Have the Buccaneers Really Changed Under Arians?
By Murf from 5 Yard Rush
A little over a week ago, I watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers slump to 2-4, after a dismal performance at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, against the Carolina Panthers. The manor of the 37-26 defeat left everybody in the crowd, at home watching, and all neutral fans to ask “Are the Buccaneers really any different under Bruce Arians?”
The reason for the question? Everyone had just witnessed Jameis Winston throw 5 Interceptions as well as also fumble the football twice, losing it once. This was not supposed to happen under Bruce Arians. After all, he is the Quarterback Whisperer.
Therefore, I decided to dig deeper and to understand what is different and if this is a coaching problem, a cultural problem, or a talent problem.
The Quarterback Whisperer
Bruce Arians is known in the NFL as “The Quarterback Whisperer”. He literally wrote the book with this title. Arians has worked with and gotten the best out of Ben Roethlisberger, Payton Manning, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer. Therefore, when he became Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January this year, there were many that believed this was the man who would unlock the talent in Jameis Winston and the rest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneer roster.
What made it even more compelling was the fact that Jameis Winston had even attended on of Arians junior Quarterback camps as a child and knew Arians personally.
The Low Point for Winston
Winston, coming off the worst season of his career where he missed the first three games of the season due to suspension and then subsequently lost his job to Ryan Fitzpatrick, seemed to play one week, then get benched the next. Winston ended up starting 9 of the 16 games in 2018, whilst also coming off the bench to play in 2 more, as he guided the Buccaneers to their second consecutive 5-11 season. This lead to Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter being fired.
Arians the serial winner
Arians has a long and varied career in the NFL. He is a two time Coach of the Year winner, a former Offensive Coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts, the Cleveland Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, a Quarterbacks coach with the Colts, an interim Head Coach with the Colts and a Head Coach with the Arizona Cardinals. He won 2 Super Bowl rings during his time with the Steelers and took Arizona to their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first NFC title game since 2008.
Buccaneers Culture Pre Koetter and BA
The Buccaneers took the unprecedented decision to hire the experienced Arians, after a series of failed appointments over the past 10 years. It started with the firing of SuperBowl winning Head Coach Jon Gruden in 2009 after seven seasons. What followed was a catalogue of disastrous appointments. The Buccaneers appointed Raheem Morris, who lasted three seasons and went 17-31, Greg Schiano who went 11-21 in two seasons, Lovie Smith who went 8-24 in two seasons, and Dirk Koetter who went 19-29 in three seasons as Head Coach.
This lack of continuity and roster turnover had left the Buccaneers without a real identity. Their SuperBowl run of 2002 was predicated on solid defence with winners all over the defensive line and secondary. So successful was their defense, they even have a defensive scheme named the Tampa 2 after them.
Morris, Schiano, Smith and Koetter were 4 extremely different coaches. Morris was a very young, inexperienced coach who didn’t bring discipline to the dressing room. As a result, the players ruled the roost and it led to the demise of a bond that was built from a 10-6 record in 2010 and turned them into a 4-12 record in 2011.
Schiano was the complete opposite. His practices were compared to army drills. Schiano was seen as someone who swung the needle too much the other way and rubbed the leaders of the locker room the wrong way.
Smith was a coach with experience. After all he had just spent 8 years as the Chicago Bears Head Coach. He was hamstrung with all the turnover of personnel, players and draft picks. After going 2-14 in 2014, the Buccaneers ended up with the number 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. It was here, that they selected franchise Quarterback Jameis Winston.
However, after only improving to 6-10, with just 3 wins at home in 2 seasons, Smith was fired. His teams were known for being young, eager, but lacking execution and at times a little soft, especially at home.
Dirk Koetter’s Buccaneers
In January 2016, Dirk Koetter, the Offensive Coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was appointed Head Coach to replace Lovie Smith. The main reason for him getting the promotion was his relationship with Jameis Winston. The organisation felt Koetter was best placed to get the most out of their Number 1 pick.
The sense of optimism
This hire came with plenty of optimism. Koetter was seen as an offensive genius who could unlock the talent of the team. He also had experienced defensive coaches to help improve the Defensive Line and the secondary. In 2016, the feel good factor was back in Tampa and the Buccaneers went 9-7, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Despite missing the playoffs, optimism was high. In addition to having a winning season in 2016, it was with this optimism that led to the Buccaneers being on Hard Knocks in 2017. After a strong 2016 campaign, they invested heavily in the offense to give Winston more fire power. They signed DeSean Jackson in Free Agency, as well as drafting O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin in the 1st and 3rd rounds. The team felt they were closer than ever to breaking a 9 year drought in failing to make the playoffs.
