
— Donovan Smith (@DSmith_76) April 28, 2020
But you can already tell that Smith is getting more serious about his craft as he matures. Smith has been more active on social media with his posts showing his workouts and such. He also has been praising the Bucs’ move to bring Brady to Tampa Bay. Smith doesn’t want to be the one who get blamed if Brady gets sacks 47 times this year or – heaven forbid – gets injured. I like the new Donovan. Let’s hope if translates to the field.
• If this pandemic thing was a Hollywood movie, Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger (or Zack Galifinakis) would swoop in with a miracle cure or fist fight COVID-19 and the world would be saved – as would the 2020 football season. But I’m getting a little nervous. So far there hasn’t been a real life Willis, Schwarzenegger or “Alan from The Hangover” to save us and the much-anticipated football season.
The NFL schedule comes out Thursday evening and it has been reported by NFL insider John Clayton that the first four weeks of the year will be the NFC vs. AFC match-ups only. This is a contingency plan for if the season is amended and games have to be canceled. I understand what the NFL might be doing – if the report is accurate – but man, who wouldn’t rather see the Chiefs and Bucs open the season in prime time as opposed to to a Thursday night game against the Panthers down the road?
Let’s hope the first four games of the season – when the Bucs might host Kansas City and travel to face Jon Gruden’s Las Vegas Raiders – don’t get cancelled. Those are two must-see games.
I get it, though. The league has to have a balanced divisional and conference schedule to make things fair for all 32 teams. Bucs fans keep praying, sending good vibes, or even casting voodoo spells – whatever it takes – to send this COVID-19 into remission so we can have a full 16-game season that starts and ends on time in 2020.
And am I the only who thinks Galifinakis is due for a leading man or action hero role in Hollywood? No? Okay, maybe not.
• Is there any doubt now who the Buccaneers’ biggest rivals will in the NFC are? It has to be the Saints. First of all, New Orleans is the top team in the division with back-to-back 13-3 seasons. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
I believe Conrad Drummond said that to Arnold is a 1983 episode of the TV classic Diff’rent Strokes. I may be wrong … but you get the point.
Next, the best two quarterbacks in NFL history – at least from a statistical point – will face each other twice a year in Drew Brees and Tom Brady. That just oozes rivalry.
And now even throw in the Jameis Winston move to the Saints, and it antes up things a little more.
This year is going to be fun, Bucs fans.
When you can still go 8-8 while paying $26 million less pic.twitter.com/3VWBOVPFOH
— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) May 6, 2020
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