QB Luke McCown actually delivered the pass that put the franchise over 100,000 aerial yards in its history
Jon Gruden, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is not a big fan of statistics.
That should be clarified. Statistics, as Gruden knows as well as anyone, are neither good nor bad, relevant nor meaningless, on their own terms. As they relate to the National Football League, they are just numbers generated by, and used to record, actions on the gridiron.
When Gruden – or any of his like-minded NFL colleagues – says that "statistics are for losers," he means that it is too easy to misjudge a team or a player by strictly focusing on one set of numbers or another.
A good example: Tampa Bay's offense ranked 29th in the NFL in 2006 and appeared to improve by only a marginal amount in 2007, to 18th in the rankings. But anyone who saw the Bucs play in '06 and '07 would surely agree that they were much more dangerous with the football during the more recent season.
There is a place for statistics, we would argue.
NFL coaches don't like to see their teams pigeon-holed by a particular set of stats, or to see all of their efforts distilled into one stark number. Tell them that they have the 20th-best offense in the league and you're saying they are well below average, even if their team is headed to the playoffs. But even these men know a meaningful statistic when they see it, and the perfect example is turnover ratio.
Few league men would argue against the relevance of that statistic. Gruden focused on it several times during the season. For instance, the Buccaneers forced 12 turnovers during the team's 4-2 start this past fall. The team then dropped back to .500 with consecutive losses to Detroit and Jacksonville in which the team failed to secure even a single takeaway.
Here was Gruden's response at the time:
"We've got to get better in all areas, but obviously in the last two weeks our turnover ratio is what's hurt us. We haven't acquired a turnover on defense, and we've turned it over on offense. You can go through all the statistics you want, you can play fantasy football and draft who ever you want, but at the end of the day it's the turnover ratio that decides football games."
Sure enough, the Bucs then ripped off a four-game winning streak during which they forced 13 turnovers. Call it a little extra validation for a statistical connection few doubted anyway.
Gruden noted several other relevant statistics at the end of the 2007 regular season, one that ended in the Bucs' third division championship in six years.
"We have a defense that statistically in the '07 season did pretty good," he said. "We had an offense that featured one of the top efficient passers in football, and we had a guy lead the NFL in yards per catch. We had a top-10 or 12 rushing game, statistically. We led the NFC in turnover ratio. We've got a kicker, [Josh] Bidwell, who downed it 30 times inside the red zone, and we've got a [field goal] kicker that made 28 out of 33."
That's an outstanding breakdown of some of the Buccaneers' most significant strengths in 2007. And the Bucs are no strangers to statistical breakdowns. Tampa Bay's public relations department prints a weekly booklet of stat tables during the season, parsing everything from red zone success to individual players' game-by-game outputs.
It is our intention here to take a walk through those stat tables and highlight some numbers we believe actually bear some significance or, barring that, are particularly interesting. We've separated these statistical nuggets into three categories as they related to the Buccaneers' efforts in 2007: good, bad and miscellaneous.
Without further ado…
- In 2007, the Buccaneers went 5-1 against NFC South opponents, only missing a perfect division record after dropping the season finale to Carolina. The Panthers deserve full credit for their victory at Raymond James Stadium, but it's worth noting that the Bucs played almost the entire game with reserves at most of the starting positions.
It might be obvious that success within one's division leads to a good season overall. However, that phenomenon seems to be much more relevant to the Buccaneers since the NFL's realignment in 2002.
Tampa Bay made it to the postseason four times in a six-season span from 1996-2001. During that time, however, they were exactly .500 in NFC Central play, and they never were better than 5-3 nor worse than 3-5 in division play in any given season.
Since joining the newly-formed NFC South in 2002, however, the Bucs have seen their fate tied much more strongly to division play, even though, paradoxically, they play two fewer division games every year. In six seasons in the NFC South, the Bucs have made the playoffs three times and missed them three times. In those three successful campaigns, the Bucs are 14-4 in intra-division play; in the three non-playoff years, they are 4-14 against South competitors.
- After their disappointing 2006 season, the Bucs identified two areas they particularly hoped to improve – on offense, quarterback play; on defense, getting pressure on the passer.
Focusing on the latter, the Bucs felt as if they got somewhat better results up front, but still ended up with the exact same sack total in 2007 as they had in 2006: 33. Tampa Bay's ability to get pressure on the quarterback seemed to come and go, and was highlighted by an eight-game midseason stretch in which the defense recorded 21 sacks over eight weeks.
The Bucs had three or more sacks in five of the eight games during that stretch. Getting to that three-sack mark seems to be important for the Buccaneers. In 2007, the team was 4-2 when it managed three or more sacks of the opposing quarterback. Moreover, since Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin arrived in 1996, the Bucs are an impressive 54-28 in games in which it posted three or more sacks.
- Did we mention turnover ratio?
Nothing changed more drastically for the Buccaneers from 2006 to 2007 than their ability to win the takeaway battle. The Bucs were a troubling -12 in turnover ratio in 2006, their worst showing in that category since 1993. This past season, Tampa Bay led the NFC (as Gruden pointed out) with a +15 turnover ratio. That's a stunning 27-takeaway turnaround from season to season.
How important is that? Just check out the Bucs' recent history of playoff and non-playoff seasons. From 1997 to 2007, Tampa Bay qualified for the postseason seven times in 11 campaigns. During those seven playoff years, the Bucs had a combined +71 turnover ratio. During the four seasons that ended without a playoff berth, the Bucs were a combined -24 in turnover ratio.
Of course, it helps if you make good use of your takeaways, and if you can keep your opponent from turning your giveaways into points. The Bucs did that in 2007. Tampa Bay turned its 35 takeaways into 114 points; their 20 giveaways resulted in just 59 points.
