I was a man on an island. Alone in my belief that the 2010 version of the Buccaneers were dramatically better than the one that went 3-13, I began to wonder if I was a little nuts. After all, every "expert" forecasted no more than 5-6 victories for the pirates of pewter pants. One even predicted a 2-14 year - worse than the previous season.
I just couldn't see it. I looked at the team, saw some maturation of Josh Freeman, a weaker schedule and some exciting young talent.
While I'm patting myself on the back for being a pigskin Nostradamus, I have to admit that even I sold the Bucs short. I said the Bucs would end up 7-9 but be competitive in most games. Even I mocked Coach Rah's "Race to Ten" slogan. In my defense, LaGarrette Blount had just been released from the Tennessee Titans and wasn't even a member of the football team. Only Doctor Who could have known the impact he would have.
Despite my excuses, the Bucs proved everyone wrong.
So as we see this year's predictions, again I find myself alone on that solitary island. While others see a slide back for Raheem's "youngry" club, I see one that's poised to break out.
Last year, the Buccaneers thought they might be good. This year, they know they are.
While the Bucs won 10 games, meeting the bar Raheem set - they still had their detractors, saying they did it against a soft schedule. No one will be able to say that this season.
Because of the tougher schedule, predictions of 8-8 and 7-9 are common place.
Even with the tougher slate, I just don't believe this team will have that slide.
It's really all about Five. Insert your cliche' here - because as Josh Freeman, so will go the Buccaneers' fortunes. Can the Tampa Bay quarterback put up numbers like he did last season (25 touchdowns, 6 ints with 3451 yds passing and a 95.9 QB Rating)? Probably not. However, there's no reason to believe Josh will take a dramatic step back. He's one of the most dedicated quarterbacks at his craft.
Freeman won't be doing it alone, as he has a veteran offensive line in front of him, terrific receiving weapons in Mike Williams, Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Regus Benn.
Freeman also has the benefit of a powerful and explosive running back in LaGarrett Blount, who will provide the balance the offense needs to be effective. Blount gained over 1,000 yds rushing despite only playing extensively in 10 games. The Bucs hope a full season will put their running back among the league leaders.
Possibly the most improved unit on the team is the defense. The Bucs didn't go money-silly in free agency, relying on the draft to try and boost up a defensive line that put up some embarrassing pass rushing numbers last season.
First and foremost, the Bucs brought in a new philosophy for the defensive line. Former coach Todd Wash coached his lineman to focus on gap integrity, read and react. Keith Mallard and Grady Stretz are coaching their lineman like former all-star assistant Rod Marinelli coached them up - stop the run on the way to the quarterback. In other words, use your god given talent to attack the football.
A player that will help attack the football in 2011 is rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster. Foster takes over for Barrett Ruud, who left in free agency. While Ruud piled up the numbers, the Bucs wanted a little more physicality to their defense. They certainly will get that with the hard hitting Foster. Quincy Black and Geno Hayes are back and pass rushing specialitist Dekota Watson will bring his unique skills for harassing quarterbacks.
Aquib Talib escaped a suspension and will return to the Bucs secondary - meanwhile EJ Biggers and Ronde Barber help solidify the Bucs' core.
The Bucs large free agent move of 2011 was the big money signing of punter Michael Koenen. Koenen not only is a weapon punting the football but he also serves as a kickoff artist and with the new NFL kickoff rules, returns against the Bucs should be a rare occurence.
Connor Barth continues his consistent run as the Bucs placekicker.
Raheem Morris enters his third season as the Bucs head coach. His 13-19 record and .406 winning percentage is the 3rd best winning percentage in Buccaneers history.
Greg Olsen enters his second full season as the Bucs offensive coordinator, which ranked 19th in the NFL last season.
|Detroit||Sun 09/11||1:00 PM EDT|
|@ Minnesota||Sun 09/18||1:00 PM EDT|
|Atlanta||Sun 09/25||4:15 PM EDT|
|Indianapolis||Mon 10/03||8:30 PM EDT|
|@ San Francisco||Sun 10/09||4:05 PM EDT|
|New Orleans||Sun 10/16||4:15 PM EDT|
|Chicago||Sun 10/23||1:00 PM EDT|
|@ New Orleans||Sun 11/06||1:00 PM EST|
|Houston||Sun 11/13||1:00 PM EST|
|@ Green Bay||Sun 11/20||1:00 PM EST|
|@ Tennessee||Sun 11/27||1:00 PM EST|
|Carolina||Sun 12/04||1:00 PM EST|
|@ Jacksonville||Sun 12/11||1:00 PM EST|
|Dallas||Sat 12/17||8:20 PM EST|
|@ Carolina||Sat 12/24||1:00 PM EST|
|@ Atlanta||Sun 01/01||1:00 PM EST|
Unlike last season, when the Buccaneers got the benefit of facing the weak NFC West, the Bucs get the much tougher NFC North this season - still, the Bucs are trading the NFC West for the depleted AFC South. Indianapolis doesn't look as formidable without Peyton Manning, both Tennessee and Jacksonville are in transition while Houston seems to be the class of the division.
Meanwhile, Green Bay and Chicago were your NFC Championship Game combatants and Detroit is an up-and-coming team that ruined the Bucs chances at the playoffs and opened the door for the Packers' Super Bowl run.
The defensive is better, the offensive gets another year together, the coaching staff is more experienced - there are so many positives for the young Bucs, its hard not to smile when you think about.
As we said at the top - it all starts with Josh Freeman. As long as he is healthy and quarterbacking this football team, the Bucs will have a chance.
I think with another year of maturation for Tampa Bay's weapons, the infusion of young talent on the defensive side of the ball and the will to prove their critics wrong once more - the Buccaneers have a burning desire to take the NFC South and become a playoff team.
11-5, 1st in the NFC South