Season in Review – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

By Sean Tyler (@seantyleruk)

Time to take a look at Mr 30/30 himself and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arguably one of the most exciting teams to watch (not always for the right reasons) in 2019 but what did Bruce Arians achieve this season and what has he got to do to try and obtain a winning record in 2020? More importantly, does it involve Jameis Winston?


ENTERING THE SEASON


Hoping to improve on 5-11 from the previous year, Tampa Bay spent the spring re-signing, extending and acquiring a whole host of players. These included offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson, and leading rusher Peyton Barber. WR Breshad Perriman was a decent pick-up in free agency, but linebacker Shaquil Barrett was arguably the best signing (by any team) in 2019.

Paul Sancya/AP

A couple of months later, former LA Rams defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh also joined the fray, and in the NFL Draft, the Bucs stayed D-heavy. Other than kicker Matt Gay and receiver Scotty Miller, every other pick was a defender. Headed by another linebacker (LSU’s Devin White) at No.5 overall, followed by corners Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, NFL.com recently gave the rookie class an A+ grade.

Not surprisingly, the Bucs’ pre-season games were close, low-scoring affairs, with a two-point loss at Pittsburgh preceding wins over Miami (16-14), Cleveland (13-12) and Dallas (17-15). 


DURING THE SEASON


To the uninitiated, their eventual 7-9 record might appear to have been an unremarkable campaign for the Bucs. But in many ways, it was anything but; in fact, the record-book writers were kept pretty busy.

Providing a snapshot of what was to come, Jameis Winston featured heavily in the highlight reel of the opening day 31-17 loss to San Francisco, for all the wrong reasons (three interceptions, including two pick-sixes). The Bucs’ win at Carolina in Week 2 featured some solid last-ditch defending to keep Christian McCaffrey out of the end zone but then they blew an 18-point lead against the New York Giants, with rookie kicker Matt Gay missing what would have been a winning FG as the clock hit zero.

In Week 4, Suh, a former LA Ram, iced the 55-40 victory over the reigning NFC champions with a 37-yard fumble return. The win took the Bucs over the 50-point mark for the first time.

Bucs Report

Despite their early promise, the Buccaneers hit a wall and limped to 2-6 with a run of four defeats. In a lacklustre 31-24 loss to New Orleans, Teddy Bridgewater threw four TD passes, while the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson went one better a couple of weeks later. Worryingly, Tampa shipped almost 1,000 total yards in those two games alone.

In between, Tampa lost 37-26 in their Panthers rematch, with Winston (five interceptions – there’s a theme here, people) fumbling twice and getting sacked seven times in the second NFL game at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. After the bye week, our erstwhile quarterback hero (four turnovers) carried on where he left off in a 27-23 loss to the Titans.

Somehow, things picked up with a run of five wins in six, starting with Arians getting the better of his former team the Arizona Cardinals. After another loss to the Saints (Winston: four interceptions), the Bucs hit their stride, tormenting Matt Ryan, Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew in wins over Atlanta and Jacksonville. And in defeating the Colts 38-35, Winston (three turnovers) nabbed five total touchdowns and threw for 456 yards, surpassing his own single-season total with three games to spare. The win lifted the Bucs to 6-7, but it wasn’t enough to avoid elimination from postseason contention.

In setting yet another NFL benchmark – two consecutive games of 450+ yards passing – Winston threw for four TDs in a dominant 38-17 win over the Detroit Lions. Third-choice wideout Breshad Perriman – suddenly the target man after Chris Godwin and Mike Evans sustained hamstring injuries – set career bests down the stretch with 134 yards receiving (week 17 vs Atlanta) and three TDs (week 15 vs Lions), and finished the season with three 100-yard games.

Leon Halip / Getty Images

Disappointingly, having battled to back to 7-7 and the chance for a winning season, Tampa lost their last two against the playoff-bound Houston Texans and NFC South rivals the Atlanta Falcons, in which Devin White returned a fumble 91 yards to the house.

