The first of three road games for Brian Kelly and the Buccaneers is against the Saints, though it will be in Baton Rouge and not New Orleans
That disquieting stretch that has been looming on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' schedule since the NFL released its game dates in April has now arrived. The Bucs are about to play three straight games on the road, which is not exactly what a playoff-contending team wants to hear as December dawns.
A "three-week road trip" in the NFL is a different beast than a similar journey in, say, the NBA or Major League Baseball. When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays go on an extended tour of the West Coast, for instance, they're really away from home the whole time. NFL teams return home between each game and prepare for a week at their own headquarters before flying out again. What the Bucs really face is three straight weekends of travel.
The real issue is home field advantage, which is undeniable in the NFL. This year, home teams have won 106 of the 176 games played through 11 weeks for a winning percentage of 60.2%. The NFC East is a perfect example. Those four teams are 17-6 at home this year and 7-14 on the road. After the undefeated Colts, the league's two 9-2 teams – Denver and Seattle – have built those excellent records by going 6-0 at home and just 3-2 on the road.
So the Bucs will face the Saints, Panthers and Patriots in succession on those terms, though the Saints obviously present a different situation as they are playing all their "home" games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and New York. Those three teams are a combined 8-7 at home this year, brought down by the Saints' understandable 1-4 mark. The Bucs, on the other hand, are a respectable 3-2 away from home this season, a mark that is tied for the third-best road record in the NFC.
Three-game road swings are relatively uncommon in the NFL, but not exactly rare. There are three in the league this year, all in November and December. The Jacksonville Jaguars are two games into their three-game venture – and are 2-0 so far, as a matter of fact – and the San Francisco 49ers will start on theirs in Week 14. Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden doesn't remember ever going on one before, and indeed none of the teams in his eight years as an NFL head coach have done so.
So, how do you deal with a three-game road stretch?
You don't. As far as Gruden is concerned, the Bucs are facing one consecutive game away from home. Once they get past that one, we'll see what's on the schedule.
"We're taking it one snap at a time," he said. "At this stage we're realizing fully that we are still very much in this race. We got an opponent on the road that we have a lot of respect for. So we're just going to try to deal with it, one at-bat at a time. Not to sound corny, but we're going to take them one at a time."
Gruden's phrase of choice isn't really corny, it's just timeworn. In other words, it's a cliché because it's true. NFL coaches go to great lengths to keep their players focused on the immediate task at hand, because nothing short of one's best effort is good enough in today's ultra-competitive NFL. The fact that two more road games follow this one doesn't factor into the team's preparations this week.
"So be it man," said Gruden. "We've got to play the New Orleans Saints. We'll look down the road when we get down the road. If you look at it like three straight road games, you start [thinking] about New England, and Carolina. We've got one game to play, one at a time. And as I said earlier, we're going to focus our intentions completely on the New Orleans Saints."
Of course, that doesn't stop the rest of us from wondering how difficult three straight road games might be for a given team. They haven't been particularly kind to the Buccaneers in the past. This will be the ninth one in franchise history, and only one of the previous eight has produced a winning record. Here are those other eight road trifectas:
|Oct. 29-Nov. 12, 1978||0-3||(L) Green Bay, (L) L.A. Rams, (L) Detroit|
|Oct. 28-Nov. 11, 1979||2-1||(W) Minnesota, (L) Atlanta, (W) Detroit|
|Oct. 11-Nov. 25, 1981||1-2||(W) Green Bay, (L) Oakland, (L) Philadelphia|
|Oct. 30-Nov. 13, 1983||1-2||(L) Pittsburgh, (W) Minnesota, (L) Cleveland|
|Nov. 1-Nov. 15, 1987||1-2||(W) Green Bay*, (L) St. Louis, (L) Minnesota|
|Nov. 11-Nov. 25, 1990||0-3||(L) New Orleans, (L) San Francisco, (L) Green Bay*|
|Nov. 13-Nov. 27, 1994||1-2||(L) Detroit, (L) Seattle, (W) Minnesota|
|Oct. 20-Nov. 3, 1996||0-3||(L) Arizona, (L) Green Bay, (L) Chicago|
( Games played in Milwaukee)*
If that seems like a demoralizing list, it should be put in perspective. Forget when and where the games were played – the Bucs were simply not a very good team in most of those seasons above. Only two of those years produced a winning record – 1979 and 1981 – and the other six finished with an average of six wins. For the 1990 Buccaneers to beat the San Francisco 49ers, who eventually went 14-2, on the road at any time in the season would have been a major upset. The Bucs have never before been armed with seven wins before embarking on three straight road games. In 1979, however, they were 6-2 when they started such a trip and came back 8-3.
In the end, the Bucs will play eight games at home and eight on the road, just like everyone else (except, perhaps, for the Saints). This three-game road trip dovetails into two final games at home against division opponents, so the Bucs will have that advantage if the NFC South or a wild card berth is still under contention. If the home game against Atlanta was moved up a week into Week 15, would that make a Week 16 trip to New England any easier? Gruden doesn't see much point in worrying about the schedule and he hasn't given this three-game stretch much extra thought since it was revealed in the spring.
"I didn't really think about it," said Gruden. "I didn't think about very much other than Minnesota [on opening day]. At Minnesota: a challenge indeed. At Green Bay early in the season: a challenge, very challenging. Buffalo: the hottest team in football at the end of last season. I didn't get very far beyond the first two or three weeks. I'll continue to be very short-term goal-oriented."
Indeed, the Vikings, Bills and Packers were thought to be a brutal opening for the Buccaneers. One local publication predicted an 0-3 start. Tampa Bay won them all. That's why they play the games, even when one team is on the road or considered a big underdog.
"We're very excited about the schedule we do play," said Gruden. "It's pretty challenging. We have three straight road games, that's the way it is. At least we'll be home for the holidays."