Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris has a lot on his plate as the Buccaneers prepare for the 2009 season. Luckily for the Bucs, he seems like a pretty hungry guy.
While I have little doubt Tampa Bay will play inspired football this season under a new coaching staff, a lot of questions surround a franchise making its transition amidst a division on the rise.
Adjusting to new coaches and new playbooks, resolving personnel questions, and fighting through a tough schedule are all challenges that seem to point Tampa Bay toward the bottom of the NFC South.
In my opinion, the Bucs will play hard for Morris this season and hover around .500—likely sliding into third or fourth place finish in the division.
But Buccaneer fans shouldn’t lose hope, and the die-hards never do. After all, the seemingly hapless Falcons defied expectations to finish 11-5 last season.
So what would it take for the Bucs to pillage and conquer their way to the top of the NFC South? Well, to exceed expectations, the Bucs will have to both establish the run, and stop the run.
Tampa Bay has two new coordinators this season—Jeff Jagodzinski on offense and Jim Bates on defense—and both of their systems revolve around the running game. Assuming players are able to pick up the systems quickly, the next step is executing them effectively.
Offensively, the Bucs have one of the most athletic lines in the league, and there is little doubt the unit is capable of transitioning to Jagodzinski’s zone scheme. Add a three-headed backfield led by Derrick Ward, and it would seem Tampa Bay is heading in the right direction.
The Bucs will also, however, need some consistency at quarterback.
Morris wants to force opposing defenses to commit eight players to stopping Tampa Bay’s downhill running game. If Buccaneer quarterbacks are prone to mistakes and can’t take advantage, however, opposing teams may do just that—all too willingly.
Luke McCown has claimed the starting job under center, and Jagodzinski thinks he’s more than capable. But McCown is 1-7 as a starter and threw as many passes as running back Earnest Graham last season.
And Graham completed his one attempt—McCown did not.
If not McCown, the Bucs would likely turn to veteran Byron Leftwich. Though Leftwich played admirably in limited time as Pittsburgh’s backup last season, he’s far from proven as a starter.
Then there’s 6’5” rookie Josh Freeman. While going young may be the trend of late, throwing the future franchise quarterback to the wolves in his first season would be less than ideal.
If McCown can run the offense, manage games, and hold onto the starting job, I’d say Tampa Bay will exceed expectations. But if he falters and the Bucs are forced to do some soul searching under center, the offense will struggle to be consistent.
The x-factor is a largely unproven group of Buccaneer receivers.
Outside of 2008 standout Antonio Bryant, the only returning player with more than one touchdown reception last season is tight end Jerramy Stevens.
If Jagodzinski can get production out of receivers like Michael Clayton and Dexter Jackson, while also maximizing the addition of tight end Kellen Winslow, the Bucs’ offense will be one step closer to exceeding expectations.
But even then, as Buccaneer fans should know better than anyone, defense wins championships.
While it would be nice to get the running game going and find some consistency at quarterback, the Bucs play too tough a schedule to expect a first-year offense to carry the load.
Like the offense, Bates’ defense centers on the running game. Bates’ scheme aims to shut down the run between the tackles, force the outside run back inside, and balance a speed-based pass rush with aggressive bump-and-run coverage.
For Tampa Bay to meet expectations, defensive tackles Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims will have to put a stop to the inside run—priority No. 1—and this could be a problem.
The defensive line struggled in the Bucs' 2008 late-season collapse, and many aren't sure if the unit can continue to get the job done all season.
Undoubtedly, the D-line's depth will be tested again this season, and whether or not that depth can come through in big games will be a big factor in Tampa Bay's success.
From there, it’ll be up to the linebackers. The Bucs have all the confidence in the world in middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, but newly acquired Angelo Crowell is coming off a knee injury and Jermaine Phillips is making the move to outside linebacker from strong safety.
If they do their job, the Buccaneer defense stands a good chance. If they struggle, the 2009 season could very well resemble last year’s 38-23 loss to Carolina in which the Panther’s ran rampant for 300 yards and four touchdowns.
The x-factor for the defense is the secondary. Aging veteran Ronde Barber and 2008 first-round draft pick Aqib Talib will start on the corners, but they’ll be tested in Bates’s scheme and must live up to the challenge.
Sabby Piscitelli, who often found himself out of position last season, will likely get the start at strong safety, and will be called upon to clean up anything that slips through the linebackers.
Overall, the Tampa Bay secondary lacks depth and experience—especially with Phillips moving to linebacker. However, if a few of the team’s young guns can step up and contribute and the secondary overachieves, the Bucs’ defense should follow suit.
The same could be said for Gaines Adams and Greg White at defensive end. If Bates can get Adams to live up to his billing and become a forceful pass rusher off the edge, the Bucs could make bigger strides defensively.
Last but not least, if I had to name three other factors that could make or break the Buccaneers this season, it would be coaching, leadership, and injuries.
At 32, Morris is the youngest head coach in the National Football League.
While I think the players have bought into his attitude and coaching style, he’ll have to tackle a steep learning curve when it comes to preparation and play calling in order to compete with the more experienced headsets on the opposite sideline.
The Bucs will also need some guys to step up in the locker room and in the huddle after parting ways with several veteran players. Without guys like Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, and Joey Galloway, the team will need to find new leaders in 2009.
Finally, whether Tampa Bay is going to exceed, meet, or fall below expectations, injuries will play a role this season. An injury to the wrong player at the wrong time is all it takes for a team to take a tumble down the division standings.
For the Bucs to surpass expectations this season, the must-keep-healthy list would include McCown, Bryant, Ruud, and Barber, among others.
But regardless of what happens this season, Buccaneer fans should keep the big picture in mind.
Without a doubt, Morris and company will endure their share of growing pains in 2009, and any success this season will be just an added bonus to what the franchise hopes to build for the future.
So for now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.