After winning four of their opening six games to start the 2011 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ playoff hopes were sunk within the span of a month.
The Bucs dropped their final 10 games, finishing at the bottom of the NFC South for the second time in three seasons. The optimism developed in training camp, that the Bucs had built a strong, young nucleus led by rising star QB Josh Freeman, dissipated. Freeman threw 22 interceptions against just 16 touchdowns.
By contrast, he was picked off only five times the entire year before.
The defense was shredded week after week down the stretch, surrendering 30 points or more seven times after the Bucs’ bye in Week 8.
The poor play culminated in the dismissal of head coach Raheem Morris. Greg Schiano has left the college ranks at Rutgers to step in and right the ship in Tampa Bay.
2011 Record: 4-12
Key Additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright, QB Dan Orlovsky, DT Amobi Okoye, WR Tiquan Underwood, TE Dallas Clark, S Mark Barron (No. 7 pick), RB Doug Martin (No. 31 pick)
Key Losses: TE Kellen Winslow, RB Kregg Lumpkin, DT Albert Haynesworth, DT Brian Price, DT John McCargo, S Tanard Jackson, DE Tim Crowder, QB Josh Johnson,
Offense: During the course of the 2011 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would often abandon the running game, resulting in the league’s third-worst total. LeGarrette Blount struggled to find space with limited touches, finishing the season with 781 rushing yards. The Bucs will look to re-establish the running game under Schiano, who helped Ray Rice blossom into a college, and later NFL, star. Doug Martin, Tampa’s second first-rounder out of Boise State, will provide a nice speed complement to the bruising Blount.
Freeman regressed after an impressive 2010 campaign, perhaps a by-product of the lack of balance. He has a solid group of receivers to throw to, headlined by new addition Vincent Jackson. At 6-foot-5, Jackson will provide a big target in the red zone with the speed necessary to make big plays downfield. He will team with youngsters Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Preston Parker to give Freeman a variety of targets. Tampa hopes to see something left in Dallas Clark’s tank as well. The longtime Colt went invisible for large stretches of Indy’s season while battling injury.
Tampa will also hope to get major production from another major add, All-Pro guard Carl Nicks. In addition to poaching a key member of a division rival, the Bucs will need Nicks to open up the holes to improve the ground game. Tampa has three very solid starters with Nicks, Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph and mammoth left tackle Donald Penn. Veteran Jeremy Trueblood will man the right tackle spot, while Ted Larsen will fill the void left behind by Jeff Faine at center.
Defense: The Bucs invested another premium first-round pick on the defensive side of the ball, selecting hard-hitting safety Mark Barron out of Alabama. That makes five first-rounders in six years overall, not that it wasn’t justified.
Tampa’s defense was routinely shredded down the stretch, with glaring holes in the middle of the field. Gerald McCoy, taken third overall right behind Ndamukong Suh two years ago, has underwhelmed thus far and has suffered major injuries in both years. He leads a young defensive line, stocked with talent but needing to make good on it. Adrian Clayborn had a solid rookie season, recording 42 tackles and 7.5 sacks.
Ronde Barber returns for a 16th NFL season, and he will pair with Aqib Talib on the corners. Talib has elite cover ability, provided he stays out of legal trouble. Barber’s production has declined but is still a capable cover corner. The Bucs will need someone to develop behind them, having passed on the opportunity to draft Morris Claiborne by trading down.
Coaching: By many accounts, Morris lost control of his young team in the second half. The defense tuned out his messages, and the on-field product was abysmal at times. Schiano steps in and is expected to instill strict discipline to whip the young Bucs into shape. College coaches have largely not succeeded at the NFL level in previous years, and many of those coaches won more than Schiano did. He has some NFL experience, having been the defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears in 1998. He led the Scarlet Knights to one of their best seasons ever in 2006, winning ten games and peaking as high as No. 6 in the BCS standings. But, the program never progressed much afterwards. He will need to change the attitude of his new team and get them to play much harder.
Breakout Player: Scouts loved Lavonte David coming out of Nebraska this past season. He is an excellent tackler, a strong leader, a solid yet slightly undersized athlete. He has the drive and the ability to factor right away into Tampa’s linebacking situation. Some believe he is the ideal Tampa 2 linebacker and projects favorably to Derrick Brooks, who is widely regarded as one of the best outside linebackers in recent memory. Bucs fans, in particular, will be ecstatic to see someone in Brooks’ mold.
2012 Prediction: Tampa crashed back to reality after 10 wins in 2010. Keep in mind, the 2010 Bucs registered only one win against a team with a winning record. Even that win, in week 17 against the Saints, came when New Orleans had already wrapped up a playoff spot and rested some key starters. We’ll know a lot about the Bucs right away this year, hosting Carolina and making road trips to take on the Giants and Cowboys in the opening three weeks. There’s a lot to like about Tampa’s potential, but the defense has a lot of work to do. The young players must grow up and play hard week in and week out. I see an increase in the win total, but not much else at this moment. The Bucs may get to six wins.
Overview: Bucs’ ownership was not afraid to flex financial muscle this offseason, entering with the league’s most cap space and coming away with three prized free agents. The nucleus appears to be in place with Freeman, Martin, Jackson and Williams at the skilled positions on offense. It will take time to develop the talent, so Bucs fans need to be patient and not temper their expectations. This is still a rebuilding process despite the 10-win season two years ago; thinking otherwise is foolish.