- The Bucs were unquestionably a more explosive team in 2007. And, as it usually does during its more successful campaigns, Tampa Bay's defense was good at limiting long-distance plays this past season.
If one were to define "big plays" as runs of 10 or more yards or passes of 20 or more yards, then the Bucs were far superior to their opponents in that category in 2007. Tampa Bay's offense produced 89 plays that fit into that category, while the opposition was held to 61 such gains.
In addition, the Bucs turned 15 of those 89 plays into touchdowns, while their opponents had just nine long-distance touchdowns.
The biggest disparity came in deep passing game. Thanks to the big-strike capability of wide receiver Joey Galloway, the Bucs turned in six completions of 50 or more yards in 2007. Their opponents? Just one.
- As good as the Bucs were at forcing turnovers – 35 in 16 games, or a little more than two per game – they might have done more with them. They also might have kept their opponents from capitalizing on the few takeaways they managed to get.
The aforementioned 114-59 edge in points off turnovers could have been even better had the Bucs turned more of their short drives into touchdowns.
Tampa Bay enjoyed 12 drives on the season that began within their opponent's 30-yard line, most of them as the result of takeaways. Surprisingly, only three of those 12 possessions ended in touchdowns; eight others produced field goals and one came away empty.
By contrast, the Bucs allowed only five drives to begin within their own 30-yard line all season, the result of very few giveaways. However, all five of those possessions ended in touchdowns for the opponent.
On a positive note, the Bucs were much better at sustaining long drives in 2007 than the year before. Tampa Bay posted 23 touchdown drives of 50 ore more yards this past season, after managing just 14 in 2006.
- Attentive Buc fans won't find this very surprising: Despite its strong overall showing in 2007, Tampa Bay's defense struggled more than usual on third down.
The Buccaneers ranked 21st in the NFL in third down defense, allowing their opponents to convert 40.6 of their tries in that situation. That's an unusual occurrence for the Tampa Bay D, which usually ranks among the league leaders in third down efficiency. In fact, that 40.6% rate is the worst the team has allowed since 1996; the previous worst in that span was 37.8% last year.
What was perhaps even more troubling is that the Bucs had difficulty getting off the field on defense when the game was on the line this past fall. Surprisingly, Tampa Bay's defense allowed its opponents to convert 46.4% of their third-down tries in the second half during the 2007 season, as compared to 39.3% in that situation in 2006.
- The Buccaneers are the last NFC team to win the Super Bowl, giving them some sort of cache in a league that is supposedly dominated by the AFC at this point. Tampa Bay had held its own against the other conference in recent years, too, going 2-2 against the AFC East in 2005 and 2-2 against the AFC North in 2006.
This past season, however, Tampa Bay ran into some difficulty against the AFC South, which served to somewhat blunt the team's intra-conference efforts. The Bucs were 5-1 against the NFC South and 2-2 against the NFC West – and two of those three losses came when the team played subs during the final two weeks – but their 1-3 mark against the AFC South kept them from posting a truly outstanding record.
We conclude with a few statistical nuggets that aren't necessarily a precursor for success nor a harbinger of doom. We simply hope you find them interesting.
- Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a running team? You betcha.
At least, the numbers seem to indicate that fact. Now, admittedly, this is starting to tread into dangerous waters, into the sort of territory that Gruden would understandably dismiss. The Bucs were 16th in the NFL in aerial yards in 2007, but they were certainly efficient in the passing game, as evidenced by Jeff Garcia's Pro Bowl numbers.
Still, some teams routinely pass for 200 or 300 yards a game, and the latter is a relative rarity for the Buccaneers. In fact, over the last 11 years, Tampa Bay has recorded just 10 games in which it has passed for over 300 net yards.
More importantly, those numbers are no indication of success for the team. In those 10 300-net-yard games, the Bucs are just 2-8. The lesson would seem to be that, if the Bucs are throwing the ball that much, they must be trying to erase a significant deficit.
- Here's a trend the Buccaneers need to break.
Amazingly, it has been nearly a decade since Tampa Bay erased a deficit of 10 or more points to win a ballgame.
On December 12, 1999, the Bucs fell behind the Detroit Lions, 10-0, in a crucial late-season divisional matchup. Tampa Bay rallied for a 23-16 victory behind fill-in quarterback Shaun King, then went on to capture the NFC Central title and advance all the way to the conference championship game in St. Louis.
Since then, the Bucs have struggled to mount a significant comeback. That's not to say that the team has been impotent in such situations – in 2001, for instance, the Bucs made a stunning comeback from two touchdowns down at Tennessee to tie the game at 28-28, only to lose in overtime. They simply haven't been able to make a double-digit comeback stick.
Suffice it to say, the Bucs are due.
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have now passed for more than 100,000 yards in their 32-year history.
The Bucs began the 2007 season 3,229 yards shy of that milestone, but they managed to pass it in the season's penultimate weekend.
It is perhaps fitting that the pass that put the Bucs into six digits in gross yardage was delivered by a backup. In recent seasons, Tampa Bay has struggled with injuries at the quarterback position, and that has given opportunities under center to quite a few players.
Luke McCown got that opportunity during the last third of the 2007 season, when the Bucs were first dealing with a back injury to starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, then resting Garcia for the playoffs. In San Francisco in Week 16, for instance, Garcia started and played halfway through the third quarter before giving way to Luke McCown.
Not that Garcia cared, but he got the franchise to within 72 yards of the 100,000-yard mark before leaving the game in the third period. On came McCown, who threw for 185 yards in less than a half. The pass that put the Bucs over the six-digit mark? A 12-yard check-down to RB Michael Pittman with a little less than 12 minutes remaining in the game.