When it all started to go downhill
However, it was soon into the 2017 season that the cracks started to appear. There seemed to be a real sense of a blame culture in the organisation, with nobody taking responsibility for their own actions.
Koetter said, after a loss to the Buffalo Bills to go 2-4 “Well, you know, shoot, everybody would like to be 6-0, and I don’t think anybody is. We had a good week of preparation and to come back like that and take the lead late, and give that lead up like that, that’s just very disappointing. That’s football”.
And although he later said the Bucs had nobody to blame but themselves, he failed to make anyone accountable.
Lack of Accountability
This was the start of the shift in the Koetter regime. Players such as Winston, McCoy, Jackson, as well as the Head Coach, all started talking a good media game, but not backing it up with any substance or accountability. The other issue is the team thought they were actually better than their results showed.
Demar Docton, the Buccaneers Right Tackle, said after a 30-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints that season
“Yeah, I think this is the toughest it’s been because of the talent we’ve got, “I mean, we came into the season thinking we were going to ride high.”
He added“We were a team that almost made the playoffs last year, a team that should have made the playoffs last year, and so we when we came into the season we were riding off that success. “And then with the free agents we added and all that, we thought we had everything we needed to get over the hump. Unfortunately we ain’t anywhere near the hump. And that’s what’s so hard to grasp.’’
The Buccaneers finished 5-11 that season, after being projected to finish in the Playoffs. And despite more investment in the Offensive and Defensive Line, and more investment in the offense via the draft and Free Agency, the Buccaneers repeated their 5-11 season in 2018.
What went wrong?
The underlying problem was the culture and attitude of the playing staff. Jason Pierre-Paul, coming off a 12.5 sack season said of his teammates:
“I think the difference between certain teams that reach the playoffs and (ones that don’t) is when you have a certain group of guys that who just keep it real with each other,” Pierre-Paul said. “You just don’t care (about other things). You just play for each other. I think we have been playing for each other, but on the keeping it real point, I think we’ve got a lot of guys who just don’t keep it real, man.
“I’m just being real. That’s basically it. Just keeping it real. Just saying what’s on your mind. Don’t ever hide what’s on your mind. And I never hide what’s on my mind. I’ll tell you if I don’t like you, I don’t like you as a person, I’m gonna let you know. … I’ll let you know if I don’t like you as a person, but I’ll always give up the most respect for you. But as a football player, I’m just looking for guys who are going to give it their all.”
Players without Leadership
Earlier in the season you had players like DeSean Jackson come out and say he prefers to play with Ryan Fitzpatrick to the media, after the veteran had built an instant connection with the pacey Wide Receiver.
And then you had Brent Grimes. After a dismal 2018, he came out on his wife’s podcast and felt that his $7 million salary wasn’t enough for him to shadow number one receivers. Saying that other number 1 Cornerbacks make $13-$15 million, he didn’t feel it was his job to cover players like Antonio Brown and Michael Thomas.
Another example of sheer individualism was players laughing and joking whilst playing ping pong in the locker room after an embarrassing 15-3 loss to the Washington Redskins in 2018.
Lacking of coaching and leadership
All signs where this was a talented group of players, who were not coached by the coaching staff to their full potential, they were not challenged, and there was no real leadership on and off the field.
The Buccaneers teams of 2010-2018 had no identity, no discipline, no real star players, no real leadership, but most importantly, no winners. This team, with their coaching staff, just had no idea how to win. And eleven years with no playoffs proves that.
The New Regime
Arians was hired to fix the culture and to get the best out of these players. He had to start with the Quarterback, coming off an uncertain season where he wasn’t the number 1 for almost half of it. Arians also needed to improve a defense who were ranked dead last in scoring in the NFL and were ranked last or in the bottom 5 for sacks, turnover differential, tackles, points conceded, yards conceded.
Arians made statements early. Day one in fact. He didn’t come here to rebuild. “I think we have the core here to win quickly,” he said at his Press Conference after being announced as Head Coach“I’m not about rebuilding. I’m about reloading.”
Stamping authority early
Arians removed the Ping Pong table from the locker room and he introduced the Accountability Board, where all the mistakes from the previous week, whether in practice or games would go up and be analysed.
Arians talks about character, leadership and accountability a lot. However he also believes this 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster is talented. More talented than the one he inherited in Arizona when he went 10-6 in his first year. He called the roster “loaded with skill guys”.
Coming into the 2019 season, the general belief of the fanbase was that this was a talented roster, with talented coaches. It seemed that the only thing missing was culture and desire to win. And everyone hoped Arians would bring that.
