The Buccaneers weren’t looking for wholesale changes when they moved Bruce Arians to an advisory role in March — just someone to provide continuity and keep building on the Buccaneers’ recent success.
The man for the job was Todd Bowles, who was elevated from defensive coordinator. Bowles was coached by Arians in college at Temple, and was Arians’s defensive coordinator for six years in Arizona and Tampa.
“I’m not going to change things just because I’m the head coach now,” Bowles said in the Bucs’ indoor practice facility after a recent training camp practice. “That’s dumb. That’s ego. My ‘give a damn’ gave out a long time ago.”
But Bowles is no Arians, either. Arians was an offensive play-caller and quarterbacks coach, Bowles a longtime defensive coach and coordinator. Arians is colorful and animated, Bowles soft-spoken and even-keeled.
“We had a lot of good things with Bruce, but I am not Bruce,” Bowles said. “I don’t coach like Bruce, I don’t talk like Bruce. And our plan is to keep the good things that we had, and if we can see some things, we’ll add on to them for the good of the team.”
Bowles, 58, must feel pretty fortunate. His head coaching stint with the Jets (2015-18) was, like most things with that organization, a flop. After a promising 10-6 start in his first year, Bowles went 14-34 over his final three seasons while cycling through Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown and rookie Sam Darnold at quarterback.
Four years later, Bowles traded in a clunker for a Porsche. He now leads a Bucs team that won a Super Bowl and reached the Divisional Round within the last two years. His quarterback is Tom Brady (we think), and his Bucs are the favorites to win the NFC.
“You get the keys, but you’re still learning to drive it because now you’re in total control instead of half control,” Bowles said of being in charge of the entire team. “But it’s been good, and we’re not forcing it. They get to know me little by little each day, I get to know them little by little.”
Bowles and the Bucs are coming off a successful but ultimately disappointing 2021 season. A shot at back-to-back Super Bowls was ruined by a defensive miscue on Cooper Kupp’s 44-yard catch in the final seconds of the Bucs’ 30-27 playoff loss to the Rams.
Bowles said he only reviewed the play “one time, because I knew what happened when it happened. I know why and they know why. But you’ve got to let it go or else you can’t move on. In that ballgame, it wasn’t just the last play. There were about eight or nine things that cost us before that play cost us.”
Bowles said he feels like a different coach in his second stint as the head man. Certainly a wiser one.
He still will be in charge of the Bucs’ defense, and vowed not to get too caught up with the offense. That’s for offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Brady.
“I took my hands off the defensive side of the ball as the years went on with the Jets, because I was looking at everything else on offense,” Bowles said. “I’m not an offensive coach. I’ll manage the game like I always do, but I’m a defensive coach. So they run the offense, and my expertise to them is showing what the defense is trying to do to them and breaking it down so maybe they can get an advantage. And that’s my biggest offensive weapon to them, is not running the offense.”
The offense should once again be one of the best in the league, but is suddenly looking a little thin. During joint practices last week, receivers named Jaelon Darden, Tyler Johnson, Cyril Grayson, and rookie tight end Cade Otton were running with the first team.
Rob Gronkowski’s retirement has left them with an aging Kyle Rudolph, Cameron Brate and a bunch of rookies at tight end. Godwin only participates in individual drills as he returns from a December ACL tear. Mike Evans barely practices. New No. 3 receiver Russell Gage will miss time with a recent hamstring injury. Julio Jones and Brate get veteran days. And Brady has been excused from nearly two weeks of practices so far.
But Bowles said the last two years have taught them the importance of managing the roster in training camp. The Bucs feel they suffered too many injuries in 2021.
“I think we learned after the Super Bowl, going into last year when everyone got banged up, that it’s a long season,” Bowles said. “We’re trying to be smart this time around.”
Unfortunately, the Bucs still got hit hard in the first week of camp. Center Ryan Jensen, the leader of the offensive line, suffered a serious knee injury in the first week of camp and may miss the entire season.
