The Buccaneers’ heartbreaking, last-minute loss to the Saints last Sunday loosed a river of unhappy e-mails into the Answer Man’s in-box. Some were rather aggressively impolite (don’t worry, I can handle it) and some were merely disheartened. Buc fans are accepting the fact that the team’s 2004 playoff hopes are all but gone, but not all of them are accepting it very easily.
There was one particularly tortured (and yes, a bit outraged) missive from a Wess Jacobs in Fort Myers, Florida. Wess vented (and then thanked me for giving him a chance to do so) and also conceded that the Answer Man “won't, can't and shouldn't print this.”
Well, Wess, you’re mostly right. The Answer Man isn’t going to print your rant, as I’m not sure what could be gained from it. Obviously, just putting it down in words was somewhat cathartic for you, and that’s good. Let’s leave it at that.
However, I am going to print the first few sentences of your letter, because I think it’s worth discussing. The excerpt:
Why do we run the ball on 1st down every time? Pittman off guard for two yards, Pittman off tackle for no gain, incomplete pass, punt.
I pulled that part out, Wess, because it didn’t ring true to me. I wasn’t sure that I agreed that the Bucs overwhelmingly tend to favor the run on first down. So I went through several of the play-by-plays to see if I was right.
I don’t know, but I would suspect that your feeling on this issue stems from the last game, Wess. With a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were running on almost all downs. That’s a common strategy when the clock is a team’s main enemy; it’s called a four-minute drill, and the Bucs did it successfully in their first game against New Orleans, a win.
It’s fair to include last Sunday’s game in our study, but we should also include several other games to cover different types of situations. I picked four games, including last Sunday’s loss. That one covers the situation of the Bucs being ahead in the second half. I picked the Oakland game because the opposition was ahead in the second half. And I picked two games where neither team was well ahead at any point, two games that went down to the wire. One was a Buc loss – at Carolina – and one was a Buc win - at home against Kansas City.
I then charted all the first-down play calls by both teams in those four games. I included plays that were fully executed but then erased by penalties because, after all, it’s the play call that we’re concerned about here.
Here’s what I found:
- New Orleans (12/19)…The Bucs ran the ball on 19 of 25 first downs, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on those 19 runs. The Saints ran the ball on 14 of 24 first downs, averaging 2.2 yards per carry.
- Oakland (9/26)…The Bucs ran the ball on 10 of 28 first downs, averaging five yards per carry (that average is skewed in the Bucs’ favor by a 32-yard run by Mike Alstott on the last play of the game). The Raiders ran the ball on 18 of 33 first downs, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
- Carolina (11/28)…The Bucs ran the ball on 15 of 29 first downs, averaging 2.0 yards per carry. The Panthers ran the ball on 11 of 23 first downs, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
- Kansas City (11/7)…The Bucs ran the ball on 11 of 28 first downs, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. The Chiefs ran the ball on 15 of 34 first downs, averaging 1.9 yards per carry.
Interpret those numbers as you like. That’s not an exhaustive study, but it seems like a pretty representative cross-section of games.
And it appears to the Answer Man that there is no clear pattern of favoring the run on first down overwhelmingly. Only in the New Orleans game, in which the Bucs had a lead for most of the second half and had their most productive rushing game of the season, did the Bucs run on significantly more than half of their first down plays.
There is a concept in sociology called the “confirmation bias,” which postulates that we tend to selectively notice evidence that supports the things we already believe or want to be true, while ignoring evidence that would seem to contradict our beliefs.
I’m not saying that specifically to you, Wess…I don’t know how closely you’ve actually looked at the numbers or even if you are right or wrong in your belief, despite the bit of research above. It would be unfair of me to make any such assumptions about your feelings, or to suggest that you are wrong to be frustrated. I bring it up because I know that I am guilty of the confirmation bias all the time. I’m sure every fellow driver on my way home from work is not driving like a maniac or an idiot, but when I get home, I sure don’t remember seeing any calm, respectful drivers.
