Last Saturday, after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first 2021 practice with pads on, Head Coach Bruce Arians proclaimed that, despite interceptions that day by Mike Edwards and Devin White, the team was "short on turnovers" so far in training camp. Obviously, when it's Buccaneers going against Buccaneers, any turnover can be seen as good or bad news, but overall Arians wants to see his defense develop more of a nose for the football.
Problem is, that's not necessarily an easy task against the Buccaneers' offense, particularly the first-team group. On its way to a Super Bowl championship last season, Tampa Bay committed just 17 giveaways, tied for the seventh-fewest in the NFL. More notably, that marked the fewest turnovers the Buccaneers have ever committed in a single season.
Wow. I have to admit, the first time I discovered that note it shocked me. I knew the Bucs were good at holding onto the football last year, but I didn't know they were better at it than ever before. Prior to that, the lowest turnover total in franchise history came in 2010, with 19. No other Buccaneer team has ever finished with fewer than 20.
This wasn't an accident, of course. After the 2019 season the Bucs let former first-overall-pick Jameis Winston hit free agency and made the utterly dramatic move of signing Tom Brady in free agency. Winston had famously become the first quarterback ever to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and at least 30 interceptions in the same season in 2019; Brady had never thrown more than 14 picks in any single season.
And so the 2020 Buccaneers didn't just set a new team record for fewest turnovers committed, they also made the biggest season-over-season improvement in that category in team history. The 2019 team had given the ball away 41 times and the 2020 squad trimmed that number by 24. Prior to that, the biggest improvement in that category from one season to the next in team annals was 18, as the 1991 team committed 47 turnovers and the 1992 team trimmed that to 29.
As it turns out, an improvement that big in the giveaway category is very rare. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, there have only been 11 other instances of a team trimming its giveaways by 24 or more from one season to the next. But wait! Even that is misleading in terms of how rare this feat is. Of those 11 teams, seven made that improvement from 1981 to 1982.
What was so special about 1982? you ask. Did they make the football extra sticky that year or something? No, the answer is much simpler than that. The players went on strike in 1982 and each team ended up only playing nine games instead of 16. It's almost certain that seven more games would have changed the outcome for all of these teams, although it's worth noting that Kansas City improved by a whopping 34 and new England by 33. Maybe those two teams would have still made the list.
But excluding the 1981-82 seasons, we are down to just five teams since the merger that have reduced their giveaways by 24 or more from one year to the next, including the 2019-20 Buccaneers. Here they are, with their win-loss records in each season also noted:
|Team||Seasons||1st-Year TOs||2nd-Year TOs||Diff||1st-Year Record||2nd-Year Record|
The first thing that jumps out at me on that table is the number 63. Sixty-three turnovers in 16 games for the 1978 San Francisco 49ers?! That's insane. And yes, it is the most by any team since the merger. You'll notice that they did not improve one bit on their terrible record after shaving 24 turnovers off that total in 1979 because, well, it's still 39 turnovers! That's a lot.
However, all of the other four teams improved, albeit not by much for the 1991 Browns. The other three teams went from losing records to winning records and from not making the playoffs to making the playoffs. Turns out that eliminating more than half of your giveaways is a good thing. Maybe the Buccaneers can do that again in 2021!
And now on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you think we will see more playing time for Scotty Miller this season? How has he looked in camp?
- @beastbeastly (via Instagram)
How's Scotty doing? Let's hear from him and his head coach.
First, Miller spoke to the media on the sixth day of camp and noted that big plays like the long touchdown he caught just before halftime in the NFC Championship Game have him heading into his third season with more confidence than ever.
"Those moments were huge for me," he said. "They were moments that I dreamed about as a kid. So, to finally go out and make those plays on the national stage, the biggest stage in the world – it means a lot to me. A lot of guys get to play big games in college, I really didn't. My championship game was probably my biggest game and hardly anybody was watching it. Making those plays gave me a lot of confidence out here and to just believe in myself and know I can play out on any field with anybody. I believe in myself, and I believe in my abilities every single day."