Bowles said the team is “full speed ahead” with center Robert Hainsey, last year’s third-round pick out of Notre Dame who practices every day against two of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks.
“People were so initially hurt by Jensen that they forgot we have Hainsey,” Bowles said. “We want Jensen to get back as fast as he can, but the cupboard is not bare. We’ve got a guy that can fill in and play ball. It’s just a matter of getting reps.”
If Bowles manages the roster right, the Bucs will be locked and loaded for another Super Bowl run. The NFC is weaker this year, and any team with Brady will have a chance. Expectations are sky high, and that’s fine with the Bucs.
“We embrace it, we look forward to it,” Bowles said. “But we know it’s a step at a time and we’ve got to work for it. We call it a 17-round boxing match, and we try to go round by round.”
A few other notes after spending three days at Bucs training camp:
▪ A fascinating subplot of camp — despite stepping down as head coach, Arians is still at practice every day, riding around in his golf cart like always. Even more surprising was when Brady, after a series in 11-on-11 drills, came off the field and immediately went to Arians to dissect what happened. It shows that while Brady was a force behind Arians’s removal, there is still respect and a relationship between the two.
▪ The Bucs may keep recruiting Gronkowski throughout this season, but aren’t counting on him to return.
“We’re not closing the door,” Bowles said. “It would be a welcome addition if he decides to do that, but we can’t wait on him. We’ve got to go full steam ahead.”
▪ Bowles on new right guard Shaq Mason, acquired in a trade from the Patriots this offseason: “He’s been a good guard for a long time. He’s a road grader. He’s reliable, he’s not hurt a lot, he’s tough. And the chemistry is there [with Brady], so that’s part of it. But we got him because he can play. The fact that he came from New England is just a bonus for Tom.”
▪ New Bucs safety Logan Ryan loves to talk trash on the field. But Ryan is going easy on Brady, his former teammate in New England (2013-16). Ryan was with the Titans in the 2019-20 season when he intercepted Brady’s final pass as a Patriot, returning it for a pick-6 in the Titans’ wild-card playoff win at Gillette Stadium.
“We don’t talk about it too much, but it’s in my house,” Ryan said of the football. “He’s a good sport. We messaged after [the game], he was OK about it. I’m going to try to convince him to auction that ball off for charity, so I don’t want to rub it in too much, because I need him.”
INJURIES THE STORY
It’s that time of year in the NFL
Training camp reports and exhibition games are fun, but the most significant stories this time of year are injuries:
▪ The Jets appeared to avoid the nightmare scenario with QB Zach Wilson on Friday night. Wilson’s non-contact knee injury is reportedly just a bone bruise and meniscus tear that will keep him out 2-4 weeks, and not a torn ACL that would have kept him out all season. Backups Joe Flacco and Mike White can hold down the fort until Wilson returns, but Wilson is missing valuable practice time, and is starting his second NFL season under ominous circumstances.
▪ And the Jets got bad news with right tackle Mekhi Becton, the team’s 2020 first-round pick who will miss the entire 2022 season after suffering a fracture in his kneecap last week. It’s likely related to the right knee injury Becton injured last year, which limited him to just one game. The Jets signed 37-year-old veteran left tackle Duane Brown to replace him.
▪ The Bengals have an unexpected problem with star quarterback Joe Burrow, who still isn’t practicing more than two weeks after undergoing an appendectomy. Bengals coach Zac Taylor has no timetable for Burrow’s return, and Burrow was seen with an IV in his arm while watching practice last week.
Burrow may be fine for Week 1, but he’s missing valuable practice time.
▪ The Broncos lost a big weapon in 6-foot-4-inch receiver Tim Patrick, who tore his ACL Aug. 2. Patrick had consistent production the last two years despite shaky QB play, and had major breakout potential this season with Russell Wilson throwing him the ball. “It was devastating just to see him go down,” said Wilson, who will have to rely more on receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy.
▪ Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford finally participated in team drills for the first time Tuesday after sitting out most of the first three weeks with an elbow injury. The Rams only have John Wolford, Bryce Perkins and Luis Perez as backup QBs, and may need to find a stronger one if Stafford’s elbow continues to be a problem.
