The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have posted consecutive 9-7 seasons. One (2007) was the result of resting starters after locking up a playoff bid. The other (2008), was the result of an embarrassing string of four straight losses and a fall from first in the division to third and no playoff berth.
For fans of most teams, the burning question "Will my team make the Super Bowl?" starts hitting call-in radio shows sometime around the third week in February. For Lions fans, the burning question is "Is there room on, say, the Rams' bandwagon?"
I've gazed deep into my crystal football, examined tea leaves, and slipped and fell in the shower, hitting the soap dish with my head on the way down and emerged from a two week coma to bring the Bucs' faithful my preseason prognostications.
Drum roll, please.
The Buccaneers will not make the Super Bowl in 2009, but they will make the playoffs. Let's see why.
1. An Improved Running Game
Football experts from Vince Lombardi to the local high school coach will tell you football games are won and lost in the trenches. It's a cliché, but it's true.
The Bucs' offensive line retains big maulers in Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, Arron Sears, Donald Penn, and Jeff Faine, plus key backups. They are joined by new draftee Xavier Fulton.
Take their intensity for the game and their willingness to deliver a big hit on an incoming defender and combine it with new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski's zone blocking scheme, and you're already looking at a recipe for success.
Toss in former Giants
running back Derrick Ward (182 carries, 1,025 yards, 5.6 average in 2008) to the already-powerful mix of Earnest Graham and a healthy Cadillac Williams and it should be full-steam ahead for the Bucs backs in 2009.
Still not convinced? The Giants ranked No. 1 in rushing yards per game last year with 157.4. Nos. 2 and 3? NFC South rivals Atlanta
is now the only team in the NFC South not running zone blocking on their offensive line. Look for them to hang around the bottom of the rushing list as they did last year.
2. Defense Still Dominates
Let's go to another cliché to explain this one: defense wins championships.
Tampa Bay's No. 1 defense proved that decisively in their Super Bowl XXXVII win over Oakland
's top-ranked offense.
Bates' defensive schemes emphasize man-to-man coverage, which will help ball-hawking cornerback Aqib Talib improve on already-impressive rookie stats (23 tackles, four interceptions).
New head coach Raheem Morris hails from a defensive background as well. His first season as a coach in the NFL
was with the Buccaneers in 2002, where he studied under then-defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin.
Astute readers will recognize Tomlin as the head coach of the NFL's stingiest defense (237.2 total yards allowed per game) last year.
Still not convinced? The players picked in this year's draft show the continuing commitment to defense.
Defensive tackle Roy Miller, defensive end Kyle Moore, defensive end turned offensive tackle Xavier Fulton, and cornerback E.J. Biggers are bookended by the only true offensive players chosen: quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter.
3. Dumb Luck
Let's be honest, it's difficult to predict the outcome of a week of NFL football, let alone an entire season a full three months before the preseason begins.
And as long as we're being honest, I don't think it's unrealistic to expect a little luck propelling the Bucs to a 10-6 record and a Wild Card spot in 2009.
So, let's have a little fun and make some dumb luck predictions.
1) Luke McCown, who has shown flashes of semi-brilliance in his limited playing time, wins the starting slot in training camp and finishes the season with a quarterback rating in the top 10. This comes mainly from high-percentage, short-yardage passes across the middle to new tight end Kellen Winslow.
2) Michael Vick
is reinstated by the Falcons. Arthur Blank finds it easy to give Vick a second chance. Not so for PETA, however, as their protests block every stadium Vick is slated to play in, forcing the Falcons to forfeit all of their games.
3) Turnovers. In some ways the dumbest of dumb luck opportunities, Bates' emphasis on containing the run and creating turnovers should create more opportunities for the greatest of sights in the NFL: a 300-pound defensive lineman scooping up an errant football before lumbering down field for 26 yards and a touchdown. It warms the heart just thinking about it.
Still not convinced? The Buccaneers play in Buffalo
for the first time ever in 2009. You know what else happened for the first time ever recently? America elected an African-American President.
Anything can happen, Bucs fans!
Next: Why the Buccaneers will no way, no how, win more than four games in 2009.
After shaking off my fever dream of realistic optimism, I quickly sank into catatonic pessimism.
Before me in my mind's eye I saw the hopes and dreams of a franchise laid to waste.
Here, then, are three reasons the Buccaneers will not win more than four games in 2009.
1. Their schedule is the stuff of nightmares
Let's go right to the numbers.
The Bucs will play only three teams with 2008 losing records.
The Bucs will play 11 games against quarterbacks who put up more than 3,000 passing yards last year, plus Tom Brady
The Bucs will be forced to defend 11 receivers who had at least 1,000 yards receiving, plus six more who were on the happy side of 900.
The Bucs will play seven playoff teams.
Tampa Bay will have to overcome those numbers without once having back-to-back home games. Granted, their game against New England
in Old England is counted as a home game, but when you've got to fly 4,000 miles to go home, how rested can you expect to be?
2. A near-total lack of a passing game
The Buccaneers have had nine unique starting quarterbacks since 2002.
There's no clear-cut starter this season. Why should there be when your choices are ossified Brian Griese, broken Byron Leftwich, hilariously under-experienced Luke McCown, Div. I-AA wunderkind and Jon Gruden vanity draft pick Josh Johnson, and rookie and Raheem Morris vanity draft pick Josh Freeman?
Even if one of those five earns starting honors by means other than being least awful, who is he going to throw the ball to down field?
Two of Tampa Bay's top three receivers (Ike Hilliard and Warrick Dunn) are gone.
Their fourth-best receiver, Michael Clayton, moves to number two by default. His stats last year (38 receptions, 484 yards, 1 touchdown) were the best he's done since his break-out rookie season of 2004 (80 receptions, 1,193 yards, 7 touchdowns), but still a ways off.
The Buccaneers are left with Antonio Bryant and... who, exactly?
3. Dumb Luck
If Lady Luck can smile on Tampa Bay, she can sure as shooting ruin their season, too. Let's see how that might play out.
1) Cadillac Williams could continue to underperform. It might not be fair at this point to call him a bust since he has had to have a third knee installed, but if he can't get back to rookie form, the Bucs' run game will suffer.
2) The Falcons reinstate Michael Vick. Without Derrick Brooks to spy on Vick, he runs wild through a defense that, last December at least, looked porous at best. The rabid (har!) PETA protestors are pacified when Vick poses nude for an animal-rights billboard overlooking the I-85/ I-20 interchange in downtown Atlanta.
3) Turnovers. Of the two Tampa Bay quarterbacks with any real experience under center, neither one has a truly stellar touchdown-to-interception ratio. Let Griese or Leftwich start throwing picks and suddenly you're looking at the worst thing the NFL has to offer: Chris Berman playing highlights going "Whoop!" as a defender flies past a Griese arm tackle.