A 2-0 start would really give Michael Clayton and the Bucs something to shout about
Jon Gruden's example was sobering.
Two years ago, Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers began their Super Bowl XXXVII title defense with a dominant, 17-0 road victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week One. It looked as if Tampa Bay would be the team to beat again.
Four months later, the Bucs finished that 2003 season with a 33-13 loss at Tennessee, sliding to 7-9. Gruden recalled things taking a turn for the worse as early as the very next week, when the Bucs lost a tight, hard-fought home game to Carolina, also losing Mike Alstott and Joe Jurevicius to injury on one play.
As pretty and pristine as 1-0 looks on the Bucs' stat sheet, it doesn't guarantee them anything. In fact, Tampa Bay won its season opener 12 times in its first 29 seasons, but went on to the playoffs in only five of those 12 years. Conversely, the Bucs were 0-1 after the first week of their eventual Super Bowl Championship season in 2002, and also after one week of the 1999 season that led to the NFC Championship Game. Half the teams in the league are 0-1 after the first week; you can't simply right them off, obviously.
Now 2-0, that might mean something. And that's why Sunday's game against Buffalo is so important. The Bucs don't want to give back what they have gained.
Tampa Bay has started only five previous seasons with a 2-0 record, making the playoffs in three of those campaigns, or 60% of the time. The overall league average is even better than that, at least since 1990. Over the last 15 seasons, 119 teams have started off 2-0 and 77 have made the playoffs, a success rate of almost 65%.
That trend dipped strangely in the Bucs' big year, 2002, as eight teams started out 2-0 but only one of those eight made the playoffs – Oakland, Tampa Bay's Super Bowl victim. But the numbers were back on track over the last two years, when 10 of the 15 2-0 teams, or 66.7%, advanced to the postseason.
Of course, it's doubtful that there's a single Buccaneer who is thinking about the percentages of a 2-0 start, or even worrying about the playoffs at all in mid-September. On the other hand, there are probably plenty of Bucs who want to prove that last Sunday's big win in Minnesota was no fluke, that Tampa Bay is back as a legitimate postseason threat.
"It's a great start," said Gruden of the season opener. "We expected to win the game. We think we have the makings of a good football team. We realize that we have some guys that are inexperienced to a degree. We have a couple other guys that are coming off of season ending injuries. It's obviously fun to win.
"We just need to continue to improve, practice well and try to prepare the best we can, and hopefully we can get it out of all three phases."
If the Bucs can get to 2-0 for the first time since 2000, and the first time at all under Gruden, it will be a hard-earned 2-0. Minnesota was considered a prime playoff candidate entering the season and will probably remain so given its talented roster on both sides of the ball. Buffalo, which barely missed the playoffs last year, has one of the league's best defenses and an offense that is developing around young playmakers like WR Lee Evans, RB Willis McGahee and QB J.P. Losman.
The next few months will tell whether Minnesota and Buffalo deliver on preseason predictions, but the Buccaneers, at least, think they've drawn two of their tougher opponents to start the season. Beating both would make the Bucs a confident 2-0 team, and confidence is a good thing with a roster chock full of rookies and first and second-year men.
"There is some genuine youthful enthusiasm here," said Gruden. "There is some swagger and confidence from our veteran players who have done good things. I think it's a real good combination right now. It's just the beginning, but it does give you some idea of what we are capable of doing."
Each season, approximately eight teams, or one quarter of the league, start out 2-0, and roughly two-thirds of those teams go on to make the playoffs. The Bucs would like to join that group on Sunday. Would that mean a guaranteed return to the postseason after two years away? Of course not. What it would mean is actually neatly summed up in Gruden's last sentence above, so let's repeat: "It's just the beginning, but it does give you some idea of what we are capable of doing."