With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
It's fitting that the Buccaneers' breakdown comes just a day after we looked at the St. Louis Rams, because the storyline was pretty similar for both teams in 2011 -- surprising 2010 turnaround team with promising young talent enters the season with great hype, things go very badly, coach gets fired.
But there are some differences to the Bucs' situation. For one, the Rams had one problematic side of the ball (offense), while the Bucs were woeful no matter what unit was on the field, save special teams. And in St. Louis, Steve Spagnuolo was considered more collateral damage than the primary cause of the Rams' collapse; they were bad, he had to go, but Spagnuolo came out of the situation with his reputation still pretty well in tact.
On the other hand, Raheem Morris' bluster, and inability to control his team's attitude, is considered chief among the reasons the Bucs couldn't live up to expectations last year. The roster boasted a number of problem children, big and small, and the young Morris couldn't rein them all in. It's telling that now-departed Jeff Faine praised Morris as a coach, but mentioned that he needs to be in charge of a veteran team -- one where he can worry more about actual coaching and less about playing ringleader in the middle of a circus.
The Bucs looked poised to deliver on their promise early in the year, when they got off to a 4-2 start, including wins over the Falcons and Saints. And then they rattled off a ridiculous 10 straight losses. As the Ls piled up, the team clearly packed it in, losing by an average of 23 points in its final five games.
So in comes Greg Schiano, who the Glazer family hopes can whip the Bucs' young, brash roster into shape not just on the field, but also off of it.
2011 Record: 4-12 (fourth in NFC South)
Key Additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright, TE Dallas Clark, S Mark Barron, RB Doug Martin, LB Lavonte David
Key Subtractions: QB Josh Johnson, TE Kellen Winslow
Team Strengths: OL, RB, DL
Team Weaknesses: LB, DB
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Josh Freeman get the offense back on track?: What went wrong for Freeman in 2011? A couple of things. One was a lack of pocket awareness on his part -- he took 29 sacks in 2011, with nine fumbles (five of which were lost), and not all of that is on the Bucs' offensive line. He also struggled with his accuracy at times.
The other issue is that Freeman didn't get any help from his friends. There was a distinct lack of playmakers last season, especially when Mike Williams decided to mail it in after a stellar rookie year. LeGarrette Blount was fine in the backfield for the most part, but he's not a game-breaker, and he had his own struggles with ball security.
This offseason saw the high-profile addition of Vincent Jackson, and the Bucs traded back into the first round at the draft to take Doug Martin to give Freeman some help. Whether Jackson is truly an elite receiver can be argued, but he's a definite upgrade and allows Williams to move to flanker. Williams has vowed to rebound this season, and it seems as if he's picking up some good habits from Jackson, which will go a long way toward giving Freeman a competent duo to throw to.
Martin, meanwhile, brings the explosiveness that Blount lacks, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him turn into the primary back with Blount coming in in short-yardage situations and late in games to wear defenses out if the Bucs are protecting the lead. And this is to say nothing of the signing of Carl Nicks, who not only adds a lot of talent to the offensive line, but also allows the team to kick Jeremy Zuttah to center, creating a positive domino effect up front.
Freeman had his good moments in 2011, and he's still a talented, promising passer. He, and the players around him, should be better this season ...
2. Will the secondary be able to stop anyone?: ... If only the same could be said for the Bucs' secondary, which allowed a second-to-last 8.2 passing yards per attempt against. Schiano would probably love to jettison Aqib Talib and all the woes he brings off the field, but that's impossible because the team simply couldn't survive without him.
Eric Wright was brought in this offseason for way, way more money than he's worth and should start opposite Talib at corner. This is not a positive. And then there's former corner Ronde Barber, who at 37 will be asked to go the way of Aeneas Williams and others before him to use his mind for the game and ability to read the quarterback at safety, where the shortcomings of his age will be less evident. Barber was brutal in 2011, and in a league that boasts some high-powered multi-receiver sets, it's a stretch to believe the move will aid him very much.
The addition of Mark Barron at No. 7 overall will help. He's a smart and instinctive player and a good tackler, but playing in coverage isn't where he excels. Add it up and the pass defense will struggle again, mightily, this season. And that's counting on Talib to play 16 games, which may not happen if the league decides to suspend him for his past transgressions (a suspension is a definite if he gets into trouble again).
3. Can Greg Schiano change the culture in the locker room?: Schiano was a surprising choice to run the Bucs, but given his pedigree and no-nonsense reputation in leading the Rutgers program, it makes sense. Schiano has clearly made it a point to instill some discipline into the Bucs. Gone are Kellen Winslow, Albert Haynesworth and Tanard Jackson. (The fact that he was comfortable downgrading so much at tight end, from Winslow to Dallas Clark, emphasizes that point and, again, if there were any way he could live without Talib, he'd be gone too).
More than anything, Schiano was brought in for structure and discipline. Will the Bucs respond, or will they, uh, buck Schiano's controlling ways? After being pumped up by Morris' bravado, it must have been a wake-up call to the players losing the final 10 games of the season. They've seen what happens when they cut corners and lose sight of fundamentals. Schiano won't let them do that, and the harrowing experience of last season should have the players more receptive to the coach's message.
Unfortunately, the Bucs are in a very good division that still has the Saints (despite the bounty fallout) and Falcons at the top, and a very promising Panthers team that could be a force sooner than later. They open the season against those Panthers, and will get an immediate taste of where they stack up in the NFC with tilts against the Giants and Cowboys after that.
Tampa Bay won the beginning of free agency, reeling in Jackson and Nicks on those huge deals, but as Dan Snyder can attest, winning free agency does not translate to wins on Sundays. Still, there's talent on this team, and Schiano's coaching should do wonders (the Bucs lost at least three games just on sloppy mistakes alone last year). But it's hard to call them a threat to win the NFC South as long as that secondary leaks, something that should happen often this season.
The Bucs are a lot closer to the 2010 version than the 2011, especially if they buy in to what their new coach is saying. That won't be enough to get them into the playoffs, but it's a nice step up after last season's disaster nonetheless. – Tom Mantzouranis