Take away Tom Brady's fly patterns, and this Bucs team ain't so bad
This is it! This is the formula the Bucs have been seeking all year long. Run the ball? Yes! Get an early lead? Yes! Play aggressive defense? Yes!

Send your 45-year-old quarterback on passing routes on a slippery field? Mmmm, the boys in corporate might want a word or two about that development.

Otherwise, nearly 5,000 miles from home, the Bucs were nearly perfect in a 21-16 victory against Seattle on Sunday in Munich to claw their way back to a .500 record. Perfect, of course, being a relative description. The Bucs would have been embarrassed to score so few points during Tom Brady's first two seasons in the huddle.

(In case you weren't keeping track, they topped 21 points in 34 of Brady's first 39 games in Tampa Bay, including the postseason. Compare that to 2022 when they have gone over 21 in just two of 10 games.)

Still, for this roster, at this moment, the result felt just about right. Age, injuries and departures have conspired to rob the Bucs of much of their explosiveness on both sides of the ball. Touchdowns have been rare, and takeaways have been rarer still.

So, yes, expectations and game plans have required an adjustment. This team stumbles more than it struts. It hangs on instead of blowing up. Before Sunday, the Bucs had held a lead for about 23 minutes of the previous 240 minutes of football. So, no, domination is not part of the mission statement.

"Everything is totally different than two years ago," Brady told reporters after the game. "Just like most things in everyone's lives, things are pretty different than a couple of years ago. We have a very different group of players this year. We're going to keep fighting hard."

Despite all the changes, there is still enough talent in Tampa Bay's locker room to win more often than lose. There is still enough experience to rule a depleted NFC South and hope for a puncher's shot in the playoffs. The trick is playing the way the Bucs did on Sunday.

For maybe the third time this season, they controlled the line of scrimmage in both directions. That means they ran the ball effectively on offense, and shut down Seattle's running attack on defense.

Having a legitimate running game for the first time since the season opener in Dallas took pressure off of Brady and allowed him to wait for passing plays to develop. Instead of countless swing passes to running backs and wide receiver screens, Brady was focused on throwing downfield.

The result was Tampa Bay's most efficient offensive effort of 2022. Brady averaged 8.9 yards per pass attempt, after coming into the game with a paltry 6.4 yards on his first 398 passes. "If we run the ball better, we give ourselves a great chance to win going forward," Brady said. "It makes it a lot easier for all of us when the run game does what it did today."

The running game allowed everything else to work. The Bucs were far more effective converting first downs because they were rarely in third and long, and that meant they were able to hold the ball nearly 14 minutes longer than Seattle. That, as it turned out, was important because the Seahawks had some success passing against the Bucs secondary in the second half.

And, because the Bucs had the lead for almost the entire game, there was no reason to resort to the kind of panic-stricken game plans that have haunted them for much of the year. So what does all of this mean for the rest of the season?

The Bucs now have a path forward. They have a blueprint of the type of game they need to play. It's almost as if the three-game losing streak finally convinced them they were no longer the bullies who won a Super Bowl two years ago, and followed up with a franchise record for victories last season.

Of the final seven games on the schedule, five are against teams that are fading from the postseason picture. If the Bucs fail to go 10-7 and win the division, it will be an epic failure on their part.

That doesn't mean Rachaad White will run for 100 yards every week and it doesn't mean Devin White will play like a man on a mission. But there were enough positive signs on Sunday to think the Bucs may have turned the corner in terms of discovering an identity. That is, if they stop Brady from lining up at receiver.

John Romano, The Tampa Bay Times, published 14 November 2022