On Monday night, the 64,000 fans at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' sold-out game against the Indianapolis Colts were treated to a burst of fireworks to accompany the national anthem. That was a new addition to the show.
Once the game began, those same fans were treated to quite a few offensive fireworks, as well. That wasn't exactly new, but it was, in the end, unprecedented in terms of how many shells were fired off. The Buccaneers' 466 total yards of offense in their 24-17 victory over the Colts were the most the team has ever posted in a home game, covering 35-and-one-quarter-seasons and 277 different outings.
This probably comes as something of a surprise, even to those who followed and enjoyed every minute of the game. The cynic might say, with some merit, that the most prolific offensive home game (in yards) in team history should have been a bit more obvious on the scoreboard. Tampa Bay coaches would certainly agree that score-depressing elements such as penalties and red zone issues need to be corrected…but then again, given Head Coach Raheem Morris' "Stats Are for Losers" position, the conversation probably wouldn't get past the mention of 466 yards.
The previous Buccaneer record for most yards gained in a home game was 464, set against the Washington Redskins on December 4, 1994. That was a great offensive night for a team that did not have a particularly great offense. Errict Rhett carried the ball 40 times for 192 yards and the Bucs had to rally in that one, too, for a 26-21 win. The Bucs finished with the NFL's 20th-ranked offense that year and scored a little fewer than 16 points a game.
The next game on the list after that one is the 1987 season opener, in which Steve DeBerg set a team record with five touchdown passes (since equaled once each by Brad Johnson and Josh Freeman) as the Bucs thrashed the Falcons, 48-10. The 460 yards did translate into a lot of points on that afternoon, but by season's end the Bucs were still ranked 27th in offense in the NFL.
The question is, is this season different – is this offense, which would seem to have many years together on the horizon, different – or was Monday night's game another anomaly like the two it bested? Right now, the Bucs are tied for 16th in the league in the offensive rankings and are trending upward. They are averaging 352.8 yards per game, which if maintained or improved over the course of the season would easily be a franchise record.
The reason for optimism in the long-term, both in regards to the rest of the season and the rest of the decade, is balance. The Buccaneers have developed (and are still developing) a mostly young offense that is deep and diverse in its weaponry. When it all comes into play in a single game, it can accomplish quite a bit. Let's look at the skill-position parts:
- An efficient quarterback, Josh Freeman, who can make all the throws, avoids the turnover and has a knack for converting critical third downs with his feet. We could obviously expound quite a bit more on what Freeman brings to the table – his performance at crunch time is remarkable, for instance – but that latter point about his running deserves more attention than it gets. Last year, Freeman took off running on third down 25 times and converted it into a new set of downs an astounding 19 times. Freeman has converted at least one third down with a rushing attempt in 14 straight games. His most recent one came on the game-winning drive against the Colts in the fourth quarter, when he escaped the pocket on third-and-seven and scrambled up the middle. A diving defender clipped one of his ankles from behind when he was still five yards from the line, but Freeman managed to take another step and then launch a fully-extended dive to get the necessary yards. "When you've got to do it, you've got to do it," said Freeman. "I obviously don't like to run, but I'm kind of good at it. It's whatever it takes to win."
- A workhorse running back, LeGarrette Blount, who gives the play-action teeth, is particularly lethal in the opening field and is an absolute game-closer when it's tight in the second half. Last year, Blount led the NFL in broken tackles, with 29, despite playing essentially two-thirds of the season. Over the last five weeks of the 2010 regular season, he was the NFL' leader with 511 rushing yards, averaging 5.9 per tote. The Bucs' offense got away from his part of the playbook in a season-opening loss to Detroit, but in the three wins since he has averaged 93 yards per game, 4.5 yards per rush and one touchdown per game. For the second straight game, Blount was a force at the end even when the opposition knew he was coming, as the Bucs ran out the clock on offense against both Atlanta and Indy. "We embrace the four-minute drill," said Morris. "That's where you want to be in football games, especially when you got a great offense, and we're working our way to becoming a great offense. So we want to be in four-minute offense with LeGarrette Blount and Josh Freeman making smart decisions."
- A versatile reserve back, Earnest Graham, who moves the chains. Graham had his typical, sneakily-important performance in the Bucs' wins over Atlanta and Indianapolis. Against the Falcons, he touched the ball nine times and produced 36 yards on runs and receptions, many of them converting third downs. Against the Colts, he touched the ball five times on runs and catches and produced 51 yards, once again catching Freeman's eye in crunch time. On the two-minute drill in the first half that produced a field goal that was ultimately erased by a penalty, Graham caught four passes (one erased by a penalty) and also contributed a 20-yard run.
- One of the league's best pass-catching tight ends, Kellen Winslow. On Monday night, Winslow caught five passes for 33 yards, marking the 80th straight game played in which he has hauled in at least one pass. Winslow is also a key part of the team's ability to convert third downs at a 44% clip this year, as he ranks fifth in the entire NFL in third-down catches since 2009, with 55. Winslow also ranks third in catches and fourth in yards among all tight ends since 2006. Freeman hasn't gotten Winslow into the end zone yet this year, but the tight end had five TDs in each of his first two seasons as a Buccaneer.
- A number-one receiver, Mike Williams, who draws a lot of attention from the opposing defense, can fight off defenders for the football and has a nose for the end zone. Last year, as a rookie, Williams broke the Buccaneers' team record with 11 touchdown receptions. He opened the 2011 season in similar fashion, with a touchdown catch against Detroit, and had an acrobatic scoring grab in Minnesota called back by an unrelated penalty. Williams is in a three-game TD "drought," in part perhaps because opposing defenses have been rolling their coverage in his direction, but he obviously remains Freeman's favorite downfield target. Against the Colts, Williams contributed five catches for 66 yards.
- A complementary starting receiver, Arrelious Benn, who has a knack for the big play. Benn, the Bucs' second-round pick in 2010, has not yet broken out as a five-catch-per-game receiver – probably due in part to how many different weapons Freeman has – but when he touches the football good things usually happen. On his 34 career receptions, Benn has averaged 15.0 yards per grab, which is the best mark among all of the Bucs' currently-active pass-catchers. Against the Vikings, his one catch was a 25-yard touchdown during Tampa Bay's amazing second-half comeback. Against the Colts, his lone grab was a 43-yarder that provided more than half of the distance on the 81-yard march that resulted in the home team's first touchdown.
- A slot receiver, Preston Parker, who adeptly exploits the open zones on the field and seems to come up big whenever Freeman needs him. This same role might have been occupied by Sammie Stroughter in the season's first month, but Stroughter hurt his foot on a 78-yard kickoff return to start he season and hasn't played since. Parker has stepped in more than ably; in fact, he actually leads all Buccaneer wideouts with 16 catches for 232 yards. Again, this is somewhat the result of the attention that teams are paying to Williams when the Bucs need a big play, but Parker gets credit for making the most of those opportunities.
Left tackle Donald Penn has certainly appreciated what Parker has brought to the field, but his postgame remarks on the young receiver Monday night serve to advance the overall point being made here, as well. Said Penn:
"[Parker] is always showing up and making big plays. When his number's called, he's there and making it happen for us. He's a big part of this team. He stepped in for Sammie. That's how I got my spot. Somebody gets hurt, you've got to step in. Raheem says the same thing all the time. Somebody gets hurt, the next guy has to play better. Preston's coming in making a lot of stuff happen, making a lot of stuff happen everywhere, [even] some of the smaller stuff you all don't see, [like] blocking. He does a lot of stuff and it's helping us win. Everybody is climbing aboard this boat and we're getting it going."