Every year there is at least one team that comes out of nowhere to make the playoffs.
This team flies under the radar, ignored by prognosticators and so-called “experts”, who make their picks largely based on last season’s results more than the changes made to the current roster.
In 2011, that team was undoubtedly the San Francisco 49ers. This season, it will be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tampa is widely being picked to finish last in the NFC South this season.
The common line of thought is that division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans will remain in the thick of the playoff race, while Carolina is a team on the rise due to last year’s Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton.
Most believe Tampa has improved on paper with several big ticket free agents, but think that it will not be enough to move upwards in the division.
This does not take into account the biggest change Tampa Bay made this offseason. Like the 2011 Niners, the Bucs enter this season with a new head coach. Like Jim Harbaugh, Bucs coach Greg Schiano is an energetic presence and disciplinarian: exactly what the doctor ordered for his new team. By all accounts, he has already done wonders to turn the team’s poisonous locker-room culture.
His predecessor, Raheem Morris, was widely known as a “players coach” and reportedly ran a loose ship; a strategy which backfired during the season ending 10-game losing streak that cost Morris his job. Schiano has implemented far more structure and accountability during his short time at the helm and, judging by the players public comments, has been met with almost unanimously positive feedback.
The lone dissenter, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., was shipped out of town for a seventh round pick, a move signifying that last year’s lackadaisical finish will not be tolerated. It was telling that not a single player spoke up in defense of Winslow, despite his 75 catches and 763 yards last year.
Those quick to dismiss the Bucs have forgotten that Tampa isn’t a team without talent. They had a winning record as recently as 2010, and started last season 4-2 (including wins over Atlanta and New Orleans) before the wheels came off. All of 2010’s promising young core remains: QB Josh Freeman, WR’s Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, RB LeGarrette Blount, CB Aqib Talib and DE Gerald McCoy.
It’s true that these players all underachieved in 2011, but that can partially be attributed to the negative locker room culture, something that stands to change under Schiano's leadership. These players know that they are much better than they played last year, and Schiano is pushing them far harder than Morris ever did. If even half those aforementioned players return to form, this team will be much improved.
This does not factor in the additions Tampa has made to its roster. The Bucs were an unexpected spender in free agency, bringing in big-play wide receiver Vincent Jackson and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks. Jackson might be the best receiver in the franchise’s history, boasting a combination of size and downfield speed that stretches defenses downfield.
His mere presence on the field will make things easier for everyone on offense, especially the talented Freeman. Likewise, Nicks is a stud. His addition should upgrade the pass protection and running game noticeably. They also added Boise State RB Doug Martin to their offense via the Draft. Martin provides more versatility than Blount, with the pass-catching ability to become a valuable safety valve for Freeman.
Tampa fortified it’s secondary in the spring by adding Alabama safety Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick in the Draft. Barron was widely considered one of the most sure-fire picks in the entire Draft; a hard-working and athletic playmaker who is expected to come in and immediately contribute in the NFL.
They also added CB Eric Wright, a skilled player who intercepted four passes while starting for Detroit last year. The secondary should also improve if the young and talented defensive line (including first round picks Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy) takes an expected leap this year. If the offense plays to potential, the defense won’t have to be great. However, improvement from last year’s dismal showing is necessary and expected.
Another factor that could favor a quick turnaround in Tampa Bay is their schedule, which ranks as the 27th
hardest in the league. Of course, this ranking is based on records from 2011, but Tampa will likely face an easier slate than they did last year.
A few more winnable games (such as slotted match-ups with doormats St. Louis and Minnesota) can make a big difference in the season, creating momentum that will help them fare better against teams like Atlanta and New Orleans.
Finally, history is on their side. The NFC South has been notorious for turnover since its creation in 2002. The division saw five consecutive seasons (2003-2007) in which the previous season’s last place team rebounded to finish first the next year. This streak was snapped in 2008, but 2007’s cellar dweller Atlanta still finished second and made the playoffs as a wild card team.
In 2009, New Orleans repeated the feat, going from 8-8 to 13-3. The 2010 Bucs were actually the first team in seven seasons that didn’t rebound from a last place season to make the playoffs; however, they narrowly missed a Wild Card berth due to tiebreakers and had a seven-game improvement from the previous season.
Despite the hype over Carolina and Cam Newton, they actually had the smallest improvement record-wise from a last place finish the division has seen since its inception.
In short, Tampa Bay has replaced the biggest culprit for last season’s disaster (Raheem Morris) with a fiery new head coach guaranteed to bring the discipline and accountability that could have averted 2011’s tailspin. They have also added two proven impact players to a roster that recently challenged for a playoff spot.
Playing in a division that has gotten worse, not better, I fail to see how Tampa will not make a major turnaround this season. Don’t be surprised to see them in the thick of the playoff race come December.