Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Shocking Seasons

This week, fan-submitted topics including the most surprising seasons of the last two decades and several more alternate scenarios for using the first-overall pick in the draft.

Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from Buccaneer fans.  This week, we begin with a look through the specific Buc seasons of the past 20-odd years that have turned out much differently than expected and choose one campaign for the top spot. That is followed, as usual, by more talk about the 2015 draft and the Bucs' plans for the #1 pick.


1. Hey Scott, I've heard it mentioned in the pewter panel shows that you've been around for a while – I mean, with the team. So here's my question. Which Buccaneers season since you got here surprised you the most. Good or Bad. You know, which season turned out far differently by the end from what you expected before it started. I hope you answer my question. I tried to ask something like this of the Answer man (gosh, I wonder who THAT was) a few years ago but never got in. Now I'm trying you. Thanks. Oh, and to make things more interesting, don't say the Super Bowl year.- Ryan Skinner, via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com

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Oh, man, I love this question! Really. I don't understand why the Answer Man (cough, cough) would have passed on it. He must have been overworked at the time.

Seriously, this is a great question with a lot of possible answers. Since Ryan is asking me to choose from among the seasons I've been with the team, we're looking at the window over 1992-2014. Plenty of good choices there. Here are some seasons I considered before landing on my final answer, which you'll see at the end:

1997: It's not that the Bucs finally turned things around after 14 losing seasons and made the playoffs this year. That was wonderful, but there was a strong feeling during the second half of 1996 – Tony Dungy's first season as the head coach and Malcolm Glazer's second as the owner – that something really good was just around the corner. What I'm sure no one foresaw, however, was the way the Buccaneers burst out of the gate with five straight wins, landing Warrick Dunn on the cover and taking away any surprise factor to the team being a playoff contender. The season-opening win over San Francisco was a great tone-setter and that first month-plus was a wonderful ride.

2002: I couldn't pick this one as my answer even if I wanted to because Ryan took it off the table. And, honestly, it wouldn't have been my #1 choice. Now, some might say that any season in which the Super Bowl is won by a franchise that had never even been in the championship game before has to be considered a big surprise, and that's fair. But the Buccaneers had been to the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons, had made it to within a few minutes of the Super Bowl in 1999 and had a star-studded defense that was clearly one of the league's best. After an opening-game stumble against the Saints, Jon Gruden's team began to assert itself early, particularly on defense. I would admit that the Bucs only became thought of as prime Super Bowl candidates gradually, but in retrospect they were clearly one of the teams to beat all along, if only for that lights-out defense.

2005: The Bucs lost 11 games the year before, including the last four, and had seen the offense take a big step backwards. The QB situation was murky, with veteran Brian Griese on hand and the young Chris Simms waiting in the wings. The NFC South looked like it was going to be strong from top to bottom. Thankfully, rookie RB Cadillac Williams revved the Bucs' engines right out of the gate, running wild during a 4-0 start that returned the franchise to contender status for the first time since early in 2003. The Bucs' defense, thought by some to be on a gradual decline, rebounded to earn the league's #1 ranking for the first time since 2002. Even after Griese was lost for the season to a knee injury in Game Six, the Bucs rolled on behind Simms, who had the one really strong stretch of his NFL career. The Bucs were 7-4 after 12 weeks but they faced a grueling three-road-games-in-15-days hurdle right at the start of the playoff stretch run. A victory over the struggling Saints in Baton Rouge (the Superdome had been badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina) was followed by a huge test at Carolina, which the Bucs passed with a 20-10 win to take over first place. Tampa Bay would go on to win the division, and even though the playoffs proved to be a one-and-done affair, the team's 2005 division title was a pretty nice surprise.

**

2006:** Of course, all of the above made '06 a bit of a shocker, too. The Bucs came into this one thinking they were strong contenders, and that Simms would nail down the starting job for a long time. Instead, Simms struggled out of the gate and then suffered a horrible spleen injury in Week Three. The Bucs had to turn to sixth-round rookie Bruce Gradkowski under center, and while he had some impressive moments it was an awful lot to ask to keep the Bucs in contention. That dream died early, anyway, with a four-game losing streak to start the season, and the '06 Bucs limped to a 4-12 finish before returning to contender status the next year.

