When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV at the end of the 2020 season, they were notably led by a 43-year-old quarterback venturing into territory previously uncharted in NFL history. But Tom Brady wasn't exactly the lone seasoned veteran on that team, surrounded by young pups. The Buccaneers' offense, in particular, had a decidedly veteran bent to it.
Of the 14 players who saw the most snaps on offense during the 2020 regular season, only one – standout right tackle Tristan Wirfs – was a rookie. Reserve wide receiver Scotty Miller was the only second-year player in the bunch, and eight of those 14 players were at least 27 years old. After winning that championship, the Bucs essentially ran back the exact same cast in 2021, just everybody a year older and with some very valuable added experience.
That across-the-board continuity between seasons is more the exception than the norm in the NFL, and the Buccaneers' 2022 team has experienced a much more typical amount of roster turnover. That plus some key early-season injuries have led to the inevitable: The Buccaneers' offense is relying more on rookies and young players than it has in some time, certainly since Brady's arrival.
Integrating in multiple new players with a minimal amount of NFL experience increases the level of difficulty when it comes to keeping an offense running smoothly. Over 23 seasons, Brady has obviously seen this many times before, and while it's not as easy as running it back with the same crew year after year, it eventually becomes a necessity. Making it work is a balancing act.
"I think it's always tough to put too much on the rookies," said Brady. "It's just a lot to…I just remember when I was a rookie, it is a very challenging time. You just don't have the experience to kind of make all the right decisions. So when you play with veteran players there's a degree of confidence you have because, even though you may not have talked about something, they'll still do it basically the way that you want it. It may not be exactly right but pretty close. Rookies, it's hard. There's a huge learning curve."
The Buccaneers are starting rookie Luke Goedeke at left guard and second-year player Robert Hainsey at center. Neither had logged an NFL start before Week. Both are replacing 2021 Pro Bowlers. Cade Otton is essentially a co-starter with Cam Brate and has played the most snaps of any of the team's tight ends. Ko Kieft, the Buccaneers' other rookie tight end, is getting a good amount of work on offense, primarily as a blocker. Running back Rachaad White, the Bucs' third-round draft pick this year, is seeing his playing time increase steadily as he gives the backfield a viable second option to Leonard Fournette. First-year tackle Brandon Walton got a start at left tackle when both Donovan Smith and Josh Wells were hurt.
Goedeke and Hainsey are obviously on the field for every play and they've been part of a line that has allowed only six sacks in five games, including just one over the last two outings, during which Brady made 103 drop-backs. And Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich has found a way to get useful production out of White and Otton when some of the team's more experienced skill players have been hurt or in need of a break.
"Byron does a great job of making sure when they are in there they're doing things that we're all confident in them doing, and not putting people in positions to not do well," said Brady. "You've got to do the best you can do. Every team has young players, every team has veteran players, every team has guys who haven't played much. It's what everyone deals with, you've just got to do the best you can do. You wish that you'd have a veteran group that could play every play for 16 weeks, 17 weeks, but that's not the reality. The guys we have in there are doing a good job, and we're going to keep pushing and keep trying to keep the pressure on everybody to try to make us a better football team."
The Buccaneers led the NFL in scoring over Brady's first two seasons in Tampa combined, producing 30.4 points per game. They put up 30 or more points in 23 of a possible 39 games, playoffs included, in that span, including nine straight in a streak from December of 2020 through September of 2021. Through five games this season, the Bucs are averaging 20.6 points per game. Scoring is down across the NFL, but Tampa Bay is tied for 19th in that category, which is a far cry from what Buccaneer fans have become used to in the Brady era.
There's a sense that the Bucs' offense, with its new and young contributors, is building towards a more explosive output. On Thursday, Leftwich shared his feeling that the group was "close" to breaking out. Brady, Leftwich and company aren't chasing those numbers from the last two seasons and really only care what more scoring means to the bottom line in the standings.
"I think we're just going to work at it every day and get to be as good as we can possibly be," said Brady. "What we can be compared to other years, I don't think that's what our goal is. We've got to maximize our potential. There's a different team, a different group of guys. I don't think any of us have played to the level we're capable of. We're going to keep pushing at it and try to put a little pressure on each other to bring the best out of us."