The story of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense in 2020, oft repeated during and after the season, was that it was a 'work in progress.' With no offseason program and no preseason games, newly-arrived quarterback Tom Brady was learning Bruce Arians' scheme on the fly and gradually gaining familiarity with his teammates tendencies. Arians pinpoints the second half of the Week 12 Kansas City game, which featured a hurried but ultimately unsuccessful comeback, as the moment when the offense really jelled. And, indeed, Brady and the Bucs were nearly unstoppable for the next eight games, the last of which was Super Bowl LV.
Victory over the Chiefs in that Super Bowl seemingly put a very nice bow on that story, particularly considering that the Buccaneers scored 30-plus points for the seventh straight game. However, not everybody thinks that's where it ended. In fact, the main character in that tale thinks the story is still ongoing, and always will be.
"You know, football is…you're never a finished product in this sport because every year is very different," said Brady on Thursday as his 3-1 Bucs continue to prepare for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins. "The opponents are different and obviously the conditions are different. I mean, look at this [return of] crowd noises this year. We didn't have one rainy game like that last year. We didn't have one crowd noise game last year. So we're still learning each other. Continuity is the key in the NFL. We've only been together, a lot of us, for a year. I think we're going to be making improvements until the day that we're all not together. We've got to try to keep getting better and better every time we take the field."
The rainy game to which Brady refers was the Buccaneers' win at New England last Sunday night, a narrow 19-17 win that is the team's lowest-scoring game of the week. Each of the Bucs' first two road trips have been to very noisy stadiums, and the Week Three game in Los Angeles is their only loss so far. The Bucs averaged 39.5 points per game in Weeks One and Two but just 21.5 in the last two. Overall, Tampa Bay still ranks seventh in total yards, first in passing yards and fifth in points scored, and the 3-1 record is certainly a fine start. But there are clearly things to work on offensively, such as last Sunday's persistent struggles in the red zone. The Bucs only scored one touchdown on four drives into that part of the field, which is what necessitated one more field goal drive at the end to win the game.
"We just didn't execute the way we're capable [of executing]," said Brady. "One of four is not where we want to be. We want to be three of four, four of four, so we'll try to, obviously, get better at it this week. It's an important part of the game. Anytime they hold you to field goals, for a defense it's a big thing, especially in close games. You've got to win the red area. That's all points. You've got to win third downs, it keeps you on the field. You've got to win the kicking game, which is field position. Turnovers – extra possessions. In the end, everything adds up. It's a game of points and there's a very thin margin of error."
Indeed, Sunday night's win in Foxborough was the second game already this year that the Bucs won by just two points with a late field goal. The season opener came down to the wire against Dallas at Raymond James Stadium before Ryan Succop's 36-yarder with two seconds left capped a 31-29 victory. One thing that has definitely not been a struggle for the Buccaneers' offense in 2021 is the two-minute drill, which is to be expected from a team led by Tom Brady.
And, to be fair, Brady and the Bucs have not really struggled in the red zone for the entire first month of the season. Prior to the New England game, Tampa Bay had scored touchdowns on 10 of 14 red zone trips, for a TD rate of 71.4%. That's actually a bit higher than the 68.9% touchdown rate the Bucs had in 2020, which ranked seventh in the NFL. With all four games included, the Bucs' red zone TD efficiency is 61.1% in 2021, which ranks 19th in the league but is just one or two good games from being back where they were last year.
The Buccaneers' offense may still be, as it was so often described last year, a work in progress, but it is definitely not back at square one. Brady has a much firmer grasp on the playbook than he did a month into last season. Even with Rob Gronkowski sidelined for a few weeks with fractured ribs, the Bucs still have a group of pass-catchers playing at a very high level and with a well-established connection with their quarterback. Brady and the Bucs' offense are in a better spot than they were a year ago…but they're not at the end of the journey.
"It doesn't matter what happened last week, we've got to put everything into it this week," said Brady. "We had one of our best days of practices today, which I thought was awesome. Guys were really focused. We're all trying to improve. Nothing is perfect. We've had a lot of close games this year, done okay in some situational football stuff but we have a lot of room for improvement as we all now, certainly on offense."