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For most NFL teams, in most in-season weeks, Tuesday is the player's day off. It's a chance to rest, regroup and – win or lose the previous weekend – turn the page to the next opponent.
It's also a perfect time for us to discuss the hottest topics surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And for that reason, the One Buc Mailbag is back! Every Tuesday, I'll be fielding a handful of questions from the fans, but you can send them in all throughout the week. The easiest way is to hit me up on Twitter (@ScottSBucs, using #BucsMailbag), but if 280 characters aren't quite enough to get your point across, you can also send an email to email@example.com.
This week, we discuss fourth-down strategy, Hall of Fame candidates and next year's draft. Let's get to it.
1. Kick It Instead?
I've heard all the discussion over the fourth-and-one call in the Atlanta game…..was it a good call or not….was it just execution…..were there shorter options for Fitzpatrick to throw to instead of Cam Brate and all that. I get that. I think those are fair questions and I personally didn't love the play call. But at the time htat was all going on, that wasn't the thing I was yelling at the TV. I thought the Bucs should kick a field goal there to make it 27-23 because they were going to need two scores to win the game anyway. There was still something like eight minutes left in the game. What do you think? Would it have made sense to kick a field goal there?
Anyway, Go Bucs!
Terry Williams (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
I imagine most Buccaneer fans know what Terry is talking about, but here's quick summation for any readers who do not. In Sunday's game at Atlanta, the Buccaneers put together two long touchdown drives in the second half to turn a 27-6 laugher into a 27-20 game that probably had some fans in the stands getting a little nervous. Atlanta looked to be on the verge of restoring a two-score lead when they drove inside the Buccaneers' 20 with 12 minutes to play, but Kendell Beckwith caused a fumble by Terron Ward and Brent Grimes scooped it up, getting back to the Bucs' 42 on his return. From there, a 19-yard pass to Adam Humphries and a 13-yard strike from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Mike Evans on third-and-11 put the Bucs in scoring range. On first-and-10 from the 27, Jacquizz Rodgers ripped off an eight-yard run to make it second-and-two at the 19. Things looked pretty good for the Buccaneers at that point.
And then everything went south. Set up perfectly to take a shot at the end zone the Bucs called a double-move route to DeSean Jackson but it was incomplete. Now interested in moving the sticks, the Bucs' threw a short pivot route to Adam Humphries but he was stopped for a gain of just one. Head Coach Dirk Koetter had already decided at that point that he would go for it on fourth down if third down didn't get the job done. Unfortunately, the fourth-down play failed, too, as Fitzpatrick's pass to Cameron Brate over the middle was broken up by Keanu Neal. Quick pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick from Dontari Poe didn't help, either.
That came with 7:05 left. Atlanta took the ensuing possession down the field and scored a clinching touchdown, so that fourth down play was really the Bucs' last chance.
Now, I think Terry is suggesting that a safer strategy would have been to kick a field goal to make it 27-23 and then try to get the ball back for a game-winning score instead of a game-tying one. Obviously, that strategy would be dependent upon stopping the Falcons, but the Buccaneers would have had to do that anyway if they had successfully tied the game at 27-27.
I get it, Terry, but I can't agree. My main argument would be simple: When you change the score from 27-20 to 27-23 with seven minutes to go, you haven't really changed what you need to do in those last seven minutes. You still need to get the ball back without allowing a score and you still need to score a touchdown. If the score had been, say, 27-23 at the time, I might be on board because changing it to 27-26 would mean you would only need a field goal if you managed to get a stop on defense in time.
Had the Buccaneers converted that fourth down, assuming they did so without scoring a touchdown, they still would have had possession and likely would have needed several more plays to score. Those extra plays also would have most likely drained the clock of several more minutes. If Atlanta got the ball back with, say, three or four minutes left instead of seven, it becomes a little bit easier of a job for the Buccaneers' defense to get a stop. Not easy, of course, but easier. If they succeed in doing that, the game is probably going to overtime, where anything can happen.