In addition to that confidence, Miller clearly still has that connection he quickly formed with Tom Brady in last year's training camp. He has that blazing speed and Brady continues to look for him downfield. That's a good sign. However, Bruce Arians had some specific analysis of the young receiver's play the day after Miller spoke. The issue was fresh in the coach's mind because Miller had failed to haul in a deep, contested pass at the end of a two-minute drill in the last period of practice.
"He's got to get better with bodies on him," said Arians. "That last play, he's got to make that catch. It's going to be grimy. He's got to make more grimy catches. We know he can run by people, but you can't be a one-trick pony in this league. You've got to be able to play with big bodies on you. He's getting better."
Since that day, I've personally witnessed at least two plays on which Miller made a catch with a defender all over him, one in a WR/DB one-on-one drill and one in a full-team period. I honestly don't know if either of them were contested enough to count as "grimy" in Arians' eyes, but they were nice plays at the very least.
Can Miller carve out more playing time in 2021? Hard to say. Obviously, if injuries make any of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin or Antonio Brown unavailable for a chunk of games, that would be a potential path to more snaps for Miller. But I don't really want to think about those guys getting hurt, so let's approach this from the standpoint of everybody staying healthy for all or most of the season.
Last year, Miller was third on the team among receivers with 496 snaps, or about 25 a game. Evans was first with 1,092, Godwin second with 919 and Brown fourth with 409. All of those numbers include the playoffs. However, Brown got to his total in just 12 games, not joining the team until the second half of the regular season. Miller was averaging almost 40 snaps per game before Brown started playing; that dropped to about 15 per game the rest of the way.
As you surely have noticed, Brown is back in 2021 and now he'll be in the mix right from the beginning. It's also quite possible (and very much hoped) that Godwin will be less bothered by injuries this year and will thus be on the field more than he was in 2020. In 2019, Godwin played 92% of the offensive snaps before missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. His ability to dominate both on the outside and in the slot make him the receiver most likely to lead the team in snaps, all things being equal from a health standpoint.
Miller plays a lot more on the outside than in the slot in order to take advantage of his straight-line speed. So his path to snaps is to spell Evans or Godwin in two-receiver sets and Evans or Brown in three-receiver sets. He also could see action in a four-wide alignment, with Godwin and Brown in the slots and he and Evans on the outside if it's a two-by-two setup.
So the question is, will Arians and Byron Leftwich roll with the "11 personnel" trio of Evans-Godwin-Brown the vast majority of the time or will they mix it up a little more. I think Miller is too good of a weapon to be minimized in the offense but you're asking about him getting more playing time than he did last year. We probably won't know the answer until we're a few games into the season, but if Miller can show Arians that he can make the grimy catches I think he's got a shot to increase his role in his third season.
How is Trask moving along? What do you think will be the backup quarterbacks situation?
- @breannalane12 (via Instagram)
It appears that Kyle Trask is coming along at a pace that is perfectly satisfying to the coaching staff. Generally, when Arians is asked about the rookie quarterback he couches his answer in terms of how much time the team has to develop him, given that he isn't likely to be called upon in a regular-season game anytime soon. For instance, this was Arians about four days into training camp:
"He's done a real good job on the other field. He's still learning when it's this fast. He's not used to seeing it this fast, especially in that two-minute drill or that last period. But he's growing. He's in no hurry."
Trask is helping to speed up that development by coming out early before every practice and getting in some one-on-one work with Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen. They work on technical details like footwork and progressions and Trask thinks it's doing him a lot of good. His own personal assessment of how things are going for him, which came about one week into camp, was that he was doing a good job of handling everything the coaches are throwing at him right now. The tools are certainly there; two days ago in practice, in a seven-on-seven drill, he went through his reads and found nothing so he started scrambling out to his right to extend the play. Wide receiver Travis Jonsen saw the broken play and suddenly went deep; Trask saw that and made a perfect downfield strike while on the run, showing off a lot of arm strength.
