Bruce Allen and the Bucs' coaching and personnel staffs will go over the last four weeks of the 2008 season with a fine-toothed comb
The first thing any NFL team does when its season comes to an end, before poring over free agency lists or devising a draft strategy or setting an offseason calendar, is evaluate exactly how it got to that point. A team must determine exactly what it is before figuring out how to become what it wants to be.
The 2008 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a difficult team to assess in this manner, in the eyes of its general manager, Bruce Allen. To Allen, the job essentially means reviewing the fortunes of two different teams housed in the same locker room…and then figuring out which one is closer to being the real Buccaneers.
"I think students in sports management will get a kick out of analyzing this team, because it's a 9-3 team," said Allen, referring to the Buccaneers rather impressive first three months. "It's a team that has put itself in position to make a strong run in the playoffs. It has players that you all were recognizing as potential Pro Bowl players.
"And it's a team that finished 0-4, all in one, all in one locker room – same coaches, same players. It makes it very important that we do an honest assessment of what took place this season and that's what we're doing right now."
They are, of course, honest with themselves every winter – Allen, Head Coach Jon Gruden and the rest of the Buccaneers' decision-makers. Competition is too brutal in the NFL and the division between success and failure too tenuous to allow for anything but frank and straightforward self-assessment.
In this case, Allen stresses the word in the sense of an "honest effort." That is, the Buccaneers have to be more thorough than ever before this winter in order to recover from their disappointing 0-4 finish to the 2008 season and make sure it doesn't happen again.
So just how did the Bucs go from near-certain playoff contenders to third place in the NFC South in one inglorious month?
"It's hard to put your finger on that, although we are analyzing the way we practice, we're looking at everything – from the medical health of our players to what we can do," said Allen. "Because although we're pleased that 9-7 isn't a poor record, we're not satisfied by any means where we ended up this season. It is disappointing and we're going to rectify it."
Beyond a brief review just after the Bucs' season-ending loss to the Oakland Raiders, the team hasn't fully dived into that project yet. The coaching staff has been given some time off to start January – time to "decompress" said Allen – which is another standard NFL procedure. Football coaches work long, pressure-packed hours during the season, and any fatigue Buccaneer staffers were feeling was compounded by the emotional impact of that winless December. After some head-clearing vacation time, Tampa Bay coaches will join Allen's personnel staff in breaking down the 2008 season and the team's roster in minute detail.
That means identifying specific problems and looking for their root causes. As a prime example, Allen pointed to the 38-23 loss at Carolina in Week 14, in which the 9-3 Buccaneers saw their usually stout defense take an unexpected turn.
"You dissect each game," said Allen. "The Carolina game, obviously we didn't stop the run. We have to fix that, that scheme, maybe not being ready for whatever reason. And we didn't play our best game. This team showed leading into that game it could stop the run, it could hurry the passer. That game we did not, and we failed. We're going to tear apart that week of preparation, that week of performance and analyze it."
The Bucs couldn't get the big play they needed at the end of a very close game in Atlanta the next weekend. They couldn't keep San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers from moving the chains when he had to. And when the playoffs were still there for the taking in Week 17 against the struggling Oakland Raiders, they couldn't finish off a game in which they led by 10 in the fourth quarter.
"You're in Raymond James Stadium, you have nine minutes to go in the game, you have a 10-point lead and you're playing a 4-11 team…gosh sakes, I'm feeling pretty good," said Allen. "We allow a 67-yard run and then we throw an interception and we lose. Each one of those weeks will be analyzed in much greater detail as to what took place. Disappointment is the kindest word I can say."
Allen was doing his own mini-review of the Bucs' last month on Friday as he fielded questions regarding the team's future from the assembled local media. When the talk turned to specifics – Would Jeff Garcia be re-signed? Would a franchise tag possibly be used on Antonio Bryant? – he mostly demurred, understandably. It's not just that some of the team's plans are best kept under wraps, for strategic purposes. There will be an element of that in all of the Bucs' moves between now and free agency and the draft in April, but the bigger issue is that those strategies are still being formed.
That's the purpose of turning that very honest eye inward over the next several weeks.
"You have to break it down," said Allen. "There are some good things that have been accomplished and there are some players that have had success that I'm happy for them. But what we're looking for is the future. I'm not a historian and I'm not a fortune-teller but I will promise that this organization will do everything it can to get better this year.
"We have to augment the talent that we have on the team. There is no doubt about that. There is a fine core to this team. Certainly we need to help this team. We need to add some juice to this football team on the offensive and defensive side of the ball."
Allen said he was even planning on meeting with some of the team's veteran players in order to get their opinions on the roster as a whole and on the team's disappointing finish. That and the perspective of a recharged coaching staff should get the process of in-depth self-assessment off to a good start.
"This team has to be looked at very closely so we make the right personnel decisions for the future," said Allen. "At the same time I don't want to paint it as a 0-4 team; it's a 9-7 team. We are that record. The hurt is that we were a 9-3 team. In discussing with the players and coaches when they come back, I think they are going to have a fresh attitude and more of an open mind to discuss what we need to specifically do to improve."