2010 was a memorable season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A seven-win increase from 2009 was not enough for Tampa to reach the playoffs, but there were many reasons why fans were excited and happy about their team. Led by a cast of young, exciting players, the Bucs have rejuvenated a franchise that has been hungry for success after being nearly invisible over the past decade.
However, taking the next step into becoming an annual contender is very difficult. A lot of building blocks have to be in place for reaching that status. Fortunately for the Bucs, there are many signs that indicate they're on the rise.
Making predictions in the NFL is a futile affair. Due to the shortness of the season, it is impossible to tell what will happen. How many people believed the Bucs would go 10-6? Maybe .0001 percent of people? Who thought LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams would become Pro Bowl caliber players in year one? If the Bucs went 3-13 or 13-3 in 2011, I would honestly not be surprised.
With all that said, here are 10 bold predictions for the Buccaneers heading into the 2011 season.
After the Bucs defeated the Arizona Cardinals in a wild 38-35 affair to move to 5-2 in 2010, head coach Raheem Morris declared that the Buccaneers were the best team in the NFC. Of course, we all know he said this because at the time, no team had a better record than 5-2 in the conference.
This statement got blown way out of proportion by the media—common practice on their part—and Morris became the laughing stock of the league. The Bucs were given little respect throughout the 2010 season, mainly because their wins, until the end of the season, consisted of barely squeaking past bad opponents.
In 2011, the Bucs have a much more difficult schedule on the cards. However, with the growth and maturity that has occurred over the past 12 months, Raheem and his boys may find themselves atop the conference early in the season, which may prompt another memorable post-game press conference.
One likes drugs. One likes (allegedly) firing shots in defense of family members.
On the field, both Tanard Jackson and Aqib Talib are Pro Bowl talents. Unfortunately, they are now more known for the off-the-field troubles than anything else.
Tampa is in a tough spot here. Should they choose to reconcile with both, they will be viewed as the Oakland Raiders of the NFC. There is also no guarantee that either will re-offend, as both have a history of bad judgement.
If the Buccaneers cut both stars once the lockout ends, a major void is left in the secondary. Although the group played well without both (Talib was lost through injury near the end of the season), it's difficult to imagine that the unproven group will be able to enjoy sustained success.
Watch for Bucs management to realize this, and try to bring one, or both, back into the fold for 2011.
Ted Larsen as just one of many smart moves GM Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris made in 2010. Cut by the Patriots after being selected in the sixth round of the draft, Larsen was immediately snapped up by the Bucs.
I bet New England regrets this decision.
Larsen went on to start 11 games for the Buccaneers, looking very impressive in the process. If he is able to make the next leap in 2011, he could find himself on the way to the Pro Bowl. His biggest obstacle may be the selection process, as offensive lineman are often selected solely based on reputation and not performance on the field.
Larsen has all the tools to be one of the best guards in the league, and I expect him to continue his excellent growth in 2011.
This may be the least bold prediction of the 10.
Legarrette Blount stormed onto the scene in 2010 for the Buccaneers, coming out of absolutely nowhere to reignite a running game that had been unreliable for what seemed like centuries. Blount wasn't even on the team when the preseason concluded; he was picked up off the Tennessee Titans practice squad on September 6th.
Blount's running style is what really won over the Tampa Bay faithful. It immediately reminded everyone of fan favorite Mike Alstott, who was known for bulldozing opponents on a weekly basis. This may be overstated due to Blount's size, but his style resembles more of a shifty back. One memorable example of this occurred in that win over the Arizona Cardinals, when he leaped over a defender like a gazelle before running for a big gain.
Blount should be able to back up his impressive rookie season with another 1,000-yard performance in 2011.
For all the positives the Buccaneers had in 2010, there were still plenty of negatives that ultimately cost the team a playoff spot. One of these was the disappointing pass rush that rarely provided pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Stylez G. White led the team in takedowns.
That just says it all.
Overall, the Bucs had 26 sacks, good for second fewest in the league. Always the progressive GM, Mark Dominik addressed this need in the draft by selecting a pair of defensive ends with their first two draft picks. DeQuan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn should provide a jolt of energy to the struggling unit and increase this measly sack total in 2011.
Although Bowers and Clayborn may be impact players, they both carry heavy injury concerns that may limit their 2011 seasons.
Mason Foster was selected in the third round of the draft out of Washington and already has a pretty strong pedigree. He was a first-team All-American, first-team Pac-10 and finished second in the nation in tackles per game in 2010, adding 6.5 sacks in the process.
Given the FA status of Quincy Black and Barrett Ruud, there is a good chance Foster will be a starter at linebacker in 2011. Given the nature of the Tampa-2, linebackers have plenty of chances to make plays in space, which should benefit Fosters game perfectly.
Look for this sleeper pick to be the most valuable of the 2011 Buccaneers draft class.
The Buccaneers had their fair share of blackouts in 2010, despite the team's improved performance. There are plenty of reasons for this, not the least of which being the above average ticket prices in an economically depressed community by the Glaziers.
Should there be a season in 2011, I expect that this issue will be resolved, and it will not be a problem going forward. Two of the eight games are guaranteed not to be blacked out (the London tilt with the Chicago Bears and the Monday Night Football matchup with the Colts), which helps their cause to begin with.
That aside, the (implied) resolution of the blackout should bring the fans back to Raymond James Stadium in droves, which will eliminate the blackouts and make Tampa a much happier community.
Is there a more frustrating team than the Atlanta Falcons?
I mean, they aren't that good. Matt Ryan is clutch, yet average. Roddy White is a star, but the Falcons lack a No. 2 threat, and Michael Turner gets just enough yards per carry to be effective.
They are maddeningly consistent. Despite a host of close calls, the Falcons went 13-3, winning the NFC South in the process. They were exposed in the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers, looking overmatched in the process.
The Bucs have lost five straight against the Falcons dating back to early 2008, despite the fact that they were in each of these games. The last two, in 2010, were both frustrating (there's that word again) as Tampa came within inches of capturing both games.
If LeGarrette Blount used his body better, or if the replay overturned Brent Grimes' late-game interception, the 2010 story could have been oh-so-different.
Both contests in 2011 should be nail-biting affairs, but expect the Buccaneers to finally defeat one of their most heated rivals.
Josh Freeman does not get the attention he deserves nationally, but I am sure he is just fine flying under the radar.
After throwing for 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions, along with a 95.9 QB rating, Freeman made an amazing leap in his sophomore season. Only Tom Brady had fewer interceptions per pass attempts in the entire league, justifying all the confidence management has in their franchise player.
This season should see more of the same from Freeman. Aside from Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, the NFC is void of elite QB's. Look for Freeman to put up some excellent statistics in 2011 and make his first (of many) trips to the Pro Bowl.
Here it is, the boldest prediction of them all.
The Buccaneers have not won a playoff game since capturing the Superbowl after the 2002 season. Given the topsy-turvy nature of the league, that much of a drought is inexcusable. The Bucs have had a myriad of problems since the early 2000s (we know all of them by now), but have finally appeared to turn a corner and look ready to be a contender for the next five years.
The roster is filled with young talented players led by very smart people in the decision-making departments. Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik have laid out a blueprint for success (draft a QB in the first round and pray that he's good) that has the Bucs on the cusp of something special.
The ride could take a few surprising turns in 2011, but expect the Bucs to qualify for the postseason and win their first playoff game in nine seasons.