The Buccaneer offense ended the season looking like the offense we all expected after a whirlwind of an offseason that brought arguably the greatest quarterback of all time to Tampa Bay. Add in a couple more veteran offensive pieces, like tight end Rob Gronkowski fresh out of retirement (literally) and running backs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy, and on paper it started to look like the Avengers had become Buccaneers.
The question was of course, how it would all end up working out and just how long it would take for this unit to live up to its potential and expectations.
Now, we pretty much have that answer. The Buccaneers scored It was a bit of a roller coaster for the first three quarters of the season, but the consistency wasn't quite there. We've heard from multiple players and Head Coach Bruce Arians himself that time was what these players needed. Time to learn the offense, time to learn each other and just plain, old time together. And we all know, there's no substitute for time, no matter how much quarterback Tom Brady seemingly defies it.
In a lot of ways, he's done it again. He learned a brand-new offense with a brand new team for the first time in two decades and shattered records left and right in the process. When all was said and done, by the time the clock struck midnight on the 2020 regular season, Brady had 4,633 passing yards, good for the second-most by a Buccaneer quarterback ever and 40 touchdown passes, which sets the Bucs' single-season record and breaks Peyton Manning's record for most touchdowns thrown by a quarterback in his first season with a new team – yes, rookies included. Brady accounted for three more touchdowns on the ground, which matched the second-highest total of his career and gave the 43-year-old 43 total touchdowns on the year.
And he's not turning back into a pumpkin any time soon. Neither is the rest of the Bucs' offensive weaponry. The offense finished the 2020 regular season as the third-best scoring offense, averaging 30.8 points per game, finished fourth in passing offense, averaging 298.5 yards through the air and seventh in overall offense with a per-game average of 384.1 all-purpose yards.
But how did we get here? Let's take a look at some emerging themes and crucial improvements as the Bucs' offense evolved into what we're seeing lately.
The Run Game
"When you talk about running the football – it's not the number of runs, it's the quality of the runs."
Those were the words of Arians just a couple weeks ago and it sheds some light into how this offense approaches the run. Are the Bucs ever going to lead the league in running back carries or rushing yards in this offense? Probably not. But that's when you step and think about – what is it I want to accomplish with the run game? With a plethora of passing options, they're surely a strength of this team, so what you're trying to do is create opportunities that play to your offense's strengths. Arians said he classifies any run over four yards as a win and if you have enough of them – say a 50% run efficiency rate, teams have to respect that.
Of course, when you can capitalize on when teams don't – that helps, too. Take for instance, this run by Leonard Fournette in Las Vegas. On first and 10 the Bucs come out in 12 personnel, or what for all intents and purposes is 12 as Joe Haeg is in as an extra blocker. Now, that doesn't necessarily tip the Bucs' hand that it's a run but at the very least, the defense shouldn't get surprised by one. But watch what happens as the Bucs send wide receiver Chris Godwin into motion – look at how the defense completely shifts. Godwin brings the eyes of several defenders with him and away from the running back side. The Raiders are left with a corner to defend both Gronk, if he goes vertical, and Fournette. Well, Gronk handles him easily and provides the one block Fournette needs to turn on the jets.
Fournette's counterpart, Ronald Jones, finished with his most yards on the ground yet with 978 and seven rushing touchdowns, and that was despite splitting carries three ways. Jones was ranked as high as fourth in the league in rushing yards before he had to miss some time. Fournette finished with six rushing touchdowns himself. The Buccaneers were productive on the ground and opened the door for the passing offense to really shine.
Something else noteworthy in this game when it comes to the run and what it sets up is actually how it started. Play action was a hot topic this season and the Bucs' success rate and usage of it. Well, you have to be able to sell the run to utilize play action because the defense has to buy into it as a threat. That way, you can sometimes get defenders to bite on the play fake and slow them down in order to create mismatches and leverage advantages. But again, it's predicated that the defense thinks you might actually run the ball.
