- Even modest improvements in the offensive and defensive rankings in 2014 could signal one of the bigger turnarounds in team annals
- Tampa Bay has a pretty good track record with young kickers breaking into the league
- The BUcs struggled to hold halftime leads last year but that was never a problem for Lovie Smith's Bears
Statistics can help illuminate the game of football…or they can take us down a misleading path. As Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith said: "I believe in stats, but it's [which] stats."
Smith, for instance, doesn't pay much attention to the NFL's defensive rankings, since they are based on yards, which he considers a meaningless measure. When he shares defensive stats with his team, he focuses on points allowed, takeaways, scoring on defense and red zone proficiency.
Here on Buccaneers.com, we unabashadly love stats, but we also understand the need to wield them wisely. Sometimes, we can get a better feel for why the team is performing as it is by going a little deeper into the numbers. And sometimes we can simply point out something we consider interesting, and hope you will find it interesting as well.
That's our goal with Football Geekery. Each week, we're going to give you a a sampling of statistical and or historical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs. Let's get started.
1. Climbing the Ranks
As Lovie Smith suggested, the NFL's base offensive and defensive rankings may not be the best measurement, as they use yards gained or allowed to sort the teams. Still, when looking through the historical archives, those two rankings can give us a quick-and-dirty look as to the Buccaneers' ups and downs on both sides of the ball.
Since the end of last year's 4-12 season, Smith and General Manager Jason Licht have arrived and largely overhauled the roster. Optimism is high heading into the 2014 season, as the Bucs hope to prove that their apparent gains on paper will play out that way on the field.
The Buccaneers' offense is almost certain to be better than the 2013 version, simply because the team finished dead last in that category last fall. The return of Doug Martin from injury is sure to help, and it's hard to imagine a passing attack featuring Josh McCown, Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, Brandon Myers and Austin Seferian-Jenkins once again ranking 32nd.
Tampa Bay's defense finished 17th in the NFL rankings last year, roughly middle of the pack, and there was clearly some promise there even before the arrivals of Michael Johnson, Clinton McDonald and Alterraun Verner. There is less certainty in a rise in the rankings on that side of the ball, however, simply because of the superior starting place as compared to the offense. That said, it wouldn't surprise many of the Buccanees emerged as a top-10 defense in 2014.
What's a realistic goal for the improvement of those two rankings? If the Buccaneers merely finished 10th on defense and 20th on offense in 2014, that would be a combined improvement in the offensive/defensive rankings of 19 spots. And that would be tied for the second-largest season-to season jump in franchise history.
Below are the five (well, six, due to a tie) biggest improvements in combined offensive/defensive rankings from year to year in Buc annals. We considered only seasons in which both the offense and defense improved.
Now, these numbers represent the product of a team getting better, not the cause, so there's no surprise to see these seasons correlate with some of the bigger rebounds in team history. The 2007 team improved by five wins and made the playoffs; the 2010 team imrpoved by a whopping seven games and won 10, though a playoff spot barely eluded it; the 1979 season was the Bucs' first breakthrough, a 10-6 campagin followed by a playoff debut after a 5-11 1978.
What's striking is how up and down the Buccaners have been over the last eight years. Three of those six jumps occurred in that span, under three different head coaches. Obviously, that also means that whatever gains those teams made were not sustained for very long. Smith and Licht, of course, hope to match or exceed those rebounds without stumbling into the subsequent drop.
The two-season span that would seem to be a blueprint for what the Bucs might accomplish this year is 1978-79. The offensive started out at the very bottom of the league and improved to the virtual midpoint of the rankings, while an already strong defense put it all together and rose to the number-one ranking. A similar combination of improvements this year would put the Bucs at 18th on offense and 14th on defense, which seems like a perfectly attainable goal.
2. Foot in the Door
The Buccaneers will head into the 2014 with a new placekicker…not just a replacement kicker, but one who is completely new to the pressures of the NFL regular season. That young man is Patrick Murray, a first-year player out of Fordham who exudes a remarkable air of confidence. The mind is almost as important as the leg when it comes to determining the success of an NFL kicker, and the Bucs are banking on Murray being in total control of both.