As for the depth chart for the reserve quarterbacks, I strongly believe that Trask will start the season (and probably end it) in the third spot. I can't envision a scenario in which the team would cut a quarterback it just picked in the second round and try to get him on the practice squad; he would almost certainly be snapped off waivers by another club.
So it seems clear to me that Trask will be on the active roster, but I think the Buccaneers will keep three quarterbacks, so either Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Griffin will also be on that 53-man squad. And assuming that's the case, I would expect Arians to go with that veteran as the active second quarterback on game days. I think Arians has made it pretty clear that he prefers to have a veteran with starting NFL experience as the primary reserve to his starter.
In the spring, Arians said that we shouldn't assume that Griffin is out of the running for that second spot. It's still a competition between him and Gabbert and the performances of those two in the preseason could shake up the depth chart. That said, it seems clear that Gabbert has maintained his lead on that second spot, which he held all of last year. He is almost always at the helm of the second-team offense in practice and when Brady was given a day off on Wednesday (coinciding with his 44th birthday!), it was Gabbert who stepped in to play with the starters.
So Gabbert should be considered the favorite to get that spot on the 53-man roster. If that happens, that doesn't necessarily mean Griffin's long tenure with the team will come to an end. The NFL is expected to have expanded practice squads again in 2021 like it did last year, making it easier to hold a fourth quarterback on that crew. The Bucs did that all of last year, first with Josh Rosen and then with Drew Stanton. Arians recently said he was not leaning towards keeping a fourth quarterback on the practice squad because he didn't think COVID was going to be as threatening of a situation this year, but he has plenty of time to change his mind. Griffin said during the spring that he would consider any role the Buccaneers had for him, so he could stay on through the practice squad and be ready to come back to the active roster if anything happened to the other three. That's all assuming that Gabbert does indeed win the primary backup spot.
What should we expect Giovani Bernard's role to be this season?
- @eviek_12 (via Instagram)
I think Bernard could end up being exactly what everyone envisioned when the Bucs signed him in the spring soon after he was let go by the Bengals. That is, an accomplished pass-catching back who would see snaps on third downs and especially in two-minute hurry-up situations.
The Bucs tried to use another veteran, LeSean McCoy, in that role a little bit early last season. McCoy got 47 snaps across the first three games of the season but then saw his role shrink as Leonard Fournette started taking most of the third-down and hurry-up snaps. Obviously, McCoy has been a really good pass-catcher throughout his career, too (I say "has been" instead of "was" because he recently said he would like to keep playing if the right fit came along) but Bernard probably arrives with a little bit more left in his tank than McCoy had last year.
Judging from what we've seen in training camp so far, there has been no hesitation to get Bernard onto the field with the first-team offense when those situations arise. And he has looked every bit like the productive pass-catcher he was during his eight seasons in Cincinnati. Recently in one of our live shows during training camp practices I noted that Brady made great use of pass-catching back James White in New England and that among the Bucs' backs Bernard seems to fit that profile the best. White has averaged 6.4 yards per target during his career, while Bernard has averaged 6.3.
I don't think the Bucs will hand the ball off to Bernard very often, other than to keep defenses honest. Note that during the time he was getting snaps, McCoy got twice as many targets in the passing game as he did handoffs. With Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones both expected to get a lot of carries and with the team eager to find a little more about what Ke'Shawn Vaughn can do, there probably won't be many more handoffs to go around.
Those are my best guesses. Even more than the receiver scenario I wrote about above, I would expect the running back rotation to be something that evolves over the first month or two of the season. Either Jones or Fournette could end up with the hot hand and a significant edge in carries over the other, and Fournette could also prove productive enough on third downs that Bernard wouldn't be needed for as many snaps. We'll see, but overall I think the Bucs have the assets to put together a very productive backfield.