LB Derrick Brooks says the Bucs have to avoid letting San Francisco get into an offensive groove
That's not a win-loss record. It's a trap.
The San Francisco 49ers are 1-8, and they will be in town Sunday to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Conventional wisdom says two things about the Niners' poor record: They've got nothing to play for and nothing to lose.
That's the trap. It's not about what unusual strategies the 49ers might employ without fear of the consequences – the nothing-to-lose factor. It's about what the Buccaneers might do without fear of their opponents. The quickest way to lose anything in the NFL is to take it for granted.
The Bucs don't plan to fall into that trap.
"That makes them really dangerous," said defensive end Greg Spires of the 49ers' record. "They've got [the media] thinking that they have nothing to lose. Then we go out there and take them for granted and they beat us. They are a dangerous team and we have to win this game. We are not thinking this is going to be an easy game; it's going to be a hard game."
Head Coach Jon Gruden avoids the trap by simply refusing to admit its existence.
"The 49ers aren't 1-8, not in the film I've seen," he said. "That's for the writers and sportscasters, maybe. We respect them tremendously. They beat us soundly last year. I've got a vivid memory of that game. If we're not on our game, we'll get beat again."
The Buccaneers, of course, are only two games up on the 49ers in the conference standings. However, Tampa Bay players and coaches don't believe that 3-6 record is even close to indicative of their team's true strength. If that's true, then it certainly could be true in the other Bay area, as well. The same thing that continues to give Gruden hope in the face of too many losses – the fact that his crew continues to play with the energy and drive of a team in the thick of the hunt – comes across when he's watching film on this weekend's opponent.
"I give the 49ers credit: They play their butts off," he said. "They're a blitzing, reckless style of defense and offensively they've got some weapons. They're going to play hard, they've been in a lot of tight games. We expect to have to be at our best on Sunday."
Most recently, the 49ers rushed off to a 17-0 lead over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday before falling victim to a big Carolina comeback and losing their eighth game by a 37-27 score. Rather than see that as a sign of weakness, the Bucs know it is further evidence that no outcome is predetermined.
"I think if you know anything about the NFL, none of them are in the bag," said quarterback Brian Griese.
The 49ers had 357 yards of offense in that game against Carolina, along with 23 first downs and an impressive eight-of-16 performance on third downs. Quarterback Tim Rattay completed 22 of 37 passes for 284 yards, prolific tight end Eric Johnson added another six catches to his NFC-leading total and the young but promising receiver duo of Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd caught five balls each for a combined 163 yards and one score. Rattay did throw four interceptions, and giveaways continue to be a problem for a team tied for last in the league in turnover margin. But that has only served to mask the fact that the 49ers can move the ball.
In fact, San Francisco's 11th-ranked passing attack, which has been particularly potent in the six games Rattay has started, is one of the reasons the Bucs are looking past that 1-8 record.
"Tim Rattay is really poised," said defensive tackle Chidi Ahanotu, who played for the 49ers in 2003. "I was there last year and I really never heard of him until he stepped in there for [Jeff] Garcia and he really amazed me because he has so much poise, such a nice touch on the ball. They have some good skill positions in Brandon Lloyd and Cedrick Wilson. Kevan Barlow is an amazing back that is just getting started. I think the world of him."
Added linebacker Derrick Brooks, who saw video evidence of the Niners' offensive strengths along with the rest of the Bucs' defense on Wednesday morning: "They are very good on film offensively. Moving the ball. It seems like when they are settled and get their running game going, they are a very good football team. We are going to have our work cut out for us again. That's nothing new."
The 49ers' overall offensive ranking is just 18th, and their defense is in the same range, at 19th overall. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, those numbers don't mean much to the Buccaneers as they begin their opponent scouting.
"I think you look at their record and you kind of get a misconception about their defense," said Griese. "I think they are really good. They have some really good players up front; some good linebackers, and Tony Parrish and [Ronnie] Heard are good safeties. They have had some injuries at the corner position, but overall I think they are a really good defense."
Of course, if you've followed any NFL team for long enough, you're used to such anti-bulletin board material. That's not sugarcoating the truth, it's good policy. It only makes sense to focus on your opponents' strengths when figuring out how to beat them. That's why the 49ers' 1-8 record has no place in the Bucs' scouting reports.
"We can't worry about their record," said Brooks. "We are going to face a good football team on Sunday and we have to go out there and find a way to win."