K Patrick Murray would do well to follow in the path of Steve Christie, who went from undrafted underdog to kicking greatness in one season
Of course, all NFL kickers line up for their first real field goal try at some point, and a majority of them do so after beating out a veteran at some point. For some, it is the beginning of long NFL careers and their own repeated successes at fending off young suitors for their jobs. Murray won't be the first kicker ever to make his first regular-season field goal attempt in a Buccaneer uniform; he will, in fact, be the 10th. Here's everyone else who has done the same thing, listed with the year they made that first attempt and their final numbers from that season, as well as their career totals.
That's a fairly encouraging list, overall. Gramatica, Husted and Igwebuike all had long runs as the Bucs' kicker (and Gramatica and Husted continued their careers on other teams), while Christie and Carney had long careers that started in Tampa but mostly played out elsewhere. Carney is the most interesting entry of the bunch. He had two brief opportunities with the Buccaneers in '88 and '89, kicked around on several temas in '90 and then latched on in San Diego for 11 years. He had eight more years in New Orleans and was still kicking in 2010 at the age of 46.
Gramatica was a third-round draft pick, so he was expected to beat out first-year free agent Peter Elezovic, which he did. Igwebuike was also a draft pick, albeit a 10th-rounder in the days of 12-round NFL drafts, and he only had to beat out Ariri, who hardly had an iron grip on the job.
Husted and Christie are the most analogous to Murray, both coming in as undrafted free agents and beating out veteran incumbents. Husted had to beat out ageless veteran Eddie Murray (who would continue to find NFL jobs through 2001), while Christie had to beat out Igwebuike. Both did so with very good preseasons and training camps. Christie, in particular, was strong in his summer work, making all five of his field goal attempts, including tries from 54 and 50 yards, and blasting his kickoffs deep.
The Bucs would be thrilled if Murray worked out as well as Christie did. He followed up his great rookie camp by making 23 of 27 field goals and all kinds of all-rookie teams. His 85.2% success rate that year stood as the team's best in a single season for over two decades until Connor Barth finally broke it in 2011. Christie was strong again in 1991 and might have been the Bucs kicker for a long time if he hadn't taken the opportunity to jump to Buffalo in a Plan B free agency snafu in the spring of 1992.
There are, unsurprisingly, a few kickers who made their debuts as Bucs but didn't last long in the NFL. Ariri got just one year before being unseated by Igwebuike, who happened to be a childhood friend of his. Leavitt and Capece were a couple kickers the Bucs tried during the early years; they played during a time when field goal percentages were lower across the league, but still had pretty regrettable numbers. Taylor was an injury replacement near the end of '04 who had only previously kicked in the Arena League.
For the most part, however, when the Buccaneers have entered the season with a rookie kicker, they've been pleased with the results, not only that year but for a fairly long time to follow.
3. Halftime Adjustments
If the Buccaneers hope to improve on last year's 4-12 record, there's one thing they will have to do much better in 2014: Protect a lead.
Over the course of 16 games last season, Tampa Bay was outscored by 101 points (389-288), or roughly 6.3 points per game. Amazingly, they actually outscored their opponents in the first two quarters, 205-204. Obviously, that means things didn't go well when the teams came back out to the field after halftime.
In fact, the 2013 Buccaneers had a lead at halftime in exactly half of their games. They held on to win four of those, for a winning percentage of .500 that doesn't sound too horrible until it is compared to the rest of the league. Only Houston (0-6, .000), Tennesee (2-4, .333), Atlanta (2-3, .400) and Oakland (3-4, .429). Of all the teams that had at least eight halftime leads, only the Buccaneers failed to hold on to more than half of them.
That was not a problem that had plagued the Bucs before 2013. Over the previous three seasons (two under Raheem Morris, one under Greg Schiano), the team was a combined 12-3 with a halftime lead. From 1996 (the beginning of the Tony Dungy era) through 2012, the Buccaneers were a combined 96-22 when taking a lead into the second half, for a winning percentage of .814. Only in 1996 (3-3), 2006 (2-2) and 2009 (0-1) did they fail to win at least half of such games.
The good news for Buccaneer fans is that the team's new head coach presided over a team that was excellent at holding onto halftime leads over a nine-year period. Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears were 58-10 in that category from 2004-12, only once having a losing record (3-4 in 2007). Over his last two years at the helm in Chicago, Smith guided his team to a 16-2 record in such games. The Bears were also 19-0 in protecting halftime leads from 2005-06.