The Bucs' trip to Atlanta in late November could once again be a key point in the season
They say there's no such thing as an "offseason" in the National Football League anymore, but really it's just a matter of degrees.
The offseason — what we call the 25 weeks between the Super Bowl and the start of the next season's training camps — is undeniably more action-packed every year. With scouting events such as the combine, OTAs, mini-camps, the draft, injuries, rehabs, coaching changes, roster upheaval and (blessedly, for serious NFL fans) daily media attention, the NFL never slips far from its perch at the top of the nation's sports consciousness.
But it is still a notch or 10 below the intensity of the actual season, which for the league's 32 teams essentially starts when players report to training camp. It is on that day — July 32 for the Buccaneers and somewhere near or on that date for every other team — that the league becomes a daily concern for everyone involved. There are no more vacations from that point until, hopefully, February, not counting a very brief bit of R&R during the bye week. Teams practice five days a week and play on a sixth, and even if the players get a day off per week the coaching staff remains hard at work, usually late into the night.
Once the season begins, then, every day is important. It's just that some days are a little more important than others.
Here, we're going to look at 12 Important Dates for the Buccaneers in 2009 (and a little bit of 2010). By the time Super Bowl XLIV is played in Dolphin Stadium in February, the Buccaneers and their fans may be able to look back at these 12 days as turning points in Tampa Bay's season.
1. July 31: Training Camp Report Date
This date is almost upon us, and it's important not just because it's the kickoff to the whole season, but also because it is hopefully the end of all pressing contract concerns.
A team's contract work is never done, of course. Negotiations on new or extended contracts can go on at any time, even during camp and the regular season. But there are two things a team does not want hanging over its head when training camp begins: Unsigned rookies and veteran holdouts.
By the end of this day, the Buccaneers will know if they have to deal with either of those issues during the dog days of August. The team has just one unsigned rookie at this point, Josh Freeman, and there is confidence that a deal will be in place before camp practices begin. Still, Freeman is a first round pick, and a quarterback, so it's impossible to predict exactly what will happen.
Similarly, one cannot say for certain that there will be no veteran holdouts when camp begins, though the general belief is that all 80 men will be on hand for Day One. If that's the case, then this date will be important primarily for what Head Coach Raheem Morris will tell his team on the eve of the season. If there are any unresolved contract issues, than this date will take on a less enjoyable meaning.
2. August 8: Training Camp Reaches a Peak
The individual days of the three weeks of training camp tend to blend together, given the repetitive nature of the schedule and laser-like focus on practice. It's difficult now to predict which days of camp will be the most important; perhaps the light will go on for one of the competing quarterbacks on Day Five, or a key player will return from an injury on Day Nine.
However, the eighth day of practice, on the second Saturday of camp, does stick out.
August 8 will be the second day of the only back-to-back two-a-days of the entire three weeks. In general, the Bucs will follow each two-practice day with a less grueling one-practice afternoon. The idea is to practice less often, but to have full pads on for more of those practices.
There will be two practices on the 7th and 8th, however, even if the second practice on Friday is a special teams-only affair. After the two-a-day on Saturday, the players will get their first day off since the start of camp, so it's likely that the coaches will be pushing them to the limit in those two practices.
Even with the changes in the practice format this year, that second-Saturday peak is much like it has been for years. The first eight days of camp are the most intense, with virtually every practice focusing on learning the offensive and defensive schemes and battling for jobs. After the break on Sunday, August 9, the team will be less than a week away from the preseason opener, and more attention will be paid to the upcoming games. The schedule will be more frequently interrupted over the last 10 days of camp.
So if you want to gauge the state of the team during training camp, August 8 will probably be the perfect day.
3. August 27: Dolphins vs. Buccaneers
The opponent isn't what is important here; it's the specific juncture on the Buccaneers' preseason schedule.
This will be the third of four preseason games, and as even casual NFL fans know by now, the third game is usually the one in which the starters play the longest. Most teams gradually increase the length of time starters stay in the action from Week One through Week Three of the preseason, then pull back drastically in the finale and let mostly young players handle that contest.
And if this is the key game for the starters, then it will be very interesting to see which player is under center in the first half.
The Buccaneers' starting quarterback job will be decided by an open competition this August. Morris has said in rather direct terms that the passer who performs the best during the preseason games will have the job on opening day. Veterans Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich will push each other, and even rookie first-rounder Josh Freeman has a chance to win the job. Second-year man Josh Johnson would seem to be the dark horse entering camp, but Morris certainly hasn't ruled out any of the four players fighting for the job.
Presumably, the leader in the competition would get the longest stint with the rest of the starters in this contest, and he would be playing against Miami's starting defense for a significant portion of the game. Alternately, Morris may decide to split up the playing time more equally in order to keep the competition level. With the first game still about a month away, Morris obviously hasn't discussed the specifics of his quarterback rotation yet. Suffice it to say, what we see at the quarterback position on that evening at Raymond James Stadium may be very informative.
