The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made 27 roster transactions on Saturday in order to get their roster down to the regular-season limit of 53. On Monday, they are almost certain to have another round of moves, including the formation of the team's practice squad.
No official news came out of One Buccaneer Place on Sunday, in between those two flurries of moves. However, this much is official: The Buccaneers' much-anticipated 2011 season kicks off in exactly one week.
Overall, the NFL's 92nd season begins on Thursday, when the defending-champion Green Bay Packers take on the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field. The Buccaneers are one of 26 teams who will follow on Sunday, their openers coinciding with the nation's emotional 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies.
For the Buccaneers, it starts at 1:00 p.m. ET with a visit from the Detroit Lions. The Bucs will be looking to avenge their 23-20 overtime loss to the Lions last December. A win in that game might have propelled Tampa Bay into the playoffs; instead, the Bucs finished 10-6 and lost the last NFC spot to the Packers on a tiebreaker.
After improving by a team-record seven wins from 2009 to 2010, the Buccaneers believe they are ready to take the next step and return to the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2007. And it all starts in just one short week.
Here's a short primer of what to expect for as the NFL and the Buccaneers get ready to kick off the 2011 campaign.
Expect New Blood
By improving from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 last year, the Bucs seemed to succeed in the "Race to 10" that Head Coach Raheem Morris adopted as a rallying cry before the season. And while those 10 wins were definitely a massive achievement – particularly for the youngest roster in the NFL – they didn't quite satisfy Morris' vision. As the Bucs' coach has clarified several times, it was a race to 10; he wanted his team to be the first one to 10 wins in the NFC, because that would have put them in position to win 11, 12 or more and almost certainly make the playoffs.
So you probably won't see Morris amend his vision to a "Race to 11" in 2011 because the Bucs' goal, slogan or not, remains exactly the same as last year. Tampa Bay will chase its first NFC South title since '07 and hopefully ride that back into the postseason field.
The good news: Turnover of playoff teams in the modern NFL is so constant as to be almost inevitable. If the league doesn't see approximately half of its 2010 playoff field change in 2011, that would break a rather remarkable 15-year streak.
In 1996, five teams made the 12-team postseason field that were not in the playoffs in 1995: Carolina, Denver, Jacksonville, Minnesota and New England. The next year, four of those five teams made it back (Carolina did not) but still, five of the 12 teams were new: Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, the New York Giants and – yes – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first time in 15 years.
Since then, the 12-team playoff field has seen at least five new entrants every year, all the way up through last season. The high-water mark was eight, in 2003. The Buccaneers were one of seven new playoff teams in 2005, and one of six in 2007. The five new teams in the playoffs last year actually constituted the lowest amount of turnover since 2004.
Each season's new playoff teams can come from just about anywhere in the previous year's standings. Kansas City went from 4-12 in 2009 to 10-6 last year and earned a spot with a turnaround similar to that of the Bucs, but Pittsburgh and Atlanta only needed small improvements after going 9-7 the year before. However, there's a smaller subset of teams in a position similar to what the Bucs' are facing in 2011, and the precedent they have set is encouraging.
The NFL expanded its playoff field from five teams to six in 1990. Since then, only eight teams have won at least 10 games and not made the playoffs, a group that includes both the Buccaneers and the New York Giants in 2010. Of the previous six teams that met that unfortunate fate, an impressive four of them, or 66.7%, followed that near-miss with an even better season the next year. The 1991 Philadelphia Eagles, 1991 San Francisco 49ers, 2005 Kansas City Chiefs and 2008 New England Patriots all used their 10-win "disappointment" as a springboard into the playoffs the next year.
Expect A New Champ in the South
There's no reason to believe the Atlanta Falcons, who compiled an NFC-best 13-3 record in 2010, will fail to be among the conference's top competitors again in 2011. However, if one pays attention to the history of the first decade of the NFC South – the league's most competitive division by almost any measure – there is reason to believe that a new division champion will emerge.
Or, at least, there's hope for the Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. See, nobody has ever repeated as NFC South champs.
