Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Answer Man, Series 7, Volume 2

Fresh off his video debut, the Buc fans' inside man returns to his more natural medium, taking on another series of questions in long-winded written form

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For those of you who sent kudos (and criticisms) regarding my debut on video last week, thank you (and ouch).  It was fun, and the series will continue, but I still need this little corner of Buccaneers.com in order to address the questions that need lengthier answers.  If you want to check out that first Answer Man video, or the follow-up that went on the site this past Thursday, please visit the Buccaneers.com video archive.

Like any superhero, I'm protective of my secret identity, so I hope you don't mind me lurking in the shadows during the video segments.  Of course, according to one Buc fan, I've been hiding in plain sight for awhile now.  This is what Jo from Tampa wrote to me last week:

Answer Man, don't you think you should wear a visor? Because your helmet still allows evil villains to see your face!

Really?!  Have I been doing this whole superhero thing wrong?  Cape – check.  Ability to fly – check.  Minimal disguise that defies logic by not revealing who I really am – check.  At least, I think.

I mean, c'mon.  From the research I've done, it doesn't take much to convince people that a superhero and his alternate identity are two different folks…even people who have regular contact with both identities.  Superman, he just takes off his costume and puts on glasses, for goodness sake.  The Thing just wears a trench coat when he goes out to buy stamps or whatever, and that seems not at all creepy plus really effective at hiding his knobby head.  And He-Man?  He, what, takes off his shirt and applies a spray-on tan?  I mean, that haircut's a dead giveaway, right?  Apparently not to his own father.

So, Jo, I'm thinking my helmet and cape is enough.  Nobody ever recognizes me at my daughter's soccer games.

And now, on to your latest questions.  I hope you feel like reading about quarterbacks, Josh Freeman and passer rating, because we're going to be spending a lot of time on those topics here at the top.

**

  1. Larry Anderson of Visalia, California asks:

We know that Josh Freeman had one of the best passer ratings of any Bucs QB in history, but who had the worst passer rating playing the QB position?

Answer Man: This question is worded in a very savvy manner but also a bit incomplete.

I say savvy because Mr. Anderson (I can't say that without doing it in the voice of Mr. Smith from The Matrix) purposely qualifies the question with the phrase, "playing the QB position."  As he is surely aware, a non-quarterback occasionally throws a pass on a trick play of some sort, and if it goes badly the chances for a low passer rating are strong.

For instance, in Tom Tupa's very first game as a Buccaneer, the 2002 season opener, he lined up in his own end zone to try to punt the ball away against the Saints in overtime.  The protection broke down and Tupa had at least two New Orleans special-teamers screaming in at him before he could attempt to kick.  In a desperate attempt to salvage the situation, as he was being wrapped up by one tackler, Tupa tried to pass the ball and it went directly into the arms of linebacker James Allen for a game-ending interception in the end zone.  That was the only pass Tupa attempted as a Buccaneer (even though he was a former starting quarterback in the NFL) and it created a 0.0 passer rating for him during his two-year Tampa Bay tenure.

On the other hand, Larry does not tell me whether he means the worst passer rating for a Buccaneer quarterback or for any quarterback.  He also doesn't tell me if he means the worst rating for a single season or for a career.  I could guess; he probably means for the Buccaneers and he probably means for a single season, since he's contrasting it with Josh Freeman's brilliant 2010 campaign with the Bucs.  So I could just answer that question…but that's not really the Answer Man's way, is it?  No, the Answer Man's way is to pad his word count and thus impress his editors by answering all iterations of the question.

So let's get started.

(But before we do, one more useless bit of semi-related information on the topic…because that too is the Answer Man's way.  The highest possible passer rating is 158.3, and only one player in Buccaneer history has that career mark.  It's former running back James Wilder, whose one career pass was good for 16 yards and a touchdown.  That's funny because – if one ignores minimum qualifiers – it makes Wilder the team's all-time leader in rushing, receptions and passer rating.  What a triple threat!  Now back to the show.)

The single worst passer rating for both a career and a season in Buccaneers history was turned in by Randy Hedberg in 1977.

Now, before we go on, let me interrupt myself with a disclaimer.

Let me state up front that I'm not trying to pick on Mr. Hedberg.  He only threw 90 passes as a Buccaneer, and that is simply not enough to prove anything.  Moreover, he played for the 1977 team, and that wasn't the most favorable situation for a quarterback.  The Bucs as a whole had a passer rating of 22.6 that year – yes, 22.6 – so it's not like Hedberg was an outlier.

For goodness sakes, Steve Young is the lowest rated Buc passer if you go by a minimum of 500 passes, and he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Vinny Testaverde is the lowest rated if you go by a minimum of 1,000 passes, and he finished with the seventh-most passing yards in NFL history.

