How Concerned Should We Be About the Buccaneers Passing Attack?
Two games into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers season, and the Lovie Smith era is already off to a very rocky start. To be fair, facing NFL stars like Derek Anderson and Austin Davis was a death row of openings schedules for the Bucs new coach. Yet, despite limiting those lethal offenses to an average of 19.5 points, the Tampa Bay offense has struggled to keep pace.
Specifically, the passing game has been shamefully underwhelming, ranking 26th in the league in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) through two games. Josh McCown has thrown for only 362 yards this season while struggling to connect on explosive plays down the field. He ranks 25th in the league in yards per attempt at only 6.5, and his three interceptions have made the 12-year veteran look like a rookie. Of the 56 passes McCown has thrown, only seven were more than 10 yards downfield and only two more than 20 yards.
For most fantasy owners, Vincent Jackson was drafted to be their top wide receiver, with the presence of rookie phenom Mike Evans removing some of the pressure and thus improving his efficiency. And that made sense, two weeks ago. McCown had played incredibly well in Chicago, throwing jump balls to massive wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Both Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are 6'5'', so why couldn't we expect the same explosiveness?
But with both Jackson and Evans sitting outside the top 50 in standard scoring leagues, owners must be questioning if they can still justify even starting a member of the Buccaneers passing game until the ineptness shows a sign of stopping. Let's break down the numbers a bit more.
Where's the Offense?
The Buccaneers are tied with Seattle for the fewest number of plays run on the season with only 114, or 57 per game. More effective offenses are running closer to 75 per game, and the limited snaps significantly decreases the opportunity Jackson, Evans and company have to produce better results.
Additionally, Tampa's Passing NEP sits at -3.73 after two games, putting them alongside the elite passing offenses of the St. Louis Rams and the New York Giants (I hope you've sensed my sarcasm). The silver lining of this information would be the relatively positive Reception NEP for both Jackson and Evans (7.01 and 5.02 respectively), but when you dig a little deeper, Jackson and Evans' per target Reception NEP rank 35th and 39th out of 44 qualified receivers (8 or more catches), respectively.
There are two noticeable factors for the slow start.
First, the Tampa Bay offensive line simply hasn't been able to adequately protect the quarterback. For deep routes to develop and have a chance, McCown must feel comfortable that the line will afford him the time needed to look downfield. Right tackle Demar Dotson is the only returning starter from 2013, and chemistry is still clearly an issue. And while this can be expected to improve over the course of the season. expecting dramatic improvement is likely fools gold.
Second, new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford is installing a new system that players need time to adapt to, including quarterback Josh McCown. More importantly, Tedford needs to be medically cleared to be fully involved in designing the offensive game plan and actually calling the plays. After undergoing heart surgery just before the season, he's been just sporadically involved in the install of the offense and has yet to take over the play calling duties. In his absence, Lovie Smith has predictably approved an incredibly conservative game script, once again reminding us of the Rex Grossman days in Chicago. In his nine years as head coach, they failed to rank in the top 20 in passing offense six times.
Compounding these issues is the likelihood that Josh McCown isn't very good. Or at least nowhere near as talented as his breakthrough 2013 campaign would indicate.
For fantasy owners, not much of this is good news, at least in the short term. And while our metrics still indicate that Vincent Jackson will be a top 15 player at his position, the same optimism cannot be said for McCown, Evans or any of the other members of the Tampa Bay passing attack.
For owners expecting Jackson to emerge as a more consistent player than he has been in the past, the reality that he's the same player today that he has always been is starting to sink in. While explosive games will happen at times this season, this simply isn't an offense designed for fantasy consistency. At least not yet.
Based on his performance and metrics, Josh McCown doesn't need to be rostered in 10- and 12-team leagues. While he hasn't reached the same level of incompetence as Derek Carr or Chad Henne, his -3.73 Passing NEP hardly instills confidence. With his team facing an 0-3 start in large part due to his inconsistency, it shouldn't surprise anyone if the team turns to Mike Glennon sooner rather than later. It simply doesn't make sense to lose with an aging, journeyman at the helm instead of at least seeing if the young guy has something worth building from.
Mike Evans should be rostered across the board, and offers decent value as the fifth or sixth receiver on your team. His talent exceeds his fantasy ceiling at this point, but a top-40 finish is still not out of the question, and he's a player who will have value. It just might be impossible to predict when he will produce.
The Buccaneers are a team that has an opportunity to prove the critics and the metrics wrong on national television tonight, but another subpar passing performance against Atlanta would easily convince me that this is an offense that is going nowhere in 2014. The Falcons boast the fourth-worst pass defense so far this year according to our defensive metrics, and their lack of a pass rush should afford the Buccaneers with an opportunity to get things right.
Or perhaps this is a team just destined for a bottom five finish. They sure seem capable of it. Marcus Mariota in 2015?