At the end of each NFL season, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, conducts a statistical study designed to compare special teams prowess across the league.
Gosselin's popular study produces one overall ranking of the 32 teams based on 22 separate rankings in such categories as kickoff return average, punt coverage, average kickoff drive start, field goal percentage and blocked kicks. The results are rarely counterintuitive; that is, the teams that appeared to be excelling in the third phase of the game usually came out of the formula with good rankings. Moreover, some teams that annually put an emphasis on special teams also commonly made Gosselin's top 10, such as Buffalo and Dallas.
And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Here on Buccaneers.com, we have referred to Gosselin's rankings many times, and always to point out how well Tampa Bay had performed on special teams that previous season. This is our first mention of the rankings this year, which is a shame, because in 2009 the Buccaneers ranked second only to the Cleveland Browns in overall special teams prowess.
That was an impressive step up for the Buccaneers, who had finished ninth on the list in 2009. Even while the team suffered through the side effects of a serious youth movement, and even with upheaval at both kicking spots and the loss of several key special-teamers (Torrie Cox, Will Allen, Clifton Smith, Rod Wilson) along the way, an already good kicking-and-coverage game somehow improved.
Gosselin starts by ordering the teams from one to 32 in each of his 22 categories, and assigning teams those corresponding point values. In other words, in leading the NFL with six blocked kicks last year, the Buccaneers received one point in that category; the nine teams that blocked no kicks in 2009 tied for 24th and received 24 points each. The Buccaneers were last in field goal percentage at 61.5% and thus got 32 points in that category. (As an aside, it shows how strong the Buccaneers were in almost every other phase of special teams that they could rank dead last in a category and still come in second overall.)
Cleveland was the clear leader in 2009 - thank you, Josh Cribbs - with a combined total of 215.5 points. That's an average ranking of about 7th in the 22 categories. The Buccaneers were next at 256.5 points, a combined ranking of about eighth. There was a pretty big jump to the next team too, as Buffalo was third with a score of 274. Dallas and the New York Jets rounded out the top five.
Again, as Gosselin's rankings show almost every year, the Buccaneers are usually among the league's best when it comes to special teams. In addition to that second-place finish last year and the nine-spot in 2008, the Buccaneers tied for seventh in 2007 and have frequently been in the top 10. Over the past eight years combined, the Buccaneers rank fifth in the NFL in both kickoff return average and opponent kickoff return average, seventh in gross punting, fifth in blocked field goals and third in fewest return TDs allowed.
The question is, can the Bucs continue that run in 2010? On Tuesday afternoon, the team will turn over its only practice of the day, here on the fourth day of training camp, to Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia. About two-thirds of the roster will take part in the 70-minute session, following Bisaccia's ultra-detailed instructions and learning exactly how Tampa Bay has managed to sustain its edge in the kicking game. Given that the Bucs are on the easier half of Raheem Morris' alternating two-a-day/one-a-day cycle, and that some of the team's veterans won't have to hit the field at all, this might seem like a take-it-easy day on the camp schedule. In fact, it is as indispensible as every other day during the three weeks of camp.
It is also a fertile ground of important topics for the Buccaneers and their hopes for success in 2010. To maintain their spot among the league's best special teams squads, the Bucs will need to provide good answers to questions such as these:
Is Connor Barth the answer at placekicker?
He certainly appeared to be in 2009 after the Bucs had struck out with free agent pickup Mike Nugent and early-season replacement Shane Andrus. Nugent and Andrus combined to make just two of their seven field goal attempts before Barth restored order with a 14-of-19 performance over the last nine games. That success rate of 74% was still a bit below the league average of almost 83%, but it is obviously in a small sample size. Barth's numbers were most hurt by a trio of missed tries in the 36 to 42-yard range over a three-game span; before and after that, he was almost flawless, even from long distance.
Just two games into his Buccaneer career, at Miami on November 15, Barth proved he was a serious long-range threat and set a franchise record in the process. In a near-upset win over the Dolphins, Barth nailed field goals of 51, 50 and 54 yards, becoming the first player in team history to make three kicks of 50 or more yards in the same game. That also helped establish Barth as a pressure kicker; later he nailed the game-winning field goal in overtime, a 47-yarder, in Tampa Bay's stunning upset of New Orleans in the season's penultimate week.
The Buccaneers brought in only one kicker to challenge Barth in training camp this year, undrafted rookie Hunter Lawrence out of Texas. Memorable success stories like that of Michael Husted in 1993 notwithstanding, rookie kickers are usually fighting a very uphill battle against incumbent veterans. It would seem likely that the job is Barth's to lose, and it also appears as if the Bucs' coaching staff has confidence in the third-year man.
Can rookie punter Brent Bowden deliver what the Bucs are expecting?
The Buccaneers also employed three different punters in 2009, after returning veteran Josh Bidwell went down with a hip injury in training camp and his replacement, Dirk Johnson, was lost to a hamstring pull in Week 12. Another waiver-wire acquisition, Sam Paulescu, finished up the season for the Buccaneers but all three veteran punters were subsequently released during the 2010 offseason.
