The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of just six teams to start the season 2-0. Their defense is No. 1 in points allowed (6.5 per game). And they just knocked off their heated rival, beating the Saints in the regular season for the first time since Week 1 of 2018.
Yet, to paraphrase a quote from Tom Brady from 2019, the Buccaneers may be the most miserable 2-0 team in the NFL.
The injuries are piling up. The offense is stuck in neutral. Brady is throwing tablets in frustration on the sideline. Star receiver Mike Evans is suspended for Sunday’s showdown with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. And the Buccaneers’ relationship with Bruce Arians continues to be one of the most bizarre arrangements in professional sports.
“I’ve got to find a better place to be at so I can be at a better place for my teammates,” Brady said on his Let’s Go! podcast this past week.
The good news for the Buccaneers is that they at least have won a couple games while working through their dysfunction — first a 19-3 win over the Cowboys, then last week’s 20-10 win over the Saints.
The schedule is about to get much harder, though, with visits from Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes in the next two games. And the Buccaneers’ offense is a mess.
They rank 18th in points (19.5 per game), but even that modest ranking has a lot to do with the defense. The Buccaneers have scored just two touchdowns on 24 offensive possessions, an 8.3 percent success rate that ranks tied for 30th.
And Brady’s numbers have been pedestrian. He’s 25th in completion percentage (59.0), 23rd in yards per game (201), and 20th in passer rating (82.8).
The good news for Brady and the Buccaneers is that he has had slower statistical starts — in 2003, 2006, 2009, 2013, 2014, and 2020. Three of his Super Bowl victories are part of that list.
And Brady has valid excuses. The Buccaneers look great on paper, but injuries and off-field issues have decimated the roster.
Chris Godwin isn’t himself yet as he returns from an ACL tear, and he may miss his second straight game on Sunday because of a hamstring injury. Julio Jones hasn’t been practicing and may also miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury. The offensive line already lost two starters in center Ryan Jensen and guard Aaron Stinnie, and played last week without injured left tackle Donovan Smith. Rob Gronkowski retired, and the Buccaneers’ entire tight end room has contributed three catches for 20 yards.
Brady will basically be playing with the JV team on Sunday with Evans also out. Even Brady’s top remaining receivers — Breshad Perriman, Russell Gage, and Scotty Miller — were limited with injuries in practice this past week. The Buccaneers signed former Bills slot receiver Cole Beasley off the street and may have to play him Sunday.
“Any time you lose quite a few guys at one spot, you’ve got to worry a little bit,” coach Todd Bowles acknowledged. “These first three or four games are really your full-time preseason games. When you only play a quarter or two series or anything like that, you don’t get the bumps and bruises that you get when you play four quarters on a week-to-week basis. I think we’re learning how to become a grind-out football team while we get used to our bruises.”
Then there’s Brady, whose frustrations may be partly related to his personal issues, in addition to the football struggles. Bowles confirmed after Sunday’s win that Brady is going to take Wednesday practices off this year as a “veteran day” … only to see Brady participating fully in Wednesday’s practice this past week.
“He can switch it up when we want to switch it up,” Bowles said.
Brady’s personal situation is a bit unusual but nothing compares to the unusual arrangement the Buccaneers have with Arians, their former coach. He stepped down on March 30 to be a senior football consultant and let Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich have their opportunities to grow. But it is clear that Arians still wants to be involved — badly.
It was strange enough when Arians was at training camp practices every day, riding around on his golf cart as always. It certainly was eyebrow-raising when Brady would come off the field after drills and break down the plays with Arians, as if he were still the head coach.
But the incident in the Saints game set a new standard for bizarre. Arians stood on the sideline during the game, inside the white lines of the bench area, and contributed to the chippy play by agitating Saints players.
