Whenever the ball has hit the ground this August, the Bucs have pounced on it
One hundred and twenty shopping days until Christmas. That may not be enough time for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to get in the spirit of giving.
The Buccaneers have been the Grinches of the NFL preseason, taking and taking and showing no remorse. In just four contests, Tampa Bay forced 17 turnovers, easily the highest total in the league, and six teams played five games. The Bucs forced 14 fumbles and recovered 11, the only team in double digits in that latter category.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense was guilty of just seven giveaways, not the lowest total in the league, but below the league average. It all added up to a phenomenal plus-10 turnover ratio, also the best in the NFL.
That click you heard was the last piece of the puzzle snapping into place.
Or so we hope.
"We really emphasized that in the offseason," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, who arrived in Tampa in 1996 with the reputation of a defensive mastermind. "We want to be efficient up front and take the ball away and not give it away. If we continue to do that and play like that then we are going to win a lot of games."
Of course he feels that way. There were several notable components to the defenses Dungy helped construct in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Minnesota, chief among them a strong pass rush, a stingy run defense and – here's the kicker – a preponderance of turnovers. And not just turnovers, but points-producing takeaways.
Read this line from Dungy's media guide bio: "…since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only nine teams have scored as many as seven defensive touchdowns in a season and four of those have come under Dungy's guidance."
In four seasons with the Vikings immediately before his relocation to Tampa, Dungy coordinated a defense that snared an NFL-best 95 interceptions. Stats like this build on endlessly in Dungy's bio.
Sure enough, Dungy and his right hand man, Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, wasted no time in sculpting the Bucs' defense into probably the league's best. Since those two arrived, the Bucs' have allowed the fewest yards per game and the fewest points per game in the NFL…hard to argue with those numbers.
But, strangely, the Bucs have done most of that damage without ranking among league leaders in turnovers, as you would expect from a Dungy squad. In fact, Tampa Bay is negative-12 in turnover ratio, overall, in Dungy's four seasons at the helm. But, perhaps the tide is turning and that missing link in the Bucs' defense has been found.
We are making this point, of course, because of the team's excellent turnover numbers in the preseason, as chronicled above. But we're not blinded by meaningless August stats. One can look back further and see that this trend has been building for more than just a month.
Over the course of the first nine games last season, the Buccaneers were a disastrous negative-13 in turnover differential and had converted their takeaways into just 23 points. From there until the end of the regular season, the Bucs were plus-nine in that department and were able to convert 19 takeaways into 64 points. That turnaround played no small role in the team's surge to the top of the NFC Central Division.
Then, in the playoffs, the Bucs came back for a 14-13 win over Washington and lost in the final minutes to St. Louis 11-6, making that headway in part because of a plus-two turnover ratio and 17 points scored off five takeaways. Segue now into the 2000 season, even if the games don't yet count, and the avalanche of turnovers is still picking up snow.
So why did we show a little bit of uncertainness above, even in the face of this avalanche? Because it seems like not even the head coach is convinced that the team has turned the corner in this category. Is it luck? Hustle? Coincidence? Practice? Twenty-five percent of each?
"I think it is coincidence," said Dungy, though he goes on to offer support for the other choices. "We've talked about it a lot, we've worked on it. We've done the same drills we've done since day one in '96. But the guys are playing with confidence, I think. They know the defense is better and they're playing very hard. That's what's making things happening. But somebody said the other night that we've had 10 balls on the ground and we've gotten them all. Some of that is a little bit of luck, but a lot of it is hustle and being in the right place.
Maybe there is no formula and the Bucs should just ride this hot streak as long as they can, right into the holiday season, if possible. Judging from Dungy's pre-Tampa Bay career, once that avalanche is unleashed, it's hard to stop.