The perception of the Bucs offense vs. the reality in 2022

TAMPA — Close your eyes and picture the 2022 Bucs offense in your mind.

You see Tom Brady, right? As always, he’s throwing on time and on target. You see Mike Evans, too. He’s leaping above defenders and plucking another long pass from the sky. Tristan Wirfs is there, and he’s knocking defensive linemen back on their heels.

This is the offense you expected. The offense you believed in. The offense that hasn’t shown up nearly enough in the first five weeks of the season.

I mean, if you are willing to ignore certain details, the Tampa Bay offense looks as wicked as ever. Players and coaches will tell you they are just a nudge away from dominating again, and there are enough portents to suggest the echo of future cannon blasts.

But eventually you need to open your eyes.

And face the scoreboard.

The Bucs are off to their slowest start scoring-wise since 2016, and no one is suggesting it’s a fluke. Now, it could be temporary. It could be circumstances. But, at this point, it’s wholly deserved.

“I do believe that we’re close, but that means nothing,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “Close and getting it done (are) a long way away. We’ll see. We’ll keep working. But I love this group. I love where we’re at.”

At this point last season, the Bucs were averaging 33.4 points per game. This year, they’re at 20.6. Your heart may tell you one thing, but your eyes are telling you another.

So, which is closer to the truth? I honestly don’t know.

To be fair, there are legitimate arguments for either pessimism or optimism. In fact, here are three reasons for either point of view. Feel free to choose whichever destiny you see fit.

Three reasons for optimism

1. Health. There is a blustery, next-man-up creed in the NFL, but injuries matter. And the Bucs have had an unusually high number on offense in the first month of the season.

They lost center Ryan Jensen in training camp and have played, at times, without Julio Jones, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate and Donovan Smith. Evans also missed a game due to suspension, and the Bucs are still figuring out how to replace Rob Gronkowski’s production at tight end.

“It’s a really different team when you look at it,” Leftwich said. “A lot of different people in that huddle than were there in the past.”

If the younger guys continue to grow and the older guys stay healthy, this offense should be better in December than it was in September.

2. Schedule. The first five teams the Bucs faced this season currently have a 15-10 record. The next five opponents currently have a 9-16 record.

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Yes, the league is built around parity, but strength of schedule matters. The Bucs are 2-0 in the NFC South, and it’s not out of the question that they run the table against Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans.

3. Philosophy. Have the Bucs toned down their aggressiveness with Todd Bowles as head coach? It seemed that way in the first couple of weeks when they were running the ball 30 times a game, but they’re back to attempting passes 66 percent of the time, which matches last season.

They do seem more cognizant of field position, and they lead the NFL in fewest interceptions per pass attempt. They’ve also won three games while scoring 21 points or less, which is more than they won in the previous three years combined.

With the defense playing well, the Bucs might be better off with a smarter, more efficient offense. The weapons are still there, but the risk factor has been tamped down.

Three reasons for pessimism

1. Red zone. The Bucs scored touchdowns on 66.2 percent of their trips to the red zone in 2021. This year, they’re at 57.1 percent. They were nearly perfect against Kansas City but failed to get touchdowns on two of their four opportunities against Atlanta.

“We’re getting across the goal line now, so it’s getting better,” Bowles said. “From seven points to three points is a big difference. We just have to make sure we keep converting them.”

The problem, however, is more widespread than the red zone. Tampa Bay has looked like a different offense once it crosses midfield. The Bucs haven’t run the ball as often or as effectively on the opponent’s side of the field.

Ryan Succop has already kicked eight field goals of 40 yards or more, which is more than either 2020 or ‘21. That’s an indication of an offense that is stalling even before it gets to the red zone.

2. Running game. Fair to say, the Bucs have had the worst ground game in the NFL through five weeks. They are 31st in rushing yards, 32nd in yards per carry and tied for last in the longest run from scrimmage. And that’s after Leonard Fournette gained 127 yards in the opener.

If opponents are completely dismissive of Tampa Bay’s running game, Brady could be back to throwing 50 passes a game with increasing pressure from the pass rush.

3. Injuries. Yes, just a few paragraphs ago, I argued this was a reason for optimism. And if you believe the Bucs have had an unlucky number of injuries in the first month, you can make a case for fortunes to improve as players get healthy.

But when you consider the Bucs have the oldest roster in the NFL, there is a scenario where muscles continually get tweaked, lower backs start to ache and bodies do not recover as quickly.

Bottom line

The Bucs started the season at 3-2 in 2011 and finished 4-12. They were 3-2 in 2020 and won the Super Bowl. Odds are, the 2022 Bucs will finish somewhere in between.

Maybe Jensen comes back. Maybe Gronkowksi comes out of retirement. Maybe Jones has a last hurrah. Maybe the running game finally clicks.

The potential is still there for an explosive offense.

But, for now, it’s still a daydream.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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