Sports are an emotional business and we evaluate them emotionally. That’s not a bad thing, it just is. But it doesn’t always lend itself to objective analysis.
The point? This has most definitely been a disappointing season for the Buccaneers, but the run-pass ratio of play-calling on first down is probably not the reason why, in my humble opinion.
Okay, that was fun. Now on to the questions I feel comfortable printing in their entirety.
1. Mike Knorowski of Safety Harbor, Florida asks:
My friend and I had an argument the other day, it was about the Bucs’ uniforms. We both like the way the Bucs look in the White pants with the red shirt, but we had differing opinions on the actual win/loss record. Can you tell us what the actual win/loss record is for the games that the BUCS have worn this combo?? My friend thinks that they are undefeated.
Answer Man: Mike, your friend’s instincts are good, but he’s just a bit too optimistic. The Bucs are 8-3 all-time when wearing the red jersey/white pants combination (for this and all following numbers, I included only regular season and playoff games, not preseason games).
That is the best record, in terms of percentage, for the Bucs in any of the four combinations they’ve worn since unveiling their new colors and unis in 1997. Overall, the team has had a higher rate of success in red jerseys than white. Here’s the chart:
|Red Jersey, White Pants||8||3||0||72.7%|
|Red Jersey, Pewter Pants||27||13||0||67.5%|
|White Jersey, Pewter Pants||41||39||0||51.3%|
|White Jersey, White Pants||2||2||0||50.0%|
Overall, that’s a record of 35-16 in red jerseys and 43-41 in white jerseys.
Now, the Answer Man knows what you’re thinking, and I don’t even have to use my telepathic powers. But before you start an e-mail campaign urging the Bucs to wear red jerseys every game, let’s consider a few things:
1. Sample size. It’s hard to know if four games, or even 11, legitimately tells you anything. If the Bucs went white-on-white for two more games and won them both, their success rate in that combo would be up to 66.7%. 2. Cause and effect. The Bucs were very good at home from 1997-2002, and they were particularly strong late in the season most years. Late-season home games are almost always red-jersey games. The Bucs usually wear white at home through the first half of the season or so, to combat the heat, and then switch to red when it cools down a bit in Tampa. 3. Choice. The Bucs can wear white or pewter pants at their discretion. However, they are at the mercy of their opponents on the road. If the home team chooses to wear white (or light) jerseys, the Bucs have to go to their darker ones, and vice versa.
All in all, I would call this a very interesting note, but not necessarily one with deep significance.
By the way, the last time the Bucs wore red jerseys over white pants was September 15, 2002, a 25-0 win at Baltimore. The last white-on-white experience was the week before that, a 23-20 overtime loss at home to New Orleans.
2. Mark of St. Petersburg, Florida asks:
Congratulations to Simeon Rice on his 100th (and 101st) sack. From watching him, it seems to me that Simeon has a lot of "unconventional" sacks - instead of tackling the QB, he often swats the ball out of his hands. A much better play. My question is: Is there any way to find out what percentage of Simeon's sacks have caused fumbles? Stats are kept for both sacks and forced fumbles, but presumably Simeon could have caused a running back to fumble in the same game...
Answer Man: Mark, I’m afraid I’m only going to be able to meet you halfway here. That is, I can give you the answer for Rice’s four seasons here in Tampa, but I don’t have access to such breakdowns for his five years in Arizona.
Two other notes before we get started: 1) This e-mail came in before the San Diego and New Orleans games, so Rice’s career sack total is now up to 105, and 2) While it’s true that forced fumbles are attributed to certain players by the stat crew during games, they are not an official statistic kept by the league. Fumble recoveries are, forced fumbles are not. Forced fumbles are unofficial stats kept team by team.
That really doesn’t slow us down here, though. Rice has 15 forced fumbles in 62 games as a Buccaneer, a very impressive number. Of those 15 forced fumbles, 15 have come on sacks of the quarterback. Now, let me see, using my radioactively-enhanced division skills, I come up with a percentage of…100.
