This is a fun offense to watch, isn’t it?
No, not the Bucs offense. I’m talking about the Panthers offense.
There was a time when the Bucs offense was fun to watch. Remember those days?
That was September. This is November.
Carolina’s 42-28 win Sunday wasn’t nearly as close as the final score suggests. The Panthers toyed with the Bucs. Whatever they tried — options, screens, end-arounds, reverses, double reverses — worked.
The game was a revelation. It highlighted an extreme difference in offensive philosophy. Carolina looked like a fully evolved modern offense; Tampa Bay looked like it had stalled in 1981. It was as if Migos and REO Speedwagon had collaborated on a mashup.
Go ahead. Dismiss the Panthers offense as “gimmicky.” Call it a “college offense.” If it works, though, who cares?
Yes, Carolina has Cam Newton and Tampa Bay has Ryan Winston/Jameis Fitzpatrick. But the difference between the teams is even more elementary than who is playing quarterback.
Before we explore that difference, it’s important to note what the Bucs and Panthers have in common. Both offenses are predicated upon explosive plays, which is an entirely sensible strategy. Most of the time, explosive plays lead to points. At the very least, they flip the field. Aside from turnovers, they’re one of the most important factors in winning games, as coach Dirk Koetter has noted repeatedly during his tenure in Tampa Bay.
(Note: Definitions of explosive plays vary. Koetter defines them as pass plays of at least 16 yards and run plays of at least 12 yards.)
The question then isn’t whether explosive plays are valuable. The question is this: What’s the best way to execute them?
The answer will sound obvious: The best way for an offense to create explosive plays is to stay on the field. In a study last year for SB Nation, Bill Connelly found that explosiveness is random, that big plays can happen on any down and at any rate. “The key to explosiveness,” Connelly wrote, “is efficiency.” In other words, “making plays” isn’t enough for teams to win games. To be productive, they must be efficient.
This is what we witnessed Sunday, especially early. The Panthers stayed on the field; the Bucs did not. When the Panthers were on the field, they used all of the space available to them; the Bucs used only part of it. The Panthers moved horizontally and vertically; the Bucs just moved vertically.
Take, for instance, Tampa Bay’s first two possessions. On his first throw, Ryan Fitzpatrick, under pressure from blitzing linebacker Luke Kuechly, targeted Mike Evans more than 25 yards down the field. The pass hit Evans in the hands, but he failed to hold on, in part because of cornerback James Bradberry’s tight coverage.
On the Bucs’ next drive, Fitzpatrick, on second and 8, targeted Evans deep again. His throw sailed and landed in the arms of safety Eric Reid, who returned the ball to the Tampa Bay 10-yard line.
Granted, Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short mauled right guard Caleb Benenoch, but Fitzpatrick had two open options underneath. Three plays later, Carolina scored the first touchdown of the game.
The Panthers’ next possession, however, was the most revealing. Eight plays, 88 yards. Two gains of at least 30 yards. None of Newton’s passes traveled more than 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
On the fifth play of the drive, McCaffrey lined up next to Newton in the shotgun formation. Newton faked the handoff to McCaffrey, looked right, faked a throw to D.J. Moore, looked left and dumped the ball off to McCaffrey. McCaffrey hurdled cornerback Carlton Davis and — BOOM! — down the sideline he went before safety Jordan Whitehead tripped him up 32 yards later. The distance of Newton’s throw: 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Newton’s next “throw” also didn’t travel far. A jet sweep touch pass to McCaffrey resulted in a 4-yard gain that set up a 3-yard touchdown run to give Carolina a 14-0 lead, a deficit that’s harder to overcome than you might realize. Tampa Bay has done it just 15 times in team history and once during the Koetter era.
That sequence, and really the entire first quarter Sunday, was a microcosm of the season. Jameis Winston and Fitzpatrick are exceptionally aggressive. They lead the NFL in average intended air yards, which is a measure of the depth of a pass from the line of scrimmage. Winston is averaging 10.9 yards; Fitzpatrick is averaging 10.4. With an average of 7.4 yards, Newton ranks 28th.
Though the Bucs lead the league in passing yards — they have a thousand more than Carolina — the Panthers have the more efficient passing offense, according to Football Outsiders’ data. That should be reason enough to put comparisons to the 2000 Greatest Show on Turf Rams to rest.
As it turns out, you don’t have to chuck the ball down the field to gain yards. Speed can make up the difference.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.