Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Sudden Job Openings | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Buccaneers fans have questions about the open punt return job, what to expect from new 49ers starter Brock Purdy and more

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While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were waiting to play their Week 13 Monday Night Football game against the New Orleans Saints, something happened on Sunday that is going to dramatically change what they will be encountering in Week 14.

It was an injury, unfortunately. The San Francisco 49ers were playing host to the Miami Dolphins in one of the most anticipated matchups of the week and the 49ers were trying to answer Miami's opening-play 75-yard touchdown. On third-and-six from the Miami 19, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo dropped back to pass but was swarmed over by the Dolphins' Jerome Baker and Jaelan Phillips. In the process of getting sacked for a loss of 10, Garoppolo suffered a foot injury that would force him out of the game.

Rookie Brock Purdy, a seventh-round draft pick out of Iowa State, came in to play the rest of the game and helped lead the 49ers to a rousing 33-17 win. Purdy completed 25 of 37 passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, while absorbing three sacks. After the game, Head Coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed that Garoppolo had suffered a season-ending foot fracture.

With Week One starter Trey Lance on injured reserve and not likely to return, the 49ers will be turning to Purdy for the rest of the way, it seems. At the very least, Purdy will start the team's next game, at home next Sunday against…yep, your Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mr. Irrelevant – he got that tongue-in-cheek title as the very last pick in this year's draft – is suddenly very relevant to the Buccaneers.

Now, that's no reason for the Bucs to suddenly become overly confident. They have already lost games this year to teams starting Kenny Pickett and P.J. Walker, neither of whom was particularly awash in NFL experience. And, in fact, the Buccaneers will need to reverse a recent trend in order to get a much needed victory in California. Namely, the last four times they have played against a quarterback making his first NFL start, they have lost.

According to Stathead (subscription required), this will be the 20th time in 47 seasons that the Buccaneers have faced a quarterback making the very first start of his NFL career. The list of quarterbacks in the previous 19 occasions is a delightful mix of well-known NFL stars and short-lived journeymen. There's an NFL MVP on the list, and a Super Bowl MVP. There are six former first-round picks and five players who weren't drafted all. There are even two names on the list that I've never heard before.

Overall, the Buccaneers are 11-8 against teams whose quarterbacks are making their first NFL start. From 1990 through 2006, Tampa Bay won nine straight games in this category. That run began with Rich Gannon, who had to wait to his fourth season in the NFL to make his first start. (However, he's also the aforementioned NFL MVP on the list.) The Bucs made him 0-1 with a 23-20 overtime win in Minneapolis. The nine-game streak ended with a 20-17 win over Washington and first-time starter Jason Campbell in 2006.

That Super Bowl MVP? Well, that was the very first quarterback the Bucs ever faced while he was making his first NFL start, and his name is Phil Simms. Simms, a rookie in 1979 and the seventh-overall pick in the draft, beat the Bucs 17-14, which was pretty impressive given that Tampa Bay had opened the season with five straight wins before that contest. Simms's son, Chris Simms, was later drafted by the Buccaneers in the third round in 2003 and he made 15 starts for the team.

There are three quarterbacks out of the 19 on the list who not only had never started before the game against the Buccaneers but would also never start another one in their NFL careers. That would be the Chargers' Mike Kelley in 1987, the Panthers' Randy Fasani in 2002 and the Bears' Henry Burris, also in 2002. That 2002 Bucs defense was obviously one of the best the league has ever seen, but they also had more than a few fortuitous things line up for them along the way.

As for the last four times the Buccaneers have faced a QB making his first start and didn't particularly enjoy the experience, it was the Jets' Geno Smith in 2013, the Rams' Austin Davis in 2014, the Titans Marcus Mariota in 2015 and the Giants' Daniel Jones in 2019. The losses to the Jets and Giants were inches from being Buccaneer victories. Against Smith and the Jets, Nick Folk was able to walk off an 18-17 decision with a 48-yard field goal after a dubious late-hit call on Lavonte David moved him into range in the closing seconds. Against Jones and the Giants three years ago, rookie kicker Matt Gay had a chance to give the Bucs the win at the end with his fifth field goal of the day but he missed from 34 yards in a 32-31 final.

