Last fall, Monday Night Football came back to Raymond James Stadium for the first time since 2003. The season before that, in 2010, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers broke a five-game streak of finishing the schedule at home, and also played a non-playoff January road game for just the third time in team history. In 2009, the Buccaneers played in London and also opened the season with an unusual run of five straight non-division opponents.
Every NFL schedule has its unique moments and unexpected surprises. In 2005, for instance, the Buccaneers were surprised to learn that they would be playing three straight late-season road games in the span of 14 days. In 2003, the team saw its Super Bowl title from the previous season translate into a franchise-record three MNF games. The 1986 squad was forced to play three of its last four games on the road.
What surprises are in store for the Buccaneers in 2012? The answer should arrive soon enough, as the new NFL schedule is expected to be released before the 2012 draft, which is now less than three weeks away. The league released its preseason schedule earlier this week, and the regular-season slate usually follows relatively closely behind.
The 256-game regular-season schedule is far too complicated to predict with any degree of expected accuracy. The Buccaneers know who the opponents for all 16 of their games will be, but beyond that the only real certainties are that the final game will be against Atlanta, Carolina or New Orleans; at least one of the games will be in prime-time; and there will be no return to London this year.
So we'll have to wait a bit longer. But what specific answers are we looking for? Let's take a look at a few of the key questions that will be resolved for the Buccaneers when the 2012 NFL schedule drops.
1. Could the Buccaneers possibly start the season at home for a fourth year in a row?
Just know this: It's never happened before.
In fact, before the 2009-11 seasons, the Buccaneers had only once before started three straight seasons at home. That was the 1986-88 run, with season openers at Tampa Stadium against, respectively, San Francisco, Atlanta and Philadelphia. By the way, the team has never started four consecutive seasons on the road, either.
Obviously, that would lead one to believe that Tampa Bay's run of Week One home game is going to come to an end, but it is certainly no guarantee. In fact, if one expands the view beyond just the Bucs' history, it's clear that streaks of four straight openers at home are actually not uncommon. In fact, some of them haven't even ended at four.
Looking at the last 10 NFL schedules – a rather convenient block, given that 2002 was the first year the league had 32 teams and went to its currently scheduling format – one finds eight different teams that have had a run of four straight Week One home games…at least. The most remarkable string in that group belongs to Cleveland, which started eight straight seasons at home in that span (2002-09). The Browns' streak actually extends back to 1999, for a total of 11 straight seasons, dating back to the first year the franchise came back into the league after a three-year hiatus.
Washington also started six consecutive seasons at home from 2002-07, while Carolina had a five-year streak from 2002-06. The other teams that have had four-year runs of Week One home games over the last decade are Buffalo (2002-05), Green Bay (2006-09), Miami (2002-05), Oakland (2006-09) and Pittsburgh (2003-06).
So the NFL clearly does not mandate against such streaks in its schedule-making. It is true that none of the 32 teams have had four-season Week One home game runs in the last five years, but in that same span four teams have had four or five-season stretches of starting on the road. That would be Dallas, Denver, Detroit and Minnesota.
The odds would say that the Bucs will be opening on the road under new Head Coach Greg Schiano, but it's no sure thing.
2. When will the Bucs play before a national prime-time audience?
Two years ago, the Buccaneers' initial schedule showed 16 straight games to be played at 1:00 p.m. local time (some games were eventually "flexed" to more favorable time slots). That wasn't a huge surprise; the Bucs were coming off a 3-13 season and the national opinion was that another tough season lay ahead. Then Tampa Bay shocked the NFL with a 10-6 run and, in 2011, the team was rewarded with its first Monday night home game in almost a decade.
Given all that, one might expect Tampa Bay to be a long shot to play in prime time in 2012, since the 2011 season produced a 4-12 mark. However, the Buccaneers – like every team in the league – already know they will get at least one crack at the national spotlight.
The expansion of the NFL Network's Thursday Night schedule has made it possible for the league to guarantee that every team will get one bit of the prime-time apple. It could be a Monday Night Football appearance. It could be Sunday night. There's a good chance it will be Thursday night.
The Buccaneers did win their Monday night game in 2011, a 24-17 comeback against the Indianapolis Colts in Week Four. In addition, the franchise has been relatively successful in the series, appearing 19 times overall and compiling a 10-9 record. It's possible that NFL and network programmers will anticipate another Buccaneer rebound and include the team in the MNF oeuvre.
If so, against whom? Well, MNF might be looking for an unusual and intriguing matchup. The Indy-Tampa Bay game last October had echoes of the very memorable game between those two teams on Monday night in 2003, when the Buccaneers were the defending Super Bowl champions. The eventual contest didn't unfold as expected, as Colts QB Peyton Manning missed the season and thus the MNF rematch at Raymond James Stadium. Now Manning is with the Broncos, and the Buccaneers will play in Denver at some point this fall. Perhaps the league could take another crack at that Manning-Bucs matchup.