The Season so Far
The season couldn’t have started any worse for the Buccaneers. After controlling the game vs the 49ers, Winston threw two pick 6’s, which ended up resulting in the team going 0-1. However, they rebounded with a well fought 20-14 win over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. After starting 1-1, the Buccaneers faced Daniel Jones, in his first start in the NFL.
After getting into an early lead, the Giants fought back. With less than two minutes to go in the game, the Giants took the lead. However Matt Gay missed what would have been a game winning Field Goal to give the Giants the win.
The Buccaneers then shocked the NFL with a franchise record 55-40 win over the Los Angeles Rams, a SuperBowl team from last season. This result was the most points scored by Tampa Bay in their history. However, whilst the defence gave up points, they made big plays. There were interceptions, strip sacks and a fumble recovery for a Touchdown. Their record improved to 2-2.
Crashing back down to earth
Week Five saw a crashing down to earth for the coaching staff and players. Whilst the scoreline was a 31-24 defeat, in truth, the game wasn’t that close. The Saints won all three phases of the game and had control of the game throughout. However, what was on display more than anything was fight and courage. The team never quit.
Whenever the offense had the ball, there was always a belief in the team they would score. They didn’t beat themselves. They just couldn’t get it done, despite the effort. However the Saints were just too good in the end.
Accountability Starting to Show
This, for me, was when I started to notice a change in the team mentality. Under the previous regimes, they would have moaned about the fumble recovery off a muffed punt that wasn’t given, or the blatant Offensive Pass Interference when Michael Thomas pushed off Vernon Hargreaves. It would have been so easy to do. The commentary and press were spinning the narrative waiting for the usual Buccaneers “blame somebody else” response.
Instead Bruce Arians came out and said this, “We’re too soft and I don’t know any other way to put it. ” We’ve got some guys that aren’t getting after it and we’ve got guys that are just soft.” He then went on to say ““The game came down to third down — our inability to get off the field (defensively) and our inability to stay on the field offensively.”
Players taking responsibility
It didn’t take long to find out. Following the coach out onto the podium after the game was Rookie Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. When asked about Saints Wide Receiver Michael Thomas and the potential Pass Interference call he responded with “He’s going to do things like that. But you’ve got to be able to man up and kind of deal with it, because you’re not going to get that call most of the time.”
This is a rookie, playing on his first NFL team. He can easily blame the refs, or the ejection of his teammate Calton Davis who left him with a tougher assignment. Instead he called out himself and his teammates. This is the first evidence that all the talk of accountability came into fruition. People might point to comments from Jameis Winston from Week One vs the 49ers, but Jameis will always take the blame. It’s an admirable trait, but one that doesn’t do the team any good. But more on this later.
These comments from Arians suggest he’s not happy with the talent or the execution of the game plans from his players. This comes after declaring after the draft and in mini camp in the summer that the secondary was “Totally Fixed”. Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com wrote that Arians told reporters
“Probably secondary. I think we’re really, really good. With Carlton [Davis] and Vernon [Hargreaves], we knew we had two solid corners, now we’ve got five solid corners. I think Ryan [Smith] came a long way. So, yeah, I think — earmarked as a problem set back in January, that’s totally fixed. Let’s knock on wood they stay healthy.”
This is the same secondary that is part of a defense that is last in the NFL in terms of yards per game given up.
It’s safe to say that Arians wishes he could take that comment back now. Because whilst the players know they haven’t been good enough, they still cannot execute on the field. Maybe this isn’t all about coaching?
Buccaneers v Panthers in London
Despite the loss to the Saints, the players and coaches were confident heading into London to face the Panthers. After all, they had beaten them a month ago, knew how to stop Christian McCaffrey, the leagues leading Running Back in terms of scrimmage yards this season, and were playing a backup Quarterback in Kyle Allen.
I went along to witness Buccaneers practice at Blackheath Rugby Club on the Friday before the game. What I witnessed for 20 minutes was walkthroughs and drills. However, the players were in a good mood despite the travel and ready to work. They had flown in that morning from Orlando in what is typically close to a 9 hour flight.
The players appeared to be in good spirits and were very free to talk to the press and were great interacting with some Flag Football students as well.
Arians in the press conference at practice said that the players “looked good today”. When Dan, one of The Touchdown founders asked Arians about if as trip like this gives him a greater opportunity to instill the culture he is looking for, more so than the week to week, Arians responded by saying it does.
When Dan followed up asking about Arians culture and what he has brought to the Bucs he mentioned “trust, loyalty and respect”He also mentioned about ‘winning everyday, whether that’s practice”or whatever.
Then Jameis Winston approached the podium, he was confident and smiling. I asked him what has been the big difference between last year and this year and what the coaching staff have done to help make him into a better Quarterback.
