Let's talk about something that isn't very popular right now: how this team's struggles aren't really an indictment of the team's talent level.
Let me say up front that this not a defense of Raheem Morris or a post about how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are an awesome team. I'm not Jon Gruden doing a Monday Night Football broadcast, after all. "THIS GUY, I CALL HIM AWESOME BECAUSE HE NEVER DOES ANYTHING." No, I think Raheem Morris should be fired and will be fired - and in fact, the talent level is exactly why.
Instead, I'm going to try to explain why the talent level is a problem at some positions, but not an overwhelming hurdle to overcome. This team doesn't need some massive overhaul. It needs to add talent at a few key positions, and it needs good coaching with a full offseason to improve the young players. There are three points I want to make:
- The lack of an offseason has hurt the youngest team in the league more than any other team.
- The hardest schedule in the NFL made this team look worse than it really is.
- This young team does not know how to handle adversity.
No Offseason + Youth + Bad Coaching = Suck
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the youngest team in the league by a mile, and the lockout came at the worst possible time for this team. The Bucs had built their team around second- and third-year players who needed a lot of time with coaches to maintain and hopefully improve their level of play. Mike Williams, Legarrette Blount, Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Arrelious Benn, E.J. Biggers and Ted Larsen were some of those players. Not having an offseason to work with coaches undeniably hurt them.
Now, some of the other young teams have managed to overcome the lack of an offseason and have success. The Green Bay Packers are the best team in the NFL and the second-youngest team in the NFL. The Carolina Panthers have not had much success this year, but they've looked better than the Bucs despite being the third-youngest team in the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals look playoff bound, despite being the fourth-youngest team. The Seattle Seahawks have come together after a rough schedule and are the fifth-youngest team.
But none of those teams have quite as much youth at quite as many key positions as the Buccaneers do, and all of those players seem to be better coached. How do I know the Bucs are poorly coached? They are third in the league in penalties, behind only the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. Penalties are the hallmark of bad coaching and youth. Another one of those hallmarks: missed tackles. And the Bucs are very good at missing tackles.
So, the combination of bad coaching and the lack of an offseason is one factor why the Bucs' are underperforming, but that factor is not an indictment of the talent level. Let's move on.
Hardest Schedule in the League = Suck
Whenever the 10-win 2010 season is brought up, the first response is always "Easy schedule". And that's entirely correct: the Bucs had an easy schedule and ended up with a better record than their quality of play really deserved. Instead, the team was closer to an 8-8 team.
While the easy 2010 schedule is constantly brought up, the incredibly tough 2011 schedule is never mentioned. But it should be: the Bucs have had the hardest schedule in the league by Football Outsiders' numbers. It should be obvious when you take a glance at the teams the Bucs had lost to until week 12: the Detroit Lions, the San Francisco 49ers, the Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints, the Houston Texans, the Green Bay Packers. All of those teams are playoff teams, or really close to it. The Bears might miss the playoffs, but the Bucs played them when they still had their original starting quarterback.
So, the Bucs have played some very good teams and that was a big factor in their slide. They beat two of those playoff teams early in the year: the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. That means that of their 14 games so far, they've played eight against playoff-bound teams and a ninth against a team that could still earn a Wild Card spot (the Tennessee Titans).
But, the Bucs have also lost games to much worse teams the past weeks, and all in blowout fashion. So how do I explain that? In comes my third and final point.
Adversity + No Mental Toughness = Suck
This team has no mental toughness whatsoever. That was clearly on display the past four weeks: the Bucs got down early, and couldn't bounce back. This is what happened during the season as well. The Bucs got off to a fast start, going 4-2 and earning the division lead. But then they started losing somewhat close games to better teams. That was followed by getting blown out by good teams. Then they lost a close game to a worse team - and now they've moved on to getting blown out by horrible teams.
It's not hard to see what's happening: the team is spiraling out of control and can't figure out how to get back on track. We've seen this before: the 2006 season worked exactly like that, as the Bucs could never figure out how to get back to winning after starting 0-4. They just kept losing game after game after game and ended with a 4-12 record. But that season was book-ended by two division titles. That team did not have a huge lack of talent - but it still went 4-12.
The result for the Bucs this year is ugly. The players have lost it, are not playing hard anymore and appear to have quit on their coach and their teammates. That's a shame, and whoever the Bucs hire to take over for Raheem Morris will cut a few players who have played their way out of Tampa Bay because of that.
Bringing it all together
I've named three factors: lack of an offseason, a tough schedule and no mental toughness in the face of adversity. Those three factors have produced a lot of losses this season, and have made players seem worse than they really are.
All of these factors were then compounded by bad coaching and youthful mistakes. The penalties, missed tackles and quitting have nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with inexperience and poor coaching.
Does this mean the Bucs have a complete team with a high talent level? Absolutely not.
They need new players at some positions, most obviously linebacker and cornerback. Upgrades at other positions would help, too.
But things are not as bleak as they may seem after eight games. The Bucs have steadily accumulated young talent the past three years. The biggest mistake they've made is not investing in free agency this offseason, when arguably the largest free agency class in the history of the NFL hit the market.
But this team is not as talent-deficient as its record suggests. Give the defenders a full offseason of work with better coaching, and they'll learn how to tackle again. Give the receivers and Josh Freeman a full offseason with coaching, and you'll see them get better, too. You'll see a better Tampa Bay team next year, even if there are no improvements other than a new coach.
If the Bucs want to be a real contender next year, though, they do need to add talent in free agency. They can't sit on their money for another year. Building through the draft is a nice ideal, but it's taking a very long time.