4. September 5: Roster Cutdown to 53 Players
This one is self-explanatory, although knowing what has to be done doesn't help us know who will be involved.
The NFL's teams must cut down to 75 players on September 1, before the last preseason game, but that's a minor reduction from 80 players and isn't likely to contain any surprises or tell-tale information. Four days later, another 22 roster spots will have to be cleared during the final cutdown, and that round of maneuvers will almost certainly provide some answers.
Perhaps, by early September, the majority of the necessary moves will be obvious. It is quite possible, however, that some of the moves of that day would surprise us if we knew them now, in mid-July. Last year, for instance, the Buccaneers included veteran linebacker Ryan Nece, free agent pickup cornerback Eugene Wilson and fourth-round pick defensive tackle Dre Moore among their final cuts. Two years ago, linebacker Jamie Winborn and defensive tackle Ellis Wyms were the "surprises."
Actually, it's a bit of a misnomer to call this the "final" cutdown. With a suddenly loaded waiver wire from 32 teams worth of cuts, plus practice squads to be formed, the cutdown to 53 is usually the start of another small series of roster moves per team. In addition, being cut on this day doesn't necessarily mean a player will not contribute to the team in the future, and potentially even in the very same season.
For instance, the Buccaneers cut rookie running back Clifton Smith during the reduction to 53 last year, and then signed him to the practice squad. By midseason, Smith was back on the active roster and by February he was in the Pro Bowl. Moore also stayed with the team on its practice squad and, after showing significant improvement during the 2009 offseason, has an excellent chance to make the 53 this year.
5. September 13: Cowboys vs. Buccaneers
Every opening day is important, though it would be a mistake to assume this game will set the tone for the entire season. The Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers of 2002 lost their season opener; the 2003 Bucs squad that would finish 7-9 dominated in its first game, 17-0, at Philadelphia.
It is your first chance to build team confidence, however, and that may be especially important for the Buccaneers under a new head coach. Internal expectations are high at One Buccaneer Place, even if most outside analysts will have to see it before believing, and Morris' squad is a young one. A strong start to the season would help the Bucs navigate a difficult first month that also includes matchups against the rest of the rugged NFC East.
And make no mistake: The presence of the Cowboys will draw more attention to Tampa on opening day. Dallas is not only the covered in great detail by the national media, but it has tended to come out of the gates strong in recent years. Over the past half-dozen seasons, Dallas is 14-5 in the month of September.
It would also be a boost to win at home in Week One, something the Bucs haven't had many opportunities to do in recent seasons. This will mark only the third time in the last 10 years that Tampa Bay has opened its campaign at Raymond James Stadium. This year, only two of the Bucs' first five games will be at home, meaning a loss in the opener would make it a tall task to hit Game Six against Carolina with a winning record.
6. October 18: Panthers vs. Buccaneers
Speaking of that Carolina contest in Week Six, it could be a strong determinant of how the Buccaneers' season is going to go.
The Buccaneers won't play a single intradivision game in the NFC South before the Panthers come to town in mid-October. By that point they will have buzzed through the entire NFC East but won't have a good feel for how well they stack up against their own divisional competition.
This game may provide that answer. Carolina is the defending division champion and a team that always seems to engage the Buccaneers in intense, difficult battles. As with opening day, a win or a loss in Week Six is not going to determine the playoff race, but at this point seasons are starting to become more sharply defined. A win over Carolina, particularly if both teams start well, could be just the boost the Buccaneers need for the second half of the season.
7. October 20: NFL Trade Deadline
No, trades are not an enormous part of the NFL landscape, and the trade deadline itself isn't the landmark event in football that it is in the other major sports. It is difficult to integrate a new player into your offense or defense at midseason, and few teams are well out of the race by October 20 anyway.
But if any team has shown a willingness to use the trade option in recent years, it's the Buccaneers. That was evident even under new management when General Manager Mark Dominik engineered a trade in the spring for Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow. The Bucs were even part of a deadline deal just two years ago when they acquired running back Michael Bennett from the Kansas City Chiefs in October of 2007.
Making a deal midseason also requires some salary cap flexibility, which the Buccaneers have generally maintained. If Tampa Bay has the means and the willingness to deal, there's a possibility that this date could bring help, either for 2009 or seasons beyond.
8. October 25: Bucs Take European Stage
For the first time in the Buccaneers' 34-season history, the team will play a regular-season game outside of the United States.
Tampa Bay and New England were chosen to contest this year's American Bowl in London, marking the third straight year that the NFL has staged one of its regular-season games at Wembley Stadium. It is a landmark event for the franchise, to be sure, and one that will help spread America's favorite sport to the rest of the world.
This is a great thing for the Buccaneers. It is not an easy thing for the Buccaneers.
The Patriots, of course, have been a challenge for any opponent this entire decade. Tampa Bay has only played New England once in the Tom Brady era, losing 28-0 on the Patriots' turf in 2005. New England just missed the playoffs last season but that was without Brady, who had led the team to a 16-0 regular season the year before. Brady is back for the 2009 season.
