A strong running game can remain effective in cold weather
It's December, heading into January, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed north. With Midwest temperatures hovering in the 30s and several of last Sunday's games played amidst a snow fall, the Buccaneers are set to play in Chicago's windy Soldier Field, located right on the edge of lake Michigan.
It seems as if it will be impossible for the Bucs to avoid it.
No, 'it' is not the dreadful cold of the Windy City in January, but the dreadful note that is dredged up every time the Bucs prepare for a cold-weather game. For the purposes of clarification, here it is: the Buccaneers have never won a game in which the temperature at kickoff was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (0-17). Overall, Tampa Bay is 5-31 all-time when the kickoff temperature reads at 50 degrees or below.
So, should the Bucs just skip this weekend's trip to Chicago, celebrate the New Year at home and avoid any Y2Kold problems? Of course not, and furthermore, according to Dungy, his team doesn't see the weather as any hindrance whatsoever. In an assertion that is well-backed by statistics, Dungy pointed out on Monday that the team's record in those cold-weather games has a lot more to do with other factors.
"Really, I don't think (the weather) is going to be a factor," said Dungy. "If we go up there and play better than the Bears, we're going to win and if they play better than us, they'll win. What we have to do is have it in our mind that we're not going to go up there and make the errors that we've made in the past that have let those games get out of our hands. There's really nothing we can do about the cold weather and nothing that we can say until we win a game. Maybe this will be the week."
More than half of the 36 games on that list, 19 in all, represent trips to Chicago and Green Bay. The Bears, who were one of the NFL's most consistently outstanding teams through the 1980s and early 90s, beat the Buccaneers 16 out of 17 times at Soldier Field from 1980 through 1987, regardless of the temperature. In fact, Tampa Bay's one win in that stretch, in 1989, was one of the team's two wins at exactly 40 degrees, a 32-31 shootout on November 19.
Green Bay followed by being one of the league's best teams in the 1990s and has turned that into a nine-game winning streak over the Bucs in Lambeau Field. Of course, that same dominant Packer squad beat every team that came to Green Bay for over three seasons, from 1995 to 1998.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers were one of the league's least successful franchises before Dungy's arrival in 1996, posting 13 consecutive losing seasons from 1983 to 1995. Under Dungy, Tampa Bay has qualified for two postseason berths in the last three seasons and narrowly missed a third in 1998. They have also nearly doubled the team's win total at 50 degrees or lower, taking a 46-degree game from the New York Giants in the Meadowlands, 20-8, on November 30, 1997 and thrashing the Cincinnati Bengals 35-0 in last year's 40-degree season finale (December 27) at Synergy Field.
The Bucs have also lost three times below 50 degrees with Dungy at the helm, leading to a 2-3 record cold-weather games that actually represents a higher winning percentage (40%) than does the team's 10-19 record (34.5%) in all other road games (all totals include playoffs). Though neither percentage is probably up to the level that Dungy desires, it would be reasonable to believe that Dungy's squads can turn that around. After all, the team has already debunked the previously-held notions that it can't win in dome games, can't win on turf whether inside or outside, can't win on the West Coast and can't beat the AFC.
Of course, you would not expect any head coach to agree that his team's chances were affected by the weather, but Dungy even asserts that the Buccaneers are well-suited for cold games. "Any team that goes into bad weather thinks about running the ball and playing defense," said Dungy. "That's why I like this team, and why I think it should be a good bad-weather team."
Few would argue with Dungy's assessment of his team's strengths. Tampa Bay ranks second in the league in overall defense going into the season finale and is trying to finish in the top three for the third straight year. Though recent struggles have dropped the team's rushing offense ranking from fifth to 17th, the Bucs rebounded with 124 rushing yards against Green Bay on Sunday and have reached triple digits in that category in 10 of their 15 games this year. Moreover, Tampa Bay is now 28-8 under Dungy when it rushes for at least 100 yards.
In addition, the Bears rank 29th overall in run defense, which could provide a favorable matchup for Tampa Bay. However, Dungy no more expects the Bears to make it easy than he does the weather to make it hard. "The Bears gave us a lot of problems down here," he said. "They do some unusual things and play a lot of different formations. They play a lot of different personnel and they try to keep you off balance. (Wide receiver) Marcus Robinson has really come on and made some big plays for them. They've got a lot of guys contributing, so it's going to be tough. We're going to go up there expecting to have our hands full."