QB Chris Simms believes the Bucs have had more of a
Why are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a 5-11 team in 2004, sitting at 10-5 with a chance to exactly reverse their record from a year ago?
Statistically, the answers are fairly obvious.
The running game is markedly better, picking up almost 20 more yards per game, rising from 29th in the league to 16th and producing much more consistently in the fourth quarter. Similarly, the run defense has turned things around, from 19th last year to sixth this year, allowing only 96 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry.
Turnovers, too, tell a big part of the story, as they always do. The 2004 Buccaneers were negative-nine in turnover differential; now they're plus-4. Whereas the '04 Bucs had trouble getting its kicks through the uprights, ranking last in the league in field goal efficiency, the '05 team has made 20 of its 25 kicks, or 80%. The punting has been better, the protection of the quarterback has been better on most days and the scoring differential in the fourth quarter has gone from negative-seven to plus-eight.
But according to at least one Buccaneer who has played a big role in the winning this fall, the answer isn't found in any of those statistics.
"I would say [it's] our will to win, our belief in ourselves when the game is getting tight," said quarterback Chris Simms, who has certainly performed marvelously in those situations. "Last year, we were in a lot of close games but for whatever reason we just didn't find ways to win them. This year, for all of them except maybe the Chicago game, we've come out on top."
The Bucs actually did almost everything they had to do to come back in that Bears game, too, until a surprising field goal miss spelled defeat. Successful end-games against Washington, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, Atlanta (twice) and Carolina have made the difference this season; just one or two stumbles here and there and the Bucs would be fighting for their playoff lives.
So perhaps the Bucs' determination and clutch play has been the engine behind the turnaround, but it has definitely manifested itself in those areas of improvement listed above. Simms agrees that good work in the trenches, with an offensive line featuring three first-time starters, has been key.
"I think if you really look at it, it's of course our run game," said Simms. "Our offensive line play's just been awesome, especially in the tight games down in the clutch situations. We've just been running the ball great, like I said, and the pass protection's been great down the stretch, too. It makes it hard on defenses and I think when you have the double threat of the pass and run, the pressure's on them, not us, and that's been the biggest difference."
Defensive end Simeon Rice is certainly not one to dismiss the importance of attitude and determination. He commonly speaks of upcoming games in flowing terms of desire and destiny. But to him the difference between 2004 and 2005 is even more basic.
"We've got a lot better players," declared Rice.
The Bucs have certainly seen the benefits of two outstanding drafts, as well as some strategic forays into free agency despite a stressed salary cap. Newcomers like Cadillac Williams, Dan Buenning, Alex Smith, Anthony Becht, Chris Hovan and Juran Bolden have played very big roles for the Buccaneers this year, and played them well.
"We've got a lot of players who are doing big things," said Rice. "We've got a lot of productivity out of the players that we have. From Cadillac to myself to everybody, to Chris stepping in there – we have a lot of players who have produced well in this league."
The Bucs' rookies have made a huge difference because they haven't played as if the situation has intimidated them. Williams, Smith and Buenning are obviously very talented players, but Head Coach Jon Gruden is more likely to praise them for their work ethic, their attention to detail and their stamina. In short, the Bucs' rookies have stepped in and played like veterans, which is a relatively rare occurrence.
That has led to much well-placed optimism regarding the future of the Bucs' offense, but Smith has a different focus.
"A lot of people like to look to the future, but I am looking towards right now, and what we need to get done at this present time," said the rookie tight end. "Once we establish what we can do now, the future looks that much more bright for us. And I think guys are really starting to jell together, and get used to each other. I think it means big things in the future."
It has already meant good things. If the Bucs can defeat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday and get to 11-5, the six-game turnaround from '04 to '05 would be the biggest single-season improvement in franchise history. The reasons for that rebound are many, but it seems to boil down to two things the Bucs have more of this year: talent and desire.
The reason for the Bucs' turnaround wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Saturday's first home game in a month. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
DT/DE Ellis Wyms on the playoff possibility being what you work for all year: "Yeah, definitely. You work all year for a divisional championship. We've got an opportunity on Sunday to take care of our own business. This is what we worked all summer for. This was one of our goals to start the season. It's just one step closer to getting to the Super Bowl. So, we definitely want to do that, put ourselves in a better position in the playoffs, get a home game, and go from there."
