The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished with a record of 5-11 in 2018 but, with new Head Coach Bruce Arians leading the charge, hope to rebound to double-digit victories and a playoff berth in 2019. That would be a grand achievement and…not even the first time it has happened in team history. Or the second.
The 1979 Buccaneers famously won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record and advanced to the conference championship game in just the fourth year of franchise existence. The year before, they had finished 5-11. Similarly, the 2005 squad took the NFC South and won 11 games, reversing their 5-11 record from the previous season. Though it doesn't quite fit into the "5-11/Rebound" mode, the 1997 team also made the playoffs after the 1996 team finished 6-10.
That wouldn't be a first for Arians, either, at least in going from five wins to double digits. When he took over the Arizona Cardinals in 2013, he inherited a team that had compiled a 5-11 record the year before. His first group rebounded to 10-6, though that was a rare season in which 10 wins didn't earn a playoff berth. That would have to wait one more year, when an 11-5 mark did put the 2014 Cards into the postseason.
So while a playoff run for the Buccaneers this fall would be thrilling, cathartic and…well, just plain awesome, it would not be particularly unprecedented.
There are, however, plenty of things that the Buccaneers and/or individual Buccaneer players could accomplish for the first time in franchise history in 2019. And that happens to be the topic we will be examining all this week: Potential Buccaneer Firsts. Each day this week, we'll look at one very reasonable thing that could happen for the first time this year, the 44th season in franchise history. We start with a little globe-trotting.
POTENTIAL BUCCANEER FIRST: A WIN IN LONDON
The Buccaneers have won a game overseas before, but it doesn't really count. In August of 2003, the NFL showcased its defending champions in an "American Bowl" game in Tokyo. Playing in the Tokyo Dome in front of 43,000 fans, the Buccaneers defeated the New York Jets, 30-14. It was exactly as thrilling as one would expect a preseason game on the second day of August to be, but it was an exciting and new experience for the players and fans.
Tampa Bay subsequently played two regular-season games across the pond, going to London in both 2009 and 2011. Unfortunately, neither of those games ended in victory for the Buccaneers.
The 2009 Bucs were a team in transition, with Raheem Morris in his first year at the helm, Mark Dominik new in the general manager role and rookie quarterback Josh Freeman waiting in the wings. The Buccaneers drafted Freeman 17th overall that spring but didn't intend to play him right away. Instead, they signed veteran Byron Leftwich (yes, the team's current offensive coordinator) and had him in the lineup on opening day. When the team opened 0-3, including a Week Three shutout loss at home to the Giants, Morris finally turned to Josh…Johnson. Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen had drafted Johnson in the fifth round in 2008, and Morris thought the mobile quarterback might have a better shot at getting the offense going. Instead, four more losses followed and Johnson was sacked 20 times.
The last of those four losses came at Wembley Stadium in London, as the Buccaneers faced off against the New England Patriots on Oct. 25. It got out of hand quickly, as Johnson threw a pick-six on the game's first drive, leading to a 21-0 halftime lead. New England made it 35-7 in the fourth quarter, which meant the time had finally come. Freeman came in to direct the Bucs' last two drives, and while nothing magical occurred, it marked the beginning of his run as the starter. He would open the Bucs' next game, at home against Green Bay, and lead the team to a 38-28 upset of the playoff-bound Packers.
Freeman and the Buccaneers had a much better season in 2010, winning 10 games and narrowly missing the playoffs, with Freeman throwing 25 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. Had the Bucs gone back to London that year, they might have gotten that first regular-season overseas win. Instead, they waited one more year for a return trip, and appeared to be in good shape when they did. After that 10-6 finish in 2010, the 2011 Buccaneers started out 4-2 and were coming off a rousing win over New Orleans. They went back to Wembley Stadium to face the 3-3 Chicago Bears.
In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end of Morris's tenure as head coach. Chicago ran out to a 21-5 lead, and though the Bucs did pull within three points in the fourth quarter, the game ended in a 24-18 decision when the Bears' D.J. Moore intercepted Freeman with 39 seconds to go, ending a drive that had reached the Chicago 39. That loss was followed by nine more to close out the season.
So the Buccaneers stand at 0-2 in fair London, but they will get another shot this fall. On Oct. 13, in Week Six, the Bucs will take on their heated division rival, the Carolina Panthers, in the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Hopefully, the third time is the charm.
Reasons for optimism? Well, regardless of the relative strengths of the two teams in any given season, the Buccaneers and Panthers often play intense, closely contested games. Last year, for instance, the two teams split, with Carolina winning 42-28 in Charlotte and Tampa Bay answering with a 24-17 victory in Tampa in December. Six of the last 10 games in the series have been decided by seven points or less, including four that were decided by three points or less.
But, of course, optimism about that game and the rest of the season primarily stems from the arrival of Arians and his new coaching staff. Arians and many of the same coaches directed that aforementioned and immediate turnaround in Arizona, which led to him setting a franchise record for head-coaching wins in just five seasons. Arians has made it clear that he doesn't consider 2019 to be a "rebuilding" year of any sort, that this team is aiming at the playoffs. He is also sold on quarterback Jameis Winston and believes he and his staff can get the most out of the talented fifth-year quarterback.
That alone would make a big difference in the Buccaneers' efforts to get that first London win. In the previous two games, Tampa Bay quarterbacks combined to complete 49.4% of their passes, throw seven interceptions against just three touchdowns and compile a passer rating of 42.0. A much more efficient outing by Winston would make a Buccaneer win much more likely, much as it did last December when Winston completed 66.7% of his passes and threw for two touchdowns, no picks and a 114.4 passer rating in the seven-point win over Carolina. If he can do something similar this October, the Bucs could finally join the ranks of NFL teams with wins in London.