2008 Record: 9-7
The 2009 Preview begins with the most important piece of information EVER. Tampa Bay will wear the creamsicle jerseys on November 8 against Green Bay.
Tampa Bay cleaned house after a winless December, including losing to Oakland in the finale (where a win would have gotten them into the playoffs). Gone is John Gruden who led the team the franchise's first Super Bowl victory in 2002. Gone is starting quarterback Jeff Garcia. Gone is backup quarterback Brian Griese. Gone is last year's leading rusher Warrick Dunn. Gone is Joey Galloway.
So what's new in Tampa since Pittsburgh hoisted the Super Bowl trophy there six months ago? Head Coach Raheem Morris is in. Byron Leftwich was brought in from the aforementioned Super Bowl Champions to compete for the starting quarterback job with Luke McCown. The Bucs drafted Josh Freeman (QB-Kansas State) in the first round of the draft. However, Freeman came out early and is still very rough around the edges. They could throw him into the fray, but Morris is trying to install a West Coast offense-style passing game, and this will take some time for Freeman to learn. Reportedly, coaches aren't thrilled with Leftwich's "long release time" and how it relates to the WCO. This means that McCown, who is 1-6 as a starter and hasn't completed a pass since 2007, and has a career TD:INT ratio of 9:10 has the inside track on being the starter.
If things didn't look bad enough in Tampa, #2 receiver Michael Clayton, not to be confused with the more inspiring, Oscar-nominated, George Clooney character, went down with an injury in practice today. This leaves the aging Antonio Bryant as the only viable threat in the passing game. The Browns did bring in Kellen Winslow, but honestly, what threat is an offense where your #1 target is your tight end?
The Bucs backfield is a managerie of injuries and former backups. Derrick Ward will likely step into the starting spot after being picked up in free agency from the New York Giants. Ernest Graham, who plays more physical than Ward (but has had injury problems) will also see time. Don't count out Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who has battled through multiple knee injuries and is really out to prove something (or not make the team, but with the lack of a true #1, he probably will make it). Tampa's O-line was quite average last season, finishin 16th in sacks allowed (32) and 15th in rushing yards. Nothing really special happens here, but they are decent enough to get the job done. Center Jeff Faine has turned some heads, but he is probably the only standout player on the line.
On defense, the name of the game is turnovers, particularly interceptions. Tampa was 5th in the league with 30 takeaways last season, 22 of those INTs. Perennial Pro Bowl Corner Rhonde Barber and former first round pick Aqib Talib led the team with 4 picks each. Tampa will have to replace starter Philip Buchanon who left in free agency for Detroit, but Talib has the experience and play-making ability to step in. Tampa has a very solid secondary, boasting the #4 pass defense last season. For as good as their pass defense was, their run defense was equally as bad. Tampa gave up 1900 rushing yards. Gaines Adams, another former first round pick, still needs to show more. He led the team in sacks last year, but only posted 6 1/2. Tampa brought in LB Angelo Crowell from Buffalo to replace the departed Cato June. Barrett Rudd is a solid middle linebacker, but Tampa has a huge hole at the other linebacking spot.
The pass defense is good, but this team can be gutted by the run, as evidenced by the fact that they gave up over 100 yards to teams 10 times last season, including 158 to Chicago, 183 to Kansas City, 299 to Carolina, 175 to Atlanta, and 192 to Oakland. What might be more troublesome for Tampa is that the latter 3 came in the last four games in the season, all of which were losses. In fact, Tampa surrendered 756 rush yards over their final four games. They didn't do much in the offseason to address the run defense, and with Carolina and Atlanta in their division, it might be a long year for the Bucs.
Tampa out-rushed their opponents 9 times last year, posting a 6-3 record in those games. Talking about Tampa's passing success last season is pretty worthless as it relates to this year, because they completely gutted their passing game. Tampa was the 5th oldest team in the league last year, and their roster-slashing was one attempt to get a bit younger. It's going to take some time under Raheem Morris, but don't give up on them yet. They have a young quarterback to train and build around, the question will just be how long it takes to get him up to speed and on the field.
Ian's Prediction: 5-11
This might be a little generous for Tampa Bay, but they have the defense to keep them in games, but there offense really doesn't bring much excitement. Tampa faces the NFC East and AFC East this year, in addition to the NFC South, meaning they really don't have any "easy" games on the schedule. Tampa's prime time performance comes when they travel to England to take on the Patriots in the Wimbley game in October. Before Wimbley, Tampa has @WAS, @PHI, CAR, meaning they could be riding a 4+ game losing streak heading into the bye. Tampa also has division opponents in 5 of their last 7 games, including a stretch of 3 in a row (including consecutive away games at Atlanta and at Carolina) at the end of November. This is a rebuilding year for Tampa, and it won't be surprising to see them back at the top of the draft board next year.