But placing the game in England — however welcome that opportunity is — adds to the degree of difficulty for both teams, although at least the conditions are even. The Buccaneers hope to handle the long trip as well as they can to avoid jet lag and the vagaries of unfamiliar surroundings. NFL teams are slaves to routine; how they handle interruptions in those routines can affect how well they play on Sunday.
In addition, the contest is considered a home game for the Buccaneers. It remains to be seen whether the Wembley Stadium crowd will indeed favor the crew from Tampa Bay, but it's doubtful that the atmosphere will provide the Buccaneers with the same home field advantage they would have enjoyed in front of their own fans at Raymond James Stadium. That's not sour grapes; it is simply what the situation is. The fact that the Bucs' highly-anticipated game in London is one of their eight home affairs just adds to its importance.
9. November 2: A Day to Relax, Review and Recon
After playing the Patriots in London the Buccaneers will enjoy their bye week very close to the season's midway point. Technically, the bye week stretches from Monday, October 26 to Sunday, November 1, but the Monday of the following week is also affected.
Typically, Monday is a light day for players on teams that did battle the day before. A Monday after a bye is often referred to as a "bonus day," because a recharged roster without fresh aches and pains can easily handle a more thorough practice. There's a good chance the coaching staff will use this day to get some extra work in while also making sure the injured or fatigued players get some additional rest.
What makes this a particularly interesting bonus Monday, however, is what will happen that evening. With the extra time to prepare from the week before, it's likely that coaches and players alike will be able to find the time to tune in to Monday Night Football. The reason for the Bucs' interest: that particular MNF matchup is Atlanta at New Orleans.
Given how competitive all of the NFC South teams have been in recent years, it wouldn't be a surprise to see any of the four teams in strong contention for the division title. The Buccaneers could easily be fighting the Falcons and Saints for division supremacy halfway through the season, and thus would have a rooting interest in the outcome of that November 2 game. Plus, the Buccaneers will play both the Falcons and Saints for the first time before November is over, so that Monday-nighter could be the perfect opportunity to do some "TV scouting."
10. November 29: Big Game in Atlanta
Last year, the Falcons were the upstart team in the NFC South — there's one every year, without fail — but the Buccaneers very nearly swept that playoff-bound foe. Tampa Bay easily won their Week Two game at home against Atlanta and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, 24-9, but faced a much stiffer test in Atlanta in Week 15. Without starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, the Bucs fell to the Falcons, 13-10, in overtime.
That game was one of four the Buccaneers lost to close out the season. A victory in Atlanta almost certainly would have put Tampa Bay in the postseason, and that has become something of a trend. Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, the Buccaneers and Falcons have played each other in December every year, and the Bucs have won four of those seven games. In the four years the Bucs beat Atlanta in December, they went to the playoffs three times; in the three years they lost to the Falcons in December, they missed the playoffs each time.
This year, for the first time, the Bucs won't play the Falcons in December, but that's splitting hairs. The two teams will meet for the first time on November 29 in Atlanta, and then tangle again in Tampa on January 3. Their respective stretch runs will still be intertwined. And history aside, this year's trip to Atlanta will almost certainly be crucial for the Buccaneers. That Week 12 game will start a tough stretch in which the Bucs will be on the road for four of five games. That's a rough stretch in the schedule for a team trying to stay in the playoff race; starting it off with a road win against a division foe would be incredibly helpful. A loss would only make subsequent trips to Carolina, Seattle and New Orleans even more critical.
11. January 3: Final Full-Division Showdown
This, the final day of the regular season, will mark the first time all season that all four NFC South teams will be involved in intradivision games. This is not likely an accident on the part of the schedule-makers.
On the other hand, maybe it was, as this is only the second time in the nine years of the division's existence that a fully intradivision season finale has been scheduled. In 2005, the Buccaneers beat the Saints, 27-13, in Week 17, holding off the Panthers, who beat Atlanta, 44-11, for the division title.
There is a very good chance that at least one of those two games on January 3 will be played with the division title at stake, and perhaps both. At the moment, both games are scheduled to start at 1:00 p.m. ET, although either one could end up flexed into the prime time slot. It's possible that this could be one of the most tense and exciting days in the history of the NFC South.
February 7: It's…Well, You Know
If this proves to be an important day for the Buccaneers, then it's likely that most of the 11 others listed here went well.
This is, of course, Super Bowl Sunday for the 2009 season, the date on which every team in the league hopes to still be playing. The game will be played in Miami; that would be a short trip for the Buccaneers, geographically, but getting their will require travel down a very long path.
Can the Buccaneers be playing on this date? Of course. Virtually every team in the league can at least hope, realistically, that its season will go well enough to end on the final day of the schedule. Arizona certainly wasn't high on the oddsmakers' list of teams expected to be in the Super Bowl when last season started. The Buccaneers have a new head coach, but that was true in 2002, too, and that season ended with Tampa Bay holding the trophy.