The Buccaneers will win at least nine games in Bruce Arians’ first season as coach.
That’s what Carson Palmer, who played for Arians in Arizona for five seasons, told the NFL Network on Wednesday.
All aboard the hype train!
A quick turnaround in Tampa Bay? Why not? Turnarounds happen all the time in the NFL. Just this season alone four teams improved by at least six wins: the Bears, Browns, Texans and Colts.
Even one of the contestants in Super Bowl LIII can attest to how fast fortunes can change. Two years ago, the Jeff Fisher-led Rams were a laughingstock. Their offense couldn’t score touchdowns. Their defense couldn’t prevent touchdowns. Worst of all, rookie quarterback Jared Goff, the top overall draft pick in 2016, looked like a bust.
By DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric that measures a player’s value over an average player, Goff’s performance was among the worst in NFL history. Worse than JaMarcus Russell’s 2009. Worse than Bobby Hoying’s 1998. Worse than Kelly Stouffer’s 1992.
Enter Sean McVay. He has taken the Rams from 4-12 to 11-5 to 13-3 and a championship game against the Patriots.
What a difference a coach can make.
The hope in Tampa Bay is that Arians can do the same. He certainly believes he can.
“This is a great group,” he said earlier this month. “I think we have the core here to win quickly.”
It’s tempting to draw parallels between the Rams and the Bucs, especially if you’ve witnessed seven last-place finishes in eight seasons, but the teams’ situations aren’t comparable. Let’s explore the reasons why:
They’re both offensive-minded coaches … aaaaand that’s about where the similarities end.
One guy has a gray goatee, “whispers” to his quarterbacks and has been known to play bartender after games.
The other has never shaved, bumps chests with his quarterbacks and still gets carded when he tries to buy a six-pack of Zima.
Their offensive schemes are significantly different, too. Arians’ offense resembles the Air Coryell vertical attack we’ve watched the past three seasons. McVay’s offense features West Coast concepts — lots of motion, play-action and quick passes.
That’s not to say Arians’ offense doesn’t include those elements. It does, just not to the same degree. For example, the Rams led the NFL in play-action pass rate this season (34 percent); in 2017, Arians’ final season in Arizona, the Cardinals ranked 28th (17 percent).
Bottom line: Of the adjustments Winston will have to make this season, learning a new scheme won’t be one of them.
A team isn’t going to want to give up on a player it used multiple premium draft picks to acquire, but in the Rams’ case, they were justified in thinking that Goff’s seven-game stint in 2016 was an aberration. Though predicting a quarterback’s NFL success based on his college performance is hardly an exact science, rarely do quarterbacks with Goff’s track record play as poorly as he did. His interception rate of 3.4 percent was highly uncharacteristic; his career rate at Cal was 1.9 percent.
The difference between Goff after one season and Winston after four seasons is, of course, sample size. Winston has been consistently inconsistent, from one game to the next, one quarter to the next, one play to the next.
You can’t pin that entirely on Dirk Koetter, either. The NFL Winston looks a lot like the FSU Winston. In college, he threw interceptions on 3.3 percent of his passes. In the NFL, he has thrown interceptions at roughly the same clip. Only four quarterbacks have thrown interceptions at a higher rate since 2015 (minimum of 400 passes): DeShone Kizer, Sam Darnold, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blaine Gabbert.
“Talent is no issue,” Arians said. “It’s just becoming a little bit smarter. With Clyde Christensen as his quarterback coach and Byron Leftwich (as offensive coordinator), he’s going to be coached as well as he’s ever been and more prepared than he’s ever been, fundamentally and mentally.”
Maybe Winston’s decision-making improves under Arians’ guidance. So far, however, we’ve seen no clear sign that he’s on the verge of a breakthrough.
Both the Rams and the Bucs made coaching changes after their quarterbacks’ rookie seasons. The Rams hired McVay. The Bucs hired Koetter. The Rams developed one of the league’s best pass offenses. The Bucs just passed time.
Los Angeles realized it had one of the most valuable assets in today’s NFL — a quarterback on a rookie contract — and began adding pieces around Goff. In 2017, the Rams signed receiver Robert Woods and left tackle Andrew Whitworth and traded for receiver Sammy Watkins (and when Watkins became a free agent, they traded for Brandin Cooks). That’s not to say that the Bucs haven’t tried to address weaknesses; they’ve just done so a year or two too late. At their current pace, they’ll shore up right guard this offseason and general manager next offseason.
And so here we are. McVay is enjoying the spoils of a quality quarterback on a rookie contract. Arians has inherited a so-so quarterback whose rookie contract is about to expire and an ownership group that needs to find out whether he’s worth a megadeal.
The numbers don’t work in Arians’ favor, at least not in 2019. Winston’s contract isn’t expensive relative to other quarterback contracts — his $20.9 million salary cap hit ranks 18th — but it’s no longer a bargain. The issue isn’t so much the dollar amount as much as the percentage of cap space it occupies. Assuming Tampa Bay’s maximum cap is about $191 million, 10.9 percent of that will go to Winston. Another 10.4 percent will go to receiver Mike Evans.
It’s difficult to build a winner when two players eat up 10 percent of a team’s cap space. None of the teams that qualified for the playoffs this season or last season allocated their money like that. Why? When teams pay for stars, they don’t have enough money left for depth, and the best teams tend to be the deepest teams. See: Patriots, New England.
Yes, and you don’t have to look far. On Sunday, the Rams will be playing in that team’s stadium.
In 2014, Atlanta featured one of the league’s most efficient and explosive pass attacks, but its defense ranked among the worst. The Falcons couldn’t overcome the imbalance and sputtered to a 6-10 finish. Sound familiar? This will raise hairs: The head coach was Mike Smith and the offensive coordinator was Dirk Koetter.
Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn took over the next season and installed Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. The offense declined, but the defense improved to “respectable.” In 2016, however, Atlanta won the NFC South, stomped the Seahawks and Packers in the playoffs and built a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.
What happened? Quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones didn’t just play at an MVP-level; they played at an all-time great level. The Falcons reached 1998 Vikings/2007 Patriots/2011 Saints/2013 Broncos heights.
That Atlanta team, by the way, was the last playoff team to carry two contracts that each ate up 10 percent of its salary cap. Ryan’s contract took up 15 percent; Jones’ took up 10 percent.
For the Bucs, that’s the bar. They’ll need everything from the players in whom they’ve invested the most: Winston and Evans. Anything less and there won’t be a turnaround.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.