When Ryan Fitzpatrick rolled up to the podium after the Buccaneers’ 27-21 win over the Eagles on Sunday, jokes were easy to make. But look past the quarterback’s collection of chains, DeSean Jackson’s bomber jacket, and the flowing chest hair, and that moment was also a peek into the overall confidence that’s brimming in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs are the league’s most unlikely 2-0 team. Fitzpatrick has thrown for a ridiculous 819 yards and eight touchdowns with a 78.7 completion percentage, and the offense has put up points seemingly at will. Back in June, when the NFL announced that Jameis Winston would be suspended for the first three games of 2018—a stretch that included matchups with the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers—it felt as though Tampa Bay’s season was over before it began. Instead, Fitzmagic has returned to the NFL, and a man who hasn’t cracked an average of 7.0 yards per attempt in four years is now the swashbuckling star of the league thus far.
When a hot start emerges out of nowhere, the logical follow-up is to wonder whether it’s merely a mirage. Every season features a rabbit or two that bursts out of the gate, only to fade into irrelevance by midseason. Through two weeks last season, the AFC West looked like the best division in football. The Broncos, led by Trevor Siemian, had stomped the Cowboys 42-17. Oakland hung 45 points on the Jets and was 2-0. Those teams went on to win a combined 11 games.
This year, the Buccaneers and Chiefs have been the biggest early surprises, and they’re both led by QBs who’ve played close to perfect football. In Kansas City’s case, the unstoppable offense is easier to comprehend. Patrick Mahomes II entered the season as one of the league’s great mysteries, and he’s been even better than anyone could have predicted. He’s not going to throw 80 touchdown passes and complete 69.1 percent of his attempts over 16 games—numbers he’s on pace to reach through two weeks—but it’s reasonable to suspect that a slightly scaled-back version of this league-leading offense will be sustainable all season.
Tampa Bay is a different story. Fitzpatrick isn’t an unknown quantity with unlimited upside who plays for a historically great offensive coach. He’s a 35-year-old quarterback who’s played for seven teams in his 14-year career and hasn’t completed 60 percent of his passes since 2014. The Bucs averaged 20.9 points per game last season. In the six games he played, Fitzpatrick averaged 6.8 yards per attempt. This season, that number has jumped to an absurd 13.4 yards. It’s worth asking, then: What’s different about this year’s Buccaneers? And is their approach an unsustainable illusion, or the start of something real?
In terms of on-field personnel, not much has changed for Tampa Bay in the past year. The Bucs gave center Ryan Jensen a four-year, $42 million contract in March—which made him the highest-paid player at the position by average annual value—after his strong year in Baltimore. Signing Jensen had a compound effect for the Bucs’ offensive line—that upgrade at center allowed Ali Marpet to move to his natural position at guard. But a couple of tweaks up front don’t spark offense-wide renaissances.
The most significant change to this unit has been the shift in play-caller. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken took the reins in the preseason and has continued calling plays through the first two weeks. Monken has a fascinating résumé: He came to Tampa Bay in 2016 after a short stint as the head coach at Southern Mississippi; before that, he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State under head coach Mike Gundy. Monken took over for Dana Holgorsen in 2011 after Holgorsen was hired by West Virginia, and in his first season as the Cowboys’ play-caller, Monken’s team averaged an incredible 48.7 points per game en route to a top-3 finish in the BCS. “I remember his ability to be extremely aggressive in his play calling,” says current Texans quarterback Brandon Weeden, who played for Monken at OSU in 2011. “He knew he had great players at receiver, and he always felt like he could keep the pedal to the metal. Players always love that, and that’s kind of his personality.” With Weeden at quarterback and future no. 5 overall pick Justin Blackmon on the outside, that Oklahoma State offense was virtually unstoppable.
Weeden notes that comparing OSU’s Air Raid offense—which was deployed almost entirely against zone defenses—to an NFL scheme that goes up against professional cornerbacks is difficult, but there are some similarities between Monken’s tactics in both places. College receivers don’t get any more imposing than Blackmon. He hauled in 38 touchdown passes over his final two seasons in Stillwater and went after defenses as both a vertical option and as a jump-ball master near the goal line. Monken moved Blackmon around formations and did all he could to find the best matchup possible in nearly every scenario; the Cowboys offense was built around getting him the ball and letting him go to work.
In Tampa Bay, Monken has a glut of high-end pass-catching talent. Mike Evans is a 6-foot-5 behemoth who can chew up cornerbacks in a variety of ways, and Jackson, despite being in his age-32 season, remains one of the NFL’s top deep threats. Combine those two with second-year wideout Chris Godwin and 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard at tight end, and Monken has plenty of options.
Godwin and Howard have both made an impact over this year’s first two games, but Evans and Jackson are clearly the focal points of the Bucs passing game. A majority of Tampa Bay’s route concepts are designed specifically to open space for those two, and to this point, Fitzpatrick has done a flawless job of finding them. Monken has created these windows by using a couple of different methods to influence underneath defenders and exploit the massive sections of grass they leave unattended.