▪ Browns punt returner Jakeem Grant, an All-Pro the last two years, is out for the year after tearing his Achilles’. The Browns just signed him to a three-year, $13.75 million deal in March.
Welker benefited from Brady’s failed plan
One person who benefited from Tom Brady’s failed plans to join the Dolphins was his old buddy Wes Welker. Once the Dolphins’ plan to add Brady and Sean Payton was squashed, the team turned to Mike McDaniel as head coach. And McDaniel hired Welker as his wide receivers coach after spending the last three years together on the 49ers’ staff.
For Welker, it’s a return to his roots. The Dolphins signed Welker off waivers in Week 2 of his rookie season in 2004, and he spent three seasons under Dave Wannstedt and Nick Saban developing into a special teams star and slot receiver. Now he gets to coach a room with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
Welker initially got into coaching with the Texans in 2017, and recently said he was “terrible” that first year. He credited McDaniel and his unique coaching tapes for improving his skills.
“You start looking at [Mike’s] tapes, and you see everything, like it’s telling a story,” Welker said last week, via the Palm Beach Post. “I’ve never had a coach do something like that. And so it was, it was very different from me.”
“I was in the league for 12 years, I’ve been coaching for two years already. Nobody had made tapes like that. And so it opened my eyes.”
The Associated Press reported that Deshaun Watson is willing to accept an eight-game suspension and $5 million fine from the NFL, but that is laughably too little, too late. Roger Goodell and the NFL are seeking a year-long suspension and potentially a $10 million fine, and appeals officer Peter C. Harvey seems likely to side with the league. Watson’s best hope to play this season may be a 12-game suspension to go with the large fine … The uniform police have come after 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and his favorite red hat with the tiny logo. Shanahan told KNBR radio last week that he wanted to revive it this year from the 2020 season, but the NFL won’t allow him to wear an old hat, since the coaches essentially serve as apparel models during games. “I have such beef with them right now,” Shanahan said. “I’ve got to wear the new ones that they give this year. Unfortunately, there’s none I like wearing. I don’t want to go too hard and get fined or anything but trust me, I’m upset about it.” … The latest criticism lobbed at Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t seem very fair. It came from an unnamed former 49ers coach, who told the San Francisco Chronicle Garoppolo ghosted the Niners for “weeks and weeks” after signing a five-year, $137.5 million contract in 2018. “He didn’t return calls, he didn’t return texts — he basically just vanished. And we were looking at each other going, ‘What just happened?’ ” But this criticism is unfair. Garoppolo signed his contract Feb. 8. The offseason program doesn’t start until mid-April. Garoppolo was well within his rights to take a break and do his own thing … The AFC East games will highlight the teams’ home-field advantages. The Dolphins will host both the Patriots and Bills in September, 1 p.m. games that will be brutally hot and humid. The Dolphins then play at the Bills Dec. 18 and at the Patriots Jan. 1 … Dolphins limited partner Bruce Beal Jr., one of the main participants in the Dolphins’ tampering episode, isn’t just Tom Brady’s good friend — he’s on the board of directors at TB12. It certainly is curious why Brady and Beal didn’t just resort to that excuse when asked about the “numerous and detailed” conversations the NFL found between them during the 2019 season. Perhaps relatedly, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has started the process to remove Beal as the next owner in line, choosing his daughter, Jennifer, instead, per the Sports Business Journal … It may seem new to us to see Bill Belichick so heavily involved with the Patriots’ offense, but SiriusXM NFL host Jim Miller said Belichick always has been. Miller, the Patriots’ backup quarterback in 2003, said Belichick ran most quarterback film meetings that season, often pausing between plays to set up a tryout for special teams players or sign off on a football ops request … N’Keal Harry probably would rather be on the field right now for the Bears, but his recent high ankle sprain, which will keep him out for eight weeks, probably saves his roster spot for now. He is on the roster bubble, but injured players can’t be released without a settlement that covers the injury window.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.