If the prime-time game is instead a Sunday or Thursday-nighter, one might expect the schedule-makers to look for a natural or intense rivalry. For the Buccaneers, that probably would mean an intra-division game against the Falcons, Panthers or Saints. Here's an interesting note that the schedule-makers might want to consider when making that decision: Despite the Saints winning 37 games over the last three seasons to the Buccaneers' 17, Tampa Bay has beaten New Orleans in each of those three campaigns. Two of those three wins have taken place in the Louisiana Superdome. Add the fact that the Buccaneers signed All-Pro guard Carl Nicks away from the Saints this offseason, and that's a rivalry that seems like it could entertain a national audience.
3. When's the break?
Every team in the NFL gets one bye week during the season, situated somewhere between Weeks Four and 11. It's a welcome break, as it gives players a chance to rest and recuperate and adds a free seven days to the recovery time of any key players out due to injury.
For that latter reason, it's impossible to predict when a bye week would be most favorable for any particularly team. If a team lost its starting quarterback to a moderate ankle sprain in Week Four, then a Week Five bye would be extraordinarily well-timed, as the passer might not miss a single start. That said, a later bye week is usually considered superior on the grounds that there is likely to be more overall fatigue the farther one is into the season.
In two of the last three seasons, there hasn't been much mystery as to when the Bucs would get their break. Tampa Bay was invited to play in the American Bowl game in London in both 2009 and 2011, and teams that play overseas are always given the following week off. In between, in 2010, the Bucs were one of the four teams that had the very first bye, in Week Four.
The Bucs will likely hope for a later bye in 2012. Here is where the team's last 10 bye weeks have fallen: 8, 4, 8, 10, 10, 4, 7, 8, 4, 10. What's noticeable there is how often the Buccaneers have been either near the beginning or near the end of the bye-week process. Not once have they taken a Week Five or Week Six bye. Given that the team has had a bye week of #7 or later in seven of the last 10 years, it wouldn't be surprising if they had an early one in 2012.
4. Is it going to get cold?
There appear to be two very serious chances for the Buccaneers to run into frigid weather in 2012.
Among Tampa Bay's eight road opponents are the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants. Depending upon when those games are scheduled, Florida's West Coast team might be in for some northern winter conditions.
The Bucs had some exposure to the elements in 2011, playing late-season games at Green Bay, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Carolina. None were too cold, although it was 32 degrees with a wind chill of 25 when the team visited Lambeau Field to play the Packers in Week 11. The last brutally cold game the Buccaneers have played may have been in Champaign in 2002, on the Week 17 evening that the team clinched a first-round playoff bye en route to the Super Bowl.
Reducing the Buccaneers' chances of playing in very cold weather is the fact that they are in a division with two teams with domed stadiums. Two of Tampa Bay's other five destinations in 2012 are to teams with domed (or retractable roof stadiums), in Minnesota and Dallas. Chances are, the Bus won't run into too much bad weather this fall.
5. When will the South be decided?
The final week of the season will feature all intra-division games across the NFL, a welcome change that was instituted two years ago. The idea is to increase the likelihood of each game carrying some meaning, so teams have fewer decisions to make regarding whether or not to sit key players.
The Bucs will have six games against NFC South foes, however, so there are still many ways their overall division schedule can be laid out. In each of the past two seasons, the team's intra-division games were spread out rather evenly over the 17 available weeks. Last year, the South games fell in Weeks Three, Six, Nine, 13, 16 and 17. In 2010, the division foes were on the schedule in Weeks Two, Six, Nine, 10, 12 and 16.
Prior to that, however, Tampa Bay often found its intra-division games loaded heavily into either the beginning of the season or the end. In 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008, for instance, the Buccaneers played two division games in the first quarter of the season. In 2004, 2005 and 2009, on the other hand, the team headed into its 11th game having only faced two South opponents. In 2005, four of the Bucs' last five games were against division foes; in 2009, five of the last seven were against the South.
One thing that would be somewhat out of character for the schedule-makers would be to give the Bucs an intra-division game on opening weekend. That's only happened twice since the formation of the NFC South in 2002, including that first year, which began with a home overtime loss to the Saints but ended in the Super Bowl. In 2008, the Bucs visited New Orleans in Week One, absorbing a loss before winning nine of their next 11 games.
The Bucs' most back-loaded division schedule to date came in 2005. That year, the team played five of its six NFC South games between Weeks 11 and 17. That worked out well, as Tampa Bay won all of those contests, including enormous victories at Carolina in Week 14 and at home against Atlanta (and in overtime) in Week 16. Those five wins allowed the Bucs to take the NFC South title on a tiebreaker over the Panthers, as both teams finished 11-5.