So let's give Randy Hedberg the man and the quarterback a break and just focus on the numbers his unfortunate and short stint with the Bucs produced.  Mr. Hedberg, who would go on to become the head coach at his alma mater of Minot State in the 1980s, was a bit of a surprise to win the starting job to open the 1977 season in the first place.  An eighth-round pick that spring, he barely played in the first four preseason games (out of a total of SIX!), but then he came on in the fifth game at Buffalo and threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Hagins for his only completion in five attempts.  The following week John McKay gave him the start against Baltimore in the preseason finale and he led the Bucs to a 14-0 win, albeit with unassuming passing numbers (10 of 25 for 148 yards, one TD and one pick).

So there Randy Hedberg was on opening day in 1977, facing the hostile crowd at Veterans Stadium at the helm of a team that was 14 games into a 26-game losing streak.  It wasn't exactly a recipe for success, and indeed it didn't go well.  Hedberg would repeat his previous week's effort with 10 completions in 25 attempts, but this time for just 66 yards and no TDs or INTs.  By the time Hedberg's run was done – he started three of the first four games and then one more random contest in December – he had completed 25 of 90 passes (27.8%) for 244 yards, no touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Now, the passer rating formula is extremely complicated.  Here's what the formula looks like when I snip it out of an Excel file: =((MAXA(MINA(((D12/C12)100-30)0.05,2.375),0))+(MAXA(MINA(G12/C121000.2,2.375),0))+(MINA(MAXA(2.375-(H12/C121000.25),0),2.375))+(MAXA(MINA((F12/C12-3)/2*0.5,3,2.375),0)))/0.06

That is not getting past spell-check.  And of course you don't have the information of what the various cell designations are pointing to.  Essentially, it boils down to four categories of passing performance: completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns per attempt and interceptions per attempt.  For all four, the passer's numbers are plugged into the formula and it returns a minimum number of zero and a maximum of 2.375.  All four totals are then added together and divided by 0.06, and boom! there's your passer rating.  Why?  Let's not get into that right now.

The point is, there is a ceiling and a floor on each number.  You can't get a worse rating than zero and you can't get a better one than 158.3…which seems like a particularly inelegant number for a ceiling.  And, in each category, you don't have to have the worst or best possible performance to hit the ceiling or the floor.  In other words, you don't have to have a 0.0% completion percentage to return a number of zero for that category in the passer rating formula.  And you don't have to have a 100.0% completion percentage to get the 2.375.

As it turns out, all of Hedberg's numbers – 27.8% completion percentage, 11.1% interception percentage, etc. – are low enough to return the zero in the formula.  Thus, he finished 1977 with the lowest possible passer rating: 0.0.  Since that was his only year with the team (he later moved on to Oakland and Green Bay but never threw another regular-season pass), he is also the answer to the lowest career passer rating in Buccaneers history.  It would be possible for a player to have worse raw numbers – say, 15% completion percentage and 20% interception percentage – but it wouldn't return a passer rating any lower than 0.0.

Now, in both cases, that's figured on 90 passes, which as we mentioned is awfully low.  If you set the bar at 100 passes, than one of Hedberg's contemporaries replaces him.  Gary Huff, who played in eight games with six starts in 1977 and got into a few more games in relief in 1978, had a passer rating of 37.0 on 138 passes in '77 (see, we told you it was a rough year overall).  In his Bucs career, he threw 174 passes and finished with a rating of 36.0.  If you move the bar up to 224 passes in a season, which is 14 per game in a 16-game season and what the NFL requires for a player to qualify for the league's statistical lead, then the single-season answer is Vinny Testaverde's 48.8 rating in 1988.  That was Testaverde's first full year as a starter and he unfortunately threw 35 interceptions.  As we mentioned above, he went on to much bigger things.

As for the NFL as a whole, now you've got a lot of raw data to work with, but also some single-season and career minimum qualifications that pare the field down.  To qualify for the passer-rating league-leader table in a single season, a player needs 224 passes (14 per his team's games), as mentioned above.  To qualify for the career table, the minimum has been set at 1,500 passes.  In a way, that limits the list to quarterbacks who, in some way or another, were at least somewhat successful; that is, they were good enough to start the equivalent of three to five seasons.

The lowest-rated passer in NFL history (with at least 1,500 attempts) is Frank Tripucka, who compiled a rating of 52.2 over the course of eight NFL/AFL seasons and 1,745 passes.  The main offender in his rating calculations is a total of 124 interceptions, a 7.1% INT rate.  A first-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1949, Tripucka wasn't really a bust; in fact, his jersey #18 has been retired by the Denver Broncos, for whom he was the franchise's first starting quarterback in 1960.  After an initial short stint in the NFL with Detroit, the Chicago Cardinals and Dallas, he played seven seasons in the CFL before joining the Broncos.

In that inaugural year for the AFL in 1960, Tripucka, Jack Kemp of the Los Angeles Chargers and Johnny Unitas of the (NFL's) Baltimore Colts all became the first quarterbacks in league history to surpass the 3,000-yard passing mark in a single season.