The Buccaneers tried to explain it away by saying that the Saints didn’t provide them with a luxury suite for the game, forcing Arians to watch from the sideline. But the Buccaneers had 18 seats in the press box, including one with Arians’s name on it, which is standard in the NFL (reporters regularly sit near the visiting GM and front office executives in the press box for games). Arians also had no business being inside the white lines (i.e. the same issue the Patriots had with Brady’s trainer, Alex Guerrero), and he surely shouldn’t be antagonizing opponents. The NFL sent Arians a sternly-worded warning that similar conduct could result in discipline.
If Arians truly wanted to let Bowles and Leftwich grow into their jobs, he would give them space and not be so present. Instead, last week’s sideline episode was more proof of how Arians really didn’t want to step down from his job, a move that was precipitated by a meeting with Brady and the Buccaneers’ owners at a soccer match.
The Buccaneers are quite a soap opera. Let’s see if they can keep winning despite of it.
TIME IS RUNNING OUT?
Teams already facing must-wins
It’s only Week 3, but a handful of AFC teams are already facing must-win scenarios. The Titans-Raiders game in Nashville, pitting former Patriots Josh McDaniels and Mike Vrabel against each other, may as well be an elimination game. Both teams are 0-2, and only one team since 2000 has reached the playoffs after starting 0-3 (the 2018 Texans). Before the Texans, the last team to pull it off was the 1998 Bills.
“We have the same urgency we’ve had,” McDaniels said, trying to minimize the game’s importance. “We should all be desperate each week, in my opinion, and I think that’s the way our team should think.”
The Bengals, last year’s AFC champions, need a win over the feisty Jets at New York on Sunday to avoid an 0-3 start. Joe Burrow had a tough training camp after missing several weeks because of an appendectomy and infection, and the Bengals are integrating four new offensive linemen. The result has been Burrow leading the NFL in being sacked (13), while the Bengals have scored just three touchdowns in 24 offensive drives.
The Broncos are in a slightly better position at 1-1, but Nathaniel Hackett has had one of the worst starts to a head coaching career in recent memory. The Broncos are 0 for 6 in the red zone, lead the NFL with 28 penalties (the next team has 20), and also lead with four delay of game penalties. The boo birds were out in full force in Hackett’s home debut last week, and there are going to be calls for Hackett’s job soon if the Broncos, who play the 49ers on Sunday night, don’t clean up their act.
Big opportunity for Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo’s role as the 49ers’ backup quarterback lasted all of five quarters before Trey Lance broke his ankle, knocking him out for the season.
Garoppolo’s new contract cut his base salary from $24.6 million to $6.5 million, but he can make some of it back in incentives based on starts, wins, playoff appearance, and the Super Bowl. He was the backup in Week 1, but if Garoppolo finishes 16-0 (he already has one win) and then reaches the Super Bowl, and plays at least 50 percent of the snaps in each of the postseason games, he can max out at $15.1 million this year.
So 2022 isn’t really about the money for Garoppolo. But it is a great opportunity to reestablish his market and head into unrestricted free agency next offseason.
Missing the points
Offenses are noticeably sluggish to start the season, as scoring is down nearly a touchdown per game from the past two seasons.
The NFL is averaging 42.8 points per game, down from 48.0 last year and 50.3 in 2020. In the last decade, the only year with a slower start was 2017 (40.3 points per game).
Among the trends through two weeks:
▪ The NFL has seen 23 fewer touchdowns from scrimmage than last year, and 37 fewer than in 2020.
▪ Leaguewide completion percentage is 64.2, down from 67.2 last year.
▪ Yards per attempt is 6.95, down from 7.57. It’s the lowest mark since 2010 (6.86).
▪ Passer rating is 90.0, down from 96.5.
Last year there were 14 quarterbacks that had a passer rating of at least 100.0 through two games, and in 2020 there were 13. This year there are only seven, and it’s not all of the usual suspects — Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff. Among the star quarterbacks off to a slow start: Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Derek Carr, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, and Joe Burrow.
Reasons to hope
A couple of notes about the Patriots’ offense:
▪ They rank 29th in scoring (12 points per game), but there are a few encouraging signs.