Well, going into this game, the Bucs had two games where they had over 100 yards on the ground. Ronald Jones was coming off back-to-back 100-yard games himself. So what did the Bucs do to open the game against the Raiders? They ran play action, relying on their previous performances to sell the threat of the run.
Now, the pass fell incomplete, but the decision to do that is proof that the Bucs' run game was starting to become more effective. Brady and Gronk didn't quite have their sea legs under them yet but don't worry – they seem to have them now.
This brings me to the last game of the season. The Bucs didn't quite have 100 yards on the ground on the day but the quality of runs they had were enough to set up play action, which the Bucs used on their first touchdown of the day to Chris Godwin. Take a look.
All you need is Brady making that turn – he doesn't even need to actually fake the handoff, in order to get 22 to come down and occupy the eyes of the deep safety long enough so that a linebacker is somehow now one on one with Chris Godwin. Yeah, Godwin is going to win that every time.
The Red Zone
A place where the Buccaneers, and Tom Brady specifically, excel is inside the 20-yard line. They scored on 42 of 61 trips inside the red zone and Tampa Bay finished the regular season first in red zone scoring percentage at 95.1%. They scored the fourth-most touchdowns inside the red zone with 42 and Brady is obviously a huge reason why.
Unsurprisingly, Brady led all quarterbacks this season in red zone scoring percentage (obviously) but he had the third-most red zone touchdowns, including the three he snuck in himself and had the third-most red zone passing touchdowns with 28.
It went hand-in-hand with having one of the best go-up-and-get-it wide receivers in Mike Evans, who Brady went to 18 times in the red zone, which is tied for the fourth-most of any qualified receiver his season. Evans finished the year with nine of his 13 touchdowns coming inside the 20-yard line, giving him the third-most red zone receptions of any player this season.
Here's a pair of one-yard touchdowns caught very different ways in Denver. You can't leave Evans one-on-one in the red zone. You just can't.
Among that same set of qualified receivers, Scotty Miller is actually tied for the best red zone reception percentage in the league. Miller caught all three of his red zone targets this year and one for a touchdown. Godwin comes in at number 10 in catch percentage, catching six of nine targets for an 88.9% catch rate. Six of Godwin's seven touchdowns on the year were red zone touchdowns.
It's interesting just considering shorter fields usually make it harder on offenses. There's not as much room to work with, the defense is on top of you and you pare down your playbook to designated red-zone plays. But leave it up to Brady to excel where others don't, right?
This is another one of those things that really just needed time to come along. The offensive line is perhaps the most cohesive position group on the field. They truly are only as strong as their weakest link. And not only were they getting used to a rookie at right tackle (who doesn't play like a rookie at all, I know, but he is still new), but they also had a brand-new quarterback to learn. They have to all be on the same page and work as one in accordance with how Brady likes to do things and his style of play.
And can we just get a moment of admiration for the aforementioned rookie in Tristan Wirfs? From the moment he stepped on the field for the Bucs, he hasn't looked like a rookie. Despite the fact that he was tested very early on, he held up against some of the best pass-rushing talent in the league.
Wirfs allowed one sack all season by PFF's metrics. That was in over 1,000 snaps played, mind you. Among NFL right tackles with at least 750 snaps, Wirfs ranked second on PFF's scale with a grade of 80.1.
I digress. The overall pass protection of the offensive line improved over the course of the season. They finished with the second-lowest sack rate in the league, allowing a sack on just 3.59% of pass attempts. And yes, part of that is because Brady knows when to get rid of the ball and does so quickly. But let's not forget that this isn't the dink-and-dunk offense Brady is used to. The Bucs' offense is a vertical one. Arians loves to take shots down the field. In order for those big plays to develop, you have to hold onto the ball a bit longer. Brady was able to do that with the help of the offensive line.
Which brings us to last but not least…
The Deep Ball
bUt tOM BraDy cANt ThROw tHe dEEP bALL
Yes, he can.