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.
I invite you to offer me some feedback on The Hook below in the article comments section.
A couple weeks ago I wrote that the key to a Bucs playoff push would be the play of the offensive line.
I still believe that.
But this week I take it a step further.
While each of the five linemen are important pieces to overall offensive success, specifically the play of left tackle Donovan Smith will go a long way toward how successful the Bucs 2020 season will be.
That’s right, I think Smith is the most important cog – other than quarterback Tom Brady – in the engine that is expected to be a high-powered, well-oiled machine this season.
An engine can run if it’s missing one cylinder, but it won’t go far without a carburetor.
The Bucs are an 11-cylinder team offensively. They proved last season that they can still run missing one or two cylinders. Tampa Bay lost Mike Evans against the Colts, but still hummed to the tune of 495 yards and 38 points at Detroit the following week.
They lost Chris Godwin in the second half of the Lions game, yet still were able to manage 435 yards the following week against the Texans.
It was a strong engine, even when it didn’t run on all cylinders.
There is enough depth to go around at the skill positions to make the Bucs offense still run at a high level if Evans, Godwin, O.J. Howard or Rob Gronkowski were to miss games, or even if they struggle for stretches during the upcoming season.
But at left tackle?
There would be trouble in Tampa Bay.
Durability isn’t an issue for Smith. He’s missed one game in his career for the Buccaneers including a stretch of 77 straight before siting out last year’s game at Detroit. But he finished the regular season, coming back to play the last two games, giving him 79 starts out of 80 games since joining Tampa Bay in 2015.
For all the curse words and frustrations thrown his way by fans over five years, you have to give the man his props. And make no mistake, some of those 79 out of 80 starts, a lesser player would have sat out a few of those games. Smith has been beat up and played through a lot of pain to be able to make 79 starts for the Buccaneers.
But if the Buccaneers want to be Super Bowl contenders, Smith will need to have his best season since entering the league. It is one thing to start a game and another to make it a quality start.
For all of Winston’s faults, including holding onto the ball too long, Winston was a sneaky mobile quarterback who escaped plenty of sacks. Those in the organization who said Winston was responsible for 15 of his 47 sacks in 2019, have to also admit that he avoided at least that many with his mobility.
That won’t be the case with Brady. Yes, Brady will get rid of the ball quicker than Winston did. Brady understands it is okay to take a sack or throw the ball six rows deep in the stands and live to fight another day.
But Bruce Arians’ offense is still a vertical-based passing attack that takes time for routes to develop down the field. The offensive line will still need to hold up longer than Brady was accustomed to during his 20 seasons with the Patriots. And even if Brady is able to avoid sacks by getting rid of the ball quicker than Winston did, he will still take shots. And make no mistake, Brady’s new NFC South opponents on defense will want to make a point to the ageless wonder.
Cam Jordan, Dante Fowler Jr. and Brian Burns.
Translation? They will be coming for you, and coming hard, Tom.
No matter what you think of Smith, in 2020 he must be better. Protecting a future Hall of Fame quarterback adds pressure. But it should also add pride.
The organization knows it has a real shot to go far in the playoffs. The fans know the Buccaneers have a real shot to go far in the playoffs. And the players know they have a real shot to go far in the playoffs.
But winning in the playoffs requires even more commitment. It requires each and every player to come into camp in the best shape of their career. It requires each player to have the best understanding of the playbook that they have had in their career.
Keeping Brady upright and healthy falls on all 11 on offense, and even the coaching staff. But as the blindside blocker of the most valuable player on the team, it falls on No. 76 more than anyone.
Smith talked about what it will be like blocking for Brady on a recent media call.
“You’ve got to embrace it because obviously he knows the winning ways,” Smith said. “He knows how to get to that point, he knows how to finish coming out on top. With him coming in here and bringing that mindset and information for us, as a young team, the sky’s the limit for us. You’ve got a lot of guys who I know are hungry and ready to go out there and compete and play fast, have fun, enjoy what they do and show out.”
This isn’t a big window. Brady will be 43 on August 3rd. The time for the Bucs to be at their best is now.
If you agree that it starts with the offensive line, then you have to believe Smith is the most important part of that group and the most important part of the equation for overall offensive success.
Cook’s musings and ramblings about the Buccaneers and the NFL. Good stuff. Check it out.
• Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are two pretty good athletes. Okay, really good athletes. But golfers? Probably good amateurs, but clearly not in the class of Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. Of course, Woods and Mickelson are two of the best on the PGA Tour, with Woods arguably the best to ever step on a course. So it was only natural to see Brady and Manning look nervous and spray the ball all over the course last Sunday in their nationally televised charity foursome that raised $20 million for COVID-19 relief.
But as I wrote in my Monday Mailbag, I wonder how Tiger and Phil would fare if they stepped out of their comfort zone and strapped on a helmet and a set of football pads. I’m guessing it would be rough. Put Woods under center and see how many passes they would complete with Shaq Barrett coming off the edge. Line Mickelson up out wide and have him try and get open and catch a pass with Jamel Dean matched up one-on-one.
All in all it was a good show that raised a lot of money for a great cause. And the subtle trash talk was the best part. I hope that if hockey and basketball get back underway this summer without fans, that the leagues would mic up the players on the ice, on the court and even on the bench.
• Former Bucs defensive end/linebacker Noah Spence who went from Tampa Bay to the Redskins to the Saints, reportedly tore his ACL recently while working out. This guy can’t catch a break. It is still a mystery to me why he was never able to find any success in league.
The guy is a workout warrior, stays in phenomenal shape but didn’t ever find his niche in the NFL and now faces another big hurdle as he will try and return from the ACL. A lot of players would just hang it up and do something a little less taxing on the body. I give him credit though, the dude is dedicated. Maybe something clicks for Spence. But I wouldn’t count on it. The league is littered with stories of players who were physical specimens, but just weren’t very good football players.
• Ali Marpet met with the media on a Zoom call this week, and he for one thinks the entire offensive line will be better in 2020.
“I do think that our group, even though they’re the same guys, are guys that want to improve on themselves and get better, get stronger and in better shape,” he said. “So I think that you’ll see better years from everyone – Donovan will play better, Ryan will play better than the year before. I think you’ll see that everyone’s going to work to play a little bit better because we have that sort of mentality and approach, just always kind of improving on ourselves. So I really do expect better results, better results in the run game, next year.”
We’ve been hearing it for years now. Enough talk. Now it is time to show it.
• Normally the last thing in The Hook is a funny football related meme or tweet. But in light of the current situation in our country and the tragic circumstances that took place in Minnesota last week, trying to be be humorous didn’t really seem appropriate.
Instead I end it with a tweet from PewterReport.com that we put out earlier this week. Stay safe and healthy everybody, and look for ways to make a difference and a change in your community to honor George Floyd.
We at @PewterReport stand for:
an end to racism
right to non-violently protest
peace, love & unity
law & order
the Tampa Bay community
an inclusive America
Praying for George Floyd’s family & friends & all those affected by this tragedy. pic.twitter.com/9Dl9foLF4C
— PewterReport (@PewterReport) May 31, 2020