- Both the Bucs and the Panthers have seen more than half of their passing yards go through their top two pass-catchers
- True playoff-spoiler opportunities for a Bucs team out of contention don't come along too frequently
- The most relevant example of a Tampa Bay team playing spoiler occurred against Washington in 1996
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 unabashedly 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 sampling of statistical and or historical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs. This week we note that both the Buccaneers and their Week 15 opponent, the Carolina Panthers, have a pair of players responsible for more than half of their receiving yards. Where do those two duos rank among the NFL in terms of their percentage of their team's passing attack? Also, we ran through four decades of Buccaneer football to find any instances in which a non-contending Tampa Bay team actually managed to spoil an opponent's postseason hopes. Let's get started.
1. Hogging the Yards
On Sunday, the Buccaneers will take on the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, and as noted in our Scouting Report on Thursday, the majority of the Panthers' passing attack goes through the duo of veteran tight end Greg Olsen and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Olsen (850) and Benjamin (848) have nearly identical receiving yardage totals, and together they account for 52.5% of Carolina's gross-yardage production through the air.
Of course, if the Buccaneers' defense is going to use that information to pay a little extra attention to Olsen and Benjamin, the Panthers' defense can probably choose to treat Tampa Bay's WR combo of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson the same way. Evans (935) and Jackson (861) also have similar yardage totals and also account for more than 50% of their team's gross aerial production. In fact, Evans and Jackson, at a combined 56.0% of the team's total, actually account for a higher percentage than do their Carolina counterparts.
Every team has two receiving yardage leaders, of course, but only 12 of the 32 teams see those two account for more than half of the team's total. The Buccaneers and Panthers are both in the top 10 in terms of the highest percentage produced by their top two contributors, but neither is particularly close to the top spot. In Houston, the wideout combo of DeAndre Hopkins and Calvin Johnson have provided nearly two-thirds of their team's total passing-game production. Below are all 32 teams ranked in order of what percentage of the team's total is provided by their top two receiving yardage contributors, from highest to lowest:
Just by their raw totals, Evans and Jackson are the 10th most productive pair of pass-catchers (in terms of yards) in the NFL, sitting 98 yards and two ranking spots ahead of Carolina's Olsen and Benjamin. The top pair is, unsurprisingly, Peyton Manning's two favorite targets in Denver, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. There are only five pairs on the list who have combined for more than 2,000 yards, and four of those five consist of two wide receivers. The fifth is Pittsburgh's combo of Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell, with Brown doing most of the heavy lifting.
There seems to be only a loose correlation between having two players dominate your passing attack and succeeding through the air overall. Five of the top 10 teams on the list above are also in the top five in the league's passing-yardage rankings (Denver, Atlanta, Green Bay, New England and Detroit. Add in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philly, and eight of the top 11 passing attacks in the league are among the first 13 teams listed above. However, the team with the stingiest duo, Houston, is only 24th in the NFL in passing, and the aerial attacks in Cincinnati, Carolina and San Francisco are rated relatively low as well.
WRs Mike Evans (13) and Vincent Jackson (83) have combined to produced 56% of the Bucs' passing yards
On the other hand, the bottom of this list does match up pretty well with the bottom of the league's passing-yardage rankings, with the obvious and gigantic exception of the New Orleans Saints. With Drew Brees spreading the ball around quite a bit – and with potential yardage leaders such as Brandin Cooks, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Thomas all missing significant time due to injury – the Saints have the league's third-best offense but a top duo that accounts for just 35.7% of their team total.
2. Spoiler Alert
The Bucs-Panthers game on Sunday will be a Week 15 clash of two teams with a combined six wins…and yet it is still a meaningful one in terms of the NFC playoff field. The Buccaneers were officially eliminated from the playoff hunt with their loss at Detroit last Sunday, but the Panthers remain very much in play for the NFC South title despite a 4-8-1 record. They stand just a half game behind New Orleans and Atlanta, and if they can win their final three they would just need one loss by the Saints to repeat as division champs.
Coincidentally, the Buccaneers could give the Panthers that last result they need. New Orleans plays at Raymond James Stadium on the final weekend of the regular season. In between those two division games, the Buccaneers also play the Green Bay Packers in Week 16 and thus could make a late impact in the NFC North title hunt as well.
In other words, the Buccaneers are in the role commonly referred to as "spoilers." It's not necessarily a term of which players are enamored – Gerald McCoy!(/team/roster/gerald-mccoy/10bb2de8-ba11-43ab-b888-2df842b03824/ "Gerald McCoy") didn't react too positively to it on Thursday – but it gets the point across. A team in Tampa Bay's situation can't extend its own season but it can still play a significant role in how the playoff chase plays out. And even if the Buccaneers aren't looking to help one specific team over another, they want to prove they can match the intensity and the production of those teams that are still in the running.
