The Bucs celebrated a big victory in Baton Rouge Sunday but aren't doing cartwheels over a guaranteed non-losing season
Nobody in the NFL plans for 9-7.
No coach in the NFL has ever kicked off training camp with a speech about the glorious possibility of a Wild Card round playoff exit.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to be more specific, didn't survey their 7-9 and 5-11 records of the past two seasons and decide that anything above .500 in 2005 would suit them just fine.
In other words, don't ask Head Coach Jon Gruden if winning eight games – and thus guaranteeing the club's first non-losing season since the 2002 Super Bowl campaign – feels like some sort of an accomplishment. The Bucs improved to 8-4 with their win in Baton Rouge on Sunday.
"It's not the greatest day of my life, winning eight games," he growled. "You're only going to be judged on winning Super Bowls, as far as I am concerned. We don't have Gator Bowls or Bluebonnet Bowls, or any other gifts or wrist watches that we are going to get for having a winning season, or becoming bowl eligible."
Of course, most teams that go from losing records to Super Bowl rings do have bridge seasons, campaigns that demonstrate improvement without getting near the brass ring. The Indianapolis Colts, steaming towards a possibly undefeated regular season this year, went from 6-10 in 2001 to 10-6 in '02 but lost 41-0 in the playoffs to the Jets. The next two seasons produced 12-4 records but playoff losses to the New England Patriots. Now the Colts have replaced the Pats as the team to beat in the AFC.
It's a recognizable pattern and actually quite predictable. It's just not necessarily the plan. Most teams would prefer the blueprint of the 1998-99 Rams, who went from 4-12 in '98 to 13-3 and Super Bowl glory when they found out-of-the-blue league MVP Kurt Warner under a rock.
The Bucs almost sent The Greatest Show on Turf home in the NFC Championship Game that year. Had Tampa Bay held on for the 6-5 win in St. Louis on that afternoon, it's doubtful the Rams would have been satisfied with their season. Team management might not have been shocked had the Rams finished under .500 that season – after all, they had averaged exactly five wins a year over the past nine years and had lost their free agent quarterback signee Trent Green to a preseason injury – but once the winning started no one expected it to stop.
That's how teams can acknowledge positive growth in their fortunes without admitting to being satisfied. The Bucs know that this season already represents a step in the right direction for a franchise that had to get younger, deeper and more well-rounded. Just don't call it a success yet.
"We had to rebuild our team in a lot of ways," Gruden acknowledged. "We played a lot of young players. We have a back-up quarterback, a back-up kicker [playing]. We've played a number of guys. They are out there competing every week. It's a big accomplishment to win a football game in this league. I think a lot of coaches, and people who follow other teams know the best of that."
Still, young or old, starter or backup, the Bucs aren't satisfied with merely winning a few more games than some expected. They want 8-4 to be the beginning of the journey, not the end.
"Four games left, two on the road, two at home," summarized Gruden. "We want to get into the tournament, and win the Super Bowl. That's the only goal we have here. I couldn't care less about five wins, or eight wins, or 10 wins. If you get to the playoffs and don't advance, it's not a very happy ending."
Bidwell Leads Voting
Josh Bidwell is having perhaps the finest season by a punter in Buccaneers franchise history. By the time it's over, he could be the first Pro Bowl punter the team has ever had.
Call it the final frontier, as far as Bucs in the all-star game go. Every other position on the team has been represented in the Pro Bowl for Tampa Bay at some point, at least as long as one thinks of the offensive line as one position. No Buc punter has ever gone, but Bidwell currently leads the NFC in fan voting at his position.
The NFL has released the results of balloting for the 2006 Pro Bowl through Monday. That voting will continue on NFL.com in stadiums and through wireless services through next Tuesday, December 13, but it's Bidwell's lead to lose.
As of Monday, Bidwell actually led all NFL punters with 175,229 fan votes. The AFC leader was Oakland's Shane Lechler, a two-time Pro Bowler who had 155,006 votes.
The Bucs did not have a voting leader at any other position. However – and this is good news for the rest of the Bucs and a note of caution for Bidwell – the final Pro Bowl selections are the result of a combined vote between the fans, players and coaches. Each group's composite ballot counts as one-third of the overall decision, with the fan vote serving as the tiebreaker. NFL players and coaches will cast their ballots next week. Also good news for other Bucs: At some positions, such as cornerback and wide receiver, there are several players voted in. The league's release only listed the single top vote-getter at each spot.
Despite his least successful day of the season at Baton Rouge on Sunday, Bidwell still ranks first in the NFC and second in the NFL with a 46.1-yard gross. That and his 38.0-yard net through 12 games would be new franchise single-season records if they held up. The current team standards are Tom Tupa's 43.3-yard gross in 2003 and Tommy Barnhardt's 37.8-yard net in 1996.
The overall league leader in votes through Monday was Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. His 812,503 votes gives him a slight edge over the 787,512 drawn by Seattle Seahawks' running back Shaun Alexander. As usual, the top 10 vote-getters are all offensive players; the remaining eight, in order, are LaDainian Tomlinson, Chad Johnson, Antonio Gates, Carson Palmer, Edgerrin James, Jeremy Shockey, Marvin Harrison and Steve Smith.
The Bucs had two Pro Bowl selections last year: CB Ronde Barber and LB Derrick Brooks. The last special teams player to make the Pro Bowl for the Buccaneers was K Martin Gramatica in 2000.
The Buccaneers beat the Saints by a 10-3 score on Sunday, marking the 22nd time in team history that they have held an opponent to three or fewer points. Of course 14 of those 22 shutouts or near shutouts have come in the past nine seasons, since the team's resurgence in 1997.
Sunday's stifling of the Saints was built on the performance of one of its all-time great defenders, as cornerback Ronde Barber had the second three-interception day in franchise history (and his own career). But by necessity three-point games are team efforts and the Bucs also prevailed on Sunday thanks to their defensive depth.
Several young players who may be at the center of the team's defensive efforts within a few seasons came up big in Baton Rouge. Rookie linebacker Barrett Ruud played a portion of the game while Shelton Quarles was sidelined with an injury and didn't allow a dropoff in the middle of the defense. Reserve end Dewayne White gave the Bucs some much-needed sub snaps despite playing through a tweaked hamstring. And reserve tackle Ellis Wyms had one of the game's hardest hits when he broke up an Aaron Brooks pass and nearly caused a fumble in the backfield in the second quarter.
"Barrett did a good job," said Gruden. "We need him to play good for us. He's replacing a guy who's had a great season. But I thought he stepped in there in the running game and stuffed some holes and looked physical. I thought he did a good job, showed poise and athleticism. Dewayne White, although he was nicked up yesterday and it was questionable whether or not he'd play, he had some good snaps. And Ellis Wyms is a talented guy who is capable of really being a very good player. We've leaned on our depth this year in all phases of our football."
Some defensive injuries also made the Bucs a little thin in the kicking game. In addition to the obvious absence of kicker Matt Bryant, the Bucs were without two second-year players who usually fill key roles on special teams, safety Will Allen and linebacker Marquis Cooper. Their replacements played well as the Bucs mostly held New Orleans' return game in check.
"Special teams was really slighted with the number of guys who we didn't have go," said Gruden. "Guys like [Wesly] Mallard and Donte Nicholson stepped in and made some key plays for us."