He responded by saying “The coaches keep telling the team to believe in each other and execute how we execute. Being in the system has allowed me to create some great relationships with my Quarterback Coach and my Head Coach.”
He also went on to say that having a former Quarterback as his Offensive Coordinator has been really helpful for him. Winston was quick to praise all the players in the offense as well and giving them all the credit for his performances.
He seemed ready to play and believed in the system and the coaches. He went on to say that Coach BA told him day one that this is “Our team (the players)” and that they “take pride in that, however it is our job to execute”.
So before kick-off all signs were that the staff and the players were confident and happy. They truly believed they had a plan and were ready to execute. For those of you who missed the game, I would strongly recommend the recap by Ben Rolfe as well as the deep dive into Christian McCaffrey’s performance and how the Buccaneers were able to halt him, for the post part, right here on The Touchdown.
After the loss, we started to see the same old Buccaneers, feeling sorry for themselves. However, what makes it different under Bruce Arians and this coaching staff, is the fact he will call out his players and not blame anything else. I attended the Press Conference after the game and the most interesting part, which points to the culture he is trying to instill is:
Q. “After Jameis lost the ball and you recover the fumble, and he loses it again, it looked like you had some words with him there, at that point was Jameis not looking to guys downfield”
ARIANS: “No, throw the damn ball away. Right, you avoided one, you might have avoided two. You ain’t throwing it anywhere to a receiver. Throw it away. He has a habit of trying to be Superman, and that’s been a problem in the past. The fumbles haven’t occurred this year until today, but again, trying to make something out of nothing, and it’s just a matter of knowing when to quit on a play.”
Jameis Winston Experience
Q. “A couple weeks ago he had played the best game of his career, and now he’s had two sort of really bad ones. Are you starting to get a feel for what the Jameis Winston experience is?”
ARIANS: “Yes and no. I see the preparation. I see what he’s trying to do. You know, the fumbles, we have to get rid of those. We have to start throwing balls away, and we don’t need to take those sacks. You don’t take those hits, either. Just the interceptions — I have to go look back at the film where the ball was going, how it got there. I know the one his arm was hit. The last one is just a prayer. The throw to Mike, Mike didn’t see it in time. But yeah, we’ll evaluate that.”
Sending the Players a message
When asked about Special Teams, and in particular how Bobo Wilson, who muffed two punts in the game, has kept his job to date, Arians responded with “Nobody has taken it from him yet. That’s the problem. We’ll be looking at it.” Wilson was cut 2 days later.
Arians continues to send a message to the players. He is practicing what he preaches. Now has Arians been faultless and blameless this season? Absolutely not! He, and the coaching staff have made fundamental mistakes. However, their biggest one, when reading their comments and interviews, is having too much trust in the playing staff.
But what about the culture?
Despite the poor record, the one thing they have achieved is a good culture in the locker room.
I asked Ndamukong Suh two questions in his press conference after the game. They were:
Me: “What’s the feeling in the locker room right now?”
SUH: “We put ourselves in tough positions, and from a defensive perspective we’ve got to get off the field no matter what situations we are. We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain, and we unfortunately still had opportunities to get there.”
Does this team have the Locker Room to succeed?
Me: “You’ve played on some very successful football teams. What’s it like, the culture in this dressing room? What is it actually like inside for you having played on some very successful teams?”
SUH: “Every single team is different, even if it’s — you go year by year, every single team is going to be different, different players. That’s one thing about the NFL. You’ve got to go out there and execute when you have an opportunity to. I think we’ve got a great locker room here, and I think we’ve just got to continue to execute and find ways to win football games. We’re in every single football game, it’s just a matter of us going out there and getting the job done.”
The message about execution comes through again. As does the locker room being great. It seems the fractions and lack of passion and desire to win has gone from the locker room. Both the Coach and the players that addressed the Press looked down, but also looked hurt. They didn’t appear to just shrug it off. The defeat hurt them, and they couldn’t hide it from their faces.
Where do the Buccaneers go from here?
In the past, fans and media alike have blamed the culture, coaching and the players for constant losing records and poor performances. They have blamed the GM for his draft choices. The owners were blamed for not investing enough in the team.
However, the blame ultimately fell on coaching and culture. The general consensus was that despite the lack of talent at times, everybody believed the team were never put in a position to win. When you keep losing, it is hard to stop. And for this team, it’s become a habit over the last 11 years. This team has lost a lot of football games.
The investment in the coaching staff and bringing in a serial winner in Bruce Arians has shown the errors of the previous regimes. There was not enough accountability or leadership in the previous groups of players. Players were allowed to be mavericks, to take plays off, or to shrug off defeats. Now, that is not the case.
