Thursday night the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up one of the worst performances in the history of the NFL, falling behind the Atlanta Falcons 56-0 before the Falcons mercifully called off the dogs late in the 3rd quarter. The Buccaneers at 0-3 look to be finished for the season and may soon be a lesson in roster building for the rest of the NFL.
There may be no team in the NFL that was built more via outside organizations than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The philosophy is now funneling through two regimes. Last season the Buccaneers fired head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik for the failures of the 2013 season. But somewhere in the organization there must have been a feeling that the team was on the right path because they continued to pursue free agents in a “win now” style and brought in veteran head coach Lovie Smith to make the project work. Thus far it’s been a colossal failure.
The Buccaneers use a very different contract and salary cap management system than almost anyone else in the NFL. Their philosophy primarily is based on an “all cash” method of management in which the team maintains strong up front cash flow controls by forgoing the use of the traditional signing bonus. This not only avoids those big first year cash payments but also keeps contracts from containing dead money at the back end that might cause a team to keep a player past his shelf life. In theory players can be traded at will and released as soon as the projected skill declines occur.
There is, however, a downside to this system. As a tradeoff to the lack of up front money and dead money protection in a contract the Buccaneers are often agreeing to contracts that are at an extremely high salary level on a per year basis. In addition to ensure that they earn what they would earn from a team that uses large signing bonuses the team is often placed in a position where they over-guarantee the contract, which limits the flexibility they have. For the system to really work properly the team needs to have a very strict conviction to not go back and begin to prorate money, a conviction that the Buccaneers failed to show in 2012.
The manner in which the Bucs have been built is almost scary. Of their top 15 contracts, valued in terms of annual value, only four are held by homegrown players. Those players are Gerald McCoy, Mike Evans, Mark Barron, and Adrian Clayborn. Of those players only McCoy ranks in the top 8.
That list also does not include all the misses that the team has made and walked away from, perhaps none bigger than the disaster that turned out to be the trade for Darrelle Revis. The Buccaneers pursuit of Revis really began at the end of the 2012 season when the Bucs front office hastily reworked the contracts of wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks late in the season to lead to massive reductions in their 2013 cap charges and open up the cap space needed to make a run at a big player. Tampa would eventually surrender a first round pick to the New York Jets for Revis, who was coming off an ACL injury. Revis was signed for $16 million in 2013. He was subsequently released in 2014 due to his high salary.
Here is the list of recent contract moves made by the Buccaneers in their construction of their team.
On that list Revis, Nicks, Williams, and Joseph are all off the team. Revis and Williams lasted one year, Nicks two years, and Joseph three years. Williams and Joseph were the only two on the list whose careers were in Tampa from the start. Many of those players on the top of the list were among the top of their positions when they signed the deals. Since 2011 the Bucs have won just 15 games. That’s a lot of coin to spend for 15 wins over a 51 game stretch.
I think at this point the Buccaneers really need to begin a hard evaluation process of what they have on this roster moving forward. Clearly the free agent/big contract route has not worked and it may be time to re-tool their whole approach to roster building.
The evaluation has to begin at the QB position. The signing of McCown, who has been little else than a journeyman in the past, was strictly done because the front office felt a competent veteran was a perfect fit for the team. It wasn’t. With a high draft pick looking like a certainty the team must turn the reigns over to Mike Glennon and see if there is anything there moving forward. He was not terrible last season and he could be a decent option, if not as a starter than as a long term backup solution.
Since most of these contracts contain little prorated money they should begin dismantling most of the team and seeing if there is any value around the NFL in some of their pieces to begin the process of rebuilding through the draft. Mankins, McCown, Dietrich-Smith, Koenen, McDonald, and Myers could all have salaries reduced or be released next season since they can move away from those contracts with minimal cap implications. Goldson and Jackson would be some residuals but their contracts would not be safe. Both of those players, who are on the wrong side of 30, probably have trade value to a contending team, perhaps even this season.
Tampa Bay already has a great deal of cap space in 2015, but there is nothing that is forcing them to spend it. Other than McCoy I don’t believe they have any mega free agents to re-sign next season and that money is best carried over to the future when they do have the talent that justifies the expenses.
There is certainly a time and place for big spending in free agency. But I believe that the time for that often comes when you already have a young core that was built through at least two draft classes in place before you make that move. Preferably that young talent lies in some of the higher priced positions (QB, LT, WR, DE, CB). The Buccaneers big spending binge really began in 2012 and at that point their young core was really McCoy and Williams, both from the 2010 draft, and Josh Freeman from the 2009 draft. McCoy was coming off two injury plagued seasons and Freeman completely unproven. It was not the best of times to begin a free agent invasion of the team. The end result was the product that the team put on the field against Atlanta.