On the day he was introduced as the new Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Greg Schiano was asked what basic offensive philosophy he would bring to the team. Schiano didn't try to skirt the question with vagueness or generalities. Rather, he stated quite simply that the Buccaneers would establish a power running attack and take shots downfield in the passing game. It's the latter part of that formula that is likely to get Bucs fans excited.
At the time, Schiano was Tampa Bay's only coach, having just signed his contract the day before and not yet had a chance to assemble his staff. That process would begin immediately, and has been ongoing since. Said Schiano on that first day at One Buccaneer Place: "The key is hiring the right people, whatever gets the desired result."
Schiano and the Buccaneers found the right man to lead their offense in Mike Sullivan, who was named the team's offensive coordinator on Friday. Sullivan, who had helped the Giants win their second Super Bowl title in five years just five days later, comes to Tampa after eight seasons as the wide receivers (2004-09) and quarterbacks coach (2010-2011) in New York.
Sullivan's work with quarterback Eli Manning, and the Giants' very successful downfield passing game over the past two seasons, surely convinced the Buccaneers that he can do the same thing with Josh Freeman and Tampa Bay's aerial attack. Sullivan was not the offensive coordinator in New York and thus not the in-game play-caller, but he certainly helped implement the system and coach the players in its specifics.
Sullivan obviously had a significant talent to work with in Manning, who was the first overall draft pick in 2004 and who had been starting since about halfway through his rookie season. Manning had been at the helm, of course, when the Giants won Super Bowl XLII after the 2007 season, while Sullivan was drawing outstanding seasons out of wide receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer.
However, Manning's downfield success has increased dramatically over the past two years, which in 2011 helped the eighth-year veteran post the sixth-highest single-season passing yardage total (4,933) in NFL history. Over his first six NFL seasons, Manning averaged 6.68 yards per passing attempt. During his two years under Sullivan's tutelage, he averaged 7.92 yards per attempt. As a point of comparison, the league-wide average in yards per pass attempt in 2011 was 7.20, thought that was essentially the most prolific passing season in league history. In 2007, when Manning and the Giants won the Super Bowl, the league-wide average was 6.86 and Manning, at 6.31, ranked 28th in the NFL in that category.
Manning and the Giants have found a much more consistent big-play element in their passing attack over the past two seasons. In 2011, the Giants were tied for sixth in the NFL with 38 passing plays that gained 25 or more yards. In 2010, they had sixth place to themselves in that category with 35 such completions. That helped New York rank third in the NFL in yards per pass attempt last year and eight in 2010. Discounting the 2004 season, in which Manning only started seven games, the Giants quarterback averaged 26 "big passing plays" over his first five seasons as a full-time starter. During the past two years, that number jumped to 36.5 per season.
The Buccaneers believe they have the players in place who can achieve the same jump in big passing plays. Like Manning, Freeman is a former first-round pick who began starting halfway through his rookie season. Freeman actually had a stronger debut season as a full-time starter than did Manning, with advantages in completion percentage (61.4% to 52.8%), yards per attempt (7.3 to 6.8), touchdowns (25 to 24), interceptions (six to 17) and passer rating 95.9. Manning didn't crack an 80 passer rating until his fifth season, and didn't surpass 90 until this past season under Sullivan.
Tampa Bay did not have a dangerous downfield passing game this past season. Freeman's yards per pass attempt went down to 6.5 and the Buccaneers were 28th in big passing plays, with just 20 strikes of 25 or more yards. However, with virtually the same personnel in place, Freeman averaged 7.3 yards per attempt in 2010, and did so while rarely turning the ball over.
The Buccaneers also believe that such young receivers as Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker can be the big-play targets Freeman needs. Sullivan is also qualified to help them reach that potential, having developed such players as Burress, Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham in New York.
After spending almost a decade helping the Giants build a strong attack and win two championships, Sullivan now has an offense of his own to run. That's a show that Schiano – and Tampa Bay fans – are surely going to appreciate.