Yep, as you probably guessed, Mark, all 15 of Simeon’s forced fumbles as a Buccaneer have come as the result of sacks. We can’t say conclusively how many of his 12 forced fumbles in five years in Arizona were the results of sacks, but we can make an educated guess. Looking at the game-by-game statistics, we see that every single one of those sacks came in games in which Rice had at least one sack. However, in the Cardinals’ 1999 season opener at Philly, Rice was credited with three forced fumbles but only two sacks. Presumably, that means he got at least one forced fumble on a play that was not a sack. We wouldn’t be surprised if the overall number, though, was 26 of 27.
One other comment on your choice of words, Mark. You called the ‘swat’ type of sack “unconventional,” and I won’t argue with that. However, it is certainly not unusual or unique to Rice’s game. That is a technique that is taught to every Buccaneer defensive linemen, and probably to just about all pass-rushers in the league. The idea is to do both; if you’re closing in for the sack, as you reach the quarterback, swat at his arm as you put your arms around him. If you knock the ball out, mission accomplished; if not, then you still get the sack the “conventional” way.
Buccaneer linemen run a drill through a series of tackling dummies during almost every practice. They “rip” their way through four dummies, then turn the corner and close in on the QB dummy, which is equipped with an arm sticking out from the “body” of the dummy like an inverted L. Linemen are required to swat the arm down as they are rushing over the dummy.
Of course, Rice is particularly good at this, thanks to his ridiculous wingspan and his amazing closing speed. But all defensive players want to do this. Greg Spires did it just last weekend, and you might recall Ronde Barber doing it to Donovan McNabb in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. In Barber’s case, he was flying behind and past McNabb and really had only that shot to make a play.
3. Brenda Robinson of Fort Worth, Texas asks:
Why do quarterbacks lick their fingers all the time and, if there's any way to find out, who was the one who started this rather filthy habit?
Answer Man: Who started the finger-licking business? Who knows? That kind of thing isn’t really recorded in NFL history.
It’s no mystery what it’s all about, however: Grip. Quarterbacks lick their fingers because they believe it gives them a better grip on the ball. Some wipe sweat off their faces for the same effect. The Buccaneer QB we asked – we’ll leave him nameless since you think the habit is so filthy - says the full maneuver is to lick the fingers, then wipe them on the towel. That way, you get the extra ‘tack’ without the fingers being slippery.
None of that was any great revelation. However, this passer did clue us in to a little detail about finger-licking that we hadn’t thought of before. Namely, if you’re going to lick your fingers, you have to do it before every snap, not just the ones on which you’re about to throw. Otherwise, the defense will notice you doing it and know the coming play is a pass.
That’s the value of experience.
4. Peggy DuCharme of Glasgow, Scotland asks:
Hey Answer Man - just a little info please. Each helmet in the NFL has an American flag on the back. There is something written below the flag - can you focus in and tell me what it says?
Answer Man: Well, Peggy, that particular sticker to which you refer is actually situated next to the American flag on Buccaneer helmets, not under it. But no matter.
The sticker contains a little paragraph of text meant as a warning to the dangers of misuse of the helmet. We know this because the first word, and probably the only one you could ever make out on a television close-up, is “Warning.”
Underneath that larger, bold word is small type running down the dangers of using the helmet to strike your opponent in a ‘spearing’ manner, both to the wearer of the helmet and the player struck. Here’s how it reads:
“Do not use this helmet to butt, ram or spear an opposing player. This is in violation of the football rules and can result in severe head, brain or neck injury, paralysis or death to you and possible injury to your opponent. There is a risk these injuries may also occur as a result of accidental contact without intent to butt, ram or spear.”
Finally, in all caps, the sticker reads: “NO HELMET CAN PREVENT ALL SUCH INJURIES.”
