TAMPA — Todd Bowles isn’t going to lie. He’s not going to hide the truth about his first season as Bucs head coach in a word salad and let you pick through it in hopes of uncovering a few morsels of honesty.
If you want to know what happened in 2022 — which incidentally ended with both a losing record (8-9) and an NFC South title — he will confess he believed his hands were tied from the get-go.
Bowles wasn’t hired until March 30, 2022. Tom Brady unretired. The band didn’t just get back together, it had aged like Keith Richards. Bowles couldn’t hire new coaches or change the offensive scheme.
“With all the outside forces that came with it, you were kind of handcuffed a little bit,” Bowles said. “We could’ve won the last game (at Atlanta) if we don’t take those (starters) out. We won the division. That’s No. 1. We didn’t play very well in the playoff game (against Dallas). I thought we were maxed out as a team, in all honesty. Even the year before when Bruce (Arians) left, we won off talent. We were just out there. We won off talent alone.
“Last year, we blew about four games that we should’ve won. But we won the division and that’s always the first thing. We got in and we were probably maxed out. You could see that you had to get younger, and you see that you have to revamp, and you see you have to make some changes in the offseason and that’s what I did.”
But before that, before Bowles let a plethora of assistant coaches go, Arians decided to resign as head coach and move to a front-office job as the assistant to general manager Jason Licht.
Problem was, Arians still was in the building, riding his golf cart around at practice but not poking his head into any meeting rooms. Arians admitted he didn’t do Bowles any favors and has returned to his forever house in Georgia.
What might have helped was if Arians had tried to do more, like fix the league’s worst rushing offense.
“You always love having Bruce around. It wasn’t a factor,” Bowles said. “The fact that you get the job so late, we were like two weeks away from the draft. The hay was in the barn. The system was set. The coaching staff was set. The players were practically set to report back. So it was hard. …
“Everybody says, ‘This formula has worked for us. Why are we changing anything?’ So you try to keep it and tweak it as you go. But as you go, you start to figure out that we had a lot of guys not practicing and just playing on Sundays because we were older. … So this year, you get a chance to rebuild the culture and the chemistry and kind of get it right. You understand, even if you’ve been coaching together a long time, sometimes you agree to disagree.
“And that happened, too.”
A change is gonna come
The Bucs still have plenty of players who helped win Super Bowl 55, but the balance of the roster includes 13 rookies, including six undrafted free agents. They were $55 million over the salary cap and couldn’t compete for free agents.
Brady is gone, but quarterback Baker Mayfield appears to be a perfect fit for the offense under new coordinator Dave Canales, one that features a zone running scheme and puts the quarterback on the move with a series of play-action, rollouts, bootlegs and waggles. The former Seahawks quarterbacks coach helped revitalize the career of Geno Smith. Mayfield is with his fourth team since July 2022 and faces the unenviable task of being the first quarterback in the Bucs’ huddle after Brady.
“It’s not about who replaces Tom, it’s about who can run this offense better,” Bowles said. “Nobody is going to replace Tom. I keep saying it. Tom is the greatest. You don’t fill his shoes. You go out and get a new pair. They’re going to look different and they’re going to feel different but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to win with them. They’re not going to have his fanfare. They’re not going to have his experience and all that, but nobody is.”
Unfortunately for the Bucs, three years of being relevant just from the mere presence of Brady has been replaced by a familiar yawn. It feels like a rebuild. At best, it is a reset.
Before Brady’s arrival in 2020, the Bucs went 12 consecutive seasons without reaching the playoffs and had only three seasons that produced a winning record. The door to the head coach’s office should have been a revolving one.
Bowles had only one winning record in four seasons as the Jets’ head coach, going 24-40. All NFL head coaches are embattled. They face pressure to win from ownership, fans and media. The expectations can be unrealistic. He knows if he doesn’t win this season, regardless of making the playoffs last season only to be demolished 31-14 in the NFC wild-card game, the conversation will veer toward his tenuous future.
Bowles responded after last season by firing offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and five other assistants. Three more, including quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, decided to retire, at least temporarily.
No one was under fire more last season than Leftwich, the former Jaguars and Steelers quarterback who was talked into coaching by Arians. Leftwich called plays for an offense that ranked no lower than third in points scored in three of his four seasons in Tampa Bay. In his final season with the Bucs, quarterback Jameis Winston passed for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns (along with 30 interceptions) while Brady averaged nearly 4,900 passing yards during his three seasons.
However, the Bucs were last in the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing average. Bowles consistently asked Leftwich and other offensive assistants to improve the run game, but aside from one breakout outing against Seattle in Germany, it never came.
“I thought I held everybody accountable,” Bowles said. “It’s hard to change when you’ve been in that system your whole life. That’s what you know and that’s what we won with in the past. That’s how it was built. Bruce was one of the X-factors and he knew the tweaks. He knew when to change and when not to change because he’s a very bright guy. Our coaches knew the system inside and out, but we needed to tweak it and we didn’t tweak it. That became a problem.”
Bowles could have made a change during the season at offensive coordinator, appointing run game coordinator Harold Goodwin to call plays. He pleaded with other offensive assistants such as Christensen to “fix it,” but only Leftwich and Brady were responsible for game planning.
Bowles also has spent most of his career as a defensive coordinator and understands how undermining it can feel when you work for a helicopter head coach who checks your work.
“I can’t be an offensive coordinator,” Bowles said. “Everybody thinks I can. I know offense but from a defensive standpoint, I can’t stand up there and say, ‘Run this protection.’ It would be asinine for me to do. Do I know protections? Yeah. Do I know routes? Yes. Do I know schemes and what people do? Yes.
“But that takes away from so much of what I supposedly am trying to be good at. You have to be the head coach and let your coaches coach. Bruce taught me that, too. That doesn’t make for a good staff to browbeat, but you get your point across. If it crosses a point where things just don’t come across anymore, you either change things or you don’t. And I made changes.”
Sink or swim together
Bowles and Mayfield are an interesting pairing, one that nearly happened with the Jets. Mayfield is likely down to his last chance to prove he is a viable starter in this league.
He at least was able to have a full offseason with the Bucs, integrating himself in the locker room and devouring Canales’ playbook. He formed fast relationships with teammates on and off the field.
“I’ve always made it very intentional to get to know the people,” Mayfield said. “And you can also do that by just being yourself. You let them know that, ‘Listen, I know, I’m flawed and I’m not perfect. I’m going be who I am, but I’m going to support you. And I’m going to work hard with you.’ And that’s the easiest way to get people’s respect and trust. You go through the battles with them. You don’t put yourself in a victim category. You say you’re a part of it and you want to go make it happen.”
Brady/Bowles never really got off the ground. Now the Bucs and their head coach are back to hoping they can win enough games to reinvent themselves.
The first four games are brutal: at the Vikings, home against the Bears, home against the NFC champion Eagles on Monday Night Football and at the Saints. That’s followed by a way-too-early bye week that may or may not facilitate a change at quarterback.
Bowles still is handcuffed a bit. He wasn’t allowed to sign many free agents. But he has his own staff. He has a quarterback and offensive coordinator of his own choosing.
“Somehow we clicked personality-wise,” Bowles said of Mayfield, whom he met at Oklahoma when he was entering the NFL. “He had the bravado.”
Will it be enough to get the Bucs back into the playoffs? Or will the Bucs be changing the head coach and quarterback again?
“The system fits him perfect,” Bowles said. “He fits what our staff does very well. We’re excited about that. I’m excited to see what we’ll do.”