Let's get this out of the way from the beginning: I'm no football expert. I've been a football fan since I was little, but in recent years, I've been a casual fan at best. I'll watch a game if it's on and I'll keep myself generally informed about how certain teams are doing, but if you'd asked me which team was in first in the NFC South on any given day, I'd have stared blankly back at you. Baseball is my passion; football was a passing interest.
A part of the reason for this was that the more I learned about baseball, the harder it got for me to follow sports I only had a passing knowledge about. After getting used to being able to analyze baseball games on a certain level, it felt weird to sit back and casually take in a football game. Was that play really as much as a failure as it looked? How could I tell if such-and-such was a good player? Were the platitudes the announcers were spewing correct or bogus? And most importantly: who is the football version of Joe Morgan??*
*Former player turned announcer that offers horrible, cliche-driven analysis. Oh, FJM, how I miss you.
This season, though, I've decided to change all that. There are plenty of great books and websites out there that have tackled football analysis in recent years, so if I was uninformed, it was through my own laziness. So I've spent some time in recent weeks reading up over at Football Outsiders, and while I'm still a relative noob, I'm willing to start taking the plunge.
I don't claim to be an expert at football analysis, and I certainly don't have the sort of game-watching experience that Sander, Gareth, and J.C. bring to the table. But I do know stats pretty well, so I'm hoping to use them to provide a different angle on the Bucs over the course of this season. Hopefully we'll all learn something together.
So without further ado, I bring you the grand conclusion that I've come to after hours and hours pouring through the Football Outsiders stat databases: this Buccaneers squad is a lot like the 2011 Rays.
I warned you that baseball is my area of expertise, right? I'm actually surprised this comparison hasn't been drawn before by someone else -- maybe it has? -- because when you start looking at both teams, the Bucs and Rays share many similar traits. Both teams are youth focused and have one of the youngest rosters in their league. Both teams have dynamic head coaches -- Raheem Morris and Joe Maddon -- that have become local celebrities (not to mention they exchange texts and support each other). And under the "sad but true" category, both teams have low payrolls, struggle to fill their stadium, and have faced public criticism for their owner supposedly being "cheap".
But disregarding all that, the Bucs and Rays share another common trait this season: their projections. Going into the season, the 2011 Rays were projected by most forecasting model as a good-but-not-great club that would likely win around 87-90 games and miss the playoffs. This year was considered a "reloading" year for them, a year they could focus on allowing young players, and they could compete for the postseason if everything went right for them.
The Buccaneers are currently in a very similar spot. The preseason projections from Football Outsiders peg them as around a 7-8 win team, which might seem low to Bucs fans but consider: this is a team that improved dramatically from '09 to '10. Their offense was ninth best in the NFL last season, but their defense ranked 23rd, and they didn't make any huge acquisitions or improvements outside of the Draft.
So this is a team that could really go any number of ways. Will Freeman be able to match his results from last season, in which he dramatically improved completion and interception rates, making him one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL? Will LeGarrette Blount regress after his impressive rookie season (5.0 yards per attempts)? And what about the defense? Defenses are like bullpens; they are difficult to predict how they will perform on a year-to-year basis, and teams can improve or decline on defense a large amount between seasons. So it's possible the defense could be much improved this season with Mason Foster, Da'Quan Bowers, and Adrian Clayborn in there. But at the same time, the unit could go through a large number of growing pains.
When in doubt, projection systems always regress toward the mean, so Football Outsiders see the Bucs taking some steps back on offense and remaining relatively static on defense. I tend to think these projections are pessimistic, but that's what makes me a fan; who isn't wildly optimistic about their favorite team in the beginning of the season?
This is, admittedly, a tough team to project. With so many young players, any number of possible scenarios could happen. Freeman could turn into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season, and maybe the defense clicks and becomes one of the better units in the league. With so much youth, it's difficult to say what will happen.
But what's most likely to happen? Well, we got a taste of that this past Sunday. The defense was a mixed bag of results -- solid against the run, worst in the NFL against the pass -- and the offense struggled to find some consistency. Freeman was good, posting a high completion percentage (68%) while shouldering most of the offensive burden, but it wasn't quite good enough...nor was he quite as good as last season (14% DVOA versus 20% last season). And that's not even mentioning the fact that the Bucs got the ball to Blount a mere five times all day, and he only average 3 yards a run during those few plays. In many ways, they were a team struggling to find themselves.
This will be a season of growth and development for the Bucs, as they "reload" and assess their teams strengths and weaknesses going forward. If things break right, they could win 10+ games and make the playoffs. But barring that, they'll be like the 2011 Rays: good, but not quite good enough.
The future is certainly bright for this team, as they have a young core of talented players that are all under team control for some time. They have the cap space to make some moves next offseason, allowing them to fill whatever holes they discover they have this year. And personally speaking, it's a heck of a fun team to watch; who doesn't love watching a young, up-and-coming team that's chock full of upside?
If the Rays miss the playoffs this season, I won't consider it a lost year. They stayed in the playoff race deep into the season, showing everyone they were better than commonly expected, and their young core has been given the chance to mature and develop in anticipation of 2012. If the Buccaneers can do the same thing this year, I'll consider it a season very well spent.