Disney enthusiasts and sun-seekers aren't the only people who love to visit the state of Florida. Check out this little statistical oddity from the 2010 National Football League season:
Only two of the league's 32 teams currently have a record below .500 in home games and a record above .500 in road games: The Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Apparently, a lot of NFL teams have enjoyed their trips to the Sunshine State this fall, more so than the Dolphins or Bucs intended.
The Dolphins' home/road split is particularly bizarre, as they've gone 6-1 away from home but 1-6 on their own field. The Buccaneers' split is less drastic – 3-4 at home, 5-2 away – but it's relatively rare for a playoff contender to be built through a season of that nature. If the Bucs had simply matched their road success at home this year, they would already be on the verge of clinching a playoff spot.
One conclusion not to draw from those numbers is that the Buccaneers feel at any sort of disadvantage at home. Tampa Bay, in fact, has come quite close to actually posting that aforementioned 5-2 mark at Raymond James Stadium this year; it's last two home losses, to Atlanta and Detroit, were within the Bucs grasp before turning very late. The Detroit Lions, for instance, tied last Sunday's game with a field goal at the end of regulation and then won with the opening drive of overtime.
But, as Head Coach Raheem Morris would say, the Bucs are what their record says they are, and that's 8-6 overall with a playoff heartbeat that remains strong. For that heartbeat to continue, the Buccaneers will have to win their home finale on Sunday against Seattle and leave Miami as the only team with that unusual home/road split.
"We love to play at home but I generally don't use those motivational theories," said Morris. "We're kind of a play-wherever team, play any time. Parking lot, their place, our place…wherever it is. We enjoy our fans and we enjoy what we're able to do for our fans. We enjoy playing at home to get those guys out there screaming for us and get that chant going. It's a great atmosphere. You know how Raymond James is when you're rolling, and when you're in the playoff hunt."
If the Buccaneers make it into the postseason field, it will mark the first time in team history they've qualified for the playoffs without having a record of above .500 at home. Then again, that might not even be the strangest outcome that could come out of their last regular-season game at Raymond James Stadium this year. The Seahawks could lose the game and fall to 6-9 and still not be eliminated from playoff contention.
That's because the 6-8 Seahawks are currently tied with the St. Louis Rams for first place in the NFC West, with San Francisco also still in the running at 5-9. While the 'Hawks take on the Buccaneers, the Rams and 49ers will do battle in St. Louis. One possible scenario: The Bucs and 49ers win and all three NFC West teams are 6-9, with the Rams set to play at Seattle the following weekend and the 49ers playing host to Arizona.
And so for the second straight week Morris has to hand out reminders that a team's W-L record isn't necessarily indicative of the challenge they present, though the point is much more explicit this week. The Lions came into Raymond James Stadium with a 3-10 record, but had also just beaten Green Bay and had twice come very close to upsetting the first-place Chicago Bears. The Seahawks have emerging young talent, like the Lions, and a motivation as strong as the Buccaneers to get the victory in Week 16.
"Seattle's in the playoff hunt," said Morris. "I guess when you talk about struggling you're talking about stats. But for their division they're right in a position to go out and seize that thing. So they're coming in here very hungry. They've got a bunch of young, talented guys on their football team, no different than us a year ago. They're putting some pieces together on offense, they're putting some pieces together on defense, and they're getting some things rolling with a new coaching staff."
Those Buccaneers who celebrate Christmas will do so on Saturday, the same day the Seahawks will be traveling the length of the country to get in place for Sunday's game. Obviously, the Buccaneers will enjoy some home cooking on Saturday; hopefully the same will be true on Sunday.
Hardman Finding Comfort Zone
Not only did the Buccaneers surpass 400 yards of offense for just the second time this season last Sunday against Detroit, but they might have put forth their most balanced effort of the year. The final total of 403 yards included 227 in the air and 176 on the ground, and the team threw 33 passes while running 28 times. Overall, the Bucs managed 6.3 yards per offensive play, 6.3 yards per rush and 6.3 yards per pass play (which includes sacks).
Well into preparations for their Week 16 battle against Seattle, the Buccaneers have put that Detroit game in the rear view mirror, and indeed the final outcome, a 23-20 overtime loss, is more important than any offensive statistic. Still, it's encouraging to see continued improvement from the Bucs' offense, and that's true on an individual level for several young players as well.
