Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about the workings of the salary cap, including contract incentives, plus non-Tom Brady playoff MVP picks and more Scott Smith
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open their 2021 season riding an eight-game winning streak, the longest in team history in either the regular season, the postseason or both. That streak started right after the Buccaneers had their Week 13 bye and continued, so far, through Super Bowl LV.
Just before the bye week and the beginning of that streak, the Buccaneers had lost three of their previous four games, all to teams that would end up in the playoffs, and had finished the third quarter of the season with a tenuous 7-5 record. Obviously, something - or several things - clicked into place during that week off and the rest is history.
The most significant leap was made on the offensive side of the ball, and it seems clear in retrospect that the "work in progress" that Tom Brady, Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich had mentioned frequently through the first 12 games of the season had jelled into something much closer to a finished product. And an awfully good one, at that.
As thrilling as that run to the Super Bowl championship was for the Buccaneers, we - that is, the team and the fans - are all now turning our attention to next season and an attempted title defense. In fact, Head Coach Bruce Arians and General Manager Jason Licht spoke at length just yesterday on such 2021 topics as the salary cap and Chris Godwin's value. Still, let's take one look back at the leap the Buccaneers made on offense beginning in Week 14, because some of the statistical improvements are extremely impressive, and some of them you may not have seen yet.
For instance, through the first 12 games of the season, the Buccaneers scored 2.48 points per offensive possession. That was already pretty good, as Tampa Bay ranked seventh in the NFL in scoring through Week 12. Over the last eight games, including the postseason, the Bucs scored a very robust 3.04 points per possession, or more than a half-point more than they had in the first 12 contests. If 0.56 points doesn't seem like a big jump, consider that the Bucs averaged 11.25 possessions per game, so we're talking about 6.3 points per game, or nearly an entire touchdown.
Brady and his dangerous array of pass-catchers lit up defenses over the last two months of the title chase, and that is best represented on a per-pass and per-play basis. Prior to the bye week, the Bucs were averaging 6.9 yards per pass attempt and 6.1 yards per pass play (which takes sacks into account). After, those numbers took an enormous leap to 8.8 per attempt and 8.1 per play. To give those numbers some perspective, Houston led the league during the regular season with 8.9 yards per pass attempt and with 7.6 yards per pass play.
Here are a number of other offensive categories in which the Buccaneers saw a significant leap over the last 40% of their 20-game run:
Net yards per game: 362.8 to 413.3 Net passing yards per game: 266.4 to 306.6 Rushing yards per game: 96.3 to 106.6 Yards per play: 5.7 to 6.4 First downs per game: 21.8 to 24.1 Turnovers per game: 1.33 to 0.50 (!) Points per game: 28.7 to 33.9
That's progress, all right. Sounds like Brady, Arians and Leftwich knew what they were talking about all along. All of this also bodes quite well for 2021.
Now, on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to email@example.com.
The lower salary cap and so many free agents this year leads me to ask you some dumb questions. Do the incentive bonuses the players receive count against the salary cap? What happens when a team exceeds the cap? For example I read somewhere that the Saints were $64M over the cap so I wonder how that can happen without some kind of punishment from the NFL. If I owned a team-Would it be possible to cheat and avoid the cap by reworking Tom Brady's contract and pay him $1 a year and deliver a suitcase containing $25M to his boat at the marina?
Hey, fellow Smith, these are not even remotely "dumb" questions. I mean, the last one seems a bit tongue-in-cheek but otherwise these are issues about the salary cap that many of us find confusing.
I'm going to start with your second question because it really comes down to how the description of a team's cap situation is worded. We commonly read and write that a team is "over the cap," by a certain amount, when in fact teams are never over the cap. They simply are not allowed to be over, and if a team didn't make the necessary moves to be under the cap by the deadline then the league would step in.
I think it would be more obvious what we're talking about, if a little bit unwieldy, if we said, 'With the player contracts the Saints currently have in place for the 2021 season, they would be $65 million over the cap when the new league starts if nothing changed." That is the situation the Saints are in, with that figure courtesy of Spotrac.
