RB Earnest Graham helped the Buccaneers forge a strong rushing attack before suffering a season-ending injury
He said it several times during the 2008 season and then again immediately after: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden, need to improve in every facet of their play.
That will obviously be the franchise's focus as 2008 turns over into 2009 a little earlier than hoped. However, it's worth noting that in some respects the Buccaneers' performed about as well this past season as they ever had. Most notably, Tampa Bay's offense put up one of the best seasons – at least statistically – in the club's 33-year history.
In 2008, the Bucs set a franchise record by totaling 5,456 yards of offense. Tampa Bay also scored its second most points in a single year (361) and tied for its third-best mark in both first downs (298) and touchdowns (38).
That's sneakily impressive, perhaps even more so because Tampa Bay's offense could hardly manage to keep the same 11 players on the field for any serious length of time.
Injuries forced the Bucs to start two different quarterbacks and concoct a running game out of a revolving door of running backs and fullbacks, as Earnest Graham, Warrick Dunn, Cadillac Williams, B.J. Askew and Byron Storer were all injured – to various degrees – at times in 2008.
Furthermore, Joey Galloway – he of the three straight 1,000-yard seasons coming into the year – contributed just 13 catches, 138 yards and no touchdowns after missing the early part of the season due to injury and returning to a reduced role. Right guard Davin Joseph missed the first four games of the year, starting tight end Alex Smith was out fo ra length of time, receivers Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard were banged up during the second half of the season and there was the usual assortment of bumps and bruises any team suffers throughout the course of a season.
Looking back on the season and the offensive numbers that hinted at something special, Gruden regretted the fact that the Bucs couldn't have stayed healthier and perhaps put up even better numbers.
"We threw the ball as good as any team in Buccaneer history this year, statistically," Gruden said. "We feel like looking at the tape, we could have got some more out of it. But two different quarterbacks, a new split end, we had a number of new components."
Despite the injury problems that made the Bucs' quarterback situation so tenuous in both September and December, Gruden was quick to give credit to Jeff Garcia, the Bucs' starting signal-caller for 11 games in 2008.
Garcia finished the season 244-of-376 for 2,712 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 64.9 completion percentage was the second-best single-season mark in team history and his 1.60 interception percentage was the third-best rate in Buc annals.
Garcia also became the first quarterback in team history to finish with a passer rating of 90.0 or better in back-to-back seasons. His 90.2 mark in 2008 was fourth-best in single-season team history.
"I think the NFL all starts there," Gruden said of the quarterback spot. "It is a position that touches the ball every snap. Like I said, Jeff Garcia has done some great things here that rival any quarterback that has ever played here, statistically and from a win-loss standpoint."
Brian Griese also played well in the five games he started in 2008, and collectively, the Bucs finished with the second-most passing yards (3,788), fourth-most passing first downs (184), third-most passes completed (355), third-highest completion percentage (63.2) and fourth-highest passer rating (83.8) in a single season in team history.
The Tampa Bay aerial attack also finished the year as the 11th-best passing offense in the league, only the second time in the last 24 years the team has finished that high.
And even with a banged up backfield, the Bucs were still productive in the running game. The Bucs' backs posted the fifth-highest per-carry rushing average in a single season in team history (4.07) and tallied the ninth-best per-game rushing total (114.8).
Some of the credit for the success in the running and passing games, according to Gruden, also goes to a talented but improving offensive line that finished the season as the second-youngest starting unit in the NFL (25 years and 242 days). The group had its share of ups and downs, but is shaping up as one of the strengths of the team going forward.
"I thought the pass protection, even though we gave up some sacks, I don't think that statistics really show the entire magnitude of what our offensive line has done," Gruden said. "We have had a lot of different fullbacks this year, a lot of different runners. We pass protected and our run blocking has been solid. I just think that we are pretty good up there and I think people in the league would agree with that."
Finally, the Bucs also showed some skill in the special situations on offense that can turn the tide in many games – the two-minute drill and the red zone offense.
The Bucs led the league in points scored in the two-minute offense, tallying 31 points on 20 such possessions.
And as for the red zone, there was plenty of discussion throughout the early and middle parts of the season as the Bucs struggled to find consistency, but the team improved down the stretch even in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
Over the last four weeks of the season, the Bucs converted red zone drives into touchdowns six out of nine times, a 67 percent rate.
The Bucs finished the season second-to-last in the NFC in red zone conversion percentage, scoring touchdowns on just 22 of 56 trips inside the 20, a 39.3 percentage. However, the success the team enjoyed in the last month of the year bodes well for next season and beyond.
"Well we got down there a lot, which was good," Gruden said. "We got down there as much as anybody in the league. To break it down, we did better the last couple of weeks in the season, I think, finishing drives. Any time that you get down inside the red zone you want touchdowns. We had some opportunities to score that we didn't take advantage of. Some situations we strategically played for a field goal, or a couple situations we took a knee at the end of the game, but it wasn't good enough. That is another area that you take responsibility for as a coach. I have to get better there."
Unfortunately, the Bucs historic offensive output wasn't quite good enough to prevent the four-game slide down the stretch that cost the team a playoff spot. But despite the sting of that late-season skid, the offense's performance in 2008 surely gives hope for bigger and better things to come in 2009.