With Sunday’s loss, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped to 2-12 and remained in the lead for the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. If the Bucs lose the next two games, we’ll spend months speculating about whether they’ll choose quarterback Marcus Mariota or quarterback Jameis Winston.
Here’s my advice to the Buccaneers: Draft neither.
Instead, the Bucs should try something truly radical to turn their franchise around: Give up on the whole idea of a franchise quarterback altogether. While the 31 other teams value quarterbacks above all else, Tampa Bay should do something completely different and make quarterback their last priority, while building a great defense and a good running game.
First, Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith should make a firm commitment to building a team with a great defense (something he’s done before in Chicago) and making the offense revolve around the running game, not the passing game. Smith should hire an offensive coordinator from a college with a run-heavy offense like Georgia Tech, which is the No. 12 team in the country this year using an offense in which the quarterback runs more often than he passes. The Bucs should aim to run the ball 50 or so times a game.
That hasn’t often happened in the NFL, but the Jets tried that strategy on a Monday night this season against the Dolphins, and it actually worked fairly well — by the Jets’ standards. They ran 49 times for 277 yards and would have beaten the Dolphins had Nick Folk not missed two field goals. If a terrible team like the Jets can find some success employing a run-heavy offense only after realizing that their quarterback situation is a disaster, think what some smarter team could do if it built a roster specifically tailored to that approach.
Such a commitment to running the ball would liberate the Bucs from having to go through the growing pains of a rookie quarterback, or having to spend a fortune on a starter in free agency. Instead, the Bucs should sign run-first quarterbacks like Terrelle Pryor, Vince Young or Tim Tebow, all of whom can be had for the league minimum salary. The Bucs have two good wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, but they should be traded for draft picks who can help build the defense. The wide receivers who remain in Tampa Bay should be good downfield blockers who can be had for the league minimum. Even at running back the Buccaneers shouldn’t spend a lot of money because they’ll be running these guys into the ground. Go for depth at running back instead of one expensive star.
The only spot on offense where the Buccaneers should spend a lot of money is on the line, but even there they shouldn’t spend a fortune. They don’t have to out-bid other teams for great pass-blocking left tackles, they just need five above-average run blockers.
With all the savings on offense, the Buccaneers would have more cap space available for defense than any other team in the league. That means they can sign good free agents who fit in Smith’s system to add to an already talented defense that includes Gerald McCoy, Jacquies Smith, Lavonte David and Alterraun Verner. The Bucs could also add a bounty of picks by trading the first overall pick next year to a team that wants Mariota or Winston, as well as trading Evans and Jackson. They could use all of those picks on bolstering the defense. They should be able to build the best defense in the NFL because they’re devoting more resources to defense than any other team in the NFL.
Do this right and the Buccaneers will have the No. 1 defense in the NFL, to go with an offense that has an unconventional approach that NFL defenses aren’t accustomed to playing against, and aren’t built to stop. This could work.
Maybe you think the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and a team is doomed to failure if it writes off the quarterback position. But I say there are a limited number of great quarterbacks, and the teams that are really doomed to failure are the teams that devote the draft picks or cap space to a quarterback they hope will be great who turns out to be something less than great.
I hesitate to use the term “Moneyball” in the NFL because revenue sharing and a salary cap makes football fundamentally different from baseball. But there’s something to be said for looking at what everyone else values (building a great passing game) and trying to do the opposite. That’s what the Buccaneers should do. Smith is the right coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl with a great defense and a mediocre offense. He’s done it before in Chicago. But when Smith was the coach in Chicago, the Bears were trying to build a conventional NFL offense, they just didn’t do a very good job of it. In Tampa Bay, the Bucs should make a specific point of saving resources by building an unconventional NFL offense, and reaping the benefits on defense.
Would it work? Maybe, maybe not. But the Bucs have tried and failed to build a team the conventional way with quarterbacks like Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Josh McCown. It’s time to try something different.
Here are my other thoughts:
The best play of the day didn’t count. Colts receiver Donte Moncrief had a sensational touchdown catch on Sunday against the Texans, diving to snare a deflected ball out of the air on a pass on which he wasn’t even the intended receiver. It was a phenomenal play by Moncrief. Unfortunately, Colts offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo was holding Texans defensive end J.J. Watt on the play, so the whole thing got called back on a penalty. Still a great play by Moncrief.
Watt is the NFL’s best player. Speaking of Watt, he remains the best player in the NFL. Although the Texans lost to the Colts on Sunday, Watt was the best player on the field. He had five solo tackles, two sacks, one pass defensed, two quarterback hits and forced that holding penalty that negated a Colts touchdown. There’s no way a defensive lineman on a .500 team will win the MVP award, but he’s the best player in football.
Aaron Rodgers is human after all. Rodgers had an ugly stat line against a good Bills Defense on Sunday, completing just 17 of 42 passes for 185 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions, for a passer rating of 34.3 — the lowest passer rating for any game in his career. Rodgers may still win the league MVP, and the Packers remain the favorites to win the NFC North, but Sunday’s loss makes it tougher for the Packers to earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, and gives hopes to other teams that Rodgers can be stopped.
Johnny Football was terrible. The Browns gave Johnny Manziel his first career start on Sunday, and he did not rise to the occasion. Manziel completed 10 of 18 passes for 80 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions, three sacks for a loss of 26 yards, and a passer rating of 27.3. I think the Browns did the right thing by giving Manziel the start over Brian Hoyer, but that loss showed that Manziel has a long way to go, and the Browns have a long way to go.
Tom Brady can run! Who knew that Brady still has wheels? Well, he’s not exactly Russell Wilson, but he showed on Sunday that he can still move on occasion. On a third-and-11, Brady dropped back, didn’t see anyone open and decided to take off running. He picked up 17 yards and was feeling so exhilarated that instead of sliding he lowered his shoulder, took a hit and got up yelling and screaming. That was Brady’s longest run since 2007, the year before he suffered a torn ACL.
When you’ve got a quarterback like Brady, you don’t want him running very often. But there aren’t many quarterbacks like Brady. The teams that don’t have a quarterback like Brady would be better trying something different. C’mon, Tampa Bay. Do it.