NFL coaches can have a varying level of tolerance for statistics. At times, the s-word sounds like invective coming out of their mouths. And it's certainly true that numbers can be misinterpreted or taken with too little context to have meaning.
For instance, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 0-4 in 2018 when they ran the ball 20 times or fewer, but they were 4-0 when they ran it more than 30 times. Does that mean the Bucs should have gone into each game determined to execute at least 31 handoffs no matter what? Of course not. In this particular case, there's a very common confusion of causation here – teams run more when they are winning, which is why higher carry totals are often associated with winning teams.
That said, there are undeniably some statistics that do a good job of illustrating what a team is doing right and wrong. As an example, Tampa Bay turned the ball over a league-high 35 times in 2018, or more than two per game, and that most definitely played a big part in many of their 11 losses. On the flip side, the Buccaneers' offense was one of the best in the league in converting on third downs (46.0%), which helps explain how they put up the third-most yards in the league and were often able to climb back into a game after turnover-induced woes put them in an early hole.
The Buccaneers' 2018 season is complete, which means all the numbers generated by an NFL season (and there are lots of them) are locked in stone. Yes, we've moved on to 2019 – we even have a new head coach! – but there's still value in looking back at how 2018 unfolded. We're going to do just that, plus look ahead to the coming offseason in a series of Roundtable discussions this month. I'll be joined by Team Reporter Casey Phillips and Staff Writer Carmen Vitali in these discussions, and our first topic is what I hinted at above: the Most Significant Statistics from the Buccaneers' 2018 season. Which numbers most succinctly tell the tale of what went right and what went wrong for the Buccaneers? We'll each pick one statistic in both categories, good and bad, and explain why we believe them to be particularly meaningful.
And please, Carmen and Casey: I know the most important numbers were 5-11 (wins and losses), followed by 396 and 464 (points for and against). Let's dig just a little bit deeper to illuminate the factors that led to those top-level statistics.
Since stats are kinda my thing, I'm going to go first this time. Carmen, please follow me and then Casey can wrap it up.
Scott Smith: 8:57 Yards Per Pass Attempt
The Buccaneers had the NFL's number-one ranked passing attack in 2018, which is based on total net yards. They did not throw the most passes (they were fourth at 625) or complete the highest percentage of their throws (19th at 65.3%), but when they did record a completion it was usually for a good chunk of yards.
Tampa Bay averaged 8.57 yards per pass attempt in 2018, second in the NFL behind the 8.79 posted by Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs' dynamic offense. That's also the highest single-season average in the Bucs' 43-year franchise history, and by nearly an entire yard. The Buccaneers' jump in yards per attempt this year is actually remarkable; sure, they had also set a new franchise record the previous season, but in that case had only improved it from 7.56 to 7.61. That was an increase of 0.66% over the standing record; this year, the Bucs improved on the old record by 12.61%.
Throwing the ball down the field was what the Buccaneers did best in 2018, whether Ryan Fitzpatrick (9.62 yards per attempt) or Jameis Winston (7.92 yards per attempt) was at the helm of the offense. There are some additional numbers to back this point up. For instance, the average number of yards Buccaneer pass-catchers already had at the point of the reception in 2018 was 8.8, which was far and away the highest total in the league. Seattle was second at 7.4 and only two other teams even hit 7.0. Tampa Bay also completed 71 passes of 20 or more yards, the second-most in the NFL behind Kansas City's 76.
Those numbers, and in particular the yards per attempt figure, confirm what we witnessed with our eyes when the Bucs' offense was on the field this year. Tampa Bay had a collection of pass-catchers who could get open downfield – particularly Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard – plus a slot receiver who could turn short passes into big gains in Adam Humphries. Fitzpatrick started seven games and was probably the better of the two passers at hitting very deep passes downfield. Winston started the other nine games and once again proved proficient at difficult medium-range passes such as the deep out. Winston also threw very well while on the run, picking up a number of big plays when his pass-catchers went into scramble mode.
Carmen Vitali: 265 Passing First Downs
That's a nice segue into a little bit broader of a stat that shows just how much offense we witnessed this past season. The Buccaneers tied for second in the league in first downs, moving the chains 345 times in the regular season along with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Los Angeles Rams were the only team that had more with 370. More specifically, most of those first downs for the Bucs came via the pass, which is a category in which Tampa Bay actually led the NFL, with 265. It was the second-highest single-season total for any NFL team since 2014, in fact. And get this: This is the second consecutive year the Bucs have led in the category, meaning the Bucs were passing before it was cool.
Statistically, the passing game was – and don't kill me for this, Scott – literally second-to-none. What's crazy is that receiver Mike Evans is the only one that ranks in the top 10 in the league, individually, in receiving first downs; he ranks tied for fifth with Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce at 68. Consider that he has a 17.7 yard-per-reception average and those first downs suddenly mean a lot more. Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries are tied with 48 apiece as the Bucs' next highest, which ranks them 21st in the league. What that really shows is just how many productive receivers the Bucs had. Four of them went over 750 yards for the season; just throw DeSean Jackson and his 18.9 yard-per-catch average in there, too. It's no wonder passing first downs came by the dozen this past season in moving the Bucs up and down the field.