Monken’s first tactic was on full display during the Bucs’ opening play against the Eagles. With the offense lined up in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers), Fitzpatrick takes the snap and executes a hard play fake to running back Peyton Barber. As Fitzpatrick drops back to pass, Barber, fullback Alan Cross, and Howard stay in to block while Evans and Jackson break into their routes. The Bucs handle the Eagles’ pass rush with ease, and as Malcolm Jenkins is caught peering into the backfield and free safety Rodney McLeod comes down to cover Evans on a deep dig, Jackson beats the defense over the top on a deep post for the a 75-yard score.
In that game, the vast majority of the Bucs’ play-action concepts involved seven- or eight-man max protections. Monken’s plan on these slow-developing plays is to bait defenders in the middle of the field, pack enough bodies in to keep Fitzpatrick upright, and trust that Evans and Jackson are going to win whatever matchup they have on the outside. Sometimes that means hitting Jackson on a route down the field, but just as often it means threatening to go vertical before coming back to the ball.
On a crucial second-and-13 in the fourth quarter against Philly, the Bucs came out in a formation identical to the one they used on Jackson’s long TD. Again, Fitzpatrick fakes hard to Barber, but this time, instead of streaking down the field, Jackson runs a comeback route on the right sideline and gets easy separation from cornerback Jalen Mills. The moment that safety Corey Graham gets pulled into no-man’s-land near the line of scrimmage, Mills has no chance against Jackson on the outside, and Fitzpatrick hits him for a 17-yard gain. Mills gets so preoccupied with Jackson’s speed that, without any defenders left to help underneath, Fitzpatrick has an ocean of turf to work with the moment Jackson pivots back toward him.
Jackson has been a devastating force through two games—he has nine receptions on nine targets and leads the league with 275 receiving yards—but Monken’s best work has been with Evans. The All-Pro receiver has 17 catches for 230 yards and two touchdowns, and his blazing start has reminded everyone why Tampa Bay gave him $55 million guaranteed this spring.
Evans is a constant headache for defensive backs because there’s no correct way to defend him. He’s the size of a small building—built more like a tight end than a wide receiver—and he can outmuscle any cornerback in football. Wideouts with that kind of physicality typically don’t present much of a vertical threat, but Evans is the exception. He has more than enough burst to attack defenses over the top, and as corners worry about what he can do down the field, he’s able to rule the soft areas in the middle and underneath.
His first touchdown of the season came late in Week 1 on a gorgeous outside release against Marshon Lattimore. What makes that route possible, though, is how often Evans smoked Lattimore on back-shoulder throws and comebacks throughout the game. His frame is so big that, if he gets a head start coming out of his break, defensive backs don’t stand a chance. Monken has unleashed Evans and made the passing game consistently efficient by using two contrasting types of pass plays. Whereas the team’s play-action game typically features heavy formations with only two to three players out on routes, its dropback schemes take place out of shotgun with five players spread out as potential receivers. By flooding the defensive backs with options and stacking most of them on the side opposite Evans, the Bucs free him up to work against corners one-on-one on the outside.
As with any offense, the Bucs’ success this season has been about more than just X’s and O’s. Hitting the right receiver on time in those open windows still requires a quarterback who believes in the system and knows which routes will pop against certain coverages. Weeden says that at OSU, his faith in Monken’s scheme and in his receivers allowed him to let throws rip immediately, often long before players would actually have separation. Fitzpatrick has displayed a similar aggressive approach so far, and his attitude matches that of his offensive coordinator. “I was joking about it with Deshaun [Watson] this morning,” Weeden says. “[Fitzpatrick and Monken are] a perfect fit. I don’t know Fitz personally, but just by watching him play, he sits back there and takes a hitch, and just rips it. It fits what Monken wants to do personality-wise, scheme-wise.”
Watching Tampa Bay’s offense hum with Fitzpatrick under center casts real doubt on what the Bucs will do once Winston returns from his suspension next week. In April, the team picked up Winston’s $20.9 million fifth-year option for 2019, but that figure is only guaranteed for injury. Even before Fitzpatrick’s excellent start, there were questions about whether Winston should be the long-term answer for Tampa Bay, considering his lack of development on the field and repeated transgressions off it. Without a real commitment to Winston, the Bucs could decide to keep Fitzpatrick in place and see whether this offensive outburst is an aberration, or if Monken’s success can carry through the season.
Fitzpatrick may be a known quantity, but right now he’s lighting up scoreboards as part of an offense with a ton of weapons and a play-caller who knows just how to use them. Earlier this week, Jackson was asked on NFL Network about Fitzpatrick’s future as the team’s starter, and he made a comparison that people of a certain age will understand. “You can’t take the hot man out,” Jackson said. “You got the hot fire right now. It’s like NBA Jam.” The ball is definitely glowing in Tampa Bay these days, and Jackson is right: You can’t take the hot man out.