So the Saints have to do something about that before 4:00 p.m. ET on March 17, as do 10 other teams, though none to the extreme as New Orleans. And they will, perhaps through some combination of cuts and contract restructuring. That latter approach is a way of kicking the can down the run, because restructuring a contract is a way of spreading out its cap hit over a number of years and reducing that hit in the current season. For instance, if you a player was due to be paid a salary of $20 million in 2021 and $5 million in each of the next three seasons, that $20 million could be converted into a bonus and paid to the player immediately. Then it's cap hit would be spread out over those four years ($5 million each year) and would result in a $5 million hit this year and $10 million each of the next three years). That may be a particularly popular strategy this year with the salary cap being dragged down by the pandemic season but hopefully going back up in the years that follow...especially if there are lucrative new broadcast deals in place.
So basically the "penalty" for giving out contracts that add up to more than what the cap will be in a future season is that a team has to figure out how to make it work when that season is approaching. It will be interesting to see how the Saints get it done. They actually already started the process by restructuring Drew Brees' contract so that it calls for a veteran minimum salary of $1.075 million in 2021, a move that cleared about $24 million in cap space for the upcoming year.
The incentives question is a little trickier and the first thing you have to know is that incentives are divided into two categories: likely to be earned (LTBE) and not likely to be earned (NLTBE). The determination of which category an incentive in a contract goes into is based on what the player or team did the year before. So, if Ronald Jones had an incentive that would pay him $1 million extra in 2021 if he rushed for 2,000 yards, that would be considered NLTBE since he had a career high 976 rushing yards in 2020. If he was to be paid that million for scoring a half-dozen touchdowns (he had seven last year), that would be LTBE.
With a few exceptions, LTBE incentives do count against the salary cap that year and NLTBE incentives do not. And I'm guessing your next question is going to be, if a player doesn't reach his LTBE incentive, didn't the team get cap-penalized for something they didn't actually have to pay? And also, if a player does reach an NLTBE incentive, didn't the team just get away with paying a bonus that didn't count against the cap?
The answer to both of those questions is essentially the same: It is bumped to the next season's cap. If an LTBE incentive is not reached, the saved cap space is pushed to the next year. If an NLTBE incentive is reached, the cap hit is pushed to next year.
The problem with your under the table payment to a player down at the docks scenario is that it's not as if that money can be hidden from the IRS. So it would have to be accounted for at some point, and when it was determined the money came from the team than it would obviously still be paid salary. You're just changing the mechanism by which the player is paid. (And yes, I know you were kidding. I'm just being thorough.)
If you could choose a playoff MVP besides Brady, who would it be?
I'll give you a hint: He did not play in all four postseason games.
That really narrows it down to inside linebacker Devin White and safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. Sure, there are some other players who appeared in some but not all of the playoff games, like Ronald Jones and Antonio Brown, but they're not really credible MVP candidates. And, really, Winfield, who missed the NFC Championship game with an ankle sprain, probably isn't either but he almost deserves consideration for his incredibly well-timed peace sign. Call him the team's Mood MVP for the playoffs.
But White very much is a strong candidate in the non-Brady division. To me, it comes down to him, Leonard Fournette, Shaq Barrett, Sean Murphy-Bunting and maybe Chris Godwin. I'd like to give the offensive line some love but it's really hard to single out just one guy in that group.
Let's eliminate Godwin first. He did lead the team with 232 receiving yards and had some huge downfield catches (not to mention a game-clinching run in Green Bay), but the Bucs' passing numbers were just too spread out during the postseason to pick one guy as the head-and-shoulders top contributor. Seven different guys caught a touchdown pass and three of those, not including Godwin, caught two. Six guys had eight or more catches; five had more than 100 yards.
Murphy-Bunting makes the list because he had an interception in each of the first three games, a very rare feat, and his pick close to halftime in Green Bay was one of the team's single most important plays of the entire postseason. He also led the team with five passes defensed. I just don't think I could pick him over White or Barrett.
Speaking of which, how do you choose between those two? Barrett led the team with four sacks and eight quarterback hits, the latter number twice as many as any other Buccaneer defender. According to NFL stat service Radar360, Barrett had 14 quarterback pressures, double the next defender on any team in the playoffs. Next on the list was his teammate, Ndamukong Suh, with seven. NFL Next Gen Stats points out that seven different Tampa Bay defenders had multiple pressures of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, but only Barrett had more than three. He had eight.
