WR Joey Galloway doesn't expect the Bucs' last two performances to affect their game against Washington
Is it the journey or the destination?
To put it another way, what does 5-3 mean to you?
That's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' record halfway through the 2005 season, and it certainly has its share of positives. It's a nice reversal of last year's 3-5 mark at the same point. It projects to 10-6 for a full season, and it is rare for 10-6 teams to miss the playoffs. And right now it has them tied for the fifth playoff seed in the conference.
But what is more important: That the Bucs got to 5-3, or how the Bucs got to 5-3?
Tampa Bay is undeniably in the thick of the playoff race. Yet, it's certainly easier to be thinking about the playoffs in Chicago, where the Bears also have a 5-3 record. Chicago is in first place in its division by two games and has won four in a row. The Bucs were in first place in the entire conference two weeks ago, but consecutive losses have dropped them to third in the wildly competitive NFC South.
So, journey or destination? Perhaps neither.
As just about any Buccaneer coach or player would say at this halfway point, neither where the team has been or where they are now is terribly relevant to where they're going. The Bucs are simply in one-game-at-a-time, don't-look-ahead, don't-look-back mode right now, and that's a wise approach in the NFL, when every weekend brings a serious challenge.
"I think you have to say it's one game at a time," said wide receiver Joey Galloway. "We'd rather not be coming off two straight games the way we've played, but that is what it is. Washington's next and we'll try to eliminate the mistakes that have lost the last two games for us and get to 6-3."
As disappointing as Sunday's loss to Carolina was, it still left the Bucs only a game back in the NFC South race. If the Bucs can indeed get to 6-3, they will certainly be in the thick of things. Tampa Bay has started out with six or more wins in its first nine games only three times previously, and each season has ended in the playoffs.
"I'm not going to get into the highs and lows that we've had," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I know what the situation is here. We are a work in progress in some places. Hopefully we can show significant improvement in some places where it needs to be shown. We've got a long way to go – I've said that from the opening gun – to get this to where we want it to go. We're pleased with being in the race, being 5-3 and the fact that we've got a home game to start the second half. We've got a very, very good football team coming in here and we've got to meet the challenge."
Most importantly, the Bucs are dismissing any lingering disappointment from the last two games, not allowing the losses to affect their confidence. The Bucs certainly believe that they are a team with a postseason future this year.
"We're still in the fire," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "We're still in it. We're 5-3, we're ahead of the curve, we're ahead of where we were last year. We understand we have to do certain things. We can't rest on our laurels. We have to continue to be aggressive, continue to push this thing forward and we'll be right where we're supposed to be. Like I said, we're not out of it by any means."
The Buccaneers have a new player on their practice squad, as of Wednesday: rookie linebacker Antoine Cash.
Cash spent most of the first half of the season on Atlanta's active roster, until he was waived on November 2. He was originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Miss in April, but he beat the odds to make the 53-man roster out of training camp. He appeared in three games for the Falcons, contributing two kick-coverage tackles.
Roster moves among the eight allotted practice squad spots are common during the season and often made to shore up a position on the practice field that has been thinned by injuries. In this case, however, the Bucs swapped one linebacker for another, as rookie Matt Grootegoed was waived to make room for Cash. That's an indication that the team simply had a strong scouting report on Cash, a 6-1, 223-pounder with good speed who could make an impact on special teams. As a senior at Southern Miss, he racked up 95 tackles, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.
Grootegoed was also an undrafted free agent, signing with the Bucs out of USC. He had been on Tampa Bay's practice squad for the entire first half of the season.
Like a fine wine or Bill Murray, statistical projections get better with age.
When the season is only a few weeks old, projections based on available statistics can be dicey. Too little evidence, too many potential variables ahead. For instance, Williams was "on pace" for 2,315 rushing yards after three games this season, which would have been an all-time NFL record. Forget how unlikely it is for any back to continue a 145-yards-per-game pace; that projection lacked foreknowledge of the foot injury that would wipe out most of the rest of Williams' first half.
Even at the halfway point, projections must be taken with a grain of salt. So many possible twists lie ahead, both to ankles and plots. Still, the math is easy and some of the trends have taken on true meaning, so let's get out the salt shaker and do some midway-point projections anyway.
We can start with Williams, who has 496 yards at the turn. Obviously, that puts him on pace to just miss that coveted 1,000-yard plateau, coming in at 992. A little common sense here tells us, however, that Williams is still a good bet for that mark. He would need to average 63 rushing yards per game to get there over the final eight games. While 144 per game may have been too much to ask, his recent totals of 13, 20 and 29 yards are not indicative of what the Bucs expect in the second half either. If Williams can break 1,000, he'll be within spitting distance of the Bucs' rookie record, the 1,011 yards put up by Errict Rhett in 1994.
Joey Galloway shows no sign of slowing down in his pace, either. He has 731 yards at the halfway point and is thus following an average that would take him to a team-record 1,462. He has a little cushion in his pursuit of that mark, as the record is 1,422, by Mark Carrier in 1989. Double Galloway's touchdowns, too, from six to 12, and he would break that record, shared by several players at nine.
Linebacker Shelton Quarles is quietly on pace for a career-high in tackles. He has 90 after eight games, which projects to 180 for the full season, 17 more than the career-best 163 he had last year. Quarles might also break the seven-year hold Derrick Brooks has on the team's seasonal tackle lead. At the moment, he's 18 stops up on Brooks, who has 72.
Then there's Josh Bidwell, who simply needs to keep doing what he's doing to rewrite the second of the Bucs' record book relevant to his field of work. If Bidwell can maintain his gross average of 47.3 yards per punt and his net average of 38.6 he would be the new Buc record-holder in both categories. The existing marks are 43.3 by Tom Tupa in 2003 and 37.8 by Tommy Barnhardt in 1996. If Bidwell's exploits earned him a Pro Bowl berth, he would be the first punter in Buccaneer history to play in the all-star game.