Coaches and managers in all sports have used countless psychological techniques and strategies to persuade their teams and players that they are in fact destined for postseason success. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon used the “Ray-Hawk” (Tampa’s version of the mohawk) to power his 2008 team’s improbable run to the World Series. That same year, Maddon used the unorthodox mathematical equation 9 = 8 to convince his players they belonged in the playoffs. 9 = 8 meant if nine players played a fundamental baseball for nine innings every game it would then equal to them being one of eight playoff teams. Remember, he’s a 56-year-old man who sported a Ray-Hawk. He’s a little crazy, but hey, it worked.
Fast forward to 2012 and Maddon’s crosstown counterpart, Bucs rookie head coach Greg Schiano, may need to enlist some of that Rays math. The Vegas oddsmakers have released their annual over-under total win numbers and that finds Schiano’s squad sitting with a very interesting number, six. For the Bucs, who are the current owners of the NFL’s longest losing streak, 10 games, an over under of six games may not seem too far-fetched. But that first glance obviously doesn’t include NFL free agency or the NFL draft, and it certainly doesn’t include the Saints bounty scandal.
If an NFL offseason champion were crowned, Tampa Bay would be Title Town, USA. The Bucs ownership took drastic measures to prove to their fan base they're serious about putting a contender on the field, something that didn’t seem possible during the forgettable Raheem Morris era. Aside from having trouble finding a head coach to fill Morris’ shoes, Bucs fans have to be scratching their heads at the oddsmakers’ number of six.
Coach Greg Schiano has made a splash since arriving in Tampa earlier this year. Apparently it’s a splash the Vegas oddsmakers didn’t feel. Schiano’s already holding players accountable and making it a privilege to call One Buc Place home. At practice, players must “toe the line” during warm-ups, something NFL players usually leave behind on the college gridiron. He’s also come up with his own vision for how the Bucs will be successful, with his “T.B.A.” mantra (Trust, Belief, and Accountability). Leadership usually translates into more than six wins when applied the right way.
The Tampa Bay offense ranked 16th in passing and 30th in rushing during the 2011 campaign. Four-year veteran QB Josh Freeman was forced to play from behind nearly every snap last season with a subpar cast of position players. That all changed for the 6’6” QB when free-agent WR Vincent Jackson and All-Pro OL Carl Nicks signed with the Pewter and Red.
The Bucs also made a statement in April’s draft by trading up at the end of the first round to acquire Boise St. RB Doug Martin, who Mel Kiper considered the second best RB in this year’s draft. It was also a wake-up call for current RB LeGarrette Blount, who fumbled just as often as he ran over opposing LBs. Add to that the release of TE Kellen Winslow and the subsequent signing of Dallas Clark and all of a sudden Josh Freeman may have a supporting cast that will allow him to lineup under center with a lead more often than not.
And that takes us to the Bucs' defense which ended last season ranked 21st in passing yards allowed and dead last in rushing yards allowed, something that was tough for Bucs fans to swallow. After all, the Tampa Two, one of the most successful defensive sets over the last decade was named after the team.
GM Mark Dominik has held true to his word and dedicated his front office efforts by building through the draft. The team did bring in free-agent CB Eric Wright from Detroit, but they also added Alabama S Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick in the draft, to help out Tampa icon Ronde Barber. Critics say the Bucs reached by taking a safety that early, but they totally bought off on his credentials. Barron was a captain on two championship teams with the Tide, and it was leadership that Tampa’s defense desperately lacked in 2011. That’s where the draft day additions of LBs Lavonte David and Najee Goode seem to be just what the defense needs to shore up the middle.
While that’s a lot of talent and a motivated coach, there are still some question marks for the Bucs. The team is operating under the very real possibility that CB Aqib Talib may be facing jail time after his criminal case in Texas goes to trial later this month. Their young defensive line, which they’ve built through the draft, has yet to make it through a full season injury free.
There are other factors that will work against that Vegas appointed six-win mark. Take the Bucs' 2012 strength of schedule, which is .484. Don’t forget about the not so scientific stat of the team that finishes last in the NFC South the year before has more times than not come back the next season to win the division. From 2003 to 2009, the team that placed last in the division the previous year would improve enough to reach the playoffs, usually by winning the division. Tampa Bay almost continued this trend in 2010, stopped only by losing a tiebreaker to Green Bay.
There’s no one saying the Bucs are bona fide Super Bowl contenders, but there should be more than a few who recognize the new course the Bucs have set for themselves. It may be time for coach Schiano to take a page from Joe Maddon’s math book and call for a race to six wins. Then again, if his short time as the Bucs' top man is any indication, Schiano won’t settle for a race to six.