5. Zach Morris of Salem (what, Oregon? Massachusetts? Virginia? New Hampshire…the Answer Man repeats his plea to include state abbreviations with the name of your town) asks:
hey answer man i've got a question regarding injured reserve. If a team (like the Cardinals) puts a player (like Dexter Jackson) on IR and then releases him, is he removed from IR? When the Buccaneers claimed Mr. Jackson was he available for use this season, or do we have to wait til next year?
Answer Man: No offense, Zach, but I think the answer to this question might be pretty obvious on Sundays, when Jackson suits up and plays for the Buccaneers. We’ll assume you’ve missed Dex because he’s wearing number 28 this year instead of his customary 34.
Anyway, when a team puts a player on injured reserve they are losing him for the rest of the season. However, if that player subsequently recovers well enough to pass a physical and get his release from the team’s injured reserve, he is then free to sign with another team and start playing immediately. Jackson could not play for the Cardinals in 2004, but he could play for any other team once he had been released.
And Jackson has done that with the Buccaneers, appearing in four games and contributing 15 tackles so far.
6. David Friedberg of Sarasota, Florida asks:
From what I can see the lines drawn on the field are about six inches thick. So where exactly is the plane of the goal area and end zone? On the inside of the goal line, the middle or the farther end. In other words is the goal line part of the field of play or part of the end zone?
Answer Man: Excellent question, David. The goal lines are actually eight inches thick, not six, but the most important thing about them is that they are considered part of the end zone. End zones are 30 feet (10 yards) deep, measured from the edge of the goal line that touches the field of play to the front edge of the end line at the back of the end zone.
So the plane of the end zone begins at the front edge of that goal line. To score, all a player really has to do is get the nose of the football over the front edge of the line. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?
7. Nick Winters of Hamilton, Ontario asks:
Hi Answer Dude. I'm writing you as a disappointed Bucs fan... I'm a long time Tampa fan and I bleed pewter and red... all the way from Canada eh? We've all bled a lot this year and I just wanted to say to the Bucs that I know we're going to get that 2002 fire back in our bellies and light some people up next year.
Now on to my question: I know that Chidi Ahanotu was our designated franchise player in 1999, and that he left the team and went to the Bills (I forget if it was a trade or if he was a free agent). Anyway, because of this we lost our ability to use the franchise tag. I was wondering since Chidi is back with the Bucs, do we get our franchise tag back? If not, then how in the heck do you get your tag back... and why did we lose it in the first place? I guess that's actually 3 questions, but you do seem to write at length so I'm sure you'll do me justice. ... ALSTOTT IS GOD!!
Answer Man: Are you poking fun at the Answer Man’s verbosity, Nick? I could defend myself, but it might take a few page scrolls. Brevity is apparently not one of my superpowers.
Thanks for the encouraging words about 2005, though. I’m not sure the team ever lost its fire, as you suggest, but it has certainly lost a lot more games than expected. The 2005 season is going to be a lot more fun...we both know it.
Now on to my answer: You are correct that Chidi was tagged as the team’s franchise player in 1999. While he had that tag on him, Ahanotu signed a six-year contract. At that point, no matter what happened next, the Bucs “lost” their franchise tag for the next six years. That is, each team gets only one franchise tag and the Bucs made a six-year commitment with theirs on Ahanotu’s contract. That’s binding.
It doesn’t matter if that player is cut, traded or around for the length of that contract. The Bucs released Ahanotu a day before the 2001 draft and he subsequently played for the Rams, Bills, 49ers and Dolphins before returning to Tampa in the middle of this season. The last four years of Ahanotu’s six-year deal were terminated, but the franchise tag is still considered in place until that contract would have expired.
And that will be this coming offseason. The team doesn’t get its tag “back” because Ahanotu has returned; in fact, the tag never left. It was just in use. Beginning with this coming offseason, the Bucs will have a chance to use it again, if so desired. If they tagged a player and he then signed a one-year contract, a fairly common occurrence in the NFL, then the tag would be available again when that contract expired in 2006.