2008: I don't think this whole season was much of a shock, just the last month. The Bucs were 9-3 heading into December, with six wins in their last seven outings, and they thought they were headed to the postseason for the third time in a four-year span. Then it all went south with four straight losses, each one increasingly frantic as an almost sure playoff berth slipped away. It was open news that Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin would be leaving to join his son, Lane, at USC after the season, and the Bucs' defense was particularly rough in December. About three weeks into the ensuing offseason, the team added to the surprise, to some at least, by moving on from Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen.

2010: The Bucs won just three games in Raheem Morris's first season at the helm, and they were heading into 2010 with a green second-year man at quarterback in Josh Freeman. The franchise was definitely expecting improvement, but what it got was the biggest season-over-season improvement in team history, a seven-win jump to 10-6. Freeman had the best season of his career and the rookie duo of RB LeGarrette Blount and WR Mike Williams became instant contributors to a surprisingly effective offense.

It was a shame that the Bucs' 10 wins didn't end in a playoff invite – that went to the 10-6 Packers, the eventual champs, on a third-level tiebreaker – but at least it appeared as if the immediate future was bright.

2011: Ah, but not so fast. Morris's 2011 team was "youngry" and confident, and it got out to a 4-2 start. Then the wheels came completely off and the season ended with 11 straight losses. I can tell you that, as numb as everyone felt by December, nobody saw that coming in September.

Okay, all good candidates, but my final answer to your question, Ryan, is…

2003: Everyone knows that repeating as Super Bowl champs has become extremely difficult in the NFL's modern days of parity. Still, the Buccaneers were in possession of the Lombardi Trophy heading into 2003 and many of the players on the team privately believed that the '03 team was even better than the '02 squad. It certainly looked that way when the team opened the season in Philadelphia's new stadium on Monday Night Football and promptly let the air out of the Linc with a dominant 17-0 shutout. Week Two brought a stirring comeback against Carolina that nearly ended in a 10-9 win before Martin Gramatica's extra point in the final minute was blocked and the Bucs lost in overtime. Two weeks later came one of the most infamous nights in team history, a Monday Night Football matchup with Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts that appeared to be well in hand until Manning led his team to three touchdowns in the final five minutes. The Bucs lost that one in overtime, and even though they would come back with a 35-13 victory over Washington the next week, the tenor of the season had changed. The Bucs were 3-2 but felt like they should have been 5-0, and injuries were starting to mount, including key ones to Mike Alstott and Joe Jurevicius that occurred on the very same play. The Bucs were 7-7 and on the fringes of playoff contention with two weeks to go but then limped to a 7-9 finish, giving them no chance to defend their title. You could not have convinced me on the Tuesday after that opener in Philly that the Buccaneers would miss the playoffs in 2003, let alone finish with a losing record.

Thanks again for the great question, Ryan. If I ever see the Answer Man again, I'll let him know he was a fool for passing on that one.


2 and 3. Scott, Has the Bucc's organization thought about drafting L. Collins from Alabama? They could convert him to strong side linebacker to cover Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, and all the other good tightends that pick us apart.- Aaron, via email to tbbsocial@buccaners.nfl.com

…and… I understand why most Bucs fans want to draft a QB with the #1 pick, but I truly believe the best player in the draft is Stanford LT Andrus "The Giant" Peat. If we traded back up into the 1st round to select Miami ILB Denzel Perryman then we can have a Ravens Ogden/Lewis type of draft. I don't see us having any problems finding a trading partner, so do you pull off trade with no legit clear cut Andrew Luck type of talent at QB this year?- Anonymous, via email to tbbsocial@buccaners.nfl.com

I lumped these two together because they both are advocating the use of the Buccaneers' first-overall pick on something other than a quarterback. Now, the Bucs have not said (of course) that they are going to pick a QB at #1, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a mock-drafter who thinks otherwise. It's natural, then, for Tampa Bay fans who are not sold on the idea of Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston to propose some alternate ideas. I've already written about the concept of trading down in several previous mailbags, for instance.