Also, just generally speaking, I'm in favor of aggressive decision-making on short fourth downs in scoring territory. The Bucs didn't convert that one, but teams have a high success rate on fourth-and-one attempts. This year, the overall league conversion mark on fourth-and-one is 65.2%. The Bucs had previously converted on their only other one of the season. That number has held remarkably steady in recent years; in every season dating back through 2012, the NFL as a whole has converted on somewhere between 63 and 66% on fourth-and-one. The Bucs should have been confident that they would succeed on that play, as I'm sure they were. Going for it here was the right move.
2. Next Stop, Canton?
I know I answered a question about the Hall of Fame just last week, but this is different. That one was about the chances of three Buccaneers to make it past the initial list of 2018 candidates into the semifinalist group of 25. It's a significant step that will be followed in January by a cut down to 15 finalists.
My thought was that safety John Lynch and Ronde Barber were locks to make it to the group of 25 (it actually ended up at 27 because of some ties in the voting) but that defensive end Simeon Rice, while deserving, had a 50-50 shot. This was on Tuesday afternoon; on Tuesday night, we got the good news. All three made the cut!
Lynch seemed like a sure thing because he had been a semifinalist each of his first five years on the ballot and a finalist each of the last four. I have been in many debates over the last year about whether Barber was a sure thing for the Hall or not – or even a first-ballot lock as the folks who tweeted this question believe – but just the fact that everybody agrees he's in the conversation told me the semifinalist step would be no issue. Rice was the real victory because two years ago he wasn't even nominated and last year he was only included in the original list of 100+ nominees.
But now we can move on to the next step in the debate, as framed by the Jimenez Family above. Now that Lynch, Barber and Rice have moved on to the next step, what are their chances of making the Hall? To address that would be to skip a step – will they make it to the 15 finalists – but we'll just discuss it all together.
Just so that nothing that follows is misinterpreted, let me make myself clear: I think all three should be in the Hall of Fame. I could go on at great length about the qualifications of all three, and in fact I have (with help) already done that on Lynch and Rice and plan to do so on Barber in January. For the moment, let me make a one-sentence argument for each:
Lynch:** A four-time Hall finalist, he was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection who was considered one of the most feared hitters in NFL history.
Barber: The only player in NFL history with at least 45 interceptions and at least 25 sacks, he was a five-time All-Pro who was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s.
Rice: He was the best pass-rusher in the league for nearly a decade, leading the NFL with 101.5 sacks in an eight-year period from 1998-2005.
Okay, so are we clear here? Any reservations I have about any of them making the Hall of Fame are based on what I fear could be used against them.
At the moment, you have to believe Lynch is the closest, given his four times as a finalist. When he made that prestigious list for the first time in 2014, he was one of 17 finalists, including former teammate Derrick Brooks, who made it in as a first-ballot choice. Since then, every single one of those 2014 finalists has been elected to the Hall except Lynch. That includes kicker Morten Anderson, punter Ray Guy and some players who had gone through lengthy waits of their own, such as Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Charles Haley, Kevin Greene and Andre Reed. Greene is a good example; it would take him two more years to be elected as he got in on his fifth try as a finalist.
Barber has the best statistical case, given his amazing longevity and games-started streak, the INTs-Sacks note above, his 14 touchdowns and his incredibly high tackle total for a cornerback. As such, I think he has a very good chance to break through to the list of 15. However, I'm worried that those who would label him a "system" cornerback in the Bucs' Cover Two (an argument I believe is baseless), might not want to make him a first-ballot selection. I think he gets in but I'm worried it won't be this year. I hope I'm wrong.
Check out photos of Hall of Fame semifinalist and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer DE Simeon Rice.
As for Rice, I think we have to see this as a gradual progression. The oversight of his first three years being left out of the nominees has been corrected and his leap this year into the semifinalists tell me that Hall voters are doing their due diligence and giving Rice a fresh look. They should absolutely be commended for that. However, I'm guessing that they won't find a way to squeeze him into that 15 this year. Consider these groups:
Returning 2017 Finalists: Lynch, Terrell Owens, Tony Boselli, Isaac Bruce, Joe Jacoby, Brian Dawkins.
First-Year Eligibles: Barber, Steve Hutchinson, Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Randy Moss, Richard Seymour.
Previously Eligible But First-Time Semifinalists: Rice, LeRoy Butler, Leslie O'Neal, Everson Walls.