Still, Tripucka's at the top of the list, followed by Mike Phipps (52.6 with Cleveland and Chicago, 1970-81), Cotton Davidson (54.9 with Baltimore, Dallas Texans and Oakland, 1954-68), Tobin Rote (56.8 with Green Bay, Detroit, San Diego, Denver, 1950-66) and Jack Kemp (57.3 with Pittsburgh, San Diego and Buffalo, 1957-69).

In case you're wondering, Ryan Leaf had a career rating of 50.0 but topped out at 655 career passes.

I'm sure you've noticed that all of the players in that top five above started their careers in 1970 or earlier.  Look a little farther down the list, you'll also find names such as George Blanda, Bobby Layne, Joe Namath and Archie Manning in the top 21.  This is why Coach Morris often says, "Stats are for losers."  The Answer Man doesn't think he's a loser (my 13-year-old son often disagrees); I love stats, but I think we can all see that you can't judge these players by this one set of numbers.  The game, obviously, has changed.

The lowest-rated passer who began his career in 1980 or later is Mark Malone, who did most of his work with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Over 1,648 passes from 1980-89, Malone put up a rating of 61.9.  The lowest rating on the list for a player who began his career in 1990 or later is Rick Mirer (63.5) and the lowest rating for a player who began his career in 2000 or later is Joey Harrington (69.4).

Now, move on to the single-season list and we do find Leaf in the top 20, though all the way down at #19 with his 39.0 in his rookie 1998 season.  The single lowest-rated passing season in NFL history belongs to Bud Schwenk of the Chicago Cardinals, who compiled a mark of 25.5 in 1942.  In 11 games, he threw 295 passes and completed 126 of them (42.7%) for 1,360 yards, six touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

Again, there aren't a lot of modern-era names at the top of the list.  Terry Bradshaw, whose career started in 1970 as the first overall pick in the draft, comes in sixth with a forgivable mark of 30.4 in his rookie season.  Bradshaw doesn't really need the Answer Man to defend him; he's in the Hall of Fame.  Leaf's 1998 campaign is the lowest-rated of any season since someone named Gary Marangi in 1976; in fact, it's the only one in the top 40 (or bottom 40, I guess) that occurred after 1978.  Testaverde's aforementioned 48.8 isn't in the bottom 50.

Now, on to a happier, but equally stat-clogged and somewhat related topic…

**

  1. Josh Hutchinson of Richmond, Virginia asks:

Is Josh Freeman going to do better or worse next season?

Answer Man:  Hmmm.  Well, there are three ways that I see in which I could answer this question.

1. I don't know.  I can't know, can't possibly really know.  Player performances go up and down all the time, and past performance isn't always a great indicator of what is to come.  Look at Brett Favre, the most prolific passer in NFL history.  In his last seven years in the NFL (they are going to be his last seven, right?), Favre posted the following seven passer ratings, beginning in 2004: 92.4, 70.9, 72.7, 95.7, 81.0, 107.2, 69.9.  After he threw 30 TD passes and just 12 picks in 2004, I'm sure everyone expected Favre to be even better in 2005, but it didn't really work out that way (20 TDs, 24 INTs).

2. Of course he will be better.  This is the Kool-Aid-drinking answer.  You know the Answer Man is almost unfailingly optimistic about his Buccaneers, and it's certainly no stretch to suggest that Freeman's arrow is pointed up.  In the months leading up to the 2010 season, Freeman was repeatedly lauded for how aggressively he had attacked his preparations during the offseason, his first full NFL offseason.  It quickly became clear that all that work had paid off, as he put on a magnificent showing from beginning to end once the season began.  He's only 23, no one has ever doubted his physical tools and he certainly looked like he had "it" last year.  Does anyone doubt that Freeman will work just as hard during the 2011 offseason?  Isn't that likely to produce even better results next fall?

3. What do the stats say?

Now, which way do you think the Answer Man is going to go?  The first answer is true, but what's the fun in that?  Mr. Hutchinson surely understands that he's asking for my opinion – hopefully a well-informed opinion – rather than any sort of fact or mystic fortune-telling.  The second answer is, essentially, my opinion, and you can leave it at that if you wish.  But why not take a peek at the numbers, to see if we can find historical support for that opinion.

That is, can we find comparisons that will give us an idea of the range of performances we might expect from Freeman in 2011?  We can certainly try.

Warning: We're going to be focusing on passer rating again.  It may not be a perfect statistic – it doesn't necessarily account for such intangibles as leadership and "heart," or even some tangibles, like running ability – but it does make an effort to combine many different aspects of a passer's performance.  It also tends to produce a pretty believable list when it's all said and done.  In other words, if I told you that the 12 highest-rated passers in 2010 were Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco, Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, wouldn't that seem like a pretty representative list of the best quarterbacks in the NFL last year?  You might argue a point or two, but as a whole that list seems pretty good.

We're talking about season-to-season improvement here, so the Answer Man started with the fact that Josh Freeman improved  his passer rating from 59.8 in 2009 to 95.9 in 2010.  That's an improvement of 36.1 rating points, which is absurdly high.  In fact, it is the second-highest season-to-season improvement in the last 30 years, including only quarterbacks who were their teams' primary starters each year (that is, they qualified for the NFL passer-rating lead).