One player who is just getting an opportunity to grow into his role is rookie lineman Derek Hardman, who has started the last two games at right guard after the season-ending foot injury suffered by veteran Davin Joseph. Hardman spent the first five weeks of the season on the Bucs' practice squad and his entire regular-season experience on offense was limited to his relief role against Atlanta in Week 13 after Joseph went down. Now he's simply the latest young player the Buccaneers are counting on to handle a much more important role.
Hardman struggled a bit at the beginning of his first start, at Washington in Week 14, but he improved quickly during that contest and was even more effective the following Sunday against Detroit, as evidenced by the Bucs' offensive success.
"I started feeling a little more comfortable," said the undrafted free agent and former Eastern Kentucky Colonel. "You're out there and you're not caught in the headlights anymore. In Washington I didn't always know what was going on, but I caught up a little bit."
Hardman could be excused for feeling a little unfamiliar in his current job. His outings against Washington and Detroit pushed his lifetime total of starts at offensive guard to two; a tackle at EKU, he had never been asked to work inside before joining the Buccaneers this spring. Obviously, the overall goals are the same for a tackle or a guard – open holes for the running game and keep the quarterback clean – but there are plenty of differences in technique and assignments between the two spots. Hardman is in effect learning on the job…and apparently he's a quick learner.
"I was happy just to see improvement from the week before at Washington," he said. "I got a lot of work in on my footwork and my hands, just made some personal steps. There were some plays that we left out there [against Detroit], though."
As if replacing the talented Joseph and absorbing a new position weren't enough of a challenge, Hardman found himself in the path of Detroit's rookie demolition man, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, last Sunday. The Bucs did allow three sacks of QB Josh Freeman during the game, but Suh didn't spend the day romping around in the Bucs' backfield, as he has done on several occasions against other foes this year.
However, Hardman refused to take any personal credit for keeping Suh in check.
"With me, every time I go out there it's a big challenge, whoever I'm going against," he said. "So that really doesn't mean too much, but it's good to make it through another week and hopefully I'll improve even more this week."
Lee Misses Practice
Starting right tackle James Lee, who suffered an ankle injury in last Sunday's game against Detroit, is question mark for the Seattle game after missing practice on Thursday. Lee had participated in a limited fashion in Wednesday's workout, which was conducted at walk-through speed but was not involved in the full-speed version on Thursday.
"We've got to let him get ready and see what he's going to do tomorrow," said Morris. "I'll have a better feel once I see him on the field. Right now he's not participating but it's the next-man-up mentality and the guys are buying into it. We've got to move on."
Injuries to offensive linemen are nothing new for the Buccaneers this season, but while the prevailing trend in 2010 has been to see young reserves step in for experienced veterans, Lee's ailment could lead to the reverse situation. If he is unable to play against Seattle, the team will turn to Jeremy Trueblood, who had started 67 games for the Buccaneers at right tackle before suffering a knee injury against St. Louis in Week Seven.
Lee replaced Trueblood in that game and subsequently played well enough to hold onto the job after the veteran starter recovered from his injury.
"We've got Trueblood and he's fired up to have another opportunity," said Morris. "He's been getting every practice rep. He's been a starter for us for the last couple of years so I won't be worried about the bright lights getting to him."
Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter was the only other Buccaneer not to practice on Thursday, as he has missed the first two days of the week with a hamstring strain. Three other Buccaneers are on the injury report but were able to practice without limitations on Thursday: cornerback Myron Lewis (hip), linebacker Dekoda Watson (ankle) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee).
The Seahawks will practice and submit their Thursday injury report later than the Buccaneers, three time zones away, but on Wednesday they began their week with six players on the sideline, including four who are listed as starters.
The six Seattle players held out of Wednesday's practice were defensive end Chris Clemons (ankle), linebacker Will Herring (hamstring), defensive end Junior Siavii (neck), center Chris Spencer (shoulder), linebacker Lofa Tatupu (knee) and cornerback Marcus Trufant (back). Clemons, Spencer, Tatupu and Trufant are all starters, and in fact all four have started every game for the Seahawks so far this season.
In addition to cornerback and special teams captain Roy Lewis, who was placed on injured reserve after sustaining a knee injury against Atlanta last Sunday, the Seahawks are also concerned about Siavii's neck ailment. Siavii has been described as the most serious injury of the group, and Seahawks' Head Coach said the defender is "not well right now."
Trufant is suffering from back spasms but the team is optimistic that he will play against the Buccaneers.