The gamble that revived the Bucs offense and led to postseason success

TAMPA — Fair to say, this did not start out as one of the great romances of the 21st century.

It was more like a marriage of convenience. An overlooked coach waiting for his phone to ring and a football team desperate to avoid third and long. The team was without a starting quarterback and on the verge of salary-cap trauma. The coach had been snubbed for a coordinator job by his own mentor in Seattle.

Neither was a hot commodity in the comings-and-goings of the NFL job market, and if either one had better options they would have been running in opposite directions. Essentially, this was a leap of faith for both.

So, one year later, who would have guessed they would end up being perfect for each other?

Meet Dave Canales, the offensive coordinator who rescued a season.

And say hello to the Buccaneers, surprise contestants in the NFL playoffs.

“It’s been a crazy year, for sure,” Canales said.

Before getting carried away, it’s important to note that scoreboards are not exploding and records are not falling. Believe it or not, the Bucs gained 571 fewer yards than they did in 2022, even though their scoring increased by 11%.

And that, in a way, explains why Canales and the Bucs turned out to be a proper fit. Head coach Todd Bowles was less interested in statistical theatrics and more focused on victories. He wanted a team that would avoid turnovers, run the ball, control the clock and score enough to support a top-10 defense.

Basically, he wanted the Bucs to do exactly what they did in the wild-card win against the Eagles.

If there is one way to explain the difference between the Bucs of 2022 and 2023, it is the postseason performance. A year ago, Tom Brady threw for 351 yards and two touchdowns against the Cowboys in the wild-card game. Not a bad farewell to the league. Except, it took him 66 pass attempts, the Bucs attempted only 12 runs and they did not score until the third quarter. They also lost 31-14.

On the other hand, Baker Mayfield threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns on 36 pass attempts against Philadelphia on Monday night. The Bucs ran the ball 29 times for 119 yards, took the lead five minutes into the game and won 32-9.

“We should absolutely be impressed by the way the offense has responded to Dave Canales. They’re all learning about each other and trying to make things happen in their first season together, and that’s not always easy,” said former Bucs quarterback and NBC broadcaster Chris Simms.

“Canales has shown versatility and a willingness to attack. Yes, they’re the 23rd-ranked offense or whatever they are, but the last 7-8 weeks they’ve been better than that. They’ve started hitting their stride, and now they’re in the top half of the NFL in offense.”

It hasn’t always been smooth or even pleasant to watch. When the running game sputtered earlier in the season, the entire offense seemed to break down. Canales had to move away from some of the run-blocking schemes he was familiar with in Seattle while adjusting to the skills of his new offensive line.

It also took time to figure out the best way to utilize slot receiver Chris Godwin, and Canales gradually discovered Rachaad White could be a greater threat if he could get him isolated on the edges in the passing game.

And, for all the talk of being a ball-control, run-oriented attack, the Bucs took their downfield shots with Mike Evans. That aggressiveness kept defenses from over-compensating on one area of the offense.

“His unwavering belief is why he’s in this position and why we’re winning playoff games,” said receivers coach Brad Idzik, who came with Canales from Seattle. “He’ll say, ‘Here’s some new stuff that you guys might not be comfortable with right now, but it’s going to be worthwhile three or four weeks down the line.’

“In our room we call it, ‘Sitting on the Traeger (Grill).’ It’s like this piece of meat that’s been on the Traeger for four weeks, and now it’s smoked and ready to go. You open it up, and it’s like this beautiful dinner you’ve been waiting for.”

It may not be an exaggeration to say Canales’ career was hanging in the balance when the Bucs were 4-7. A second consecutive losing season could have put Bowles on the hot seat, and that would have meant Canales was in danger of being a one-and-done offensive coordinator.

Yet Canales never let the players see him sweat. He would show them every minor mistake that led to a breakdown on video and confidently explain that they were close to putting it all together.

“As a player, you have limited sight. You’re so locked in on the game in front of you, everything seems magnified,” said running back Chase Edmonds. “You go two games in a row without many yards and you’re like, ‘Damn bro, are we really that bad?’

“As a coach, you have to have a vision more than sight. You have to see beyond today. That’s something Dave has done a great job with. He always brings positive vibes and positive energy into the room. It’s very easy to get caught up in negativity with the TV guys always talking about what’s going wrong. Dave brings a different attitude. He’ll say, ‘Guys, we’re still here, we’re still growing, we’re going to work every day, and one day you’ll see the difference.’”

Is it enough to get past Detroit in the NFC division round on Sunday?

The odds say no, but the Bucs have already defied expectations this season. Sixteen teams — exactly half the league — changed offensive coordinators in 2023. Only Canales and Houston’s Bobby Slowik are still on the sidelines this weekend after taking over offenses that had a losing record in 2022. Both, incidentally, have been interviewed by the Panthers this week for a head-coaching position.

Meanwhile, that safe job Canales left in Seattle no longer exists after head coach Pete Carroll and his staff were dismissed earlier this month.

“Coach Carroll gets fired, and here I am with this opportunity to go to the playoffs,” Canales said. “I can’t help but feel gratitude for this moment, for the timing of it all.

“I’m still waking up every day with that thought of, ‘Wow, how cool is this?’”

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.