Just 23 days ago the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished off the Carolina Panthers and moved to 6-4 on the season. Three weeks have gone by, and three losses have been added to the tally sheet. At 6-7, after Sunday’s 23-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s hard not to think back to the not-so-distant past and recall how the 2011 season ended.
After starting last year 4-2, the Buccaneers lost 10 straight to finish 4-12. Then-head coach Raheem Morris was fired. Many of the players from that team were criticized for giving up on the season.
Are these most recent three consecutive losses just the first of a losing streak that will rock the end of Tampa Bay’s 2012 season?
If Tampa Bay loses the rest of its games, the team will finish with a 6-10 record and a six-game losing streak. Losing out is a genuine possibility, but if it happens it won’t be for the same reasons as last year’s end-of-the-year debacle.
First, there's the matter of effort. Though the 2011 Buccaneers might not have played hard for Morris, every player in this current locker room would run through a brick wall for first-year head coach Greg Schiano. The players now have a belief that Schiano is doing things exactly right for the future of the franchise. That’s an incredible difference from the feeling on the team last season.
There’s also a huge difference in talent now compared to last year.
The same guy is under center, but Josh Freeman is in a much different place in his development. Last year Freeman was slinging the ball around like he was bulletproof, and he threw 18 interceptions to only 13 touchdowns through 13 games.
Through 13 games this year Freeman has 25 touchdowns and only eight picks. He’s a much more precise passer, and his deep pass looks much improved. The current coaching staff has done a great job at game-planning for Freeman’s success while allowing him to take chances downfield. That wasn’t the case last year.
Tampa Bay is also in a much better place at running back. LeGarrette Blount, while still on the team, has lost his starting job to the rookie Doug Martin, who averages a full half-yard more than Blount did last year and puts the ball on the ground less frequently.
The Buccaneers also have some promising rookies on the defensive side of the ball.
Rookie linebacker Lavonte David leads the team in tackles with 117 and also has a sack and an interception. Rookie safety Mark Barron ranks fourth on the team in tackles and has blossomed under the tutelage of Ronde Barber.
Add in resurgent seasons from Mike Williams on offense and Mason Foster and Gerald McCoy on defense, and it’s easy to feel a sense of hope—even if the Buccaneers have lost three straight.
Tampa Bay may indeed lose its final three games—they play the New Orleans Saints, the St. Louis Rams and the Atlanta Falcons—and finish the 2012 campaign on a six-game losing streak. But in no way does this streak symbolize the same thing as last year’s ten-game stretch of losing.
This Buccaneers franchise is headed in a much different direction even if it still loses games this year.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.