CB Juran Bolden on being doubted and under the radar at the beginning of the season: "Any team, number one, will be below the radar. But, the fact that you play to get that recognition, you want everyone to know what type of team you are. Unfortunately, last year we had a bad season. This year we were able to turn it around. It's kind of good coming out, and actually fighting for a playoff spot. Actually fighting for the top notch in the playoffs, winning the NFC South. That's what we really want to do. It's kind of good. At the same time I see the negative in it. Because teams go and overlook you, they don't know what to expect from you. If we go out there and do what we are supposed to, we've been doing pretty well. Not as well as we want to do, because we know what type of talent we've got. We've just got to keep going in, week in [and] week out, and putting it on film."
CB Ronde Barber on the Bucs' motivation for the final game: "Guys on this team are pretty motivated at that task. We set out at the beginning of the year to be a championship-type team and we have an ability to do that with a win on Sunday. I don't think anybody on this team is going to take that for granted. We've had a good week of practice so far and we're going to continue to prepare like it's the beginning of our year."
QB Chris Simms on if it's harder to stay focused on the current game now that the playoffs are in sight: "They are in sight, but we haven't clinched so I think we're one team that's really got to focus this week. The Giants, the Bears and the Seahawks – I'm sure they're allowed thoughts of the future creep into their minds, but when it comes to us right now we have nothing guaranteed and we've just got to take care of our business."
DT Chris Hovan on how excited he is about this game: "I think that it's a must-win game, just like last week was. We just didn't talk about it, but it's a must-win game and we have to go out and we have to beat the Saints."
Hovan on how the team feels heading into this game as opposed to last week: "There's a lot of importance in this game, just as it was last week. It's a division game, so we're going to have to take the same mindset that we did against Atlanta into this game against New Orleans."
Barber on the Saints still being motivated for the game: "They're still competitors. They've got 53 guys like we've got. Everybody knows the adversity they've dealt with, but we can't let their situation affect the way we do our job. We'll shake their hands and wish them well, hopefully after we beat them."
Hovan on expecting the Saints' best shot: "You should. Look what happened to Cincinnati against Buffalo. It's the NFL – any given Sunday anything can happen. We have to go out there and we have to play New Orleans as if they're the most important team on our schedule because they're the next opponent."
Bolden on what the Saints will give in this game: "Everything they've got. It's not like they are a really bad team. They've got some really great guys over there. Great talent. It's just the fact things didn't happen their way. Starting with [Hurricane] Katrina. All the way to what's going on moving from here to there. I mean, it's real tough on those guys. You've got to take your hats off for them because they stuck through it regardless of where they had to go. They showed up, they tried, they did what they had to do. Unfortunately, they wouldn't win all of the time. But they still come out every week and try to battle to win."
Hovan on if you overlook the Saints because they don't have much to play for: "No. I mean first and foremost, I think we're looking at Todd Bouman as the quarterback. Aaron Brooks is still a dangerous guy if they decide to bring him in the game. It's a two-headed beast you know. I just think that we have to get ready. I think if we go out and we play our game this Sunday, very physical and eliminate the penalties, I think we'll be alright."
LB Derrick Brooks on how to prepare for the New Orleans Saints: "Just know it's part of the history of this series that they have won here. And defending our home turf is something we talked about way back in training camp. And going 6-2 here at home, we definitely would accomplish that goal. And again, just concentrate on the next game. Continue to focus on us, more or less, New Orleans. I think in that mind set we'll be ready to go. Just knowing that there's another week for us to get better, win a division title, and have some momentum going into next week hosting a playoff game."
Simms on playing the Saints and strange things happening in those games the last three years in Tampa: "There just a dangerous team and I think it's because they are so talented. For whatever reason, they have had our number, especially at home. Since I've been here, this is my third time at home against them and we haven't beaten them the first two times. Last year they won with really a great effort. They played good on defense and then the Beer Man [Michael Lewis] returned a punt on us. They've just found ways to win and make plays. We've just got to make sure we play sound football this week and make the plays when they're available."
Hovan on if being favored to win is an ambush waiting to happen: "No, that's why you never look at the line. You never look if you're playing home or away. You just look at it as another game on the schedule. It just happens to be the most important game because they're the next opponent. No matter what happens, we've just got to get ready for a very exciting Saints team [that] is going to come in down here and they're going to give us their all."