Looking back, the season was awash with new franchise records: most touchdowns (54), most points (458), fewest rushing yards allowed (1,181) and, to put the icing on the cake, Shaq Barrett smashed his one-year ‘prove-it’ deal out of the park with 19.5 sacks. The Bucs also led the NFL in run defence, allowing only one player (Seattle’s Chris Carson) – and only three entire teams – 100 yards rushing.

Even Jameis Winston himself set new highs: 5,109 passing yards, 33 touchdown passes, 626 passing attempts and 389 completions. But on the flip side, he also led the NFL with 30 interceptions. Amazingly, that wasn’t a franchise record (thanks to Vinny Testaverde back in the Eighties).

Reaching 7-9 in 2019 – with Head Coach Bruce Arians at the helm for the first time since being hauled out of retirement – the Buccaneers weren’t a million miles from the playoffs. That said, their eventual failure extended the NFL’s second-longest postseason drought to 12 years.


OFFSEASON OUTLOOK


At this time of year, which Bruce Arians has referred to as “monotonous”, there are no gaping holes to fill but Tampa Bay do have 19 unrestricted free agents, which muddies the waters somewhat. Even keeping the half-dozen regular starters like Suh, Dotson and Perriman will put a sizeable dent in their $92 million of available cap space (the third most in the NFL). While they’ll want to keep the bulk of their young defence in tact, the priorities remain two-fold: Shaq Barrett and Jameis Winston.

Back in December, Arians said that Barrett “ain’t going anywhere”. Alas, the Pro Bowl linebacker only signed for a year so if he’s staying, he’s gonna get paid. And if he’s not staying, he’s still gonna get paid. They could franchise tag him but if not, a DT like Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina) or Iowa’s edge rusher AJ Epenesa could be Round 1 draft targets.

As for quarterback, heaven only knows what they’ll do. At 67, Arians can’t wait forever for Winston to eradicate the errors. After their final game, he summed up the dilemma perfectly: “There’s so much good, and so much outright terrible.”

Octavio Jones / Tampa Bay Times

So do the highs outweigh the lows enough to pay Winston the $25m he could expect? It’s hard to tell.

They could move him on and get a bridge quarterback (a la Dalton or Bridgewater). They might keep him – possibly on a franchise tag – but still sign a new young thing to wait in the wings in case he goes turnover-crazy again. (And since his 30 TD/30 INT season ended, he’s had eye surgery so maybe we can expect something nearer 20/20 next year?) Or they could just let him compete against some of the game’s best QBs in a crowded free agent market, and sign a newbie. Whatever the case, Arians likes ‘em big and strong, so Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Jacob Eason from Washington could well be in the frame when they’re on the clock at the NFL Draft with pick #14.

So in summary, Buccaneers fans should be looking ahead to the coming year with a degree of optimism… as long as they can tie down a few of their best performers (#ShackleShaq) and solve The Great Winston Conundrum.

Oh, and there are some snazzy new uniforms in the pipeline…

Season in Review – Buffalo Bills

By Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)

Today it’s time to turn our attention to the AFC East. More specifically, the Buffalo Bills. After coming close to winning a playoff game for the first time in what seems like centuries, we assess why they fell short yet again, but will come back even stronger in 2020.


ENTERING THE SEASON


Languishing in the postseason wilderness since 1999, the Bills finally returned to the playoffs in 2017, only to revert to type with a 6-10 campaign in 2018. So, coming into last season, which scenario could Bills fans expect? Was 2017 a rare high in an otherwise bleak landscape, or could their team compete for the AFC East title again in their third year under HC Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane?

The offseason was largely shaped by Buffalo’s numerous free trade acquisitions, including centre Mitch Morse, wideouts Cole Beasley and John Brown, and TJ Yeldon joined in the backfield by the ageless Frank Gore. Not one but two Cincinnati tight ends (Tyler Kroft and Jake Fisher) added to the influx, contradicting the common narrative that “players don’t want to move to Buffalo”.

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These recruits were complemented by a decent draft haul. Ed Oliver (No.9 overall) was picked to beef up the defensive line, guard Cody Ford was added to protect QB Josh Allen (no longer a wet-behind-the-ears rookie), while RB Devin Singletary and TE Dawson Knox were decent Round 3 and 4 catches.