Casey Phillips: 16 More Sacks in 2018
We could pick offensive stats all day long with the 2018 Bucs squad, so I decided to give the defense a little love. Before anyone accuses me of being too "Pollyanna," I know that a lot of the defensive statistics weren't what the team hoped they would be or knew they were capable of in 2018. So instead of picking just one stat from this year, I wanted to focus on the improvement from last year, as well as improvement as the season progressed.
The Bucs defense went from a league-low 22 sacks in 2017 to 38 sacks in 2018, which was middle of the pack in the rankings. Newcomers to the team Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib definitely deserve a hefty share of the credit for that stat. JPP finally broke the franchise double-digit sack barrier that had stood since Simeon Rice in 2005, netting 12.5 sacks on the year. Carl Nassib was a huge and very welcome surprise, contributing 6.5 sacks after being cut by the Browns before the season.
Even though I probably don't have to tell you how important sacks can be…I'm going to do it anyway. This year the team was 1-8 when getting 2 or fewer sacks, and 4-3 when getting 3 or more. And the improvement in the sack category wasn't just from 2017 to 2018; there was also marked improvement during the season. The team averaged 1.8 sacks per game in the first 5 games. Then that jumped to 3.4 sacks a game over the next 7 weeks. Hopefully that marked the turning of a corner for this Bucs defense and the momentum can carry over to next season. If the team could get sacks at a rate like they did later in 2018 for the entire 2019 season, this unit could be scary.
Scott Smith: 77.6% Defensive Red Zone Touchdown Efficiency
Make no mistake, that's a very bad number. Buccaneer opponents breached their red zone 58 times in 2018 and came away with touchdowns on 45 of those trips. The resulting defensive touchdown efficiency of 77.6% was not only the worst in the NFL in 2018 but the worst any team has finished with since at least the turn of the millennium. Red zone numbers prior to 2000 are not as readily available.
In contrast, Tampa Bay's defense had a red zone TD rate of 54.7% in 2017, which was still just middle of the pack in the NFL ranking but obviously quite a bit better. The Buccaneers also gave up a league-high 4.9 yards per play inside their 30-yard line and 4.1 yards per play inside the 20.
This is significant because so many games are decided by a single score. The Buccaneers played nine "one-score" games in 2018 and finished 3-6 in those contests. Five of those games were decided by three or fewer points, and the Bucs were 1-4 in those outings. Had they been able to force a few more field goals on red zone drives – and maybe get the occasional turnover near their own goal line – the outcomes of those games could have been quite different.
Carmen Vitali: Negative-18 Turnover Differential
This was easily the most significant statistic that contributed to the Bucs' less-than-stellar season in 2018: They finished second-to-last in turnover differential at -18. Only the San Francisco 49ers were worse at an abysmal -25. Four of the Bucs' five wins this past season came when they either won or broke even on the turnover margin, if that's any indication on how telling this statistic is.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay suffered a severe downturn in takeaways this season, recording just 17 on the year. That was extremely uncharacteristic of the defense given their success at taking the ball away the previous two seasons, when they had created the third-most turnovers over the course of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, with 55, and ranked in the top ten in interceptions in that span.
The 2018 Bucs, however, went through a turnover drought in which the team got just one takeaway over the course of seven weeks in the middle of the season, and that one came on special teams. The good news is that towards the tail end of 2018, the Bucs got significantly better at taking the ball away. The drought was broken in Week 12 in the Bucs' win over San Francisco, as the defense picked off 49ers' quarterback Nick Mullens twice in the game.
The following week, the secondary recorded four interceptions off Carolina's Cam Newton in the Bucs' win over the Panthers. Yes, that was the Andrew Adams hat trick game. Down the stretch, though, the Bucs recorded 11 takeaways from Weeks 12-17. They say turnovers come in bunches and Tampa Bay's season this year was proof. It was also proof that winning the turnover battle is more often than not the key to winning the war.
Casey Phillips: 74.1% Field Goal Rate/90.9% Extra Point Rate
It was well-documented that the Bucs had some kicking woes this season. If we combine the stats for Chandler Catanzaro and Cairo Santos, the team finished 29th in the league in field goal percentage at 74.1%.
To further break that stat down, when it came to kicks of 20-39 yards, they actually went 16 of 17 (94%). It was kicks of 40-49 yards where they really struggled. They went 3 of 8 from that distance, which was last in the league. They also tied for 26th in the league in extra point percentage, missing on four of 44 tries. (That does not include another failed extra point attempt when the snap was mishandled, as that actually counts as a failed two-point attempt.)
If we separate the stats for Santos and Catanzaro, there wasn't a huge difference in their respective 75% and 73% field goal percentage, but it's worth pointing out that Santos never missed an extra point, compared to four misses for Catanzaro. So, if Santos returns as the Bucs kicker, hopefully that can offer some solace to Bucs fans in this particular stat category.