31 Days, 31 Teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
By Jeff Falconio
Heading into week 14 last year the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 9-3 and tied with Carolina for the NFC South lead. The two teams met in a crucial Monday night game that the Panthers won going away, 38-23. From there the season unraveled as the Bucs lost their remaining three games and went from having the third best record in the NFC to out of the playoffs.
The collapse led to sweeping changes within the organization, including the firing of coach Jon Gruden and the release of quarterback Jeff Garcia and longtime linebacker Derrick Brooks. Tampa Bay named Raheem Morris coach and used their first round pick on raw but athletic Josh Freeman to be the quarterback of the future. Morris wants an offense that will run more so the Bucs went after Derrick Ward in the offseason to replace aging Warrick Dunn. In another move the Bucs did not re-sign Joey Galloway and will instead rely on Antonio Bryant, who racked up 1,248 receiving yards to go with seven scores.
Tampa Bay has long been a solid defensive team and 2008 was no exception but a big part of the December slide was the lack of defense. After that Monday night loss the Bucs gave up 85 points in the final three games. Tampa Bay finished 19th against the run and the Bucs got ripped on the ground in the final month, giving up 186 yards to DeAngelo Williams, 152 to Michael Turner and 177 to Michael Bush. The Bucs used two early picks on defensive linemen and are hoping for more contributions from young players like Gaines Adams.
Burning Question: Who is the quarterback? While using that first pick on Freeman the Bucs also signed Byron Leftwich away from Pittsburgh and brought back Luke McCown. At this point it appears Leftwich and McCown will battle for the start while Freeman gets groomed in. The Bucs have never really wowed anyone with their quarterbacks but for Tampa Bay to remain competitive they'll need solid numbers from whoever becomes the number one QB.
The Bucs will be better than last year if: Ward becomes at least a 1,000 yard back while getting decent production from Earnest Graham and Cadillac Williams. Bryant surpasses the numbers he put up in '08 as either Leftwich or McCown takes control of the offense. The front seven, without Brooks as their leader, settles in and improves against the run. It's always hard to gage the NFC South but the talent is still there to win the division.
The Bucs will be worse than last year if: The new offense struggles as neither Ward nor Graham can gain any traction. Bryant's knee injury lingers into the regular season and no one else becomes a legitimate pass catching threat. Tampa Bay is forced to use a revolving door at quarterback, eventually throwing Freeman into the fire before he's ready. With four of the last six games on the road the Bucs suffer another late season slide and finish below .500.