It's the bye week for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which means rest for the players, review time for the catches and, for us, reflection. Reflection, that is, on what has transpired during the first "half" of the 2021 season and what might be still to come for the defending Super Bowl champions.
Personally, I wanted to spend the bye by the pool, but Team Reporter Casey Phillips and Staff Writer Carmen Vitali insisted that we actually work this week, so here we are. To be fair, there is a lot to discuss regarding the 6-2 Buccaneers, who have equaled the best eight-game start in franchise history and head into their week off with the lead in the NFC South. That lead would have been quite a bit stronger if not for Sunday's loss in the Superdome but, again, things to discuss.
We've got three specific questions to address in our 2021 Midseason Reviews, as such:
- Wednesday: Biggest Surprise of the Season's First Half
- Thursday: Toughest Challenge Awaiting in the Season's Second Half
- Friday: Predicting the Buccaneers' Second-Half MVP (Non-Brady Division)
So let's get to it with Topic Number One. Since we are not going to duplicate any answers, order matters and we will rotate that order from one Roundtable to the next. Carmen draws the pole position today, followed by Casey and then me. So Carmen, take it away – tell us the most surprising thing about the first half of the Buccaneers' 2021 season.
Carmen Vitali: The offense really did get better.
Cast Casey and I on Workaholics, I guess. We just eat, sleep, breathe Buccaneer football and I will not be ashamed.
What I am ashamed of is slightly doubting how much better (read: productive) the Bucs' offense could be, especially after the tail end of a season in which they won the Super Bowl. Like I know the players all said they could get better but forgive me if I thought that was just some 'football speak' for an offense that was already tops in the league.
Turns out, it wasn't and Tampa Bay, along with its 44-year-old quarterback, are on a historic pace while far surpassing their numbers from their championship season. Through eight games, the Bucs have scored 260 points, which is the most in franchise history, topping last year's total by 13. Tampa Bay also has their second-highest total in both net yards with 3,385 and passing yards with 2,620, which has helped them match their best record through eight games as they sit at 6-2, like Scott said above.
The biggest factor in the uptick in production seems to be the grasp quarterback Tom Brady has on the offense. With him at the reins and the group of horses, or rather, stallions he has on offense, he's putting up career numbers, while also leading the race among all NFL quarterbacks this season. Brady leads the league in passing yards with 2,650 and passing touchdowns with 25 through eight games. That makes him one of three players ever to have over 2,500 passing yards and 25 or more touchdowns in the first eight games of a season. His passing yards total ranks 10th all-time and tops Bucs history books, along with his touchdown total. This past game in New Orleans, Brady actually broke another of long-time Saint Drew Brees' records. Brady threw for four touchdowns in the game, which gave him 98 career games with three or more touchdown passes, surpassing Brees' total of 97. It was his 38th game with four or more touchdowns, which surpassed Brees' total of 37. Brady has now tied Peyton Manning for most seasons with over 25 touchdown passes and we aren't even halfway through the darn thing. He's on pace to best his single-season high of 50 touchdowns and if he keeps it up, he'll pretty easily break Peyton Manning's single-season passing yards record of 5,477.
Then there's the emergence of the ground game, with Leonard Fournette ranking third in scrimmage yards among all running backs this year with 466. That's helped open up the passing game for Brady and is a product of the elite level of play from the offensive line. I could go on and on (and on) but I've already written a novel when this is supposed to be a quick discussion. The point is, it's not that I'm surprised the offense is doing so well but this well? I don't think anyone predicted that.
Casey Phillips: You can be 6-2 with a secondary one injury away from putting me in the game
If I told you before the season the Bucs would at some point in the first eight games be without Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy Bunting, Jamel Dean, Antoine Winfield Jr. and they would add Richard Sherman and lose him, how would you have reacted? In a league that is so pass happy with so many rules that favor the offense, losing practically your entire secondary can be a death sentence.
