Buccaneer quarterbacks want to put WR Antonio Bryant in a position to make plays
Michael Clayton remembers the leadoff comment by Jeff Jagodzinski, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new offensive coordinator, when Jagodzinski got his first audience with the Buccaneers' offensive players.
"We're going to score some points."
Now, one can joke about the obviousness of that statement. That's the goal of every NFL offense (and many defenses), and it's accomplished in virtually every game (there were just six shutouts last season, including the playoffs).
But the larger meaning that Jagodzinski intended, and which Clayton clearly heard, was more like this: "We are going to aggressively attempt to score lots of points."
There's a simple formula for how many points an NFL team needs to score to be successful: One more than its opponents. But that's a lot like saying the winner of the Daytona 500 needs to beat the next driver by one second. It's true, but he has to keep the pedal to the metal for 200 laps to be in position to win at the end.
The 2009 Buccaneers intend to keep the pedal to the metal.
If Tampa Bay players doubted that after hearing Jagodzinski's pronouncement in March, those doubts have been erased in the last three months. The deep ball — the most brazen sign that an offense is at least trying to strike quick — has been a staple on the Buccaneers' practice fields in OTAs and mini-camps, no matter which quarterbacks, linemen or receivers are on the field.
Returning Buccaneers are quick to point out that the offense has utilized the deep ball in recent seasons, just like it has used elements of the team's new zone-blocking running scheme in the past. It's just that there appears to be more of an emphasis on such tactics this year.
"He's definitely displayed that in practice," said Clayton of Jagodzinski's belief in swinging big. "Every OTA we've got guys making plays down the field, not only the ones but the backups. The twos and three and fours have all made plays down the field. It makes it exciting to go in and watch tape on yourself catching balls down the field. It's been very good."
Quarterback Luke McCown has had a rewarding offseason, and not just because he was told at the beginning that he would be given a very real opportunity to win the starting job in 2009. As the Bucs' offensive installation has taken place over the weeks of April, May and June, McCown has found himself working by a philosophy that matches his own: If you have explosive playmakers, give them plenty of chances to make plays.
"We have big physical receivers and we're going to give those guys chances to go make plays," said McCown. "I don't think we're going to be tentative with the football. We're going to push it down the field when we have the right matchup at the right time and give those guys chances to go up and make plays on the ball. I think we have the players to do that and I think we have the quarterbacks that can get that done, that can put the ball in play down the field and give guys opportunities to do that."
As a ready example, McCown points to the NFC team that surprised many by winning the conference and nearly upending Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
The Arizona Cardinals won no more than eight games in any season during the nine years that proceeded their 2008 breakthrough. They went 9-7 to win the NFC West last year, then hit their stride in the playoffs, in large part due to an explosive, third-ranked offense that helped make up for a 28th-ranked defense. The Buccaneers have a history of very strong defense and would like to continue that tradition in 2009. But it wouldn't hurt to emulate the rise of the Cardinals' offense, which was ranked 19th just two years earlier and dead last just five years prior.
The key to last year's success, says McCown, was letting their best playmakers make plays.
"If you look at what Larry [Fitzgerald] did throughout the playoffs…Arizona just gave him shots to catch the ball down the field and he goes up and makes plays for you," said the Bucs' quarterback. "You've got to put players in positions to make plays, and we've got guys who can do that. We're focused on being explosive this season, giving guys opportunities to make plays down the field."
Jagodzinski, like McCown, believes the Buccaneers have the necessary firepower to be explosive. That was obviously a goal for the team's new management, which traded for tight end Kellen Winslow; re-signed pass-catching tight end Jerramy Stevens; used a franchise tag on rising-star wide receiver Antonio Bryant; re-signed McCown and Clayton; added veteran passer Byron Leftwich; used a first-round pick on a potential franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman; plucked the best available running back off the market in Derrick Ward; and even used a seventh-round pick on intriguing wideout Sammie Stroughter specifically because he looked like a possible threat as a slot receiver.
Jagodzinski recently described one play in practice in which he paired both Winslow and Stevens with Bryant and Clayton, then put diminutive but fast running back Clifton Smith on the field as the fifth eligible. The Buccaneers then went with an empty backfield and Jagodzinski felt as if the five-wide formation gave him a multitude of matchup opportunities. He repeatedly referred to these matchup puzzles as "fun."
Indeed, the Bucs may be a lot of fun to watch in 2009. McCown didn't want to get into anything more specific than what Jagodzinski described, but he predicted an entertaining attack in 2009, no matter who ended up distributing the football.
"I'm not going to tip our hand, but I think everybody is going to be excited about the opportunities for explosive plays every game, multiple explosive plays every game," he said. "We just have the firepower to do that now. This being a younger team, we're going to take those chances. We're going to feel each other out as players, as receivers and quarterbacks, and see who's going to go make a play for you. That's all you can ask for, an opportunity to make a play on a ball. We've got to pull it off."
Clayton described the Bucs' offseason as something of an open-ended opportunity. The goal on offense was to put the new system in place, to get the playbook firmly implanted in the players' minds. But in doing so, the coaching staff also kept practice exciting, kept potential job-winners on their toes, knowing that the next big shot downfield could be on the next snap. The foundation for an explosive attack, Clayton said, has been set.
Freeman stepped into the building process about a month in, after he was taken with the 17th overall pick in April's draft, and at first he saw McCown and Leftwich take the majority of the full-team snaps. But Freeman eventually worked himself deeper into the rotation and handled the transition from the NCAA to the NFL well. He does admit, however, that he wasn't quite prepared for what he would see on the Bucs' practice field.
"I've never been to an NFL mini-camp before, but I wasn't expecting the ball to be flying around like this," said Freeman. "Everybody's making plays. It's just been really up-tempo. When you have a lot of receivers and tight ends that are threats out there, what else are you going to do? Give them a chance."
That's the plan.