Simms on the differences between playing at home and on the road: "There is a difference, I'm not going to lie about it. It's not dramatic to where we don't feel like we can run or offense or anything like that. But when you're at home, the luxuries of checking to pass plays and certain situations like that are definitely a whole lot easier. Crowd noise, you don't have to fight it. Everybody can pretty much hear, even without the signals. In a home game, they can hear what's coming out of my mouth. In an away game, we still keep it pretty much the same but you just worry about guys jumping offsides or false starts because of the crowd noise and maybe not everybody being on the same page on every play, in and out. I think that's the biggest difference."
Alstott on having a season finale at home: "We've got to finish it. You've got to finish what you started. We've got something good going on right now and we've got to finish what we started, and that's the regular season. If we take care of our business, we'll be rewarded with some good things, but we can't look that far. We have to do what championship teams do, and what good football teams do, and what teams that have 10 or 11 wins do. You've got to start strong and finish strong."
Simms on the week's preparations being different for a home game: "Wednesday, Thursday and Friday without those speakers out there is so big. Wednesdays and Thursdays I go home with a ringing in my head because I'm yelling the whole practice. Even when I'm in the huddle calling the play I'm trying to yell because they've got the crowd noise…it's more than any crowd noise you've ever heard before. We're playing in front of 200,000 people out there and it's the stadium the size of Raymond James. It's extremely loud."
C John Wade on being easier to play offense at home: "Oh, definitely. Without having to worry about the noise factor that sometimes makes it tough on the road...everybody deals with it. I think we've dealt with it good at times on the road and other times we haven't got things communicated. Noise is a factor that everybody has to deal with and sometimes it's worked out better for us than others this year."
Hovan on if it was tough playing in Tampa before: "Tough. Real tough coming down from anywhere, especially the north. You're trying to come down here to this kind of environment. Very tough."
Simms on the difference in his fourth-quarter play between now and earlier in the season: "I would say more than anything [it's] just being mentally and physically comfortable. I was mentally prepared going into the San Francisco game, but still it's different when you get out there and can play in a real game as opposed to practice. But I think the biggest thing for me in that San Francisco game was that I just missed throws that I usually don't miss. That's just a matter of reps. You go all preseason practicing and getting reps and playing in the preseason games, and then basically I went seven weeks without doing a whole lot. So you kind of lose your rhythm. That's what I felt worse about in that game, just easy six, seven-yard completions that we were missing. And then of course the next week it was better and better from there on out. And I think whenever you feel better physically you do feel better mentally as well. You feel like you can do more things and you don't have to think about, 'Am I going to complete a seven-yard pass?' anymore. You just let your mind be free and go play."
Rice on the job that Head Coach Jon Gruden has done in 2005: "[This] could very possibly be his best coaching job this year. Nothing beats the Super Bowl, but to manage the team, to get the players that he got in this year, to do the things that he did with the tight calls that he made at the time…from that aspect of what he's done this year, managing this team, you can't really say enough about it."
Brooks on Jon Gruden's job with the team: "Again, in time, you win. You know you want that. Right now, he's just a team man that's keeping it simple. One practice at a time. I know I keep saying that but that's really the focus he asks us to do. Just keep our goals simple, worry about getting better from day to day. We'll get what we deserve on Sunday. I think that mindset, set a tone for the young guys. That's what got them playing now. You don't give them too much, you help them succeed. That's more or less what he has done."
Simms on how he has worked with Gruden this year: "The relationship I've had with coach really hasn't been any different. I stepped in there and he pretty much kept the offense the same. He expected a lot out of me and I think that's what's been great for us. He had the confidence in me to get the job done. This year, I would say the biggest difference is that Coach Hackett is here. Maybe Coach [Gruden] doesn't have to worry about every detail, covering it with the quarterbacks all the time, because he knows Coach Hackett's been in the offense and he will get to it."