Meanwhile, White led all Buccaneer defenders with 38 tackles, and he didn't even play in the Wild Card game while stuck on the COVID list. Next on the list was fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David, who had 26. But that's just the beginning. As I pointed out in a Data Crunch article after the Super Bowl, White truly did it all for the Buccaneers during the postseason. In addition to his three tackles for loss he also recorded two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Since coordinated tackle totals became available starting in 1987, White is the only player to rack up 30-plus tackles, multiple interceptions and multiple fumble recoveries in a single postseason run. His first three takeaways led to touchdowns and his last one ended Kansas City's final scoring threat in the Super Bowl. In the Bucs' cathartic win in New Orleans, White, fresh off that COVID list, White recovered a fumble just before halftime to set up the game-tying score. In the fourth quarter, he read a Drew Brees pass to Alvin Kamara and undercut it for an interception that led to another touchdown. The Bucs were clinging to a three-point lead at the time; White's takeaway and the resulting touchdown basically sealed the game.
Barrett is a worthy candidate but from those two I have to go with White, who seemed to blossom into a full-fledged star under the postseason lights.
Still, there is also Fournette to consider. His 448 yards from scrimmage were the ninth most by any NFL player in a single postseason and not only was that total the most ever by a Buccaneer but it fell just 54 yards short of Mike Alstott's career postseason record. Fournette also scored a touchdown in all four games, joining Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Davis as the only NFL players ever to do that in a single postseason. Fournette ran for 300 yards and 4.7 yards per carry and his incredible touchdown run in Green Bay was probably the Bucs' best offensive highlight of January and February. He also led the team with 18 catches, producing another 148 yards and a score. The threat of Fournette on the ground gave more bit to the Bucs' play-action game, which they used to extreme success in the Super Bowl.
I've pretty much already revealed that my pick is Devin White, but I'll admit that I'm wavering a bit after writing that last paragraph. I wouldn't blame anyone for naming Leonard Fournette as the Bucs' 2020 postseason MVP (non-Tom Brady Division), but I'm going to stick with White, who was at the heart of a tremendous defensive run that handled, in succession, Drew Brees, 2020 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and Super Bowl LIV MVP Patrick Mahomes.
If we don't tag/re-sign Godwin, how does the receiver position shake out next season?
First of all, Drew, I don't really like being made to think about the possibility of a Chris Godwin departure. I think it's clear he has some fantastic NFL seasons in his future, and I want them to occur in pewter and red. I am of the opinion that he and the Buccaneers will find a way to make it work and that he will be a key element in the team's hunt for another Lombardi Trophy.
But I can take this on as a hypothetical situation. If the Buccaneers' 2021 offense does not include Chris Godwin, what will the receiver position look like?
Well, I'm going to make the assumption that if Godwin gets away the Buccaneers will be more likely to bring back Antonio Brown. In that scenario, it seems pretty likely that the starting duo would be Brown and Mike Evans, the latter of whom is under contract through 2023. That's certainly a good start, but the Buccaneers played 56.2% of their offensive snaps during the 2020 regular season in the traditional "11" personnel package, with one back, one tight end and three receivers on the field. So we really need to find three starters.
Is Scotty Miller the third starter in that scenario? After Evans, Godwin and Brown he was the team's next most productive wideout in 2020, so it makes sense in that way. However, Miller and Brown's roles were awfully similar last season. Brown lined up outside on 78% of his snaps in 2020, and Miller did so on 75% of his snaps. Neither seems like the obvious replacement for Godwin in the slot.
That could be second-year wideout Tyler Johnson, who made some big plays in his rookie season but was definitely limited in playing time by all the great receivers ahead of him on the depth chart. While Brown and Miller are somewhat analogous in style and scheme fit, Johnson is a closer match for Godwin, and he did play 33% of his rookie-season snaps in the slot. At the University of Minnesota, he was very good in the slot, and the Bucs' selection of him in the fifth round of the draft provided some potential insurance against the unpleasant idea of a Godwin departure.
There are a number of other receivers on the roster who could carve out a bigger role if the Bucs have a void at the position, but none that could be considered anything close to a sure bet. By the time the 2021 draft rolls around, the Buccaneers should know where they stand with Godwin and Brown, and it's conceivable they could use another Day One or Day Two pick on a receiver who could contribute quickly.
But, again, let's hope this remains nothing but a hypothetical exercise.