The 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers definitely improved in the second half of Bruce Arians' first season as head coach. Most notably and simply, they got better at beating the opposition, following up a 2-6 first half with a 5-3 run to the end.
Now, as they transition to 2020 and a second year under Arians' guidance, they need to get better at not beating themselves. Arians said that will happen.
"We will quit beating ourselves and then we'll be hard to beat," he said. "The penalties, the turnovers…there were very, very few missed assignments anymore. The accountability is there. They play extremely hard and we'll be a tough out."
First, the turnaround.
This was most notable on defense, specifically the pass defense, which in the early going looked as if it would continue to struggle the way it had in recent seasons before the arrival of Arians and his coaching staff. The Bucs hit a low of 26th in the league's yardage ranks in October but then steadily improved to 15th by the end of the year. If one prefers the DVOA assessment on Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers actually climbed all the way to fifth by season's end, right between Baltimore and Buffalo.
Over their first eight games, the Buccaneers were outscored by their opponents by 22 points, the 23rd-best points differential in the league at that point. Over their last eight games, the Bucs outscored their opponents by 31 points, the eighth-best differential in that span. The difference in yardage gained and allowed between the two halves was even more stark. The Bucs had 40 more yards than their opponents after eight games, which was the 16th best differential in the league; over their last eight games, the Bucs had a yardage differential of plus-823, second in the league only to the team with the NFL's best record, the Ravens.
All of this gave Arians reason to believe his team was prepared to start much better in 2020 than they did in 2019. He would have liked to have held on to wins over Houston and Atlanta in the season's last two weeks to get a winning record, and he knows there are inevitable roster changes coming, but Arians thinks his team has already taken the biggest step forward.
"I think we turned it around," he said. "The last month or so we were very competitive. Still should have won those last two ball games – learn from those mistakes and build on it. [We'll] add new players like we always do. Try to keep the best we have and move on."
Now, the things that still need to be turned around.
Arians mentioned penalties and turnovers, and indeed Tampa Bay was one of the league's worst offenders in both categories. The Buccaneers committed 133 accepted penalties in 2019, the most in the NFL, and their penalty yardage total of 1111 was the league's third-highest. Arians and his staff will work hard to make sure there are fewer self-inflicted wounds in 2020.
"I pride myself on having a smart football team and we were not a smart football team," he said. "[That is] one of the areas we will address this offseason."
Is Arians right to have pride in his track record in that regard? Indeed, he is. The five Arizona teams he helmed (2013-17) were consistently low in the penalty rankings, only once (in 2017) landing as high as 10th in most infractions, and even that year the Cardinals were 23rd in penalty yards. Arians' first team in the desert committed the 18th-most penalties and then that dropped to 27th and 29th the next two years as the Cardinals went a combined 24-8 and made the playoffs twice. Arians would have to share credit with Chuck Pagano for the Indianapolis team he took over in 2012, but that squad also committed just the 25th-most penalties in the league, for the 26th-most yards.
And, of course, Tampa Bay's turnovers were a problem that never got fixed. The Buccaneers led the NFL in points scored off takeaways with 130, which one would expect to be associated with a winning record. Unfortunately, that was almost completely negated by the 128 points the Bucs allowed off giveaways. The Buccaneers were -5 in turnover ratio through their first eight games, 26th in the NFL. They were -8, 30th in the league, over the last eight.
"The things we did offensively were historic – some were historic in the wrong way and some were historic in the right way," said Arians.
After Tampa Bay's season ended with a 28-22 overtime loss to Atlanta on December 29, Arians had one more opportunity to address his first Bucs squad before it dispersed for a much-deserved break. He wanted them to understand where they were after that improved second half to the season, and where it meant they should be next September.
"The biggest message was I think the difference between us and the New Orleans Saints," said Arians. "In September, they knew they were going to win the division. We thought we might, but we weren't sure and it was too late by October. You lose playoffs in September sometimes. A lot of people don't like talking about that. When you start losing games in September they come back to bite you in December and some of those did for us. I think it was just, 'Maybe we're good enough,' not really knowing. I think next year when we step on the field we should know we're good enough."
View some of the top game pictures from the Buccaneers' 2019 NFL season.