Simms on how Quarterbacks Coach Paul Hackett has accelerated Simms' development this year: "I've been saying it all year – he's been huge for me. He's my third quarterback coach in three years and he's really the first one I've had who has a whole lot of experience in this offense, the West Coast offense. It's the little adjustments that he made that have made the biggest impact on my play. I know I told you guys some of this in the past. Little things like taking a big seven-step drop or a quick seven-step drop. This offense is about timing. You saw how Joe Montana and Steve Young ran it in years past. One of the biggest differences for me at least was that I was dropping back full-speed every play, and sometimes I would be back there so fast that the play hadn't really developed yet. And I'd look to the first receiver and he wasn't even out of his break and I'd get off and go to the second receiver because of the drop thing. It's big in this offense. You've got to give your receivers on certain plays a chance to get open and get downfield. You've got to know when to take that quick one and when things are going to open up quick."
RB Carnell Williams on what it's been like in the spotlight: "The spotlight has been on me a lot, but it's something I'm actually kind of used to. I think if Alex [Smith] keep on putting up games like that, you know I'm going to be the one sitting back watching him, [with] the spotlight off me now."
FB Mike Alstott on if Cadillac Williams is as humble as he appears to be: "Yeah. He's a quiet guy. He opens up probably more around us than the general public, but overall he's a humble guy and he's a good guy. He puts everything on the field. He's not a talker. He doesn't say he's going to do this and do that; he goes out there and makes plays and performs well, obviously."
Williams on how much resting for those four weeks is helping him now: "Of course, I am fresh. I feel like [if I had] played those four weeks, I'd still be fresh. Yes, I am fresh. I feel like that time out, me trying to heal up that injury, whatever, helped me to where I could be extra fresh."
Williams on how much Alex Smith has developed as a blocker: "The guy, he's come a long way. The guy, you know, he's a physical tight end, tight end that can run, catch the ball well, but I'm impressed by the way he comes after the ball and explode on defenders."
TE Alex Smith on being comfortable with the offense: "I feel like I've been pretty comfortable. You know, it's just a matter of having that play call for you. And just being able to make a play when that does happen. It could happen week in [and] week out, any given week it could happen."
Smith on Chris Simms: "I kind of know what he'll be looking for. And when he'll be looking my way. I know what he expects out of me, and I just try to be in that position."
Smith on if he plans to gets more passes: "Hopefully, if that is the case, I am definitely ready. I don't think we're going to deviate too much from our game plan. The past few weeks we've had the two tight end sets in there. I think we'll stick with that plan as much as possible."
Simms on what the keys are to being successful early in the game: "I think just a little positive yardage from the start is the biggest thing, whether it be a five, six-yard run. We just don't want to be in too many second-and-10, third-and-10 situations, especially down the stretch. They know that you're more likely to pass in those situations. We've been able to run the ball on first down in a lot of those situations. It's been huge for us. Again, I know it sounds so cliché, but it's really one play at a time and just being calm. I think our team realizes that even though it's the last drive of the game it's just like any other drive, except maybe the tempo's going to be a little faster because of the clock. Other than that, you try to approach it the same way and not put too much added pressure on yourself."
DE Dewayne White on if the blocked field goal against Atlanta was the biggest play of his career: "Yes, that we actually won the game. I had a blocked one last year that we didn't win in Carolina, so to actually have to block it and then get the win was great."
LB Barrett Ruud on how crazy the Atlanta game felt: "We basically lost it two or three times and basically won it two or three times. It was definitely a wild ride. Special teams as a whole, we've been playing pretty solidly. Obviously, our coach is never satisfied, but I think overall we've done pretty well."
White on if he's ever seen a game where special teams played such a huge role: "No, this is probably the most. From returning the ball, we did good and then kickoff returns we fumbled, at the end to block and then to missing one. It went probably every level possible in that game and then it's a great attribute to all of them that they were able to overcome that and win."
White on playing special teams: "It's probably come full-circle since I got here. I never played special teams until I got to the Bucs and I win an award. So, as a D-linemen, that's one of the bigger guys on there, it's a big deal for me. I appreciate it greatly and special teams is part of the team. As long as it's doing good, no one really notices."
Bolden on the defensive line putting pressure on the passing game: "Well, anytime you get great pressure up front, I mean that's what, being a cornerback, you expect your front line to get a lot of pressure. That will give you more of an opportunity to get picks. Those guys do their job up there, we'll do our job in the secondary."
Hovan on if he feels like he's a better player now after his first season with the Bucs: "I do. I do. I truly do. I felt when I came down here that I had to prove myself all over again. You can either look at it as a challenge or you don't want to do it. I looked at it as a challenge in my life, an obstacle I had to get over, and I'm still standing right now, which is pretty good."