Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A Dark Horse To Win The NFC In 2011?
If you have watched NFL football in the last decade, then you know that the NFC is a topsy-turvy conference.
The last team to repeat as NFC champions was the 1996-97 Packers. Since then, twelve different teams have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. Champions have ranged from dominant No. 1 seeds wire-to-wire (’99 Rams) to a team that took the title “worst playoff team in NFL history” to the Super Bowl (’08 Cardinals).
The Green Bay Packers just won the Super Bowl and have a plethora of young stars to build around for years to come. But just ask the Eagles of the early 2000’s how often that formula leads to the NFL’s promised land.
It’s very early but I am already making a prediction for the next NFL season.
I’ll examine how the young Buccaneers from Tampa Bay have the talent and poise to make a Super Bowl run in 2011.
5. A Favorable 2011 Schedule
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Although the NFL would like you to think that you don’t know who your favorite teams will play next year until the Schedule Release show, all of the 2011 team matchups are already set. And let’s just say it is looking pretty good for Tampa, as eleven returning non-playoff teams stand before them.
Although the Buccaneers will travel to Atlanta and Super Bowl champion Green Bay next year, the rest of the schedule bodes well for these swashbucklers.
2010 playoff teams Chicago and Indianapolis will pay a visit to Raymond James stadium, as will lowly franchises like Detroit, Carolina and Houston’s league-worst defense. They should have no problem beating these teams.
As for the road games, consider the recent history of these division matchups. In 2009, the 3-win Buccaneers claimed one of their victories against a then 13-0 Saints team in New Orleans. The Saints went on to win the Super Bowl.
And this year not only did they beat New Orleans on the road again, but they came within a touchdown of thwarting Matt Ryan’s Falcons in the Superdome.
This is a gritty team that saves it’s best football for it’s best opponents. If they show up when they are supposed to and pull out some hard-earned road wins there’s no reason this team can’t reach the 10-11 win range and put them near the top of the NFC.
4. No NFC South Champ Has Ever Repeated
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The NFC South is a quirky division.
Since the divisional realignment in 2002, the NFC South is the only division in the NFL where every team has reached the conference title game.
But more strangely, it’s a division famous for regularly flipping the worst team to division champ every year.
Think I’m kidding? In the brief history of the division the last place team from the previous season won the division the next season six times.
This past season, one could argue that the NFC South was the conference’s most competitive division, featuring three 10-win teams and two playoff teams. The Bucs fielded the second-youngest team in football coming off of a 3-win season and surprised everybody this year by coming in just short of making the playoffs.
There’s no question the division brings back a lot of talent between the Saints and the Falcons (sorry Carolina). But those two franchises are not known for consistency season-to-season.
The Falcons just recorded back-to-back winning years for the first time in 2010. The Saints went from leading the league in takeaways to having eight players whiff on Marshawn Lynch and the 7-9 Seahawks.
Tampa Bay finished a respectable 3-3 in the division with a season-closing win at New Orleans to cap their turnaround in 2010. This team thrives in the underdog role and they won’t have to worry about getting attention with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan hogging most of the press.
There’s a lot of parity in this current NFL and it’s very possible that the Bucs will follow the trend of jumping from near the bottom to the top of the NFC South next year.
3. Raheem Morris' Coaching Style
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When Jon Gruden was fired after the 2008 season, a lot of people were left scratching their heads when news broke out that a 35-year-old defensive back coach with no coordinating experience was named the new head coach.
Even more questioned this when the team went 3-13 that season.
What a difference a year makes.
Morris lead a team that started as many as six rookies and a second-year unproven quarterback to a 5-2 start, a start that prompted a bold proclamation that the young group was “the best team in the NFC."
They were not the best team in the NFC, but the message stuck with the team for the rest of the year; we can play with anybody.
Raheem Morris' energetic charisma and ability to communicate with his players is a big reason why this very young team grew up quickly in 2010. What he lacks in experience and X’s and O’s he makes up for in swagger and ability to judge talent.
Many questioned why anyone would start two rookies at wide receiver, or how firing both coordinators during his inaugural season benefited the team.
He handled the constant questioning of his job status with grace. His smartest move was turning the idea that no one gave his team a chance into a rallying cry for the season. Many were calling for him to be named Coach of the Year.
This style might not work with a lot of other teams, but it’s done wonders for the league’s second-youngest team. It’s a style that speaks well to the young Bucs, reminding some of another young unproven head coaching commodity hired not too long ago, Super Bowl champion Mike Tomlin.
2. Budding Young Stars
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As I mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers are the league’s second-youngest team. Despite this experience disadvantage, few teams boast the long-term potential that Tampa Bay has in its core of young players.
Barrett Ruud, 27, lead the team with 120 tackles, more than Pro Bowlers like James Farrior. He’s quietly been very dependable as the middle linebacker that is pivotal for the success of the "Tampa 2."
He’s a free agent, so assuming he can sign a long-term deal with Tampa, he should anchor the defense for years to come.
Aqib Talib, 25, has had some character issues since his entrance in the league but it is hard to argue with his production and talent. He has recorded 15 interceptions over a three-year span, including six this season that put him near the top of the league. He’s a playmaker with a great nose for the football.
On the offensive side of the ball, rookie receiver Mike Williams and rookie running back LeGarrette Blount stepped up in a big way in 2010.
Williams led all rookies in receiving yards (964) and was tied for fourth in the league with 11 receiving TDs. Blount proved he has not only gotten over the infamous Boise St. punch incident, but that he’s also a reliable power back (1,007 rush yards) with an uncanny ability to hurdle defenders.
This team is riddled with young stars on both sides of the ball and even has a few Pro Bowlers in the trenches like offensive tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph. All these players are a part of the Super Bowl puzzle and compliment the team’s most important player very well.
1. Josh Freeman
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Who is the team’s most important player you ask?
Without any doubt, it’s their fearless quarterback: Josh Freeman.
Freeman followed up his so-so rookie season with a sensational sophomore campaign and cemented his status as franchise quarterback with the team. He has proven all his critics wrong after he was drafted in the first round following an average junior year at Kansas State.
Freeman had the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio, tossing 25 TDs to 6 INTs, a monumental improvement from his 10-to-18 ratio last season. In fact, he was in the top 15 of every major passing category even though he was throwing to a pair of rookie receivers all season long.
He has displayed the toughness, work ethic and most importantly, the clutch game play that is necessary for today’s top quarterbacks. This is a quarterback-driven league, and as Aaron Rodgers recently showed us, no matter how many guys go down in a season an elite quarterback can carry the team on his back.
He’s certainly got room for improvement. But considering he was being compared to JaMarcus Russell coming out of the draft, he has been a far cry from what was expected of him.
Now he's drawing comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger. Typically, first-round quarterbacks take the biggest improvement in their third season.
The Buccaneers should feel pretty confident with Freeman at the helm. He has the ability to take over games and if he gets hot during the end of 2011 like he has in both of his NFL seasons, he could carry this team through the playoffs much like the aforementioned Aaron Rodgers.
The future is very bright for this team and Freeman has the makings of an elite quarterback in this league.