Here are the top six single-season passer rating improvements since 1980:

  1. Drew Brees, SD

2003-04

67.5

104.8

+37.3

  1. Josh Freeman, TB

2009-10

59.8

95.9

+36.1

  1. Ken Anderson, CIN

1980-81

66.9

98.4

+31.5

  1. Scott Mitchell, DET

1994-95

62.0

92.3

+30.3

  1. Tom Brady, NE

2006-07

87.9

117.2

+29.3

  1. Ben Roethlisberger, PIT

2006-07

75.4

104.1

+28.7

The good times didn't last too long for Scott Mitchell in Detroit, but otherwise that's a pretty encouraging list.  Of course, that list in itself doesn't tell us what those quarterbacks did after that big improvement, which is essentially the question here.

Not surprisingly, none of the other five on that list were able to match their much-improved passer rating the following season.  That does not mean they regressed; it was simply difficult to go much higher.  A passer rating of 100 is pretty much superstar level in the NFL, so if you're near or above that level, it's not really realistic to expect another significant improvement the following year.  For example, if you take Brees' incredible numbers from 2004 (262 of 400 for 3,159 yards, 27 TDs and 7 INTs) and simply add seven more interceptions the following year, the passer rating drops to 97.5

Among this group, Brees and Anderson had only slight declines and Brady was injured in the first game the following year, while Roethlisberger and Mitchell fell back by more than 20%.  The problem here is, it's not a wide enough sample.

So let's get a wider one.

Deciding upon 1980 as the starting point because, as mentioned in the previous answer, the passing game has become much more prominent in the last three decades, the Answer Man found 114 cases of a player who's passer rating improved by 10 points or more from one season to the next.  Here again, and throughout the rest of this answer, we are only including players who were primary starters for their teams in both of the included seasons.  We are also only including improvements specifically from one calendar year to the next.  If for some reason – a la Randall Cunningham – something separated a player's starting campaigns by a season or more, we did not include those seasons.

We have to eliminate 30 of the 114 season pairings right off the bat because the quarterback in question wasn't the primary starter the season after the improved campaign or, as in Freeman's case, that season hasn't happened yet.

Of the remaining 84 quarterbacks on the list (and in some cases it's the same quarterback with several different season pairings), this is what happened:

  • 28 improved their passer rating again the following season
  • 25 saw their passer rating go down by 10% or less
  • 16 saw their passer rating go down by 10-20%
  • 15 saw their passer rating go down by more than 20%

That's relatively encouraging, too.  There are plenty of examples of players who made a big leap in their passer rating from one season to next, and it proved to be the start of steady improvement.  Furthermore, a strong majority were either better or essentially as good in terms of passer rating the following year, and that expands the pool of positive examples.  Let me put it this way: if Josh Freeman's passer rating "declined" by 6% next year to 90.9 due to a higher interception rate (which might be inevitable given how historically low it was in 2010), but he also threw for more yards, more touchdowns and the Buccaneers won 12 games instead of 10, wouldn't you say he "got better" in 2011?

There is a problem with this analysis, though, that you might not notice if you weren't looking at the raw list of data in front of the Answer Man.  Here's the thing: There are just too many different situations dictating these improved-season pairings.  You've got quarterbacks and careers of every stripe here.

You've got some 10-point-or-more improvements, for instance, that simply showed a superstar going to yet another level, such as when Brees improved from 96.2 to 109.6 from 2008 to 2009.  I mean, we already knew what we needed to know about Brees in 2008, right?

You've also got players who changed teams in the middle of that season pairing, which would seem to change everything.  Jake Plummer went from 65.7 in 2002 to 92.8 in 2003, but does anyone doubt that the relative quality of the rosters in Arizona and Denver had something to do with that?

You also have players like Favre and Matt Hasselbeck who started for a long stretch of time and were up-and-down throughout.  Does a sudden jump of 15 points between the 11th and 12th year of a player's career really have much comparative value to what is happening with Josh Freeman?

And you even have players on the list who started so low that a decent jump still didn't get them into the range of good numbers.  All you need to know on that front is that the aforementioned Mark Malone and Joey Harrington are on the list.

So maybe we would be better off trying to find the seasons that are most comparable to the situation Freeman is in now.

The key, in the Answer Man's mind, is that Freeman is making his first big jump.  He's at the beginning of his career.  So let's include only the players on the list whose season pairing begins with either their first, second or third years as a starting quarterback.  This also serves the purpose of eliminating all but three pairings that duplicate names on the list (Neil Lomax, Bernie Kosar and Troy Aikman all improved by at least 10 rating points both from Year One to Year Two and from Year Two to Year Three).