One note: Teams can avoid this by taking the franchise tag off a player before re-signing him. The danger there, of course, is that you are making that player an unrestricted free agent and then he could choose to sign with any team.
8. Kevin Patrick of Atlanta, Georgia asks:
What is the status of injured player William Heller—tight end?
Answer Man: Well, in terms of his playing status for this season, it’s over. When Heller was placed on injured reserve on December 14, that ended his 2004 campaign, a good one for the second-year player who was once a roster long-shot as an undrafted free agent.
As to Heller’s health status, he’s in the early stages of recovery from a hip sprain. That sounds painful, and probably is, but Heller won’t need surgery, so that’s good news. The normal recovery time for an injury such as his is six weeks, which would make him fully healthy about the time the Super Bowl is being played. So he should be ready to resume work with the rest of the team when workouts and mini-camps begin in March.
Alright, we’ll finish, as has become our custom, with a resume-padding string of quickies and repeat questions, beginning with a valid clarification from a respondent who has obviously been a Buc fan for a long time.
Wayne of Lakeland, Florida asks:
Point of clarification, oh great one. In your reply about the quarterback in the 1979 championship game for the Bucs, you replied Doug Williams. Did not, in fact, Williams start the game, but leave with an injury, giving way to Mike Rae? Or am I suffering from a senior moment?
Answer Man: I think I’m the one who was betrayed by a faulty memory, Wayne. You’re absolutely correct. Williams started the game but Rae finished it. Neither had a particularly enjoyable outing in this 9-0 Buc loss dominated by two very good defenses. Both Williams and Rae finished the game with two completions in 13 attempts.
Thanks for the letter, Wayne, and for being a Bucs fan for so long.
Keith G. of Tampa, Florida asks:
On a Fox promo for NFL Sunday, there is a Buc player hitting an opposing receiver, just as he receives a long-throw ball, dislodging the ball. Who is that Buc and who did he hit?
Answer Man: That hard-hitting safety is Dwight Smith, who rather effectively separated Amani Toomer from the ball at the back of the end zone with that hit.
That play came during the Bucs-Giants Monday Night Football game last November 24, won by Tampa Bay, 19-13. Smith not only prevented a touchdown with that well-timed hit on Toomer, but also intercepted another pass into the end zone to turn away a different scoring threat.
PJ Nelson of Baltimore, Maryland asks:
Who was the quarterback for Tampa Bay the year they won the Superbowl and was that year in 2002 or 2003?
Answer Man: It was the 2002 season, though the Super Bowl itself was played on January 26, 2003. The starting quarterback that season, and in the Super Bowl, was Brad Johnson, who set a team record with a 92.9 passer rating in 2002. One note, PJ: Super Bowl should always be written as two words.
Dustin Tuggle of Palmyra (again, where...New York, New Jersey, Syria?) asks:
What has been the best record the buccaneers have had from when the buccaneers started playing in the NFL?
Answer Man: If we’re reading your question properly, Dustin, you’re asking for the best record the Bucs have had in a season in their 29 years in the NFL. Again, that would be 2002. The Bucs went 12-4 that season and, you may have heard, went on to a 15-4 record including the playoffs, concluding in their Super Bowl XXXVII victory.
Nick Lathrop of Westerly, Rhode Island asks:
Dear Answer Man, if a QB throws the ball into the end zone, hits an upright, is the ball still in play, can a TD be caught as well as an INT? Thanks, here's number 2 from Rhode Island.
Answer Man: That last bit from Nick refers to my comment last week that I had received a question from the Ocean State for the first time all season. It seems there’s a seething hotbed of Buc fandom in little Rhode Island.
Thanks for the question, Nick, but we already covered that in Volume 11. Actually, we discussed passes hitting the crossbar, not the uprights, but it’s the same principle. Short answer: Nope. Dead ball.
And that’s it for this week. The Answer Man wishes all Buccaneer fans, even those whose frustration boiled over into my e-mail in-box this week, a happy holiday season.