Buccaneers’ Early Success Isn’t All About the Quarterback

The narrative around Fitzpatrick and Winston dominates, but the Bucs aren’t winning because of passers

In winning their first two games to the surprise of just about every human being that follows the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have received stellar performances from dozens of professional football players. The offensive line has been spectacular. The defensive line in week two stepped up and helped get a few critical stops. Tampa Bay’s stable of passing targets have been incredible, so good and so deep that tight end Cameron Brate has not even caught a pass yet.

Yet when hearing people talk about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ start, almost all of the credit has been given specifically to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. This has become so common that you are less likely to hear that the Bucs have won two games than you are to hear that Ryan Fitzpatrick has won two games.

Evaluating quarterbacks on wins and losses is a fool’s errand in football. Quarterbacks do nothing singlehandedly, and even the best quarterbacks are often products of the coaching and the teammates around them. So while Ryan Fitzpatrick has been as good as he’s been at any point in an admittedly up-and-down career, looking to him as the singular cause of the Buccaneers’ surprising start misses the point of what the Tampa Bay offense has done.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is the talk of Tampa Bay, as well he should be. The Harvard man looks about as good as he has at any point in his NFL career, as good against NFL teams as he looked beating up FCS teams fifteen years ago during a blessed Harvard season in which the Crimson might very well have won the FCS National Championship if they had played in the postseason.

Fitzpatrick has, of course, been fantastic in the two games. With over 400 yards in each game and four touchdowns in both, he is the top passer statistically in the entire league at the moment.

These are not incidental numbers, or something that can be written off as the product of bad defense and teams caught off guard. Fitzpatrick’s individual performance has been about as good as anyone could expect, to the point that it is difficult to imagine anybody in the NFL, no matter how much more accomplished, playing better through two weeks.

This of course complicates the question of what to do about Jameis Winston. If Winston comes in, he certainly couldn’t produce much more than Fitzpatrick thus far.

Of course, the rest of the offense and their success needs to be considered. Winston has never played behind an offensive line as good as the Buccaneers’ line has been this season to this point. He has never played a regular season game with Todd Monken calling plays, so far a clear upgrade from Dirk Koetter. When he comes in to play, he will be coming into a situation that sets him up for success. It could be suggested in the past that the Buccaneers were setting him up to fail.

Some other thoughts from around the league:

-It’s looking more and more like the mentality of kickers being interchangeable and teams being able to just pick a guy out of free agency and do fine at the position is flat out wrong. Every year it seems, more and more teams bring in new kickers only to find out that the new kicker isn’t any good. Meanwhile, notice that most of the league’s top teams have a lot of stability at kicker. Even at its extremes, the placekicker is not a position that will eat a lot of cap room. It might be time to re-evaluate the strategy.

-It’s worth wondering how many games the Jacksonville Jaguars need to win before people admit that maybe having an all-universe quarterback isn’t the one and only way to succeed in the NFL.

-Did people really think that the same Giants team that was miserable last year would magically be a contender overnight because they hired a new coach and drafted a running back?

-The Los Angeles Rams have a +54 point differential. They have played eight quarters of football. If you tally up all the other positive point differentials in the NFC, you get a combined +37.

-The Kansas City Chiefs are first in the NFL in points scored.  They have also allowed the fourth-most points in the league.

Football is a team sport, and perhaps nothing in any sport is quite as team-oriented as completing a pass in the NFL.

In baseball, teams practice relay throws to home plate in case of an emergency. To do it properly, an outfielder needs to make a good throw in, the cutoff man needs to make a flawless transition from catch to throw and nail the throw, the catcher has to make the catch, find the runner, and tag him out without blocking the plate and triggering a new rule.

In basketball, switch-off defense requires attention from every player on the floor. All five players need to be aware of where the ball is, where their teammates are, and who they’re supposed to be on. When someone runs a pick, those assignments change.

In hockey, a penalty kill requires nine different people to perform, between two PK lines and the goaltender.

To complete a pass in the NFL, you need five linemen to block defenders at least enough to give the QB time. You need a receiver to get open and make himself known to the quarterback. The playcaller needs to dial up the right play. Of course, after all of that, the quarterback needs to identify the open man and throw to him, at which point the ball still needs to be caught. In other words, a bare minimum of eight people need to do their jobs properly for an NFL team to complete a single forward pass.

Yet, in 2018, most of the credit if not all of it falls on the quarterback. If an offense isn’t good, it’s the QB’s fault. If an offense is great, it’s all the QB’s doing. This, of course, is where the FitzMagic talk comes in.

Ryan Fitzpatrick has a job to do and he is doing it well. He is running plays as drawn, finding open receivers, hitting them in stride, and quickly becoming the public face of the team. It is critical to note, however, that he could not do any of those things without the work being put in by the Buccaneers’ offensive line, the team’s wealth of passing targets, and new playcaller Todd Monken. It takes a village, as the cliché goes, but what the Bucs are raising is an offense.

Questions abound about the Buccaneers’ plans after Monday night. On Tuesday morning, Jameis Winston will be reinstated and will return to work. Whether he will do so as a starter, a player idle for the purposes of catching up after three weeks away, or persona non grata is all yet to be determined.

Remember when making your guess about what happens after Monday Night, the Buccaneers have a lot invested in Winston. The quarterback in many ways has not lived up to expectations, despite solid statistics that have improved every year, but Winston remains relatively young with a pedigree that led to him being drafted first overall.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is, for his part, in his mid thirties. Many of the players who came into the league with him have already retired. While he has helped lead the Buccaneers to a present that they never expected, Fitzpatrick is also unlikely to be a significant part of the team’s future.

Therefore, if the Buccaneers were to bench and perhaps later part ways with Winston, it means they will be looking for a long-term solution at quarterback once again. The franchise-long streak of never having signed a quarterback to a second contract would continue. The offseason would be filled with speculation about draft picks, trades, or even free agents.

At the center of this is general manager Jason Licht. While the coaching staff will be graded on team success, Licht’s performance will be heavily weighted toward Winston’s status. Licht, after all, vetted Winston heavily before drafting him first overall, and the Bucs were convinced at the time that any youthful indiscretions on his part were in his past. This offseason, Tampa Bay learned that simply was not true. If he cannot perform well enough on the field to be considered the team’s long term solution, it is worth wondering if Jason Licht will be awarded a second chance on selecting a signal-caller.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.