The Bucs are virtually guaranteed to be facing an opponent that is still alive in the playoff race each of the next three weeks (the Saints could conceivably drop out by Week 17 with two losses and two wins by the Falcons). That is really not that common of an occurrence in franchise history.
Forget for a moment the concept of "spoiling" another team's playoff hopes. Instead, let's look at all the instances in which, during the final three weeks of the season, a Buccaneers team that had already been eliminated from postseason contention faced a team that had not yet been eliminated. Because it would be prohibitively difficult and time-consuming to reconstruct the tiebreaker situations of each stretch run over the last four decades, we'll define this simply: If the Buccaneers were more games out of the final playoff spot than there were weeks left in the season, we'll consider them eliminated. And if their opponent was no farther behind the last playoff spot (or their own division's lead) than there were games remaining, we'll consider them still in contention.
Again, we're only considering the last three weeks of each season, and we're not concerned with whether the opposing team had already clinched a playoff spot or not. The Bucs notably won on the final week in Atlanta in 2012 and in New Orleans in 2009 against teams that had already clinched the NFC South title; in those cases, it's worth remembering that both the Falcons and Saints played their full complement of starters well into the fourth quarter.
By those definitions, the Buccaneers have played 36 such games over 38 previous seasons, including two last year. We'd love to tell you that the team has made good on dozens of chances to play spoiler, but as one would expect given the set-up of the question, most of those games have been Tampa Bay losses. The Bucs won six of those games; below we'll look at whether any of them ended up truly qualifying as spoilers.
Here are those 36 games, listing the season, the opponent, the week it happened ("3TL" for third-to-last week, "2TL" for second-to-last week or "Last" for final week) and the outcome:
W, 20-17 (OT)
L, 34-31 (OT)
L, 10-7 (OT)
L, 12-9 (OT)
As mentioned above, the road wins at Atlanta and New Orleans in 2012 and 2009, respectively, came against teams that had already clinched the division title, so the Buccaneers gave themselves a boost but didn't really play spoiler in those two instances. (In fact, the '09 Saints went on to win the Super Bowl).
In 1996, Washington was 8-5 and tied for first place in the NFC East with both Dallas and Philadelphia when they visited Tampa Stadium in Week 15. Those three teams also had a very good chance at one of three Wild Card spots, as the only non-division leader with a better record was the Carolina Panthers, at 9-4. The Buccaneers, finishing Tony Dungy's first season at the helm on a 5-2 run, defeated the Redskins, 24-10, to drop them to 8-6 and a game behind the Cowboys. At that point, Washington was in a three-way tie for the last two Wild Card spots with Philadelphia and Minnesota. Washington would follow with a loss to Arizona and a final-weekend win over Dallas to finish at 9-7. They would lose out on the final Wild Card spot on a tiebreaker with the Vikings, so it's fair to say that, in this case, the Buccaneers did help play spoiler in Week 15.
In 1993, in what still ranks as one of the more unexpected wins in team history, the 4-10 Buccaneers went to Denver to take on the 9-5 Broncos. Denver was a game behind Kansas City in the AFC West and also tied with two other teams with the best Wild Card records. Tampa Bay won the game, 17-10, which kept Denver from catching the Chiefs, who also lost that weekend. The Broncos also lost their last regular-season game to the Oakland Raiders in overtime but still managed to squeak into the playoffs at 9-7. So, while it was a big win for the Bucs, it did not ultimately keep Denver from its playoff goal.
In Week 14 of the 1998 season (before the NFL included bye weeks), the 3-10 Buccaneers welcomed the 11-2 Buffalo Bills to Tampa Stadium. That game remains a statistical anomaly because it is the only one in NFL history to finish in a 10-5 score. It also seems surprising in retrospect in that it was the Buccaneers who came out victorious over a team that would finish tied for the best record in football. Obviously, that means Tampa Bay's win didn't spoil the Bills playoff hopes, although one could argue that it played a role in the determination of the eventual AFC champion. Buffalo and Cincinnati tied for the top mark in the AFC at 12-4 each but Cincinnati got the top seed thanks to a head-to-head victory in Week 13. Both teams advanced to the conference title game, which was played in Cincinnati, where the Bengals prevailed, 21-10. Had Buffalo finished 13-3, they might have ended up with home field advantage in that critical game.
Finally, in 1977, a 7-6 St. Louis Cardinals team came to Tampa in the final week to face a Buccaneers squad that had just won for the first time in franchise history, at New Orleans the Sunday before. The Cardinals had no shot at the NFC East title but were one game behind Washington and either Chicago or Minnesota (who were tied atop the NFC Central) in the race for the lone Wild Card spot. While we didn't do the research to determine if the Cardinals still had a shot in the tiebreaker scenarios to win that Wild Card berth, it became a moot point when Washington, Chicago and Minnesota all won that week. Thus, it proved to have no effect on the playoff race when the Buccaneers stretched their first-ever winning streak to two games with a 17-7 decision over the Cardinals.