Is this the year that the Buccaneers finally turn the corner? That’s been a familiar refrain among Bucs fans going back to at least to the 2007 season, the last time the team made the playoffs. Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, and Lovie Smith. Each had nuggets of hope during their tenure (who can forget the 10-6 record posted in Morris’s first season), only to see each summarily dismissed after a disappointing tenure.
Enter Dirk Koetter as head coach and a similar script plays out. After a successful season as the Bucs offensive coordinator, Koetter was promoted to head coach in 2016 and posted a very competitive 9-7 record leading everyone to speculate that 2017 might be the year the Bucs make the jump. What happened of course? The Bucs promptly went 5-11 and often times looked like a dumpster fire, especially on defense.
To the surprise of some, Koetter was retained for a third season. After some solid offseason acquisitions through free agency (Jason Pierre-Paul) and the draft (Vita Vea), hope began to percolate on the surface again that the Bucs could turn the corner, but then Jameis Winston did more Jameis Winston things and earned a three-game suspension from the NFL, potentially tanking the Bucs season before it even began.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, the cagy veteran QB from Harvard, was re-signed by the Buccaneers and thrust into the starting role for the first three games due to the Winston suspension. Fitzpatrick, who has been with seven different teams in thirteen years, has shown flashes of competitive play at times with a lot of inconsistency mixed in, just as he did while starting for an injured Jameis Winston last season.
Making matters worse for the Buccaneers was a difficult schedule to start the season, opening in New Orleans against the Saints, followed by a home visit from the reigning Super Bowl Champion Eagles, and then a visit from the always competitive Pittsburgh Steelers. Many prognosticators had the Bucs penciled in for an 0-3 start, with some more generous columnists predicting 1-2 if a few breaks went their way.
With everything seemingly pointing against the Buccaneers, what did they go out and do on Sunday? Simply beat the Saints and future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees on his home field at the Superdome.
The 48-40 final score might not suggest it, but the Bucs dominated this game. With 12:19 to go in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were ahead 48-24, largely due to the play of Fitzpatrick. He was simply super-human against the Saints, throwing for 419 yards with four touchdowns and an astronomical 156.3 rating, far and away the NFL’s best after Week One. DeSean Jackson looked young again, posting 146 yards receiving and two touchdowns, twice burning Saints’ defenders for long touchdown catches.
Outside of Fitzpatrick’s performance, the thing most likely to be discussed after this game was the offense’s success with Todd Monken calling the plays. During Koetter’s first two seasons, he called the offensive plays himself. Despite having the 11th ranked offense according to Football Outsiders when adjusted for opponent, the Buccaneers offense looked clueless at times, best illustrated perhaps in their home loss to Carolina, where the team scored three points and was 2/12 on third down. Fans often complained the Koetter stubbornly ran the ball too often on first down, putting the Bucs in bad down and distance situations when they were unable to successfully run the football. While Monken called the plays in several preseason games, Koetter had not definitively stated the Monken would call the plays once the regular season started. However, Koetter let Monken call the plays on Sunday and the initial results are a raging success.
On their first offensive drive of the game, the Buccaneers quickly went down the field on a four-play, 68-yard drive which was capped off by a beautiful 58-yard touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to DeSean Jackson. The Bucs went no-huddle for a large majority and showed a crispness and fluidity on offense that has not been seen by fans of this team in years. The 529 offensive yards produced is the second most in team history.
Yesterday was not perfect. The defense struggled to slow down Drew Brees, who threw for 432 yards and the Saints picked up 26 first downs (as did the Bucs). We haven’t yet seen whether Fitzpatrick can repeat this performance against the Eagles or Steelers, and of course the Bucs have started off 1-0 in both of Koetter’s first two seasons. However, if the Bucs can keep looking as sharp as they did Sunday in future weeks, perhaps hope will return that the Bucs have finally turned the corner.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.