A 3-0 start inspires confidence but the Bucs still have a long way to go
What does the Bucs' undefeated start mean? It all depends on how you spin the numbers, but most NFL teams are at least strong playoff contenders after 3-0 beginnings
This is the time of year when statistics can be made to dance like Kelly Monaco.
Three games in, the numbers are still very pliable. You can, for instance, imagine any number of scenarios for a running back with 434 yards through three games, up to and including a new single-season record.
Such is the case with the most important numbers attached to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at this moment. That would be "3" and "0."
The Bucs could gather excitement from the fact that 10 of the 12 teams that started 3-0 over the 2003 and 2004 seasons ended up in the playoffs. Alternately, they could draw a warning from the 2002 results, when they won the Super Bowl after a 2-1 start while six of the seven 3-0 teams failed to even make it to the postseason.
Go back a full decade and the numbers start to gather a little weight. From 1995-2004, 54 teams opened their seasons with 3-0 marks and 40 of them, or 74%, advanced to the postseason. You could reasonably conclude that the Bucs' 3-0 start gives them a three-in-four chance of playing past January 1 this season.
At least, statistically. The combined memories of those 54 teams aren't going to put the Bucs into the postseason. Each successive win from here on out must be earned, probably at least six or seven more of them.
The Bucs know. After all, they were two of those 54 teams. In 1997, Tampa Bay opened the season not just 3-0 but 5-0; in 2000, they won their first three games again. And both of those seasons became nail-biters quicker than you could say "three in four." The '97 Bucs followed their 5-0 start with three straight losses and also lost three of four down the stretch, necessitating a final-weekend victory for a Wild Card berth. The '00 Bucs went from 3-0 to 3-4 in the blink of an eye and had to win seven of their next eight to once again lock down a Wild Card spot.
At least those teams weren't the 2003 Vikings or the 2004 Jaguars. Both of those teams went from 3-0 to 9-7 and were watching when the playoffs began.
That's why all the Buccaneers are worrying about right now is 4-0 (after which, if it happens, we will gladly update the postseason percentages for you!).
"It's early," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I mean we have so far to go. We are 3-0 and we're happy today, but we look at the tape, we look who's on the horizon here. There's an analyst on every corner that's telling you, 'Hey, you are one of the top five or six teams in the league.' Three weeks ago we were in the thirties."
Actually, the Bucs are one of only three 3-0 teams, though Washington is sitting at 2-0 after a bye week. It's Cincinnati and Indianapolis joining the Bucs, so if Washington stumbles against Seattle this weekend the Bucs will have the NFC's only 3-0 start.
The last time there were as few as three 3-0 teams was 2001, when Green Bay, St. Louis and San Diego all started that way. St. Louis made it to the Super Bowl (and lost) with a 14-2 regular-season record, and Green Bay finished 12-4 before an NFC Divisional Round loss, but the Chargers plummeted all the way to 5-11 and nowhere near the postseason.
It may be that Charger team that is the most interesting of all the 3-0 squads of recent vintage. It's not so much as that season was a cautionary tale as that it was by far the exception. San Diego started that season 5-2, losing twice on the road, once by four points and once in overtime to the eventual league champs, New England. They then lost nine in a row, six by less than a touchdown and four by a mere field goal.
That kind of thing can happen, but it doesn't very often. Take a closer look at the 3-0 teams of this decade. There were 27 of them from 2000-05 and 17 made the playoffs. That's a relatively unexciting success rate of 63.0%, dragged down mostly by that anomalous 2002 season.
But forget who qualified and who didn't. Of those 27 teams, that '01 Charger squad and the 2002 Carolina Panthers (7-9) were the only ones that didn't finish at least .500. Only one other team, the 2002 Chargers (8-8), wasn't north of .500 when the season ended. The other 24 teams all finished 9-7 and better, and all 27 had an average record of 10-6.
So let's put it this way and then move on: The Bucs' 3-0 start gives them a very good chance of being playoff contenders late in the season. The Broncos, Dolphins, Patriots and Saints all missed the playoffs in 2002 with 9-7 records, but two 8-8 teams made it into the NFC field last year. The Seattle Seahawks even won their division at 9-7. The Bucs aren't shooting for 8-8 or 9-7, but they certainly have a good shot of getting at least that far – particularly with two road wins already under their belts – and that will at least make things interesting in December.
In the end, all of these numbers are for you and I, not the players or coaches. The Bucs won't get any extra help on the field Sunday in Detroit because they're 3-0, and the most important game on the schedule will remain "the next one."
"We have to temper our enthusiasm, and take things for what they are," said Gruden. "We played three pretty good football games, and we've got 13 to go. We've got a long way to go."