As is the case at the onset of every offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' brain trust will devote a significant amount of time to evaluating everything that happened the previous season in order to set a course for the one ahead. Strengths and weaknesses will be assessed, roster deficiencies will be identified and all of that evaluation will greatly inform what General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Dirk Koetter target in free agency and the draft.
On one topic, however, Koetter didn't need weeks of film study to say definitively what the 2017 Buccaneers need to do. When it comes to Tampa Bay's offense, more explosiveness is needed.
"We need more speed and when we say playmakers, playmakers and explosive plays are one in the same," said Koetter the day after the Bucs' 2017 season ended on a third-level playoff tiebreaker that went in the Detroit Lions' favor. "Guys that can make 'explosives,' guys that can catch a 10-yard pass, break one tackle and turn it into a 30-yard gain. Our run-after-the-catch is not where it needs to be."
A look back at Jameis Winston's 28 touchdowns during the 2016 season.
If there was any question as to the value of explosive players who can tack on YAC and record game-changing plays, Sunday's playoff contest between Miami and Pittsburgh provided some very pointed evidence. In the first quarter, wide receiver Antonio Brown – who like the Bucs' Mike Evans is headed to the Pro Bowl – turned two short passes into touchdowns of 50 and 62 yards. The Steelers grabbed a quick 14-0 lead and never looked back on the way to a 30-12 victory.
As Koetter noted on that first postseason Monday, the Buccaneers declined in explosive plays fairly sharply from 2015 to 2016. Explosive plays can be defined however an evaluator wants, but Koetter's staff uses the term to refer to completions of 16 or more yards and runs of 12 or more yards. Tampa Bay had 139 of those in 2015, or just under nine per game. They had 110 this past season, or just under seven per game.
Injuries to Doug Martin and Charles Sims were obvious factors in the Bucs' losing explosiveness in the running game, but the passing game had much of the same personnel on the field as a year ago. Despite Evans's first Pro Bowl campaign, a breakout season for tight end Cam Brate and a collection of nice gains on screen plays by wide receiver Adam Humphries, the Bucs were less explosive through the air in 2016, as well.
Tampa Bay's longest plays of the season were a 45-yard run by Jacquizz Rodgers and a 45-yard touchdown catch by Mike Evans. For the most part, though, even the explosive plays the Bucs did get were generally shorter than a year ago. For instance, the Bucs' runs of 20+ yards dropped precipitously from 20 to five.
"In the things that matter most towards winning, we went from 1.8 giveaways a game a year ago to 1.7 this year, so [that's a] slight improvement," said Koetter. "The biggest negative is in explosive plays. We went up a little bit in sacks. We went down one percentage point in the red zone. We actually went up to the highest point I think ever in franchise history in third-downs, top 10 in the league. Scoring, we were down three points a game. I already mentioned the fact that we were down in explosives. We were down 34 yards a game in the running game. Overall as a team, we came a long way as far as penalties. We went from last in the league to 18th in the league. Just the explosive play thing [was a problem), just a couple things that jump out and part of this is health-related. Last year, passing and running, Doug [Martin] and Chuck Sims combined for 37 explosive plays; this year, eight. That is in no way just their fault. Part of that is injury related.
"I've said many, many times that we believe besides turnovers, explosive plays are the next biggest factor in winning and losing, and that was our biggest drop-off on offense this year is in explosive plays and that was both in the running game and in the throwing game."
A look back at Mike Evans' 12 touchdowns during the 2016 season.
Koetter is right in his YAC assessment, too. As a team, the Buccaneers ranked 29th in the league in yards after the catch, with a total of 1,433. Tampa Bay averaged 4.0 yards of YAC per reception, which was better only than Houston's mark of 3.9. This is clearly an important statistic: Of the top 10 teams in YAC per reception in 2016, eight are in the playoffs. The lowest ranked playoff team on this list is the Dallas Cowboys (21st), who got many of their big gains through an explosive rushing attack.
The Buccaneers can get more explosive plays out of the talent they have on hand. Quarterback Jameis Winston proved to be on the league's best passers when escaping the pocket in 2016, and those type of broken plays often end up in improvised big gains. Evans and Brate showed they could make plays downfield and Humphries generally maximized the yards out of his opportunities. Still, it seems likely that the Buccaneers will attempt to raise their overall talent level on offense during the 2017 offseason, and that will hopefully include the addition of some truly explosive playmakers.
"Again, anything that we're saying here is not an indictment on the guys we have because the guys you have are the guys you have and you've got to coach the heck out of them," said Koetter. "Once again, it goes back to the thing I said in the beginning, I think this team did a good job of playing as close to their talent level. That's a hard thing to judge, it's not an exact thing. In my opinion, we played close to our talent level."