Of the four NFC South teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the only squad that entered the 2012 season with little or no expectations of success.
The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were both the bullies of the division, expected to be habitually strong. The Carolina Panthers were looked at as a team on the rise, on the cusp of doing enough for a postseason berth.
Tampa Bay cleaned house in the offseason. The Buccaneers sent head coach Raheem Morris packing and started fresh with Greg Schiano and his new staff.
There weren’t any expectations of success for the 2012 Buccaneers, no delusions of grandeur. But the Buccaneers started the season with a divisional win and an inch of hope crept in.
Then Eli Manning exposed the Tampa Bay secondary.
In Week 2 Tampa Bay jumped out to a 24-13 halftime lead over the New York Giants. This were going smoothly until the fourth quarter when Manning threw two touchdown passes and the Giants scored 25 points.
On the day, Manning threw for 510 yards. Wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz both reached the double-digit reception plateau and Nicks missed a 200-yard receiving day by one yard, Cruz by 21.
Manning wasn’t the only quarterback to show the world that Tampa Bay had no ability to stop an attack through the air, he was just the most successful. Six other quarterbacks eclipsed the 300 yards passing plateau on the way to Tampa Bay giving up 4,758 yards through the air in 2012—more than any other team in the league.
Tampa Bay’s secondary wasn’t the only reason the team went off course. Injuries to the offensive line made anything the team planned to do on offense seem futile.
Most teams would be able to adjust to one injury to a starter on the offensive line, possibly even two. But the Buccaneers lost three, and by Week 11 were using just one starter from the beginning of the year in the position he started.
Not only did Tampa Bay lose both starting guards on the offensive line, both Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph were Pro Bowl guards, and were out for season before the getting got good. When offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood was put on injured reserve and Jeremy Zuttah shifted to guard from his natural center position, only Donald Penn remained in his usual spot.
Quarterback Josh Freeman and running back Doug Martin survived, even flourished temporarily with the makeshift offensive line, but the truth of the NFL finally caught up to the Buccaneers. You can’t win football games with backups comprising the front line.
Freeman’s last 100-point-or-better quarterback rating was in Week 10. After Week 11, Martin went from averaging 5.1 yards per carry to just 3.7.
Had Tampa Bay not sustained such devastating injuries on its offensive line, the team might have been able to keep the momentum rolling past Week 11. From Week 6 (the game directly after Tampa Bay’s bye) to Week 11, the Buccaneers were 5-1 and starting to sneak into the playoff conversation. Tampa Bay finished the season 1-5, in large part because the Band-Aid of an offensive line got dirty, torn and became ineffective.
In direct correlation to the injuries on the offensive line, Freeman’s season turned south in Week 11.
Under the protection of experience, Freeman played his first nine games throwing just five interceptions. During that time he connected on 18 touchdown passes. In the seven final games of the season, Freeman threw nine touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
Opposing defenses adjusted to the weaker offensive line and brought extra, and more frequent, pressure. And Freeman began trying to do too much with the football to compensate. He had similar issues in 2011 when he threw 22 interceptions, but that was a lot of inexperience on his part in action.
Freeman’s late-season fall from grace was more about pressure (both from opposing defenses and that which he put on himself) than technique. Had he had the benefit of multiple Pro Bowl linemen in front of him for the entire season, he might have kept this team playoff-relevant until the end.
But as stated before, Tampa Bay wasn’t supposed to be playoff-ready in 2012. Schiano was brand new and general manager Mark Dominik, while masterfully putting together a beautiful 2012 draft, was still building, not arming his weapons to fire.
That comes in the next year, maybe two.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.