Armed with this new talent, Buffalo beat the Colts, Panthers, Lions and Vikings in their first-ever undefeated preseason. Former Wasps and England rugby star Christian Wade, who joined as an exempt international player, nailed a 65-yard TD on his first carry as a running back against Indy. But for all that promise, Wade still needed time to learn the game and was shipped out to the practice squad.

Adrian Kraus/AP

DURING THE SEASON


Maintaining their preseason form, the Bills shot out of the gate. They started with back-to-back wins at New York’s MetLife Stadium over the Jets (a squeaky 17-16, having trailed by 16 in the third quarter) and the Giants (a more comfortable 28-14). The subsequent four-point win over the Bengals was notable for the aforementioned Dawson Knox rumbling over the Cincy secondary like a Chieftain tank, as well as two interceptions by CB Tre’Davius White.

Frustratingly, the Bills’ first loss came in a defensive battle with their AFC rivals from Boston. They lost 16-10 to the Patriots but in their defence, Allen did have to leave the field after a helmet-to-helmet hit. Buffalo hit back by seeing off the Titans and, after their bye week, the Dolphins, improving to 5-1 for the first time in a decade. Wedged between losses to the Eagles and the Browns (in which Stephen Hauschka missing a game-tying kick), a commanding 24-9 win against the Redskins saw the Bills equal their 2018 record of six wins with half a season to spare.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Things were going well, as the Bills ploughed on to an impressive 9-3. A three-game hot streak began in Week 11 against Miami, in which ‘Fitzmagic’ was sacked seven times and the ‘Fins were held to just 23 rushing yards. In shutting down the Broncos 20-3, Singletary recorded his first 100-yard rushing game and Gore went third on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, the Bills’ 26-15 win over Dallas – featuring a trick TD pass from Brown to Singletary – secured only their fourth winning season in two decades.

Unfortunately, reaching such heady heights seemed to trigger a bout of vertigo and the Bills began to wobble. Their only win on the home stretch was a 17-10 primetime victory at Pittsburgh in Week 15, with four interceptions helping to seal Buffalo’s first 10-win season this century. In their other three regular season games, however, they fell to the all-conquering Ravens, the dear ol’ Patriots again (handing them the divisional title in the process) and, more surprisingly, the Jets – although a number of first-choice guys were rested before the playoffs.

James P. McCoy/Buffalo News

Did someone mention the playoffs? Yes, the 10-6 Bills had locked up the AFC’s No. 5 seed and made the promised land again. But alas, they came up short at the first time of asking, losing 22-19 to the Texans in the Wild Card round. Buffalo ran up a 16-0 lead (with Brown throwing another trick TD, this time to his quarterback Allen) only for the wheels to fall off, leaving Deshaun Watson to mastermind a final-quarter comeback for Houston. The Bills managed to force overtime but Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning FG extended the Bills’ playoff drought to 25 years…


OFFSEASON OUTLOOK


From the outside, the Bills’ 60th season seemed a pretty decent one but for the Bills Mafia, I suspect the way it fizzled out was disappointing. Nonetheless, a second playoff run in three years is not to be sneezed at, and Josh Allen showed wholesale improvements in his second season. But can Buffalo take the next step from playoff pretender to legit contender? Well, they have $90 million in cap space and nine selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, which can only help, right?

The general consensus is that offensively, they’ll prioritise a physical wide receiver this offseason, despite decent production from Brown and Beasley. Buffalo needs an injection of youth and size at WR so when the Bills are on the clock at #22, expect someone like Tee Higgins from Clemson (a few mock drafts really like this pairing already) or Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr to be selected. Knowing the Bills’ affinity for free agency, a deep threat such as the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper might also fit the bill.

With Frank Gore’s one-year deal at an end, Christian Wade also gives the coaching staff additional food for thought at RB, especially if they can’t snare someone like LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire with a mid-round pick.

On the other side of the ball, the defence is a decent, disciplined unit. Nonetheless, a pass rusher like K’Lavon Chaisson (another of LSU’s stars) should be high on their shopping list, especially with linebacker Lorenzo Alexander retiring and two defensive tackles hitting free agency. A second corner alongside the impressive Tre’ White would make sense too.

