Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans have plenty to be thankful for this year: namely, they're thankful that rookie head coach Greg Schiano has instantly ignited a fire under a team that gutlessly quit on coach Raheem Morris in 2011.
If the Cold, Hard Football Facts had a vote, Schiano is already our leading candidate for NFL coach of the year and likely to win in a landslide.
Schiano, in his first year as an NFL coach, has produced one of the more dramatic turnarounds in recent league history, from the defenseless 4-12 team of 2011 to the explosive 6-4 club of 2012.
He is this year's version of Jim Harbaugh, who turned the 6-10 49ers of 2010 into the 13-3 49ers of 2011 and a powerful Super Bowl contender here in 2012.
Schiano's Buccaneers probably started with less than Harbaugh's 49ers, too, considering the state of the team at the end of 2011. But right now he has the chance -- albeit a long one -- to produce a similarly spectacular turnaround this season and even lead Tampa to the playoffs in the tough NFC.
Tampa Bay has ripped off four straight victories, including a particularly impressive 36-17 victory at Minnesota in the Thursday night tilt back in Week 8 that launched the win streak. The Bucs proved they have mental make-up of a winner in their most recent victory, 27-21 at Carolina on Sunday.
Tampa trailed 21-10 in the fourth quarter, but rallied for 11 points capped by a pair of Josh Freeman-to-Vincent Jackson passing plays at the end of regulation: the first a 24-yard touchdown followed by 2-point connection to force overtime. Freeman then hit Dallas Clark with the 15-yard game-winning score in the extra session.
The four-game streak is a far cry from the team we saw at the end of 2011 -- a hopeless club that appeared to die on the vine over the last two months of the season.
Tampa was 4-2 at one point last year, then proceeded to lose its final 10 games -- each seemingly uglier than the other. Tampa lost its final five outings by 19, 27, 16, 32 and 21 points, respectively.
The turnaround between the soft Bucs of 2011 and the eat-nuts-and-bolts-for-breakfast Bucs of 2012 is evident when we size up the two teams side by side in our Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stats, as well as in a few other commonly used indicators. (The first number is league-wide rank; the number in parenthesis is the total for that category.)
There are three obvious keys to the turnaround when you size up the 2011 and 2012 Bucs side by side.
1. Josh Freeman
Winning and losing in the NFL almost always begins and ends with the quarterback. And the Bucs are no exception.
The team had the look of a winner in 2010, Freeman's sophomore season. He was quietly one of the most efficient passers in football. He fell apart, along with the rest of the team, in 2011.
But now he's improved dramatically in 2011: Tampa is quietly a top-10 team in those indicators of passing efficiency that prove the difference between victory and defeat week in and week out.
Here's a look at Freeman's performance of the past three seasons. Pay particular attention to the efficiency indicators such as yards per attempt, TD-INT ratio and passer rating.
It's proficiency in these numbers, not volume numbers such as attempts, completions and yards, that separate winners from losers in NFL play.
Like pretty much every other team in football history, the Bucs live and die on the efficiency of their quarterback.
Schiano has taken the highly inefficient Freeman of 2011 and turned him back into the hugely efficient passer we saw in 2010.
Freeman has posted a passer rating of 104-plus in five of the last six games, the best stretch of efficiency in his career.
2. An explosive two-pronged offensive attack
Freeman has not done it alone. Running back Doug Martin is a very strong candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
He's already rushed for 1,000 yards -- on the button -- through 10 games, while catching 27 balls out of the backfield.
It's one thing to rush for 1,000 yards, but Martin has done it with just 197 rush attempts. His average of 5.1 YPA puts him in elite company.
Only 11 rookies in NFL history have topped 1,000 yards with an average of better than 5.0 YPA. Two of them were Franco Harris and Barry Sanders. Of course, a word of caution, too: one of them was LeGarrette Blount (201 for 1,007, 5.01 YPA) for the Bucs in 2010.
Still, it's great production from Martin.
Wide receiver Vincent Jackson, meanwhile, has proven a great acquisition from San Diego. He leads the Bucs with 42 catches for 863 yards and 7 TD receptions, and leads all NFL receivers with an impressive 20.5 yards per catch -- a number you rarely see in this day and age of low-risk, high-percentage passing attacks.
Add it all up and it gives Tampa one of the most explosive offenses in football: only Tom Brady's Patriots, Peyton Manning's Broncos and the powerful Houston Texans have scored more points than the Bucs this year.
3. Defense. Defense. Defense.
Schiano's greatest work has been on the defensive side of the ball.
The 2011 Buccaneers surrendered 494 points, shattering the previous franchise record for ineptitude set by the 2-14 Bucs of 1986 (473).
And they posted the worst Defensive Passer Rating in franchise history (97.21). For a little perspective, the Super Bowl champion 2002 Bucs posted a Defensive Passer Rating of less than half that number (48.4).
The 2012 team is more than a touchdown better per game in scoring defense (30.9 vs. 23.0) and has improved from the worst pass defense in franchise history in 2011 to a respectable No. 16 league-wide in Defensive Passer Rating in 2012 (88.9)
But the biggest improvements are on the defensive line.
Tampa Bay was dead last on the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index in 2011 -- the worst defensive front in football. They are No. 12 today.
More dramatically, the Bucs were No. 31 in run defense in 2011, joining the very short list of teams in NFL history that surrendered more than 5.0 YPA on the ground (5.01).
The 2012 Bucs are No. 1 in run defense, surrendering a paltry 3.41 YPA.
Schiano's new-attitude defense wasted no time enforcing its will on an opponent right out of the gates of the 2012 season.
Carolina was a big favorite over Tampa in Week 1, thanks to the brilliant dual-threat talents of quarterback Cam Newton and the team's typically powerful running game in recent years. When you looked at the state of Tampa's defense at the end of 2011, it seemed like a fairly obvious win for the Panthers.
But the Bucs quickly took control of the game. In fact, they embarrassed the Carolina offense.
The Panthers ran the ball 10 times for just 13 yards. It was a statement performance by Schiano's defense: it let the football world know that the Bucs weren't going to get pushed around and roll over like they did in 2011.
Now comes the tough part: a chance for Tampa to prove it's truly a contender in 2012. The schedule gets much tougher the rest of the way.
The Buccaneers host the 9-1 Falcons on Sunday and then welcome Manning and the Broncos in Week 13. They also visit Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 15 (the last team to beat Tampa) and close out the season with a visit to Atlanta.