Featured image: Courtesy of the Buccaneers
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.
“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.”
Back in the first week of June, my Hook column addressed the upcoming season and which player might have the biggest impact on the success – or disappointment – in Tampa Bay during the 2020 campaign.
I didn’t come up with quarterback Tom Brady, or outside linebacker Shaq Barrett or cornerback Carlton Davis III. While certainly crucial pieces, the Bucs, on offense in particular, would go the way left tackle Donovan Smith goes.
After one game Smith is 0-1.
And not surprisingly, so are the Buccaneers.
Let’s be clear. Smith didn’t lose the game for the Buccaneers on Sunday, but he had a hand in giving up two of Tampa Bay’s three sacks, as well as four pressures, one hit and one hurry, in addition to a penalty.
Smith didn’t throw any interceptions. Smith didn’t mishandle a kickoff, and Smith didn’t let Saints’ tight end Jared Cook run free down the sideline for a 46-yard pass reception.
While Smith didn’t lose the game on Sunday, he also didn’t contribute much to the limited success on offense. As we have seen from Smith over his career, he tends to have these momentary lapses of what some might describe as laziness.
In the second quarter on Sunday, with Tampa Bay driving, Smith was beaten on a running play that resulted in a four-yard loss. On the second down play, Brady was pressured and his pass intended for Cam Brate was incomplete. Next was a 3rd-and-14 situation and Smith gave up a sack that pushed the ball back five more yards and in came kicker Ryan Succop for a 54-yard field goal attempt that was blocked.
Smith didn’t miss the block that allowed Margus Hunt to get a hand on Succop’s attempt, but he did cost his team nine yards in two plays where he was clearly beaten.
Tampa Bay head coach Arians wasn’t pleased with Smith’s effort on that series and had this to say about it in Monday’s press conference.
“I was very disappointed in his play,” Arians said. “I think every now and then he reverts back to some techniques that are not very good [and] he got beat. He had, probably, the easiest guy to block up there and he did a poor job. It was one of his poorer games and expect for him to bounce back this week, yes.”
On social media, some fans were calling for the Bucs to cut Smith. That won’t happen.
Like it or not, Smith is still the team’s best option at left tackle.
It is kind of crazy to think that Smith’s game actually looked worse in some respects because of how well right tackle rookie Tristan Wirfs played in his NFL debut. So naturally there were some who were calling for the Bucs to replace Smith with Wirfs.
Slam the breaks on that idea as well.
The Bucs have spent all of the abbreviated offseason getting Wirfs ready to play on the right side, and have spent little, if any, time working him on the left side of the line. Wirfs was a right tackle in college primarily, although he did start three games on the left side last year due to injury, and just throwing a player on the other side of the line of scrimmage, especially a young player, would be difficult to say the least.
I spoke to a former NFL tackle, that previously played in Tampa Bay and is now out of football, and asked him about Wirfs possibly making a switch.
“First of all, they aren’t going to switch him, they are paying Donovan too much to play there,” the former player said. “It could be done, I did it one year after just two weeks of practice, but it would be tough as a rookie with no offseason.”
So there goes pretty much that thought.
What about signing a free agent?
At this point into the season those guys are on a team already and serviceable left tackles are just wandering the streets, in shape and ready to play. Smith is better than either of his backups – Josh Wells or Joe Haeg. That’s why he’s starting.
And next year’s crop of potential free agent tackles looks to be slim pickings at first glance, and that’s even if teams don’t sign them back before free agency.
One player the Bucs could have had this past offseason is San Francisco left tackle Trent Williams, who wanted out of Washington. The 49ers were able to get Williams for a fifth-round draft pick in 2020 and a third-rounder next year. But at age 33 it was a steep price to pay for a player, who only has one year left on his deal and has had some medical issues in the past.
Although it might have been worth it, as Williams graded out as second-best tackle in the NFL in Week 1 according to Pro Football Focus, surrendering just one pressure in the 49ers’ loss to the Cardinals on Sunday.
Smith, on the other hand, graded out as the 41st tackle – out of the 64 that started on Sunday. PFF gave him a 64 grade and a 58.8 pass blocking grade against the Saints.
Tampa Bay’s 0-1 start can’t solely be pinned on Smith of course, but how far the Buccaneers go this season will go partly determined by how well Smith plays for the rest of the season. This was supposed to be the year that Smith lived up to his potential.
