With Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin, the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers look capable of airing it out like never before in franchise history. According to Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken, however, that's only going to happen if they can grind it out first.
As the Buccaneers head into the organized team activity (OTA) portion of their offseason program, Monken is working with the players on every facet of the offense. The first thing they must get down is the details of the rushing attack, because Tampa Bay's offense won't take another step forward if it doesn't correct last year's step back in the ground game.
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"It's execution that wins," said Monken. "Getting those guys up to speed and get our timing with Jameis, and getting back to the core of what we should do well, which is run the football and play-action pass and play off of that. If we don't get back to that – the weapons should help us in the run game – but if we don't get back to that we won't reach the levels we think we're capable of."
There's no doubt that the team made a considerable effort to surround Winston with more playmakers in the passing game this offseason. Jackson was the team's key acquisition in free agency, a field-stretcher who will be the most explosive pass-catcher the team has ever paired with Evans, the 23-year-old Pro Bowler. Howard is the first tight end the franchise has ever drafted in the opening round of the draft and he's considered a dangerous weapon down the seams. Godwin came aboard in the third round and could also help immediately.
Winston, who has already thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, has never had a cast around him as talented as the one the Bucs are bringing into 2017, but he needs time to find those players, and a running game will give him that. Winston had to make too many plays on the run and convert too many long third downs in 2016 when the running game regressed.
Make no mistake: The downturn in the Bucs' rushing numbers from 2015 to 2016 had nothing to do with a change in philosophy after Dirk Koetter took over as the head coach. Tampa Bay ran the ball almost exactly the same amount of times per game and the same percentage of the time on first down as they had the year before. They simply didn't get the same results.
In both of the years that Koetter has guided the Bucs' offense (first as the coordinator in 2015), the Bucs have been a top-five team in terms of how often they run the ball on first down. That percentage went down very slightly in 2016 but the team's NFL rank in the category actually went up. But the Bucs also went from one of the three best teams in picking up yards on first-down carries to one of the six worst. Fortunately, Winston helped the offense rank third in the NFL in third-down conversions of six or more yards, but the Bucs can't count on sustaining that. They need more short third downs and more big plays off downfield play-action passes. Tampa Bay was the only team in the league that did not have a completion of 50 or more yards in 2016.
Overall, the Buccaneers saw a big drop in explosive plays from 2015 to 2016. The Bucs ranked fourth in the NFL in gains of 20+ yards in 2015 but tied for 27th in that category last year, with 48. A precipitous drop in 20+-yard runs from 20 to five was a big part of that, but without the reliable rushing attack the Bucs also managed only 43 passes of that length after getting 57 the year before.
The biggest difference in the running game in those two years, of course, was that Doug Martin was healthy and ultra-productive in 2015 but oft-injured and mostly contained in 2016. A return to 2015 form would obviously help the Bucs' offense greatly, and so far Martin has looked very good in offseason work.
"Doug's been great," said Monken. "Again, I think he's in great shape. He's in good spirits. But, Doug was that way last year. Doug works hard, Doug's a good teammate. Hopefully Doug's got himself in the right place and right mind-frame. Doug's a good player and Doug's a good person. When he's out there, he works hard. He looks good."
Running Backs Coach Tim Spencer has a relatively deep group of backs with which to work, especially after the drafting of fifth-rounder Jeremy McNichols. Jacquizz Rodgers, the most pleasant surprise of 2016, was re-signed in March and Charles Sims also hopes to return to 2015 form after an injury-plagued season. Second-year man Peyton Barber showed some promise as a rookie. But Spencer sees Martin leading the way.
"Doug has been working his butt off," said Spencer. "He's been hustling, he's been doing all the things that he normally does. He's working hard, studying, training well, finishing plays. He sets the tone. He really does set the tone for the rest of the backs and they sort of come up to his level."
No matter how good Martin is in the offseason and training camp, the Bucs will still need to dip into that depth because a league suspension that started at the end of 2016 will continue into the first three games of this year. That adds a new level to the competition in the backfield, because there is essentially a starting spot open for the first month of the campaign.
"We're going to approach training camp - and we know that he won't be there the first three games - but we will approach like we're getting ready to play," said Spencer. "Everybody is going to be on point trying to be number one. That's what we do. Everybody has to prepare like they're number one. That's how you make the team really and we will choose from that. What we try to do is give guys an opportunity. We coach them up and we try to make them make the decision about who's here and who's not here."
Whichever running backs take the lead in 2017, the Buccaneers are going to need them to produce. The passing attack is suddenly loaded with explosive playmakers, but it will be difficult to fully unlock their potential without a strong and consistent rushing attack.