They rank 16th in yards per play (5.39) and ninth in yards per pass play (6.64).
But they’re stalling around midfield. The Patriots have just four red zone opportunities, tied for 25th — and it’s really just three possessions, since one was the final drive to close out the win against the Steelers. The Patriots have reached the 30-yard line just five times (in 19 drives), ranked 29th.
▪ Given the high frequency of “50-50 balls” thrown by Mac Jones through two games, it’s worth revisiting Brady’s quote on the subject from October 2016.
“I try never to really throw a 50-50 ball,” he said. “I don’t ever want them to get their hands on it … The last thing I want to do is throw an interception … I like to throw ‘100 percent balls’ that we’ve got a 100 percent chance of getting, or no one else.”
Both of Jones’s interceptions this season have come on 50-50 throws to DeVante Parker.
Wise old Raven
Veteran linebacker Brandon Copeland wasn’t a Raven for long — the team signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Penn in 2013 but cut him at the end of training camp. Copeland was scooped up by the Titans, and later played for the Lions, Jets, Patriots, and Falcons as part of an eight-year career as a backup and special teamer.
But when the Ravens brought back Copeland on Wednesday, signing him to the practice squad, coach John Harbaugh was blown away when he put Copeland, 31, through punt drills at practice.
Gone for nine years, Copeland looked like he had never left.
“I guess he’s like an elephant,” Harbaugh said. “Because we did punt protection today, and our footwork is different than everybody else’s. And he went out there and did it just like it was however many years ago he was here. Just perfect. So, that was nice to see.”
The Bills and Dolphins meet for an unusually important showdown on Sunday in Miami. They are two of the six remaining undefeated teams and are both 2-0 for the first time since 1996. This is a big spot for the Bills to show what they’re made of — a 1 p.m. road game, on a short week, in tough heat and humidity, without multiple key defenders against an explosive Dolphins offense … A few fun connections in Sunday’s 49ers-Broncos game. Niners coach Kyle Shanahan faces the team that his father led to two Super Bowl titles. And the coaching matchup is Shanahan vs. Nathaniel Hackett, both of whom once had the job of “offensive quality control coach” for the Buccaneers under Jon Gruden — Shanahan in 2004-05 and Hackett in 2006-07. The guy who replaced Hackett in 2008 was a kid named Sean McVay … Raise your hand if you had the Lions as the highest-scoring offense through two weeks? The Lions have scored 69 points on offense (nine touchdowns and two field goals), followed by the Bills (65), Chiefs (64), and Browns (56). New offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is doing a terrific job … One player responsible for the Lions’ offensive explosion is receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, a fourth-round pick a year ago who has blossomed into a star. He has caught at least eight passes in eight straight games, tied for the longest streak in NFL history. In last week’s win over the Commanders, St. Brown had nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns … The Bears are taking a conservative approach with second-year quarterback Justin Fields — really conservative. Through two games they have run the ball a whopping 66 percent of the time (64 of 99 plays), 6 percentage points higher than anyone else and 25 points higher than league average. Not surprisingly, the Bears rank 29th in yards per play (4.45) and 31st in offensive plays (97) … A couple of revenge games on deck this week: Texans coach Lovie Smith facing the Bears in Chicago, and Commanders quarterback Wentz facing the Eagles in Washington … The AFC East and NFC East each have a record of 6-2. The AFC South is 1-5-2 … Amazon says that the first “Thursday Night Football” telecast attracted 13 million viewers for Chargers-Chiefs. That number is down nearly 40 percent from December’s Chiefs-Chargers Thursday night game on Fox (18 million) but is still impressive for a streaming service. The overall numbers will be down this year, but the move to Amazon and streaming is a long-term play by the NFL, and the experiment seems to be off to a good start … Bill Belichick may have a questionable draft record, but his quarterbacks are taking over the league. Six quarterbacks drafted by Belichick now have prominent jobs — four starters (Brady, Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, and Jones) and two head coaches (Kliff Kingsbury and Kevin O’Connell).
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.