The loss to Mariota and the Titans in 2015 doesn't philosophically feel like it should be on this list because Tennessee's defense was also facing a quarterback making his first NFL start. This was the season opener between the top two picks in the 2015 draft, Jameis Winston first and Mariota second, and the Titans ran away with it, 42-14.

And finally the guys I'd never heard of before. That would be the aforementioned Mike Kelley of the Chargers and a gentleman by the name of Todd Hons who played for the Lions. There's a good reason for my ignorance – both were replacement players during the 1987 players' strike.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Who will replace Darden at PR?

- @jakeflowers322 (via Instagram)

I'm glad you asked, Jake, because I find this situation really intriguing and I'm very interested to see how it shakes out on Sunday. I just don't think it's all that common for a team to outright waive their punt returner in December when he actually has put up decent numbers throughout the year. It's not particularly important than Darden currently leads the league in punt returns (31) and punt return yards (330), because that's really just a matter of opportunity. But Darden's average of 10.6 yards per return, while not in the top five in the league, is pretty acceptable. The way it has been put to me by some previous special teams coaches is that you want three things out of your punt returner, in this order: 1) He always catches the ball; 2) He routinely gets you about 10 yards on returns; and 3) He occasionally breaks the big one. Darden didn't really check that last box but he was getting it done in the first two categories.

Head Coach Todd Bowles confirmed today that a significant part of the decision to waive Darden on Tuesday was that the roster spot could be used for a player who contributes in more ways. That could have been Darden had he found a role on offense as a receiver, but that just wasn't happening. He hadn't played a single snap on offense over the previous five games. If the Buccaneers believe they can get similar results in the return game from another player already on the 53-man roster as what they were getting from Darden, they can use that 53rd spot for, say, another inside linebacker. K.J. Britt could be returning to the active roster as soon as this week now that he has been designated for return from injured reserve.

So who might that be? And while Jake only asked about the punt return job, we also have to look at kickoff return because Darden had been handling that role, too, over the last couple games because rookie running back Rachaad White was being allowed to focus on offense as his role grew significantly. Here's what Bowles said when he was asked about it for the first time on Wednesday:

"Well, it's tough any time you release somebody – he's a talented player. We thought we did what was best for the team at that point in time. Hopefully he catches on somewhere else, but we're auditioning guys now like we have been. Whether it's Gio [Bernard], whether it's Scotty [Miller], whether it's somebody else we're auditioning, we'll make that decision at the end of the week."

Bowles uses the word "auditioning," but I don't think we need to get too caught up on that word. The Buccaneers didn't waive Darden on Tuesday and only then think to themselves, "Oh, I guess we have to figure out who is going to return kicks now. Let's get started." They only let Darden go after they were convinced they had a couple other firm options.

Scotty Miller would be an interesting choice in my opinion. He has spent the last four years repeatedly taking punt return reps in a rotation during practice, but has never returned one in a game. (He does have one 19-yard kickoff return.) I'm not sure there's a player in franchise history with a higher ratio of practice-field punt returns to in-game punt returns. The good news here is that the Bucs have seen enough to know that Miller would check that first box – he's going to catch the ball cleanly. Obviously, Miller is very fast; if he proves he can make the first man or two miss, he might be able to provide something of a big-play spark.

Bernard does have two punt returns and four kickoff returns as a Buccaneer, most of that coming in 2021. He would be a trusted veteran option who isn't likely to mess anything up. He might be a better choice on kickoff returns as he's got a bit more size than Miller and has occasionally held that job during his 10 years in the league.

But it's worth noting that there could be a "somebody else" in the mix. I don't think the Bucs will risk any of their defensive backs in that role given the injury issues they've recently had in the secondary. Ke'Shawn Vaughn could be a candidate on kickoff returns but probably not punt returns. But let's dig a little deeper by going back to the preseason, when Darden's spot on the active roster wasn't completely guaranteed due to the team's incredible depth at receiver, and the Bucs made a point of looking at some other options. In fact, the only player with more than one punt return for Tampa Bay his preseason was undrafted rookie Deven Thompkins.