Getty Images

So there you have it. The Buffalo Bills are a well-run outfit that looks set to use college drafts, trades and free agents to build around a blossoming young quarterback. Since Coach McDermott came to Orchard Park, things have been on an upward trend and, with a decent war chest at their disposal, fans should expect more of the same in the year ahead.

Super Bowl LIV: Reid all about it

By Sean Tyler (@seantyleruk)

In his 21 seasons as Head Coach, Andy Reid had won everything except the thing that mattered most: the Super Bowl. Having missed out 15 years ago with the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid finally broke the hoodoo on Sunday evening (or Monday morning here in the UK), overseeing a 31-20 victory for the Kansas City Chiefs over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid reacts as he is doused following Kansas City’s 31-20 Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
David J. Phillip / AP

Ahead of Sunday’s triumph in South Florida, Reid’s impressive list of accomplishments – 207 regular season and 14 postseason wins, 10 divisions titles and seven conference championship games – still had a hollow ring to it. But that’s all changed with career victory #222 and Super Bowl victory #1.

After the game, when asked if it was worth the wait, even that superb walrus moustache couldn’t hide his broad grin. “Absolutely,” came Reid’s reply. “Absolutely.” And for all the talent and potential in the 49ers’ camp, who could begrudge ‘Big Red’ his moment of glory?


Did the game stick to the script?


With no clear pre-game favourite, this one was a tough one to call beforehand. As it happened, the momentum ebbed and flowed, and the result hung in the balance till the end.

In many ways, Super Bowl LIV in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium was exactly as billed. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was named the game’s MVP, Niners kicker Robbie Gould maintained his faultless postseason record with two field goals and two PATs, and Kansas trailed in the final quarter before yet another comeback. 

And then again, Mahomes struggled for much of the night, both tight ends had understated outings and the Niners’ running game wasn’t quite the well-oiled machine we’ve seen of late. Granted, Kyle Shanahan’s attack used play-action and misdirection to keep the KC defence guessing, but Raheem Mostert (58 yards) and Tevin Coleman (28 yards) largely flattered to deceive.


Did Mahomes deserve the MVP crown?


Yes. And no.

San Francisco’s best bet was always to keep Mahomes off the field by dominating possession with their running game, then keep him under wraps as best they could. And for much of the game, Robert Saleh’s defensive game plan worked.

And yet, despite starting slowly again, Mahomes still rushed for the opening TD and threw for three more. With ‘The Mahomes Factor’, the Chiefs can win from anywhere, at any time. He began with a three-and-out, was pressured all night and when flushed out of the pocket, he was forced to scramble or attempt a risky pass. Hence, he didn’t deliver the all-out air raid some pundits predicted.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrates a Super Bowl victory on Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers.
Getty Images

His stats – 26-of-42 for 286 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs (for the first time this season) – don’t scream MVP but it’s more about context than box score. Sure, he was far from perfect, following up sacks with interceptions to Fred Warner and Bashaud Breeland on consecutive second-half possessions, but when it mattered most, he rose to the occasion.

On the other side, Garoppolo (20-of-31 for 219 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) found some rhythm with Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne, connected with Kyle Juszczyk for a 15-yard TD and set up Raheem Mostert’s 1-yard rushing score. But he also gifted Bashaud Breeland an interception with an unnecessary and desperate throw in the first quarter. And that was really how it went – he didn’t play poorly but equally, it never felt like it was going to be the Jimmy G show.

Hats should also be tipped in the direction of SF’s Deebo Samuel for the most rushing yards for a receiver in a Super Bowl (53 yards on just three carries), and the Chiefs’ Damien Williams (17 carries, 104 yards, 2 TDs), the only 100-yard rusher on the day. The guy had his struggles when playing for the Dolphins on the very same field but he seems to have left them well behind him.