That's not even a comprehensive list of the candidates. Of particular note there is Leslie O'Neal. O'Neal and Rice are the only two players with at least 120 career sacks who are Hall-eligible but not yet in the Hall, but O'Neal had 10.5 more sacks than Rice. Those two could end up leeching votes off each other, depending upon which one each voter favors.
Here's another issue: Brooks and Warren Sapp are already in, and the trio of Barber, Lynch and Rice all played on the same Super Bowl-winning team. Should that be held against them? Not in my book, but I certainly worry that some voters are not going to want to put in too many players from the same team.
So if you want a prediction, Jimenez Family, here goes: John Lynch finally makes it this year. Ronde Barber, every bit a deserving first-ballot candidate, is made to wait a year as has happened with many, many great players. With Rice, we enjoy the victory this year and cross our fingers that next year the voters move him up one more spot to the list of Finalists…and then we see what happens.
So I guess its starting to look like the Buccs are going to have a pick in the top half of the draft and its never too early to start looking at the next draft. What do you think they should do with their first round pick. I'm hoping for a pass rusher. What do you think?
Nick Martell (via email email@example.com)Well, first I have to disagree with part of your premise, Nick. I think it is too early to be looking at the next draft, unless you're an NFL scout or someone in the media who specifically makes his or her living covering the NFL Draft. I am neither of those things, nor am I much of an expert on college football, so I'm personally not tuned into 2018 draft talk yet.*Still, it's a valid question, and I'll answer it, but perhaps not as specifically as you'd like. I would be lying if I told you I had the depth of knowledge on college football players to be able to throw out specific names here. I could look up the really early mock drafts that some others have thrown out there, but then I would just be parroting their work. So, instead, I'll tell you which team needs I'd like to see addressed, in order. As is always the case with draft talk, we should be clear that this is my opinion alone and not a reflection of the draft strategy or thoughts of Jason Licht, Dirk Koetter or their staffs. I think the Bucs are in a good enough spot at the following positions that I don't think they should be a priority with a first-round pick: quarterback, tight end, wide receiver, linebacker and maybe safety. Following that, I would put my first-round position hopes in the following order: *1. Edge Rusher
- Offensive Line
- Defensive Tackle
- Running Back
So we agree on the first spot on the list, Nick, and I'm sure plenty of Buccaneer fans would be with us. The common thread in the Buccaneers' struggles on defense this year has been an inability to pressure the opposing quarterback. Gerald McCoy is a marvelous player but he needs some help, somebody to take advantage when opposing teams go into full shutdown mode on him. There's reason to believe Noah Spence will finally get some good injury luck in Year Three – just like McCoy did after missing 13 games his first two seasons – but even if he's a stud pass-rusher next year the Bucs could still use more juice in that department.
I sure would love to see Brent Grimes and Robert McClain back next year, but we have to acknowledge that their contracts are up at the end of this season. The Bucs did spend a first-round pick at the position just two years ago and surely still have high hopes for Vernon Hargreaves. Ryan Smith is also showing steady improvement in his first stint as a starter. Still, as I have said many, many times, you can't have enough good cornerback depth and it is very hard to find. We've seen that this year with rotating injuries at the position. No matter how high you are on Hargreaves and Smith, it's still a position at which the Bucs could use additional help, in my opinion.
The O-Line pick is a tricky one because I'm not sure specifically how to address it, at which specific spots. Still, we can't ignore that the running game has struggled all year, though the pass protection has been pretty good. Even if you don't intend to replace any of the current starting five, it never hurts to build for the near future at that very important spot.
Obviously, the Buccaneers have one of the NFL's best defensive tackles in Gerald McCoy. I would say end is a more pressing need than tackle, particularly after Chris Baker got a three-year deal last spring, but if the Bucs can't find an edge rusher they like high in the draft maybe they can come at it from another angle and pair McCoy with another interior rusher to bring more pressure that way.
I've got running back below the others on the list for two reasons. One, I think we need to wait to see what develops in the offseason with the current crew. Two, I'm not sure you have to use a first-round pick to get good talent at that position, with Alvin Kamara as this year's best evidence. However, I know that teams have recently had good results using a high pick on a special running back, so it's not out of the question.