That narrows the list down to 59 pairings, 14 of which we had to eliminate because they didn't have the requisite following year as a starter (including Freeman).  That leaves us with a neat group of 45.  Among those 45:

  • 7 improved again by 10% or more
  • 13 improved again by 0.5 to 10% more
  • 10 declined by less than 10%
  • 15 declined by more than 10%

That seems kind of inconclusive, but again we are dealing with a pretty broad group of situations.  Does Tony Banks jumping from St. Louis to Baltimore between his second and third year as a starter and going from 68.6 to 81.2 (+12.6) match up very well with Freeman's situation?  How about Steve Young going from 101.5 to 112.8?  I mean, that's just different shades of total awesomeness.

So let's narrow it down again.  How about we consider only starters in their first, second or third year who jumped by a total of 20 or more passer rating points?  Now we have a pretty tight list of 16 players.  Yes, I understand that I made a point of wanting to expand the database at the beginning of this talk, and I've since done everything to narrow it back down.  But, whereas I wanted the original long list to get enough data for an overall trend, the point of this list is to find more specific comparables to Freeman's situation.

You can get a general feeling from just looking at the names on the list, so allow me to paste the whole sucker in here right now (by the way, I really wanted to include the next two players on the list, who were right under 20, because it was Jeff Garcia and Peyton Manning, but you have to draw the line somewhere):

Player

Years

Year 1

Year 2

Improv.

Year 3

Year 3 +/-

Drew Brees, SD

2003-05

67.5

104.8

+37.3

89.2

-14.9%

Scott Mitchell, DET

1994-96

62.0

92.3

+30.3

74.9

-18.9%

Ben Roethlisberger, PIT

2006-08

75.4

104.1

+28.7

80.1

-23.1%

Brian Griese, DEN

1999-00

75.6

102.9

+27.3

78.5

-23.7%

Boomer Esiason, CIN

1987-89

73.1

97.4

+24.3

92.1

-5.4%

Carson Palmer, CIN

2004-06

77.3

101.1

+23.8

93.9

-7.1%

Philip Rivers, SD

2007-09

82.4

105.5

+23.1

104.4

-1.0%

Neil Lomax, STL

1982-84

70.1

92.0

+21.9

92.5

0.5%

John Elway, DEN

1983-85

54.9

76.8

+21.9

70.2

-8.6%

David Garrard, JAX

2006-08

80.5

102.2

+21.7

81.7

-20.1%

Trent Green, KC

2001-03

71.1

92.6

+21.5

92.6

0.0%

Daunte Culpepper, MIN

2002-04

75.3

96.4

+21.1

110.9

15.0%

Jim Everett, L.A. Rams

1987-89

68.4

89.2

+20.8

90.6

1.6%

Vinny Testaverde, TB

1988-90

48.8

68.9

+20.1

75.6

9.7%

Troy Aikman, DAL

1990-92

66.6

86.7

+20.1

89.5

3.2%

Drew Bledsoe, NE

1995-97

63.7

83.7

+20.0

87.7

4.8%

Okay, in this chart "Year 1" and "Year 2" refer to the season pairing where the improvement occurred.  "Improv." Is the difference in the passer rating from Year 1 to Year 2.  "Year 3" refers to the year after the big jump, and "Year 3 +/-" is an indication of the percentage by which the player's passer rating went up or down the year after the jump.

The list is ranked by the size of the jump from Year 1 to Year 2.  By simple name recognition, it's a pretty nice list.  Mitchell didn't really deliver on the promise of that 1996 (or his big free agency contract) and Griese and Testaverde failed to lock down the long-term job with their original teams.  But much of the rest of the group is populated with what one might call "franchise quarterbacks."

Of course, what the original question (you'd have to do A LOT of scrolling up to find it at this point) aimed it is whether we should expect Freeman to be even better next year.  This list is encouraging in that regard, too. Despite the already-high second-year ratings for everybody on the list but Elway and Testaverde, half of the 16 players did improve their rating again the next year (or tied it, in Trent Green's case).  Another four saw relatively small declines.  The only cautionary tales the Answer Man really sees on here, besides Mitchell, are Garrard and Griese.  Roethlisberger had one of the bigger fallbacks, but we've also seen him go back up since (100.5 in 2009 and 97.0 in 2010).

So, in conclusion, the Answer Man is going to go with all three of his original answers for the question, "Is Josh Freeman going to do better or worse next season?"  I don't really know, but it is my strong opinion that he will due to his dedication to his craft, and evidence of previous quarterbacks in his situation is encouraging.

Whew!  That has to be one of my longest answers ever.  I'm in mid-offseason form!  I could probably just wrap it up right here, right?

Editor's note: No.

Okay, then.

**

How 'bout we get away from the quarterbacks for awhile?

  1. Marco of Toronto, Ontario asks:

Has LeGarrette Blount signed a contract with the Bucs yet?

Answer Man: Well, Marco, the truth is that Blount has never signed a contract with the Bucs.  As an undrafted free agent following the 2010 draft, Blount was free to sign with any team, and he did so with the Tennessee Titans.  As is the case with most players in this situation, he agreed to a two-year deal as his first NFL contract.

