When a team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2007, and hasn’t won a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl in 2002, it takes a toll on an entire franchise, especially the owners and front office. But perhaps more importantly, losing takes a toll on the fans.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently that team and their last playoff victory was, indeed, a 48-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Last season, which was Greg Schiano’s first season as head coach, the team finished with a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs once again. But at times, there were brilliant flashes of flawless execution. There was even a four-game winning streak. However, that four-game winning streak was followed by a five-game losing streak, and that’s exactly what the Bucs are looking to avoid this year, as Schiano has installed a new order and has instilled genuine confidence in the team for the first time, really, since that lone Super Bowl victory in the 2002-2003 season.
Entering this season, the Bucs have a revamped roster with the addition of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnathan Banks, along with linebacker Jonathan Casillas. In addition to the newcomers, Pro Bowl offensive linemen Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph are very close to being healthy, and on the defensive side, the Bucs are hoping that defensive end Adrian Clayborn can return at full strength because they will need him to play alongside Da’Quan Bowers.
The Bucs will face 12 NFC opponents this season, and of course six of those games will be against their divisional opponents – the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and Carolina Panthers. Last season, the Bucs went 3-3 in their own division, which was on par with the other three teams, who also all finished with a 3-3 record in divisional play. Within the NFC, the Bucs posted a lowly 4-8 record in 2012, which shows just how strong the conference actually is and how tough their road to a playoff berth will be this season.
On paper, the Bucs roster is much improved and seems to be the best squad they’ve had in years. But how will Tampa Bay stack up against the rest of the NFC this season?
Defensively, how do the Bucs compare?
In 2012, the Bucs had the league’s best run defense, but were ranked dead last in pass defense. Teams quickly adjusted, knowing that they wouldn’t be particularly successful running the ball, so they simply threw on the Bucs all season long. To fix that, the Bucs acquired Revis and drafted Banks; those were the two major moves.
Moreover, the Bucs are hopeful that Clayborn and Bowers can stay healthy for a full season in order to shore up the defensive line. It’s clear that the Bucs improved on defense this past offseason; however, there are still too many unanswered questions and moving parts on the defensive side, coupled with a severe lack of depth on the defensive line for the Bucs to be considered with top-tier defenses in the NFC.
The addition of Revis will provide a big boost to the league's worst passing defense from a year ago.
That’s precisely what Joe Bussell, who worked as an Operations Assistant and Coordinator for the Bucs from 2009-2012 and has studied the Bucs probably more than anyone for many years, told the National Football Post.
“I think the first-team defense stacks up well (against the NFC), but isn’t on the same tier as the Bears, 49ers, or Seahawks yet,” Bussell said. “Those teams have the best defenses in the league and it’s asking (a lot of) the Bucs to make that drastic of a change in one offseason.
“Not only are those teams super deep, they rely on a strong schematic blueprint to succeed. I would like to see more creativity out of (defensive coordinator) Bill Sheridan in his game-planning and play-calling this year.”
Depending on how healthy the Bucs will be on the defensive side of the ball this season, it’s clear that they should rank somewhere in the middle in the NFC, but if the many changes they made this offseason pan out, they could surprise as one of the better defensive teams.
Offensively, how do the Bucs compare?
Last season, the Bucs were a top-10 team on offense. This shocked many, as rookie running back Doug Martin emerged as a dangerous back, which in turn allowed quarterback Josh Freeman to utilize his big, strong receivers, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, in many ways, especially through play-action.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, two of the other top-10 offenses from last season – the Falcons and Saints – play in their division, and many of the other high-powered offenses, such as the Washington Redskins’ offense led by Robert Griffin III, and the Seattle Seahawks’ offense led by Russell Wilson, are in the NFC.
After four years in the league and a career passer rating of just 79.8, it's time for Josh Freeman to take his game to the next level.
But the Bucs should have Joseph and Nicks, both Pro Bowl offensive linemen, back, which will give Martin some added help in the ground game and Freeman some additional help in the passing game. Plus, it should help the Bucs’ offense that Freeman is in a contract year and should finally unleash his true ability.
Furthermore, the fact that the Bucs improved on the defensive side should also help the offense, as Tampa Bay theoretically won’t allow as many points as they did in 2012.
“I do think Freeman has a more efficient year and can lead this team to the playoffs,” said Bussell. “Freeman will actually benefit by having a better defense. He was asked to carry Tampa on his right arm at times (last season) because the defense couldn’t stop anyone through the air.”
Whether or not the Bucs improve on offense again hinges largely on the play of Josh Freeman, which should improve, seeing as how the offensive line will be healthy and it will be his second year in Schiano’s system. But it’s not unrealistic for the Bucs, with the weapons they have, to take the next step and become a top offense in the NFC, and even the entire league.
Without doubt, the Bucs got better this offseason. They addressed their biggest weak spot, which was the secondary, by getting arguably the best cornerback in the NFL in Darrelle Revis. And they got healthy, for the most part. Injuries are a part of the game and every team has to deal with them, but the Bucs should benefit from the return of players who previously performed at a very high level.
If the Bucs can stay healthy this season and if the offense consistently plays like a top-10 unit, Tampa has a real chance to compete in the NFC and a playoff berth is not only realistic, it’s the expectation for the organization this year.
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