Infamous Five number three—Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The last ten years in the history of Tampa Bay football have been somewhat difficult to fathom. Just seven years ago, the team was summarily whupping the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl, and now they're coming off a season of general regression.
Jon Gruden, for all his contrarian and hardline positions, guided the team to a 9-7 record in 2008. Raheem Morris, a surprise appointment as head coach in '09, could only muster a 3-13 finish, but in his defense, he was lacking many of the tools Gruden had at his disposal, namely defensive mastermind Monte Kiffin and a roster burgeoning with Pro Bowl talent.
Gone are Warrick Dunn, Jeff Garcia and Antonio Bryant, and even further gone are the stalwarts that took Tampa to the summit at the end of the '02 season, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. Defense was what won that championship for the Bucs, and now Morris faces the tough proposition of rebuilding what was arguably the best group in the league.
Morris, a former DBs coach, has got some talent to work with though, especially in the secondary.
Ronde Barber is up there in years but continues to be fairly reliable (and offers invaluable tips to the rest of this emergent unit), Aqib Talib is living up to his first-round buzz, and safety Tanard Jackson, despite his run-in with Commisioner Goodell last year, is one of the finest young ball-hawks in the NFL. Longtime heavy-hitter Jermaine Phillips is gone, and this opens the door for Sabby Piscitelli, a solid if unspectacular filler-in last year, to add some muscle to the defensive backfield.
So in the secondary at least, there is cause for some hope down Florida way. However, a couple of seriously problematic areas are apparent to even the untrained eye, most noticeably on offense.
The team's been playing a game of duck-duck-goose on their depth chart for a lot of this offseason, and there seems to be precious little certainty surrounding such a youthful group.
At wide receiver, the phrase "whodat" could be applied to pretty much the entire corps, and the TE group contains an up-and-down Kellen Winslow and candidate for 'least likeable NFL player' Jerramy Stevens.
In the backfield, Derrick Ward has not had the dynamic impact the Bucs hoped when they plucked him from free agency, Earnest Graham looks more like a situational back and Cadillac Williams has had two major knee surgeries.
At least the two major offensive positions are locked down. Josh Freeman will be entering the season as the unquestioned starter and looked to make a few mental strides last year to catch up with his imposing frame. Excellent left tackle Donald Penn is also now locked up for the foreseeable future, so the Bucs have filled the two most difficult-to-fill positions on the offensive side of the football.
The problem is that outside of these two players, the franchise is mired in uncertainty: Raheem Morris has the respect of the squad, but can he tactically match up to the Saints and Falcons in the NFC South, not to mention the AFC North who the Bucs have to face this year? Can Josh Freeman prove to be a shrewd choice at QB? Who's he going to throw the ball to? And will the addition of Gerald McCoy improve the pass rush and run defense?
The sheer number of questions in Tampa without answers is cause for concern, not to mention the fact that some of them are pretty important ones.
If this young defense takes a big leap forward then there's cause for cautious optimism, but without that occurring it'll be a tough season, because the Bucs' O doesn't look like it'll outscore many people. Could be another tough year for Bucs fans, and we'd be surprised if they're not picking in the top-five of the 2011 NFL Draft.
2010 prediction: 4-12