If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to go on the best kind of NFL trip for the first time in nearly a decade, the first thing they need to do is plan a stay-cation.
That coveted trip, of course, is to playoff land, which the Buccaneers last visited in 2007. They were on the verge of the playoffs again in 2008 with a 9-3 record entering December, only to lose out and just miss the postseason. Those two seasons also happen to be the last time Tampa Bay fashioned a winning record at home.
Since 2008, the Bucs' best season mark at Raymond James Stadium has been 4-4 in 2010, which was half of a 10-6 record that saw the team miss the playoffs on a fifth-level tiebreaker. Even one more win on the home field that year would have extended the season into January.
Last year, every team that made the playoffs had a winning record at home, and nine of the 12 were at least 6-2. That's not terribly surprising, of course; those were good teams who won a lot regardless of venue. Still, seven of them were better at home than on the road, and only one (Arizona) was worse. Teams almost have to take advantage of their home field edge if they want to make it to the playoffs.
"In this league, you want to protect your house," said wide receiver Vincent Jackson. "You want to win every game, but you really put yourself in the situation and say, 'Look, if we can win about half or a little bit more, steal some road games and take care of home, winning the majority of games at home,' you're going to have a record that makes you a playoff team. That's very important for us.
The 1997-2002 Buccaneers that made the playoffs five times culminating in Super Bowl glory at the end of '02 were a combined 35-13 at home. The last five of those years were played at Raymond James Stadium, which opened in 1998. Not coincidentally, every game at the new stadium was a sellout in that span. The current Buccaneers know that they have to lead that charge by putting together a home winning streak – only half of the 1997 games were sellouts before the streak began – but they're hoping the fans will help on Sunday.
"It's fantastic to be at home, number one," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "As I've said many times, we're one of three teams to start the first two games on the road and we'd love to be 2-0, but we're 1-1 and we're really excited to be coming home. And it is very important that we defend Raymond James and that we make that a tough place for anybody to come in to play. But before you can put a streak together, you've got to get the first one.
"We can only hope that on Sunday where we have to do our part, we hope the fans show up and do their part to help us win."
What should also help, at least in terms of fan engagement, is that the team is basically playing in a new Raymond James Stadium following an offseason of massive renovations. Most notably, the stadium features gigantic new end zone video boards, tower wall video boards in all four corners and a full-venue sound system. The new boards made their debut during two preseason games but will be put to much greater use in the regular-season opener on Sunday.
"Now we're at home and we're excited about it," said Jackson. "Those video boards and everything else out there – it's going to be a great fan experience and it's exciting for us as well."
- Last year, the Buccaneers tied the Buffalo Bills as the NFL's most-flagged teams; that is, the Bucs and Bills had 143 accepted penalties against them, most in the NFL. That was an unwanted single-season team record, but not too much worse than the 118 penalties the Bucs incurred in 2014. In fact, Tampa Bay hasn't ranked in the top half of the league's least penalized teams since 2012 and hasn't finished a season with fewer than 100 since 2009.
Koetter was the Buccaneers' offensive coordinator in 2015, presiding over a team that set a franchise record for single-season yards, and when he was hired as the new head coach in January of 2016 he identified that penchant for penalties as a key issue to be addressed under his watch.
"I think we've got to do a great job on educating our players on what are the most important factors on winning and losing in the NFL," said Koetter at his introductory press conference. "[Reducing] penalties is in that top 10."
So far, so good.
Through two games, the Buccaneers rank ninth in the NFL in both penalties and penalty yards, ranked from fewest to most. They were flagged six times for 48 yards in the Week One win at Atlanta and five times for 39 yards last Sunday in Arizona. That's the first time the team has had back-to-back games with fewer than 50 penalty yards since the last two outings of 2014. More importantly, the Bucs have met Koetter's per-game target in that category.
"Our goal is to be six or less a game and we've made it," said Koetter. "Obviously the number one goal every week is to win. We have several other tiered goals along the way, but the penalties thing is one. We have done a pretty good job in that area and we need to continue that."
Penalties can often be doubly painful. The final stat sheet will show the amount of yards a team was moved back for its infractions, but that doesn't include any gains that might have been erased by flags on offense. A holding call that brings back a 40-yard reception, for instance, is really a penalty of 50 total yards.
That, too, has not been a problem for the Buccaneers so far. Only two of their 11 penalties have erased gains on offense, and only a total of 17 yards on those plays. Mike Evans was called for offensive pass interference on one play in Arizona, which can often be particularly painful, but there was no completion on the play to be erased.
Six of the team's 11 penalties so far have come on offense, two of which were dead-ball delay-of-game flags. The defense has only drawn two accepted penalties, one of which was the unsportsmanlike conduct call levied on Gerald McCoy in Atlanta when teammates joined in on his sack celebration. Three of the Bucs' 11 penalties have actually come on punt-coverage plays.
- Tampa Bay's somewhat**lengthy injury**report didn't grow on Thursday, but it did feature one piece of good news and one piece of not-so-good news.
The good news was the return of starting left tackle Donovan Smith to practice, though in a limited fashion. Smith sat out the Wednesday workout with a hip ailment. The Buccaneers are facing a talented Rams defensive front this weekend, including one of the league's top edge-rushing sack artists in Robert Quinn, who would likely see plenty of action against Smith.
The bad news was rookie linebacker Devante Bond's absence from practice on Thursday. He did not take part after being a full participant on Wednesday. Bond has been inactive for each of the Bucs' first two games, though it's unclear if he was held out last week due to his hamstring ailment or simply a coach's decision.
Once again, defensive end Robert Ayers (ankle), running back Doug Martin (hamstring), wide receiver Cecil Shorts (hamstring) and tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) were all held out of practice on Wednesday.
The Rams' injury report on Thursday was an estimation of player availability because the team did not hold a practice. The same six players from Wednesday's report were listed, all considered to have limited participation: safety Maurice Alexander (thigh), wide receivers Pharoh Cooper (shoulder) and Nelson Spruce (knee), running back Benny Cunningham (knee) and cornerbacks E.J. Gaines (thigh) and Lamarcus Joyner (toe).