Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Wanted: Fast Start

According to the NFL, a win on opening day more than doubles a team's likelihood of making the playoffs…That's revealed in the league's kickoff release, along with strength of schedule numbers and other intriguing notes

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The Buccaneers last won their season opener in 2005, beginning a campaign that finished with a division title

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2008 season ended in disappointing fashion, with what appeared to be a postseason near-lock dissipated in a winless December. Much of the analysis of that disappointment has focused on the four season-ending losses that dropped the Buccaneers to 9-7 and one game out of the hunt.

But the 2008 campaign certainly could have started in better fashion, too. Opening-game results are quickly forgotten, but they are apparently not immaterial.

According to the NFL's just-released "2009 Kickoff Information Guide," teams that win on opening day are more than twice as likely to make the playoffs as teams that lose on opening day. Since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, there have been 442 season-opening games played. Among the 442 winners, 233 have gone on to make the playoffs; among the 442 losers, 103 have gone on to make the playoffs.

The Buccaneers have actually been one of the most frequent exceptions to that "rule." Tampa Bay teams have lost on opening day and made the playoffs four times – in 1982, 1999, 2002 and 2007. The 2002 team, of course, went on to win the Super Bowl despite dropping an overtime match at home to the New Orleans Saints.

Overall, Tampa Bay is just 13-20 on opening day in their 33 previous seasons, putting them near the bottom of the NFL's chart in that category. Of course, from 1983 to 1996, the team lost much more frequently than it won at all points of the season, so that opening-day record is more a reflection of overall struggles. Since the franchise began its remarkable turnaround under the Glazer Family (Owner/President Malcolm Glazer purchased the Buccaneers in 1995), it has been slightly better in openers over the last dozen years, with a 5-7 mark.

Despite that lukewarm opening-day record and a three-year losing streak in that regard, the Buccaneers have been able to avoid slow starts overall. That is best measured in another chart presented in the Kickoff Guide: Best Opening Month Records, Past 10 Years.

Since 1999, only five teams in the NFL have done better during the opening month than Tampa Bay. The Bucs are 20-13 in that span, for a winning percentage of .606 that trails only the marks of Indianapolis, Seattle, Denver, New England and the New York Giants. Nine of the 10 Super Bowls from 199-2008 were captured by the 16 teams that had the best opening-month records.

Here are a few other kickoff tidbits to contemplate as Opening Day 2009 draws ever closer.

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Youth at the Helm

The Buccaneers decision to tab 32-year-old Raheem Morris as the eight head coach in franchise history fit in with a league-wide hiring theme. The average age of the 11 new coaches in the NFL this year (representing just over a third of all the teams, and including two coaches who finished 2008 in interim roles), is 43.2 years old. Morris is the youngest of the crew.

Morris, in fact, is the fourth-youngest man hired to coach an NFL team since World War II. He is one of four head coaches currently in the league who have yet to celebrate their 40th birthdays, joining Denver's Josh McDaniels (33), Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin (37) and Cleveland's (Eric Mangini).

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Jet-Setters

The 2009 Buccaneers will spend a lot more time in the air than they did last year.

In 2008, Tampa Bay traveled just under 16,000 miles in order to attend their 10 road games in the preseason and regular season. That was a fairly conservative travel plan; only 10 times had fewer combined miles during the season.

This year, the Bucs are slated to travel 23,018 miles (including air, rail and ground trips) to get to their games, including a "home" contest played in London. That trip overseas and a Week 15 jaunt to Seattle are largely responsible for the Buccaneers ranking sixth among the league's 32 teams in terms of miles to be traveled this fall.

The hosting Seahawks won't feel sorry for the Buccaneers. Just as it was in 2008, Seattle is at the top of the travel list, expected to log 29,054 miles in 2009. The Seahawks will travel more miles this year than Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland combined.

The Buccaneers just missed joining the group of five teams that will "travel around the world" in 2009. It takes 25,000 miles to circumnavigate the globe, something the Seahawks, 49ers, Chargers, Cardinals and Raiders will do.

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Line 'Em Up

Speaking of difficult roads to travel, the Buccaneers' 2009 schedule is, on paper at least, a doozy.

According to the "strength of schedule" chart found in the NFL's kickoff release, Tampa Bay will face the fifth toughest slate of games among all teams in 2009. Strength of schedule is determined by combining the 2008 records of all the opponents a team will face.

Tampa Bay's 2009 opponents had a combined mark of 148-107-1 last year, for a winning percentage of .580. Only Miami (.594), Carolina (.592), New England (.590) and Atlanta (.588) face tougher schedules this fall, and only by slim margins.

Of course, as is obvious from that list – and from the fact that the sixth through eighth-toughest schedules on the list are owned by Buffalo, the New York Jets and New Orleans – residence in the NFC South or AFC East is the key factor in the equation. The worst record among the eight teams in those two divisions was 7-9 (Buffalo), so intra-divisional play will force the Bucs, Patriots, Falcons, et al, to play at least six games against foes with good 2008 marks.

Furthermore, the teams in the NFC South and AFC East will face each other this year in a big round-robin of sorts, doubling the impact of those divisions' successes in 2008. As a contrast, every team in the NFC East finished at .500 or better last year, but their interconference matchup is with the AFC West, in which no team finished better than .500 last year.

Of the Bucs' 16 games this fall, only three will be against teams that finished below .500 last year; that would be Buffalo, Green Bay and Seattle, of which the latter two were division champs in 2007.

Seven of the Bucs' 16 games will come against teams that were in the playoffs last January. No team will face more 2008 postseason participants, though nine others also face seven such foes.

The NFL's "easiest" 2009 schedule, by the way, belongs to the Chicago Bears, who have a combined opponent winning percentage of .414. The bottom three spots are all taken by NFC North squads.

A note of caution when analyzing such preseason strength of schedule numbers: Their significance could be wiped away quickly. Chicago's .414 mark, for instance, is influenced heavily by the two games it is scheduled to play against Detroit, which went 0-16 last year. If the Lions make a significant improvement in 2009 – and recent history suggests some teams will make that sort of leap – then Chicago's schedule will suddenly look much tougher.

Take the 2008 Patriots, for instance. In the '08 NFL Kickoff Release, the Patriots were indentified as having the easiest schedule that fall, based on the 2007 records of their upcoming opponents. And it wasn't even close – the Patriots' strength of schedule was .387 while the next lowest mark, that of San Diego, was .422.

That didn't last. Thanks to success of such teams as Atlanta, Miami and Baltimore – all of whom had struggled in 2007 – New England's 2008 opponents finished with a combined 151-105 record, for a winning percentage of ,590.

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