The Bucs may understand the Bills' pain; they'll be the first since Buffalo in 1994 to play three games in 11 days with two on the road
Just like the NFL Draft, the annual unveiling of the league's schedule inspires a series of snap judgments. And, just as with the NFL Draft, a good percentage of those judgments are forgotten long before they're ever proven wrong.
Grades are handed out to every team mere hours after the draft, despite the fact that not one of the players chosen has played a single snap of professional football. And, as for the schedule, darkness and doom are projected onto matchups that, in the fall, won't play out anything like they are expected to in April.
For instance, which of these two Tampa Bay Buccaneer opponents looked like a tougher test when the 2005 schedule came out last spring: Buffalo in Week Two or Chicago in Week 12? Which one actually was tougher?
Of course, just as with the draft, these snap judgments and the resulting discussions about the schedule will always exist because…well, they're fun. So we debate whether or not three intra-division games in the first four games is a good thing for the Bucs this year, or if the strong chance of cold in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Cleveland in December is a bad thing. We enjoy the debate, forget it and let each game play out as it will. In the long run, player talent, coaching, strategic planning and determination will have a lot more to do with each outcome than the weather or the twists and turns of the schedule.
All of that being said, the Buccaneers' 2006 schedule contains an unexpected twist that looks daunting even to the most skeptical of analysts, if there is one more skeptical than this author. At the very least, it's fair to call this little scheduling nugget a significant challenge, or perhaps an intriguing development.
We refer to what could be the most pivotal week-and-half in the Buccaneers' upcoming schedule, an 11-day, three-game period that culminates in the team's Thanksgiving Day trip to Dallas on November 23. It's worth looking at more closely simply because – as opposed to, say, back-to-back road games in December or a bye week placed in the season's first month – it is really quite rare.
Beginning with a Monday night game at Carolina on November 13, the Buccaneers will play three games in the span of 11 days. Moreover, two of those three games will be on the road, which means the team will travel on four of the 12 days that begin the day before the Monday-nighter.
The Bucs are scheduled to play at home the Sunday after that Monday night game, taking on the Washington Redskins on November 19. Four days later, they'll have to be in Dallas for the holiday capper.
How rare is such a mash-up of games, most of it away from home? The last time any team in the NFL had to play three games in the span of 11 days, with two on the road, was 1994, when such a schedule was visited on the Buffalo Bills. (Other three-games-in-11-day stretches have occurred since 1978, including one for the Cowboys last year, but none included at least two road games.)
In fact, such an 11-day run has happened only three times previously since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The first team to do it was Seattle in 1980, followed by Washington in 1990.
The Bills did it most recently. Their three-game run broke down much like the one the Buccaneers will play this fall. It began with a Monday night game on the road on November 14; in this case a contest at Pittsburgh that Buffalo lost, 23-10. Six days later, the team was at home to play host to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, November 20. They won that one, 29-20. Then, four days later, the Bills were on the road again, providing the opponent for Detroit's traditional home game on Thanksgiving, November 24. The Lions won that one, 35-21.
Seattle went 0-3 during its 11-day challenge in 1980 and the Redskins finished 1-2.
It's likely that the Buccaneers will have to do better than that in their own run of three-in-11, with two on the road in order to defend their 2005 division title. The '94 Bills were 5-4 heading into that three-game stretch, but 6-6 when they were done. They then lost three of their last four and finished 7-9, marking the only time in the seven-year span from 1990-96 that the team didn't win at least 10 games.
The Bucs' comparative stretch is even more critical in that all three games are against conference opponents who almost surely will be in the playoff race: the Panthers, Redskins and Cowboys. Carolina and Washington were in the playoff field with Tampa Bay last January and Dallas was the last team eliminated on the final weekend. Two of the three games played by the Bills during their 11-day stretch in 1994 were against NFC opponents.
In addition, the Buccaneers will have no time to recover after their 11-day run; the Thanksgiving game starts a stretch of four road games in the last six weeks, all in outdoor, cold-weather venues. The 1994 Bills didn't have to deal with that, either.
The concern with games so close to each other and much of it on the road, of course, is that there is far less time for two important elements of every game lead-up: Player recovery and game-planning. The Bucs will be short one day as they prepare for the Redskins, and they'll have no time to recover after, with the Cowboys game just four days hence. After playing Washington, the Bucs are required to give one day off to the players in the following game week, which will leave just two days of preparation, one of which will also include the team's trip to Dallas.
Of course, it is the nature of NFL players and coaches to relish challenges, and this situation will be no different for the Buccaneers. In fact, just last year the Bucs overcame what many considered a very difficult subset of their season.
Rewind a year and there was likely some hand-wringing in April, understandably so, over the portion of the schedule that would send the Bucs on the road to New Orleans, Carolina and New England, in a row, during the first three weeks of December. It was the Bucs' first three-game road swing in nine years, and one of only three in the entire NFL last season.
Sure enough, the Bucs hit that stretch in the thick of a crowded playoff race, with little room for error, particularly in regards to the NFC South race. Head Coach Jon Gruden's reaction at the time, before the first of those three games, almost surely describes the way he and his team will approach the three-in-11 run this fall.
"So be it, man," he said at the time. "We'll look down the road when we get down the road. We've got one game to play, one at a time. We're going to focus completely on the New Orleans Saints."
The Bucs' focus must have been good, because they followed up a win over the Saints in Baton Rouge with the year's most critical victory, a 20-10 decision at Carolina that put them into the divisional driver's seat. The Bucs did drop the last of those three games at New England, but winning two of three left them in position to accomplish their goals by winning home games against Atlanta and New Orleans. And that they did.
It is, in one sense, a nice problem to have. A run of three games in 11 days is only possible if one is playing away from the usual Sunday scrum, usually in some nationally-televised slot. The Bucs have been invited to the Thanksgiving party for the first time ever, and they're back on Monday Night Football after a season off. The Bucs-Panthers rivalry has obviously gained some notoriety outside of the Deep South and it's wonderful to be giving it national exposure.
Three games in 11 days, with two on the road. It hasn't happened – to anyone - in a dozen years. But it could be the Bucs' biggest challenge in 2006. All one can say is: Bring it on.