Here we have one vote for Alabama safety Landon Collins and one for Stanford tackle Andrus Peat. Both are expected to be first-round picks and, in fact, you'll see Collins land in some top-10s, most commonly in connection with the Bears at #7. Peat is more commonly predicted to land in the second half of the opening round, as he's part of a class of offensive linemen that is fairly deep but not top-heavy. Right now Peat doesn't seem to be considered the top prospect at his admittedly very important position, but that could definitely change over the next couple months. He is seen by some as a great talent but still very much a work in progress.

I've said before that I'm not going to get into the prediction business for the Bucs' draft picks, but we can still discuss the relative likelihood of these two scenarios, starting with Aaron's take on Landon Collins. I have a couple of issues here. First, is a conversion for Collins from safety to linebacker in the NFL – a la Thomas Davis – really realistic? I know he has the size of a smallish linebacker, and the Bucs have certainly had success with that type of build in the middle of their defenses in the past, but I haven't seen much discussion of teams being interested in doing that. I'm not going to pretend I've personally scouted Collins, but most of what you can read online suggests that if he has a weaker area of his game it's in pass coverage, and specifically man-on-man work against tight ends. Is he really suited for the role you describe, Aaron? I'm not sold on that.

Second, you're suggesting that the Buccaneers use a high first-round pick on strongside linebacker, which has never been considered one of the most important positions in the Tampa Two defense. The SAM linebacker is usually the one that comes off the field in nickel packages and thus only plays 40-50% of the snaps in any given game. Even during the peak of the Buccaneers' defensive dominance, from 1997-2005, the team commonly found new and relatively low-cost solutions for the position, going from Rufus Porter to Jeff Gooch to Shelton Quarles to Alshermond Singleton to Ryan Nece to Ian Gold and back to Ryan Nece. The Bucs probably have just such a solution already on hand in Danny Lansanah who, it should be noted, tied for the NFL lead among linebackers last year with three interceptions. I just can't see the Buccaneers using such an important draft asset on that position.

And third, were the Bucs' struggles against tight ends really as pronounced as you make them out to be, Aaron? According to Football Outsiders, the Bucs had a 6.5% DVOA against tight ends in 2014, which is not great but wasn't among the 10 worst in the league. The Bucs' pass defense actually ranked worse against #1 and #2 receivers. Tampa Bay gave up an average of 59.0 yards per game to tight ends; the league average was 50.8.

There was no name attached to the second email, but that Buccaneer fan has clearly been putting a lot of thought into this issue, as his or her solution involves not one but two trades. First the team would move down to position itself for Peat, then it would trade back up to nab LB Denzel Perryman. All of which would create a replay of the Baltimore Ravens' 1996 first round in which they got Jonathan Ogden fourth and Ray Lewis 26th. So, yeah, this fan is setting the bar just a wee bit high – Ogden is in the Hall of Fame already and there is no doubt that Lewis will join him.

Unless Peat's stock rises dramatically, the Buccaneers wouldn't even have to remain in the top 10 or 15 to get him, which means once again we're talking about a pretty big trade down. I'm not going to rehash the same argument I've already made twice, but to put it simply any team that wants to leap up more than a few spots to #1 is going to have to pay very, very dearly. That's why I find that scenario unlikely. That's especially true if you follow the internal logic of this very question-slash-scenario, which states that there is no Andrew Luck type available this year. I'm not saying I agree with that, but if it were true, then why would another team pay through the nose to get to #1.

Perryman sure does seem like a nice prospect, though, and there's a good chance the Bucs will have a need at that spot. I notice, however, that he's not included in every first-round mock draft I see. Perhaps, if he is a good fit for the team, the Bucs can simply sit put at #34 and get him there.

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at *tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.*

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