The Buccaneers rose to top of the NFC just one year after languishing in third place of the NFC South. The biggest storyline behind Tampa’s turnaround is obviously the signing of Tom Brady, but that’s a reductive way to look at the team. In reality, there were dozens of small moves and tweaks that turned Tampa Bay into a powerhouse.
Yes, this is a team that was built with haste through free agency and trades — but it’s also a lesson in Bruce Arians and Co. knowing that they had a squad that was very close to competing in a major way despite finishing under .500. The Bucs’ ability to fine-tune the roster and become a the NFC champion offers a lesson to the rest of the league about the many paths to team building.
What caused the Bucs to go 7-9 in 2019?
The meme-worthy candidate of the 2019 roster was quarterback Jameis Winston, who threw for a career-high 33 touchdowns, but also an astonishing 30 interceptions. A risky passer by nature, Winston rarely saw a throw he didn’t like. This would be a tremendous problem on most teams, but Tampa had unnaturally good receivers who could fight for the ball and turn risky passes into big gains.
Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were easily the league’s best WR duo, both making the Pro Bowl. However, while they were able to bail out Winston a lot, there were plenty of times they couldn’t. It pushed Tampa Bay to a -13 turnover differential, one of the worst in the NFL. It’s a testament to how good the team was that it managed to win seven games with such a poor turnover differential, but the devil is in the details here too.
While Tampa lost nine games, the margin in every game was exceeding low. Six losses were by one score or less, with the average margin of loss in these games of 4.5 points. You can probably see where I’m going here. With that many turnovers, the team should have been losing big — but the front office recognized that they weren’t. Getting a quarterback who could provide a steadier hand and made less mistakes but could still take advantage of the stellar Bucs receivers would make a huge difference.
Enter Tom Brady.
Why Tom Brady was such an upgrade for the Bucs.
The most interceptions Brady has ever thrown is 14, in 2002, 2004, and 2005. This is less than half of Winston in 2019. Brady also has a career yards-per-attempt of 7.5 compared to Winston’s 7.7. This meant that Brady was tailor made to be a quarterback who could take the Bucs to the next level. He offered almost identical production when it came to moving the ball, paired with someone who wouldn’t turn it over as much.
When you have a team that lost most of its games by less than a touchdown, that’s a substantial difference.
But it wasn’t just Brady.
A key part to the success this season was Tampa’s ability to keep the band together. Flying under the radar for much of free agency before Brady, the team re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh on defense, kept Shaquil Barrett though the franchise tag. The Bucs had continuity by retaining three key starters, all brought back for the big run.
The jewel may have been drafting Antoine Winfield Jr in the second round, who quickly proved to be one of the best defensive rookies in the league. It filled one of the last defensive gaps the team had.
On offense, Tampa Bay kept its offensive line together, which is the underrated part of their success this year. Sure, getting Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette were the big moves that made waves — but keeping the protection intact and adding Tristan Wirfs in the draft took it to the next level.
The Buccaneers allowed 47 sacks in 2019 compared to only 22 this year. Part of that is on Brady’s smarts and quick release, but also a credit to how good this unit is.
The Bucs did build a lot of their talent through free agency, but the bones were already there
There’s a tendency to look at Tampa Bay as a team build solely through money. Part of that is true, but the reality is that the front office looked deep at what issues the Buccaneers had, and corrected the small errors that were holding the team back.
Tampa did a masterful job in keeping the best part of its roster intact. All of the talent brought in served to complement an already talented group The truth is that while Brady is the vector of the team’s success, both sides of the ball is what got the team to this point. It’s why the Buccaneers deserves to be the last NFC team, and has earned the right to be in the Super Bowl. Write them off at your peril.