I still remember asking former offensive line coach George Warhop prior to the 2017 season, how good Smith could be.
“He is an unbelievable talent,” Warhop said. “When I say he’s unbelievable I think he literally can be one of the top two or three tackles in the league.”
A year earlier, in 2016, Warhop had this to say about Smith.
“He hasn’t scratched the surface as to his potential,” Warhop said. “It’s up to him whether he wants to reach it or not, but he has unbelievable potential.”
And just earlier this month offensive line coach Joe Gilbert was still talking about the inconsistencies in Smith’s game.
“We can say everything we want as a coach, but if the player doesn’t buy into it, then it’s not going to go anywhere,” Gilbert told the media on September 1. “I think that’s one thing he’s [Smith] realized. That 60 out of 65 plays aren’t good enough. And that’s one thing that he’s trying to work on.
“The other day when [Arians] said we had a bad offensive practice. You know, as I said to [Smith], I said, ‘Hey, you know it’s one thing about having a bad play, you can’t have a bad day.’ And he said, ‘I had a bad day.’ And that was coming from him. So he’s starting to realize that and we just have to keep working to minimize the bad reps that he has, and the bad plays in a ballgame.”
Six years in and not a lot has changed.
So what do the Buccaneers do? What can they do?
I suppose hope that Smith responds to the criticism and comes with his “A” game this week against the Panthers and for the rest of the season?
That is pretty much the plan for 2020. And if Smith doesn’t show improvement, the team likely moves on, as his $14.25 million base salary in 2021 isn’t guaranteed, and looks to draft a new starter in 2021.
Or perhaps the Bucs use next offseason to get Wirfs ready to play the left side.
For the record, I personally like Smith. He has always been a good source of quotes for the media, and has been a part of some of our charity events in the past, not to mention his own annual bowling event that raises money and awareness for Autism Speaks, a cause near and dear to his heart.
Let’s face it, Smith is a warrior who has missed one start in his 81-game career, playing through injuries and being dependable. His teammates like him, the organization likes him, but everyone needs him to be better.
Hopefully Smith’s game against the Saints was just a bump in the road. Hopefully that was the worst game he has all season. Hopefully Smith plays so well the rest of the year that the team doesn’t even think twice about bringing him and his $14.25 million salary back in 2021.Hopefully.But at the end of the day, Smith himself – and no one else – can decide how it plays out.
• Oh no, the sky is falling! Many Tampa Bay fans are on the edge and some want to jump after Sunday’s 34-23 loss at New Orleans. While disappointing, it isn’t the end of the world. I mean the end of the world might actually be very near, but it won’t because of Buccaneers losses that it ends.
By now we have all seen the stat. Tom Brady has lost three season openers. He tended to follow those losses up with pretty darn successful seasons, huh?
Tom Brady has made the Super Bowl in every season he’s lost the opening game 😲
2003: Lost 31-0 ➡ won Super Bowl
2014: Lost 33-20 ➡ won Super Bowl
2017: Lost 42-27 ➡ made Super Bowl app
2020: Lost 34-23 ➡ ???
Pencil the Buccaneers in for a Super Bowl run? pic.twitter.com/fmOzyX96MT
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) September 16, 2020
• Vita Vea – oh Vita.
What was with your Chris “Swaggy” Baker imitation on Sunday after jumping offsides on fourth-and-2 giving the Saints a first down?
I know it was said in the huddle, I know it was screamed from the sidelines, I know you knew to watch the ball and not fall for the hard count of veteran signal caller Drew Brees.
When Bruce Arians talks about the “Bucs beating the Bucs,” look no further than that critical gaffe that might have been a turning point in the game, as the Saints drove down the field and kicked a field goal to increase their lead to 17-7 right before halftime.
I’m still pulling my hair out after that one.
• And finally, hat’s off to the NFL for their COVID-19 handling. I was very skeptical of an NFL season, and it has yet to be determined if they make it 16 games, but the results so far have been outstanding.
In the most recent data released, 2,511 players received 15,959 tests during the testing period from Sept. 6-12, and 4,926 other team personnel received 24,520 tests during the same period.
The results? Just two NFL players and five other personnel produced positive COVID-19 tests.
As someone who was born in Germany, I found this Tom Brady video clip particularly hilarious!
The reaction these German broadcasters had to hearing Tom Brady curse after a touchdown is priceless 😂 pic.twitter.com/8A6pmQ3EKa
— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) September 16, 2020