RB Warrick Dunn and the Bucs' running game hold the key to the second half of the season
From 1997 through 2000, what you might call the new Golden Era in Buccaneer football, Tampa Bay went 27-2 in games in which it had more takeaways than giveaways.
As overwhelming as that statistic is, it probably isn't a huge surprise to Head Coach Tony Dungy. Like most NFL head men, he preaches the overriding importance of turnovers – and avoiding them on offense – to his team.
And so it is one of the great positives of the Bucs' 2001 season that they currently lead the NFC and rank second in the NFL with a turnover ration of +11. The Bucs have won the takeaway-giveaway battle in six of their eight games, and tied it the other two, and have not had more than a single turnover in each of the last seven outings.
And it is also one of the great surprises of 2001 that those six positive turnover ratio games have resulted in just a 3-3 record, as the Bucs have opened up 4-4 overall.
Similarly, the Bucs are winning the ball-control battle, as well, which is usually another great indicator of success. Tampa Bay has possessed the football for an average of 31:07 per game, the ninth-best mark in the league. The eight clubs ahead of them, seven of which have winning records, reads like a who's who of the hot teams of 2001: Oakland, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Miami, Chicago and St. Louis.
So what are we saying? Let's put it this way: If you had told us before the season that the Buccaneers would be +11 in turnover ratio and well above average in time of possession at the season's midway point, we would have predicted the team would be in first place, perhaps in the 6-2 range.
"That's why we've had a chance to win some of the games that we've been close in and that's why we'll continue to be there in the second half of the year if we do that," said Dungy of the Bucs' turnover ratio. "If you keep taking the ball away and don't turn it over, you always have a chance to win."
But the Bucs are just 4-4, a notch below where they had hoped to be at the turn. Why?
The answer most likely lies in the running game, where the Bucs are talented but have been inconsistent both offensively and defensively. Over the past four seasons, as Tampa Bay has made the playoffs three times and narrowly missed a fourth berth in 1998, the Bucs have ranked in the top 15 in rushing offense each season, as high as fourth in '98. In that same span, Tampa Bay has ranked ninth or better every season in rushing defense, as high as fifth in 1999.
This year, the Bucs reached the midway point ranked 27th running the ball and 17th against the run. As much as Dungy believes in the importance of turnovers, he is doubly convinced that strength and efficiency on the ground is essential to a championship effort. A slew of strong running efforts around the NFL this past Sunday, most of them associated with victories, only helped underscore that thought.
"It's never been any different," said Dungy. "If you can run the ball well and defend the run well, you're going to be halfway home to winning it. We've got to run the ball much better in the second half and we've got to defend the run much better in the second half."
That appears to be the half of the equation the Bucs are missing, if you accept that turnovers and time of possession makes a good representation of the other half. Below is a chart of the 12 playoff teams from last team, showing their raw numbers for turnover ratio and time-of-possession, and their offensive and defensive rankings in the running game.
|Team||TO Ratio||T.O.P.||Rush Off.||Rush Def.|
Virtually all of the 2000 league leaders in those four categories appear in that list, with most teams excelling in at least all three categories, if not all. The numbers for the two Super Bowl teams at the top of the list, for instance, are excellent across the board.
There are several notable exceptions, as Indianapolis, St. Louis and Minnesota were all somewhat low in the turnover and time-of-possession ratio categories. Those were the three high-powered offensive clubs of the league who were well out of balance on defense.
Dungy's comments and the numbers in the table above give the unmistakable impression that turnovers and ball control are likely to produce victories if the running game is healthy. The Bucs hope to find that out in the second half of 2001, with Warrick Dunn continuing to recover from his nagging foot injury and the rebuilt offensive line developing into a more consistent unit.
The turnovers have been there all season and show no signs of slowing down – Tampa Bay has now intercepted a pass in 12 straight regular season games and has a total of 24 picks in its last 11 contests. The running game, on the other hand, has yo-yoed all season, from a low of 24 yards at Tennessee to 177 just three games ago. The Bucs struggled to move the ball on the ground in losing at Green Bay but had a decent 99-yard, 4.0-yard-per-carry day last Sunday in a win over Detroit.
So maybe we just chose the wrong indicator for success. Try this one on for size, instead:
Tampa Bay is 40-12 under Dungy when it runs for 100 or more yards in a game, 9-27 when it fails to reach that mark.