The division was formed during the 2002 NFL expansion and realignment, and the Buccaneers took the first title en route to an even bigger trophy bearing Vince Lombardi's name. Carolina overtook Tampa Bay the next year to win the division, followed by Atlanta in 2004. The Bucs became the division's first two-time champion by rising to the top in 2005, but New Orleans took over in 2006. Nine NFC South titles so far – three for Tampa Bay and two each for every other team.
In addition, the NFC South has never featured the same last-place team two years in a row, so that's good news for the Cam Newton-led Panthers in 2011. The Bucs' division is the only of the eight in which the first and last place teams have been different every single year since the 2002 realignment.
Expect the Bucs to Earn Some Frequent Flier Miles
Last year, Tampa Bay tied for the second-best record in road games in the entire NFL, with a mark of 6-2. Only Pittsburgh, at 7-1, was better. It was an unusual accomplishment in some respects; of the nine teams that won at least six road games last year, only Tampa Bay and Miami didn't make the playoffs.
The Bucs' 6-2 mark away from home also tied a franchise record. The only other Buccaneer team to match it was the 2002 squad, which also went 6-2 at home to record 12 wins for the only time in franchise history.
If the Bucs hope to duplicate, or even surpass, those six wins on the road in 2011, they'll have to make sure jet lag isn't a factor. Of all 32 teams in the NFL, only five will travel more miles during the 2011 regular-season than the Buccaneers.
Thanks in part to their second trip to London in three years, the Buccaneers will fly 22,974 miles in 2011. The top of the list, as always is dominated by West Coast teams – only San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Oakland and Arizona will spend more time in the air than Tampa Bay this year.
Tampa Bay's travels in 2011 will fall just short of a trip around the world. One revolution of the Earth is a flight of 25,000 miles.
Expect the Bucs to Run the Ball
History suggests that, in any given game, having a dominant rusher is more likely to lead to victory than having a dominant passer or a dominant receiver. The Buccaneers are not likely to argue.
Despite having a constantly-improving 23-year-old franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman and a rising-star receiver in Mike Williams, Tampa Bay's coaching staff is eager to build a power rushing attack around LeGarrette Blount. Freeman and Williams will certainly be key to many Buccaneer victories in the coming years, but getting Blount into triple-digits is the Bucs' best chance for success.
Research by the NFL suggests that is true across the league. For its 2011 Kickoff Information Guide, the league tracked every single 100-yard rushing game, 300-yard passing game and 100-yard receiving game over the past five seasons. By far, the 100-yard rushers were most closely associated with victory. To wit:
- Teams with a 100-yard rusher from 2006-10 compiled a record of 87-34, for a winning percentage of .719.
- Teams with a 300-yard passer from 2006-10 compiled a record of 240-181-1, for a winning percentage of .570.
- Teams with a 100-yard receiver from 2006-10 compiled a record of 440-333-1, for a winning percentage of .569.
Yes, there is obviously some overlap between those superlative performances, particularly the passers and receivers. There also were surely some cases where one team with a 300-yard passer beat another team with a 300-yard passer. Still, a .719 winning percentage for teams with a 100-yard rusher is eye-opening.
The Bucs' own history produces the same statistical trend, but even more starkly and going back even further.
Over the last 15 years, Tampa Bay has seen a 100-yard rusher have a much stronger correlation to victory than a 100-yard receiver or a 300-yard passer. Here are the same categories as listed above, but regarding only Buccaneer superlative performances and covering the entire span from 1996-2010:
- Buc teams with a 100-yard rusher from 1996-10 compiled a record of 36-9, for a winning percentage of .800.
- Buc teams with a 300-yard passer from 1996-10 compiled a record of 7-14, for a winning percentage of .333.
- Buc teams with a 100-yard receiver from 1996-10 compiled a record of 22-34, for a winning percentage of .393.
Oh, And Expect Thrills
The Buccaneers remain one of the NFL's youngest teams, and they expect to prove in 2011 that they are also one of its most talented. Freeman, Williams, Blount, Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers, Quincy Black, Geno Hayes, Aqib Talib, Cody Grimm, Donald Penn, Arrelious Benn, Kellen Winslow, Davin Joseph – the Bucs have reloaded, and reloaded well. They expect it to pay off in a big way in 2011, and beyond.
And it all starts in one week.