Areas of Improvement
However, there are still areas that need to be addressed. Ultimately the success or failure of this coaching staff lays in the hands of one man, Jameis Winston. If Winston fails, unless he is replaced in 2020, the failure will be laid squarely at the doors of Byron Leftwich (Offensive Coordinator) and Bruce Arians.
Ok, they didn’t draft the Quarterback. However, they removed all the competition from him this year. They publicly praised him and gave him the keys to the offense.
There is plenty of work to do. I mentioned earlier that whilst Winston has an admirable trait of taking the blame for everything, that doesn’t demonstrate leadership. I have feared for a while that whilst Winston has all the capable skillset of being a top Quarterback in the NFL.
The Winston Conundrum
He lacks the mental foundation required to be successful in the NFL. He gets beaten too often, and repeats the same mistakes too many times. That is a lack of mental talent. The lack of ability to cease bad habits has gone past the point of concern. It’s now the ultimate question the Buccaneers Head Coach and General Manager will spend the next 10 weeks asking themselves and attempting to answer.
I asked Winston two very specific questions in the Press Conference after the loss to Carolina. I wanted to see had BA really had the impact he said he had.
“You can guarantee it”
Me: “What do you say to your teammates after a game like today? And then are you going to raise it back up for Tennessee in two weeks’ time?”
WINSTON: “Well, you say let’s get back to it, let’s stick together, and let’s find a way to do it. We snap and clear this game, got a long flight back to Tampa, and it’s about actions really. There’s not much that you really can say. You’ve just got to come out there and execute, and I’m going to come out and execute and be a quarterback for this team. You can guarantee it.”
Me: “What will be the plan for you and the rest of the coaching staff to get ready in two weeks’ time in terms of not just mechanics but that mentality and that reset to go out and do as you say, to lead this football team?”
WINSTON: “Actions. All of us got to take actions. The coaches are doing a great job, putting us in good situations, now it’s on us. It’s on myself to take control of myself to go out there and execute. And put our team in good situations to win football games, and I do that. When I do that, we will win.”
We have been here before
This all sounds like a QB with a desire and hunger to learn and improve. He accepts responsibility. He sounds genuinely passionate and desperate to learn from his mistakes and move on. However, we have heard it all before.
“It was very humbling. But it’s not about me. It’s my fault that we were in that position.” Said Winston after he was benched after throwing 4 interceptions in a 37-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in October 2018.
“I know I have to play better. Have to take care of the football and, obviously, winning is one of my favorite things in life. I have to be the quarterback I’m capable of being … the quarterback I know I can be. But I never will allow failure to be acceptable. This is just adversity, something to overcome – and I will.” This was Jameis Winston a few days after a humbling 27-7 loss to the Denver Broncos in October 2016.
In truth, nothing has changed with the Quarterback. He believes it’s all on him and he has the confidence to believe he will turn it around. But he never does. All these quotes are great soundbites, but the actions never change. This will be Arians toughest challenge in his coaching career, and he knows it.
Culture, Coaching or Talent?
Arians and the coaching staff can fix the culture and they have gone a long way towards doing that. It can’t be fixed in a few months. However, it is clear to everyone the foundation is there for everyone to see.
He also addressed the need to get winners and leaders on the field. Devin White, the Rookie Linebacker out of LSU, was drafted for his leadership qualities as well as his on field ones. When they were scouting Benny Snell Jr. the Running Back from this years draft, they were told by everyone the leader on the field is Mike Edwards, the Safety.
Fast forward a few months, and the Buccaneers selected him in the draft. They were winning to cut Gerald McCoy and bring in Ndamukong Suh as he has a strong leadership quality that Arians wanted. There are examples of leaders all across the field. The Buccaneers need more, but they have made a start to address the leadership and execution on the field.
Where is the talent?
Which yields to the final point, talent. What is becoming more and more clear every week is this team just isn’t as talented as everybody believed. The coaching staff’s biggest mistake was telling the fans and media about the talent in the locker room. Is there talent on this roster? Of course there is. But there are massive holes.
The roster isn’t deep enough and the players coming in to cover injury are not quite at the level required. You are what your record says it is and in the case of this 2-4 team, they are there because there are flashes of talent.
However, they will be outplayed by the better teams in the NFL, like the New Orleans Saints. If this team can execute and play to their maximum potential, it is probably an 8-8 team. Therefore, the Buccaneers will need to do more this offseason to recruit the talent required to get into the playoffs. Otherwise they are unlikely to end what will likely be a 12 year playoff drought.
But who will the Quarterback be in 2020?
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