On Saturday, September 4, when every team in the league trimmed their rosters down to 53 players for the regular season, Blount made it through.  However, the Titans made a few more transactions the next day, claiming two linebackers off waivers, Tim Shaw and Patrick Bailey.  That meant they had to release two of the players they had kept among their 53 the day before, and one of those, to his surprise, was Blount.

That put Blount on the waiver wire, meaning all the other teams in the league had 24 teams to put in a claim.  If no one submitted a claim, then Blount would become a free agent again; conjecture is that the Titans were hoping this would happen so that they could then sign him to their practice squad.  If more than one team submitted a claim, the priority was based on the team's records from 2009.  I don't know if more than one team tried to claim Blount, but the Bucs were third in the order and they most certainly did submit a claim.

By claiming Blount rather than signing him after he cleared waivers, the Buccaneers inherited the contract the rookie back had originally signed with Tennessee.  That contract remains valid, meaning he is already set for 2011.

If the question is, have the Buccaneers signed Blount to any additional deal since then, the answer is no.

**

  1. Michael Emswiller of Alexandria, Virginia asks:

My question is, "Are the Buccaneers the youngest NFL team franchise??? I've been wondering that for awhile. By the way, I am the biggest Buccaneers fan EVER!! Please tell Cadillac Williams I have his jersey. GO BUCS!!! P.S. I am 10 years old.  Tell Josh Freeman I said hi!!!!!!!!!!!

Answer Man: Well, young Mr. Emswiller, neither Caddy nor Josh are around right now – this is the time of year players take a few weeks off to let their fatigued bodies recover – but when I see them again I will pass along the message.

I like your enthusiasm!  You're 10 years old, you say?  Well, given the current makeup of the Bucs' roster, that's practically old enough to fit right in within the locker room.

That's an exaggeration, of course, but the point is valid, and it's the answer to your question.  I think.  You see, I'm a bit confused by the phrase "youngest NFL team franchise."  If the key word is "team," then the answer is yes.  If the key word is "franchise," then the answer is no.  Allow me to explain.

What I think you mean when you ask if the Bucs are the NFL's youngest team is whether the average age of the players currently on the roster is the league's youngest.  And, as of about the midway point of the 2010 season, the answer was (and is) yes.  The average age of a player on Tampa Bay's roster at the end of the year was 25.1 years old, which was the lowest in the league.  The Carolina Panthers had the league's youngest roster when the 2010 season began, and the Bucs were second, but a series of roster moves, most of them involving young imports like Al Woods and Dezmon Briscoe, switched the Bucs to the first spot.

It's possible, but unlikely, that by saying "franchise" you're asking me if Tampa Bay is the newest team in the NFL.  In other words, when the Buccaneers came into the league in 1976, that was the franchise's "birthdate," and the team is now turning 35.  That does make Tampa Bay one of the younger teams in the NFL, but not the youngest.  Four franchises have been added since the Buccaneers and the Seahawks became the NFL's 27th and 28th teams during the '76 expansion: Carolina and Jacksonville in 1995; the Baltimore Ravens (sort of) in 1996; and the Houston Texans in 2002.  That makes Houston the NFL's youngest franchise.

By the way, Michael, I said "sort of" regarding the Baltimore expansion because, as a 10-year-old, you wouldn't even remember what happened there.  The Ravens came into existence in 1996 when the team previously known as the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore.  As a nod to the Browns' rich history in Cleveland, the NFL said that the Browns' nickname and colors would remain in Cleveland and eventually be attached to a new team.  The former Browns and now Ravens were technically treated as an expansion franchise – the Ravens' history begins in 1996 – but of course they sprang into life with a fully-formed roster and coaching staff.  When the Browns started play again in 1999, that team was considered a continuation of the original Browns, with a three-year gap on the field, though it was this franchise that had to start from scratch like an expansion team.

**

  1. Ivar Manning of Brunswick, Ohio asks:

I've been wanting to ask someone this for a long time. Bucs-Colts game 2003. Furious comeback by the Colts. Was there a missed call on the onside kick the Colts recovered in the second half?

Answer Man: La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la!

/fingers in ears, eyes clinched shut

Seriously, Ivar, what did the Answer Man do to you?  Why do you have to bring up this game, of all games?  Personally, I don't just have the power of denial when it comes to October 6, 2003, I have the superpower of denial.  I was be-bopping through life quite nicely without having that macabre Monday night occupying any of my headspace.  Then you and your e-mail came along.

Sigh.

Okay, let's get this over with quickly.  For those who don't remember (or have blocked it out), the Indianapolis Colts beat the Buccaneers 38-35 in overtime on that evening.  With just over five minutes remaining, Ronde Barber returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown to give the Buccaneers a seemingly insurmountable 35-14 lead.

Obviously, it proved surmountable for Peyton Manning and company.  I'm not going to drag us all through the dirty details, but there was a long kickoff return, a fourth-down touchdown, a "leaping" penalty, a field goal that hit a hand and an upright before going through and a critical injury to Brian Kelly earlier in the game that came back to haunt the Bucs.

