Through suspensions and injuries, Tampa's roster seems to have less and less recognizable names on it. Many would find this distressing, coupled with the fact that the Bucs are in the thick of the NFC playoff race and a mere three games left.
What could carry huge weight is the season finale in New Orleans. Yet with the moderate amount of success that the team has had with back ups performing, I'm looking forward to seeing who comes out of the woodwork.
When Tanard Jackson was suspended I almost lost it. He's a player that I've watched since he went to Syracuse and shined, and he was able to tie the team lead for interceptions last year despite missing a quarter of the season. This year most people were very excited to see what he could do with a full year, and that dream abruptly ended. Cody Grimm was the go to guy and this only made me worry. The seventh round pick was the last to sign a contract of the rookies, and that was unsettling. Despite my apprehension he suited up and was a heavily contributing factor to a Tampa victory in just his second game, and played steadily right up to his injury. Then Lynch surprised me even further with picking off Matt Ryan (in a game that ended the Falcons streak of games without turnovers) and showing off steady tackling ability.
Turning an eye to the miracle of the offensive line that has been able to produce games without sacks and 100 yard rushers despite the fact that I had no idea who Ted Larsen was. Also, James Lee has been getting better each week after showing Trueblood to the bench.
Not only has the team remained competitive against upper echelon squads but they've picked up victories along the way to keep them relevant well into December. No one thought these guys were going to break even this year, and I was happy my prediction of six wins was easily reached. Aside from the wins, the most riveting story of the season is the success of the bench players. From late round picks to waiver wire players, Mark Dominik has been able to assemble a competitive team with relative unknowns as key contributors. He's pulling so many guys off of the street to play on Sunday that I'm half expecting a phone call one of these weekends. It's uplifting to see a team work through the perils of going without their starters with success.
The most uplifting aspect, though, is that the back ups and rookies are getting valuable experience. With Aqib Talib going down, MyronLewis is going to get an incredible amount more playing time that he otherwise would have. On the subject of corners, E.J. Biggers is starting opposite of Ronde Barber and is performing exceedingly well. He's not caught out of position nearly as much as he used to and his speed has been invaluable (Ryan Torain getting pushed out of bounds comes to mind here). The personnel issues have provided avenues for players to prove they can start, which is much more than was expected out of them from the fans.
If Tampa misses the playoffs this season has been no less successful. The youngest team in the league isn't getting blown out anymore and they will all be better next season as will the team once the starters return. The dismal season a year ago would allow anyone to think that capturing a division crown was going to come anytime soon, but this campaign has opened some eyes. I'm hoping the defensive tackles Al Woods and Frank Okam can be the next unknowns to take that step forward against Detroit.