But despite these fine efforts, and those of trench warriors such as Chris Jones and Mitchell Schwartz (check out our Super Bowl podcast for more on them), the MVP was probably Mahomes, if only for what he masterminded in the final quarter. Which brings me to…


The turning point


At the end of the third, after Mahomes was sacked and then intercepted, the Niners were up by 10 and looking good for their sixth Super Bowl title. The Lombardi Trophy was heading back to California, right?

Wrong. Having seen the Texans and Titans games, we know better than to rule the Chiefs out, especially when the odds are stacked against them. They were at least 10 points behind in both those postseason match-ups and eventually won by at least as many. It’s like they need to be down by double figures before they realise the seriousness of the situation.

And in Miami, lightning struck yet again. Mahomes turned the game on its head by finally morphing into the gunslinger. Facing a third-and-15 from his own 35, he had the nerve to drop back nine steps before connecting on a 44-yard bomb to the turbo-charged Tyreek Hill (9 catches, 105 yards). Four plays later, Mahomes hit Kelce for a 1-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 20-17.

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Charlie Riedel / AP

The 49ers were limited to a three-and-out, so back came Mahomes, notching a 38-yard pass to wideout Sammy Watkins (5 catches, 98 yards), before finding running back Damien Williams for the go-ahead score. Despite being sacked again, Mahomes recovered to release Williams down the sideline from 38 yards to ice it with a killer two-play TD drive. In response to the 49ers’ 17 unanswered points, the Chiefs notched up 21 of their own in the final six-and-a-bit minutes.

Garappolo still had time to muster a comeback attempt of his own with 1:40 left to play, but when called upon, he overcooked a pass to an open Emmanuel Sanders on a third-and-10 that coulda – shoulda – been the go-ahead score. The moment was gone.

Cue Reid being drenched with a barrel of Gatorade.


How the (mind) game was won


The 49ers were arguably the more complete team but they couldn’t compete with the never-say-die attitude of Mahomes and the courage of HC Andy Reid, who twice rolled the dice on crucial 4th-and-1 attempts. Damien Williams converted both, the first of which set up a 1-yard scoring run by his QB. On the flip side, Shanahan settled for two field goals that gave the 49ers a 10-point advantage, rather than the 14 or 18 it could have been.

The HC’s play-calling was also pivotal, especially when he veered away from what works for the Niners: the run game. In the fourth, for example, Mostert found a lane but got hauled down on a first down. Two throws then fell incomplete, which stopped the clock and handed the ball back to the Chiefs with plenty of time for the go-ahead touchdown.

Under Steve Spagnuolo’s guidance, Kansas’ defence also held up when it mattered, with Chris Jones batting down a couple of passes, Daniel Sorensen clobbering Garoppolo with a massive hit, Frank Clark grabbing a sack and Kendall Fuller snatching the game-ending interception.

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When the dust settles…


Kyle Shanahan was minutes away from taking the 49ers from 4-10 last year to winning this season’s finale. The loss is going to hurt for a while yet, especially as it’s the second time in four seasons he’s been on the wrong end of an heartbreaking collapse. (His final game as the OC for the Atlanta Falcons saw them blow a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI and lost to the Patriots in OT.) But the Niners have plenty of reason for optimism heading into 2020 and beyond. They’ll lick their wounds and rise again, especially considering that Jimmy G’s only started 29 games. As George Kittle eloquently told the press: “The Legendary Revenge Tour of 2020. It’s coming.”

As for KC, Mahomes (eventually) earned his corn to become the second-youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He’s now racked up 30+ points in all five of his postseason appearances and should never be written off until the game clock hits zero. He is resilience personified. He isn’t fazed when things go wrong; he just presses the reset button and goes again. Undoubtedly the current face and the future hope of the franchise, I doubt that’s the last time we’ll see him strutting his stuff on the NFL’s biggest stage.

Bottom line: it was all about Andy

The Chiefs couldn’t have won their first NFL title in 50 years without their inspirational quarterback but to come full circle, this win was all about Andy Reid. A Super Bowl title was the only thing missing from his CV and that’s now been rectified.

As the after-game soundbites from his players suggest, they couldn’t be happier for their Head Coach. And I’m dead chuffed for the fella too.