And there was a successful onside kick by the Colts.  After scoring once to make it 35-21, the Colts by necessity went with that kickoff gambit.  From the 30, kicker Mike Vanderjagt popped the ball up in the air and it was caught by safety Idrees Bashir at the Colts' 42.  Since the ball did go the requisite 10 yards, it was deemed to be a legal recovery by Bashir.

Problem was, the ball never touched the ground, and there were Buccaneer players around who could have caught it in the air.  See, on most onside kicks the kicker purposely drives the ball off the tee and into the ground to create high and unpredictable bounces.  Once the ball hits the ground, then there is no chance for anyone on the receiving team to catch it in the air; it is simply the recovery of a bouncing ball.  The reason that's important is that a player on the kicking team may not interfere with the opportunity of a player on the receiving team to catch a kickoff in the air.

Now, understand this wasn't really obvious at the time.  None of the stories in the papers the following day said anything about it, only saying it was a critical failure by the Buccaneers not to recover that kickoff.  The following day, the story had changed but was still focusing on the Bucs making a mistake.  See, a player on the kicking team could have called for a fair catch on the play, and then Bashir clearly would have been committing a penalty.

That's a fair point.  But here's the thing: Bashir had to let the Bucs in the vicinity try to catch the ball, even if they didn't call for a fair catch.  The fair catch would have been better, because then the Bucs player could have fielded it without worry of being hit.  But Bashir's action was still a penalty.  Don't believe me?  Let's pull out the rulebook.

We find what we need in Rule 6, Section 2, Article 1.  At many places in the rulebook, rules are followed by a series of "approved rulings," which "serve to supplement and illustrate the basic language of the rules.  Basically, these rulings (abbreviated to "A.R." throughout the text) are little detailed scenarios followed by what should be called on the field.

And so I call your attention to A.R. 6.9, which just happens to describe what Bashir said almost exactly:

A kickoff after a Try is caught in the air by a kicking team player on the kicking team's 41-yard line:

*     (a) before any touching by the receiving team. A receiving team player could have caught the ball.*

*     Ruling: Interference with the opportunity to make a catch. 15-yard penalty from spot of foul, snap only.*

*    (b) before any touching by the receiving team. No receiving team player was near enough to have caught the ball.*

*    Ruling: Legal play. A's ball first-and-10 on A41.*

What is important is what you do NOT see in the text.  It does not say the receiving team player had to call for a fair catch in order to have the right to catch the ball without interference.  He simply had to be close enough so that he could have caught it, and that was the case on this play.

Now, let's all be clear, you and me and Ivar and everybody else: This isn't sour grapes.  The game didn't come down to this one ruling and the Bucs had plenty of chances to seal the victory.  And if there was a call the Bucs were actually hot about after the game, it was the leaping penalty on Rice on Vanderjagt's missed 40-yard field goal in overtime.  But the question was about that onside kick, and I'm just addressing it now with the advantage of many years of hindsight.

Alright, seriously, enough about that stupid game.  What else have we got?

**

  1. Nick of Phoenix, Arizona asks:

When do you think the Bucs will play the Cowboys, early in the season or late?

Answer Man: Sorry, Nick, there's no real way to know that until the NFL schedule comes out, which will probably be early to mid-April.

So, why include this question if I don't have an answer?  Well, for one, it allows me an opportunity to shamelessly (but accurately) plug how awesome the Bucs' home schedule looks like it's going to be next fall.  Seriously, that Dallas game is just one of the marquee draws.  You'll also see four 2011 playoff teams come to town (Indy, Chicago, Atlanta and New Orleans) plus the hated Panthers and the suddenly very intriguing Detroit Lions.

And for another, we can at least make some educated guesses and analyze any trends we can find.

First of all, the Buccaneers opened their 2009 season at home against Dallas.  That doesn't mean the Cowboys can't come to Tampa in Week One again, but the Answer Man would be surprised if the NFL scheduled that exact same season-opening game two times in a three-year period.

Second, I can guarantee you it won't be the weekend that includes Sunday, November 27.  That's Thanksgiving Week, and the Cowboys always play at home on Thanksgiving Day.

Third, I can also guarantee you it won't be Week 17.  The NFL has tweaked its scheduling format so that all teams play division rivals that final weekend, hoping to increase the odds that the games will be meaningful at the end of the season.  The Bucs should be playing either the Falcons, Panthers or Saints that weekend.

Also, take note that Dallas is one of the two opponents on Tampa Bay's 2011 schedule that was determined by the 2010 standings.  The Bucs were due to play a home game against whatever NFC East team that finished in the same spot in those division standings that Tampa Bay finished in the NFC South.  The Bucs and Cowboys were both third in their respective divisions.

