Tampa Bay Buccaneers open up playbook with new back

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Giovani Bernard, (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Giovani Bernard, (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Buccaneers made a perfect free agent addition when they signed veteran running back Giovani Bernard to pair with Tom Brady.

We’ve heard it a thousand times. The Buccaneers brought everyone back- “all 22 starters.” And then some.

Defense is loaded.

Offense is going to be better.

But you know what we’re not talking enough about? The overlooked signing of former Cincinnati Bengals RB Giovani Bernard. All of this summer’s Tampa Bay backfield buzz has been about how exactly the 2021 Bucs will opt to split carries between a young, homegrown Ronald Jones and the super-talented veteran Lenny Fournette.

Having two powerful backs to split the 2021 load is a great ‘problem’ to have. And it understandably can be a problem. How do you keep both RB’s physically and mentally acute game to game? How will the coaches weigh fresh legs and game-time rest against the benefits of a healthy head space? It’s not easy. We get it.

But again, the conversation is not about whether a 50/50 split or a 70/30 split is the correct answer for the Bucs’ backfield. This under-reported diatribe is about the three-headed monster that lurks in 2021.

The stealthy signing of Giovanni Bernard is an overlooked reason why the Buccaneers offense is going to be better in 2021, why it’s going to be more potent. This is why the offense will sting the rest of the NFC like never before.

We know the receiving corps is loaded-scary loaded. We know the tight end room is riddled with talent between a healthy Rob Gronkowski, a surging Cameron Brate, and the triumphant return— LOOKOUT!— of OJ Howard.

But hunker down and revisit the backfield situation the Bucs have gardened for themselves. Rojo has been developing into a perennial 1000-yard rusher. The Buccaneers drafted Ke’Shawn Vaughn in 2020 for practical depth and development. In an eco-savvy signing, they also added Lenny Fournette in 2020 for even more depth and perhaps out of sheer curiosity.

And guess what? Lenny can ball. He’s a more reliable pass catcher than Rojo and he can truck, spin, and barrel his way into the end zone. Watch any post-season highlight reel and you’ll agree Lenny has carved for himself a role on the Bucs that is secure.

So, why the need for an older back like Gio to join the ranks? So many excellent reasons, beginning with the cost-effectiveness of his $1.2 million/1 year contract.

For a steal, the Bucs now add to their arsenal a weapon that Tom Brady is very used to employing. It’s nothing new to say that Bernard is going to be very James White-like in this 2021 offense, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is as exhilarated as they should be about how this pass-catching back truly cracks open the Bucs’ entire playbook.

As 2020 unfolded, we witnessed the mid-season convergence of what Arians/Leftwich run offensively with Tom Brady’s time-tested quick-release coupled with his play-action bread ‘n’ butter. The result was an 8-0 run that left NFL defenses scratching their heads as the Bucs’ offense pummeled their opponents with their finely tuned ground game and their otherworldly aerial attack.

It was glorious. Again, watch any 2020 Bucs post-season offensive highlight reel and feel great about your Tampa Bay team.

Fast forward to the 2021 season opener when the Bucs now place Gio on the field. Like the aforementioned James White, Gio is a running back with exceptional pass-catching ability. Compare White’s 2018 campaign in NE (with Tom Brady) where he was targeted 123 times for 751 yards to Gio’s 2020 season where was targeted 59 times for 355 yards. Both backs averaging completion percentages of 74.2 and 74.8 respectively. It’s easy to predict that given more targets, Gio produces comparable yardage. But there’s more.

Consider James White’s 46 first downs off the pass to Bernard’s 15 first downs from passes in 2020, and while it’s certainly not as impressive, it should serve as a blueprint for how the Bucs can utilize Gio to move the chains.

Again, conservative extrapolation says with more opportunity, Gio will yield similar results. That’s a lot more first downs for the Bucs. That’s a lot more plays being fetched from the depths of their playbook. That’s a lot more friggin offense. That’s a happier, healthier, better-rested defense!

In fairness to their targets and first down comparisons, it’s important to separate the players from their team. Cincinnati & New England were not only running different offenses, but they were operating on different competitive levels. NE’s 2018 season relates more closely with the expectations and goals of the 2021 Bucs, whereas the offense of 2020 Bengals were a work in progress with perhaps a wholly different agenda.

The takeaway, however, is that both White & Gio can reliably catch the ball, can move the chains, and demand more of defenses when they’re on the field.

Expect new packages and expect more dominance in 2021. Expect Rojo and Lenny to catch a few passes, but if Gio is healthy and he’s given the opportunity to assist in a Tom Brady inspired game plan, watch out!

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It might not be as glamorous as a 40 yard dime to Scooter with seconds left before halftime. It might not be as rewatchable as Rojo hitting the gap and punishing several defenders along the way, but Gio Bernard will be EFFECTIVE.

Effectiveness wins games.

Tampa Bay wants to win. They want to repeat.

Gio Bernard is the gift that will keep on giving.

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