Paulescu was the last of the three punters waived after the team used a sixth-round pick on Virginia Tech punter Brent Bowden. That marked the first time in nearly two decades that Tampa Bay had devoted any draft pick to a punter, but it's clear that the team's scouting department thinks fairly highly of Bowden. That was demonstrated by Paulescu's release; despite his lack of NFL experience, Bowden is the only punter on the Buccaneers' roster in training camp.
Obviously, Bowden does have some competition - it's called the waiver wire. If he were to stumble badly, the Buccaneers might still survey what punting veterans are available. But the team considers that possibility unlikely, as Bowden showed the strong leg and directional prowess they were expecting during offseason workouts.
General Manager Mark Dominik spent a draft pick on the Hokie punter believing that he could obtain a player who could secure the Bucs' punting position for the better part of a decade. Bowden will get every chance to prove he's right.
What will the team do with all of its home run hitters in the return game?
Only three players in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 35-year history have returned kickoffs for touchdowns in the regular season. All three are on the team's current 80-man roster.
Wide receiver Micheal Spurlock, a converted college quarterback, first ended the Bucs' kickoff return TD drought with a 90-yarder against Atlanta in 2007, but he spent 2008 and most of 2009 in different NFL outposts before returning. Clifton Smith got the second KOR score for the Bucs during his storybook rookie season in 2008 on a 97-yarder at Kansas City. When Smith was knocked out with a concussion against Carolina last season, rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter stepped in and before that game was over had matched Smith with his own 97-yard KOR touchdown.
All three have demonstrated that their returns were not flukes. Smith and Spurlock also own punt return touchdowns for the Buccaneers - the only two players who can claim marks in both categories in team history - and Stroughter had excellent averages of 9.9 yards per punt return and 29.5 yards per kickoff return by the end of his outstanding rookie season.
Still, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which a healthy Clifton Smith would not get the bulk of the Bucs' return duties. He has been nothing short of elite in that job since he first got the call to the active roster midway through 2008. An undrafted free agent when that season began, he was in the Pro Bowl by the time it was over. A pair of concussions robbed him of roughly half of the season in 2009 but he still led the NFL with a 29.1-yard kickoff return average.
Obviously, however, it's a good thing for the team to have depth at the return man position, and they likely will have it in Stroughter, who was the team's third-leading receiver a year ago and is a strong bet to be on the 53-man roster again in 2010. Spurlock's future is more intriguing; he arrived after injuries to Smith and Stroughter last year and immediately turned in a punt return TD in the win over New Orleans. However, he has yet to fully establish himself as an NFL receiver, and he may need to do so in order to hold onto a spot at the beginning of 2010.
Are there some new young kick coverage dynamos ready to emerge?
Cox has long been one of the team's best hitters in kick coverage and Allen was the team's special teams captain the last two years, but both are now gone. Quincy Black and Geno Hayes are strong special teamers but are now seeing a lot more time on defense which could impact their roles in the kicking game. Brian Clark and Matt McCoy, who combined for 20 kick-coverage stops last year, are no longer with the team.
But, again, the Buccaneers pay a lot of attention to special teams, both during the practice week and in preparation for the draft. In addition to plucking Bowden in the sixth round, the Bucs added some later-round picks who might provide instant help on special teams while they try to work their way into the defensive rotation.
That includes safety Cody Grimm, also of Virginia Tech, and Florida State linebacker Dekoda Watson, both of whom are instinctive and willing special teams players. Other young players who could help out their career evolution by carving out important roles in the kicking game include cornerback E.J. Biggers, safety Corey Lynch, running back Kareem Huggins, defensive end Erik Lorig, fullback Rendrick Taylor, tight end Ryan Purvis and linebacker Jon Alston.
Can the Bucs prove their kick-blocking flurry in 2009 was more than just a fluke?
The Bucs pulled off an interesting kick-blocking combination last season, rejecting two each on punts, field goals and extra points. That total of six blocked kicks overall was an NFL best and the second-best mark in franchise history behind the seven blocks managed by the 2000 team. No other Buccaneer team has ever blocked more than four kicks in a season.
Was it a fluke? Well, it's worth nothing that two of the players responsible for three of those blocks have some recent history with that sort of achievement.
Safety Corey Lynch was signed by the Buccaneers in late September and by the end of the season had blocked both a punt and a field goal. Those were the first two blocked kicks of Lynch's brief NFL career (he also played in seven games with the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie in 2008) but far from the first in his football days. Avid NCAA fans will surely remember that it was Lynch who blocked a final-minute field goal attempt at Michigan in 2007 to seal Appalachian State's incredible 34-32 upset victory. In 39 games at ASU, Lynch blocked three kicks.
And Hayes got into the act for the second year in a row. As a rookie in 2008, Hayes blocked a punt against Carolina and returned it 22 yards for his first career touchdown. A year later, Hayes helped the Bucs upset the Packers, blocking a punt that was scooped up by Ronde Barber this time and again returned for a touchdown.
Barber was also part of last year's block party, sending back an extra point attempt. He has perfected the rush-and-dive off the corner on placekicks, and while it may work only rarely, he seems to be close quite regularly. The other two blocks belonged to big linemen, with Davin Joseph rejecting a field goal and Donald Penn blocking an extra point.
Can the Bucs match those six blocked kicks in 2010? That would be a tall order given how infrequently the team has reached that level. It would certainly be no surprise, however, to see them make a run for it.