It was the standard afternoon in the Florida heat as the Bucs started practice outside for the first time since the pads came on in training camp. There are a lot of question marks surrounding the team, which is gaining more national attention thanks to its high-profile head coach, Bruce Arians, as well as the staff he’s brought along with him and the quarterback in a make-or-break year learning under him.
As such, Peter King, a long-time sportswriter with Sports Illustrated and now with NBC Sports, dropped in on Bucs practice. I caught up with him there on a couple of folding chairs behind a flimsy yellow rope, the grassy expanse of the practice fields in front of us, and asked him what his thoughts on the Bucs were ahead of the 2019 season.
You’ve known Bruce Arians a while. You’ve followed him, know him well. Do you notice a difference in him now versus a year or a year and a half ago?
“He was the classic case of a guy I thought would never coach again. I don’t know that he was necessarily burned out, I just think he had enough. He was at that age where you think, ok, he’s going to Lake Lanier in Georgia and he’s going to golf and relax and do a lot of the family things that he never got to do when he was a coach. The one thing you never count on when somebody retires is sort of the feel that person gets when they’ve actually retired because it’s one thing to say, ok that’s it, it’s over. It’s another thing to wake up every morning and say, what am I going to do today? Even though I think he enjoyed television, I don’t think he was that passionate about it. I think going in and talking to coaches and being around teams and all that stuff, I think he after a while, he started to miss it. I think when Jason Licht called him, it was a pretty easy decision for him.”
Another guy that you’ve written about and you know is entering a make-or-break year, is Jameis Winston. He has this new coach, he has this new system, he has the ‘Quarterback Whisperer’ himself. What do you think we can expect from him this year?
“I think you can expect a guy who will have his best completion percentage of his life – college or pro. At least pro.”
Is that because of the system or…?
“It’s because Bruce Arians is going to stress to him, look, there’s a little bit of a dichotomy in Bruce Arians. Number one, everybody knows him as this guy who’s probably going to throw more deep balls than any coach in football. In 2015, when they were a dominant team in Arizona, Carson Palmer led the NFL in number of deep balls he threw. So, at first you think that but he’s already told Jameis, I want you to throw to the back, get rid of it, throw checkdowns. Don’t try to throw it into tiny holes. To me, I just think that they will basically enforce efficiency with Jameis Winston. I know that it was always frustrating to Dirk Koetter that Jameis would throw some dumb interceptions, which he did do, but I think now, you’re going to see Jameis be a little bit more patient and a little bit more willing to take the little completions.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Do you think that there’s an aspect to it that will be helped by the run game? I feel like an underrated part of Bruce’s offense is the rushing attack.
“When Bruce broke into coaching, he coached under Bear Bryant and of course, he was very experienced being on coaching staffs that ran the wishbone. I mean when Bruce started his coaching career, a great running back was more important than the quarterback. Obviously, the game has changed a lot in whatever it is, 40 years, 30-some years, but I just look at him and even though he does have a certain belief in throwing the ball deep, throwing the ball downfield, I do think he also understands, ‘adapt or die.’ I think he knows that you’ve got to be able to throw the ball downfield but you also have to be able to move the chains. Look, he had a great, accurate, downfield thrower in Carson Palmer. If he becomes convinced that Jameis is as good throwing the ball down the field as Carson Palmer was, then he’ll do more of it. But, I do think he’s obviously going to do whatever it takes to move the chains.
I think the one other thing that’s going to be strange for him will be not calling plays. When I say strange, I mean like really, really strange. I don’t know when the last time was that Bruce Arians coached a football team and didn’t call the plays, but it’s been a long time.”
That has to speak volumes then of the trust that he has in [Offensive Coordinator] Byron Leftwich.
“I just don’t think he would have come back if he had to be everything. I’m not trying to say he’s an old codger and you gotta limit what he’s going to do but it’s just smart to let somebody else do that stuff. Especially when you go to a new franchise and you need to be there for all the players, not just the quarterback.”
Well, and he’s got a former head coach on staff in Todd Bowles, who has been tasked with turning around a defense that has struggled the last few years. He’s going to have a tremendous impact on the success of this team, either way.
“Look, I think Todd Bowles, what the Bucs have done, I don’t know, probably going back to Tony Dungy and the Tampa 2 is they’ve been what I would call a traditional pass rush team. So, what does that mean? It means they’re not throwing a lot of corner blitzes, they’re just more of a traditional defensive team.”
Pressure comes from the front.
“Right. And here, I mean look, I’m only going to see one practice but just talking to people you get this sense that Todd Bowles is going to send people from all over the field. I think that’s an advantage for this time of year because the harder you make it on an offense right now, the more prepared they’re going to be for whatever they see during the season.”
Well, a big part of Todd Bowles’ defense is young. The secondary, you’ve got Vernon Hargreaves as the oldest starter at 24 years old –
“That really is something.”
How much emphasis can be placed on experience at that point then?
“First of all, adding Ndamukong Suh, means that’s a great lead-by-example kind of guy. And, look, they will have a top five defense in the NFL in terms of team speed.”
I’m quoting you on that one.
“They will. And so especially in this day and age when in this division you have to catch [Saints running back] Alvin Kamara twice a season, you’ve got to catch [Panthers running backs] Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel twice a season and you’ve got to deal with [Falcons wide receiver] Julio Jones and all the weapons in Atlanta. Look, I just think there’s no doubt in my mind that speed is the name of the game today on defense in the NFL and quite honestly their team speed has a chance to be rare. I think the Bucs overall are one of the most interesting teams in the NFL right now because there’s so much about them you don’t know. Their defense, number one and number two how is the chemistry of Arians, Leftwich, Winston, Christiansen going to work. I come to all these camps and I don’t really know what’s going to happen, I just don’t, because you can know. But some of the teams I go to, like this one, I just say I could see this team doing really, really, surprisingly good things this year or I could see it taking another year.”