Of course, my surprise of the first half is tied to Carmen's, because part of why a team can be 6-2 with that many defensive injuries is because the offense is that dang good. But it's also because you have a defensive front that is again allowing the least rushing yards per game of any team in the league. And it's also because you have a GM and front office staff who are absolute experts at finding the diamonds in the rough. When you can have both Dee Delaney and Pierre Desir get interceptions in a single game as the next-next-next man up, that's impressive. And finally, you can be 6-2 with a depleted secondary when you have a defensive coordinator like Todd Bowles and his staff who know how to craft a scheme to the players at his disposal and bring out the best in everyone.
None of those aspects of this team surprise me. Last year was plenty of evidence that this was an offense with insane possibilities, a gifted scouting department and coaching staff, and a phenomenal run defense. But the fact they were each consistent and strong enough to shore up a secondary down so many pieces, that is enough to earn a mention from me on this roundtable.
Scott Smith: That the aforementioned 6-2 record, matching the best start in franchise history, wouldn't tag the defending champs as a clear NFC favorite.
Okay, going third on this one was a little tough. Carmen and Casey (rightfully) took most of the good stuff. Offense: Really, really good. Defense: Surprisingly effective with so many injuries. I mean, that's the first half of the season in a nutshell. I guess I could try to wax poetic about the Bucs' special teams, which clearly are improved this year, but, yeah, your eyes just glazed over.
What I will do instead is step back for a wider view of this season. The Buccaneers are 6-2 after eight games for the second year in a row, but this one just feels more like a sure thing in terms of making the playoffs. Last year at the midway point the offense hadn't fully jelled and was a bit erratic, the team was struggling in every prime-time national appearance and some very tough opponents were lined up for the next month.
And yet, those 2020 Bucs were just a half-game behind the best record in the NFC. If the playoffs had started that week, they would have been the number-two seed. The NFC East was a dumpster fire, the Bucs had thrashed the NFC North-leading Packers in Week Six and they were alone in first in the South. The 49ers weren't the contenders they were expected to be and the Cardinals were about to fall off after a hot start. In retrospect, the Bucs were actually sitting pretty after eight weeks last year. (Things wouldn't look quite as rosy a month later, before Tampa Bay's big surge.)
This year? The NFC at the midway point looks about as tough to call as an episode of Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races. (Too old of a reference. Yeah, probably. For you young'uns, the best thing about the Wacky Races is that it seemed like a different team won every week. It wasn't just Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner beating Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote every time.)
But I digress. The top of the NFC at the (sort-of) halfway point in 2021 is incredibly top-heavy with teams that look like true contenders. You'd think the defending champs at 6-2 would be clear favorites, or at least close to it, but that's not the case. And just like in Wacky Races every team seems to have its own gimmick. The Bucs have a 44-year-old quarterback leading the league in passing. The Rams have a hired gun transforming their offense into a powerhouse. The Cardinals have a water bug with a cannon under center. The Packers have a quarterback who can win with any receiver you give him. The Cowboys have a rejuvenated Ezekiel Elliott and a receiving corps to challenge the Bucs' own. And even the Saints, who just beat the Bucs on Sunday, have perhaps the deepest and most balanced defense in the league.
The NFC South standings are almost exactly what they were last year at this point, with the 6-2 Bucs up a half-game on the 5-2 Saints but the Saints holding a tiebreaker from a win in New Orleans. But if the playoffs started today, Tampa Bay would be the fourth seed and they'd be drawing the 7-1 Rams in the first round. The same Rams who beat them, albeit in Los Angeles, in Week Three.
Frankly, as an NFL fan, I'm loving this. The second half in the National Football Conference is going to be wiiiiiiiiiild. I very much do believe that the Buccaneers remain top title contenders, for the reasons Carmen and Casey ran down up above and because they are the defending champs, but they are certainly not clear-cut favorites. I can't tell you who is at this point, and that's what's so great about it.