The NFL has been using its current scheduling format since 2002, a total of nine years so far.  And for some reason, the Buccaneers almost never play their home game against their strength-of-schedule opponent early in the year.  They did that first year, in '02, playing host to the St. Louis Rams of the NFC West in Week Three.  However, in the eight years beginning in 2003, that game has fallen in (in order) Week 11, Week 7, Week 10, Week 17, Week 12, Week 7, Week 9 and Week 15.

That trend may be nothing more than coincidence.  But if you choose to believe there's something there, the Bucs are likely to be playing their home game against Dallas in either November or December.  That's just a guess.  Don't hold me to it.

**

  1. Lynn Wilson of Stanwood, Washington asks:

I found an autograph marked #76 TB Bucs. The signature isn't readable but the first name appears to start with an S and the last name with an E. Any idea who might have written this? Thank you.

Answer Man: Well, that's intriguing.

I may need more information, Lynn, so if you can add anything after reading what I have below, please e-mail me again with details.

We could start with either the number or the letters.  Both serve to seriously cut down the number of possibilities.

First, be aware that we might not be able to figure this out at all.  I'm working off the team's all-time roster, and to appear on that roster you have to be on the active roster for at least one regular-season game.  It's entirely possible that the man who signed that autograph was with the Buccaneers at some point during an offseason or a training camp, and in that case I really don't have the records to track him down.

If you're correct in your guesses of the first and last initials, then we've definitely hit a wall.  A total of 13 players whose last names begin with E have made a Buccaneers roster, but none of them have a first name that begins with S.  Furthermore, none of them wore the #76.  We had a defensive end briefly in 2009 named Maurice Evans, whose number was 96.  Probably not a match, unless the S could be an M and the 9 could be a 7.

You said the signature is illegible.  Are you certain about the #76 part?  If so, we know it's going to be an offensive or defensive lineman, since those are the only positions that are allowed to wear numbers in the 70s.  Here's a list of every player who has worn #76 for the Buccaneers in their 35 regular seasons:

  • T DeMarcus Curry (2000-01)
  • G/T Scott Dill (1990-95)
  • DT David Logan (1979-86)
  • DT Dave Pear (1976-78)
  • T Tutan Reyes (2002)
  • C John Wade (2003-07)
  • OL Jeremy Zuttah (2008-Present)

I can't say that any of those initials look like they would be confused with S E.  Maybe J Z, for Jeremy Zuttah?  Do the item and the autograph look relatively new, because Zuttah is your current wearer of #76.

There are some pretty prominent players on the list.  Dave Pear was the first Pro Bowler in franchise history, in 1977.  The late David Logan was a very popular defender known with a knack for scoring touchdowns, and later a popular member of the Bay-area media.  Both Scott Dill and John Wade had good, long runs on the Bucs' offensive line, and Zuttah is at the beginning of the same.

Final question: Does it definitely say "#76," with the number sign included, or did you add that for clarification?  If not, could it possibly be written in a way that means the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers?  There still isn't an "S.E." in that group, but it could help us figure out who it is.  Again, if you have any more info to help me, feel free to send it in.

**

Okay, let's take it home with just a couple "quickies."  As usual, these are questions that need very little elaboration, or that I've answered in the past.

  1. Billy of Tampa, Florida asks:

What is the song that is played in the cartoon of the Buccaneers ship that destroys all the other ships.

Answer Man: Any readers who have been with me for a couple years know I have to answer this question about twice a year.  I truly believe I will still be answering it when I'm 250 (my species lives a lot longer than yours).

That piece is part of a classical music cantata composed by Carl Orff called "Carmina Burana."  The particular piece of the cantata you always here is called "O Fortuna."  It may be the most-played bit of classical music in the world, thanks to how ingrained it is in popular culture.

**

  1. Gayle of somewhere undetermined in Kansas asks:

When are the Cheerleader tryouts?

Answer Man: Good question, Gayle.  The exact dates have yet to be set, but I should have that information soon, and when I do I'll put it in my next column.  I can tell you that they will be some time in late April or May, and that once the date is set we will publicize it heavily on Buccaneers.com and elsewhere.  Stay tuned.

**

  1. Nancy Roemer of The Villages, Florida asks:

Isn't there a fun day for fans during spring training sometime in July? I saw something on this and was interested for 2011, but can't find anything about it.

Answer Man: Why yes, Nancy.  Yes, there is.

What you are referring to is called FanFest, and the Bucs have been holding this ultra-popular event pretty much since forever.  The exact date for 2011 has yet to be set but it is generally within the first two weeks of June.  As with the Cheerleader tryouts, please keep an eye on Buccaneers.com for more details.  Believe me, when we get the FanFest date set, we work very hard to get the word out.  It's our most popular offseason event of the year, with tens of thousands of fans showing up at the stadium.  It's free, there's tons of fun stuff to do and giveaways to be had, and it's the best chance all year to get autographs from players and coaches.

**

That'll do it for me this week, but keep the questions coming.  I'll get to as many of them as possible between my written columns and my new video gig.  Thanks to all of you for keeping this interesting.

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