Thompkins returned four punts for 18 yards and one kickoff for 17 yards. Those aren't overwhelming numbers but it's a very small sample size and in every other way the former Utah State standout impressed the coaching staff over and over again. Thompkins has two practice squad elevation options left this season, so the Bucs could conceivably take a look at him in the next couple weeks without having to clear a spot on the active roster. The one problem with this theory, though, is that if he won the job long term you would be back to using a roster spot on a player who likely isn't going to contribute right now in any other meaningful way.

Does traveling to California change any part of preparation for the game?

- @brinsoccer4 (via Instagram)

Yes and no. NFL coaches are willing slaves to routine and will do everything they can to make their team's weekly schedule the same from game to game, no matter the circumstances. The biggest change to this week's approach isn't really the cross-country travel, it's the fact that the team played on Monday night and thus lost one day of preparation, mostly in terms of the coach's game-planning and the players' treatment in the training room. The Bucs are still holding their Wednesday, Thursday and Friday practices at the same time they do almost every week.

However, in a nod to the fact that flying for five-and-a-half hours and crossing three time zones is, in fact, potentially stressful on player's bodies and internal clocks, the Buccaneers will be flying out to California on Friday afternoon instead of the usual Saturday departure. As such, the things the Buccaneers would normally do at home on Saturday mornings before flying out will take place in San Jose instead and the Buccaneers will use Friday night and Saturday to adjust their clocks to Pacific Time. Those Saturday activities include meetings in the morning and evening and, in between, a trip to a local field (I'm not going to disclose the location) to hold a walk-through, or what the Bucs call a "mock game."

The hope is that by Sunday night everyone has adjusted to the new time zone and the game day schedule, which includes a 1:25 p.m. kickoff in local time, can run as normal and as smoothly as always.

What can we expect from Brock Purdy?

- @berne2oodle (via Instagram)

Well, if you read the intro to this mailbag, you'll know that the Buccaneers cannot simply expect to win because they are playing a quarterback making his first NFL start. In fact, they are trying to break a four-game losing streak in that exact circumstance. In the bigger picture, even with a very inexperienced quarterback at the helm the 49ers are a formidable opponent thanks to the league's best defense and a scary assortment of versatile offensive skill-position players.

In the first extended regular-season playing time of his NFL career last Sunday, after Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a foot fracture on the 49ers' first possession, Purdy was…pretty good! Miami doesn't have the league's best defense, allowing 24.1 points per game, but it was still a decent showing by the rookie with 25 completions in 37 attempts for 210 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

As Todd Bowles said on Wednesday, the 49ers aren't going to change their scheme just because they're changing their quarterback, and Kyle Shanahan's scheme is quarterback friendly, particularly with a passer who is willing to stay on script and do exactly what the coaches want. I mean, that's probably what a seventh-round rookie is going to do right? Throw it to this guy at this spot? Yes, coach.

Obviously, Purdy wouldn't have been the very last pick in the 2022 draft if he was loaded with elite athletic traits. At 6-1, he's not that prototypical big pocket passer who can see over his line with ease. He doesn't have a huge arm by NFL standards and he probably won't offer much in the running game. But he's an accurate passer and a good decision-maker, and that could be enough to help him succeed – or at least be a "game manager" – for a very good 49ers squad.

Personally, I think the key is the kind of pressure the Bucs are able to apply. If they can make Purdy uncomfortable more often than not, I think he will probably fare about as well as any seventh-round quarterback making his first start against a pretty good defense would fare. If the Buccaneers decide to bring some interesting blitzes and can confuse Purdy with pre-snap disguises, they might finally be able to generate some turnovers, which would go a huge way towards pulling off the upset. But if the Bucs' pass rushers are mostly held at bay, as was the case on Monday night against New Orleans, it would not surprise me at all to see Purdy have enough production to keep the Niners' offense operating at a pretty good level.

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