The Bucs Are A Better Team But Are They a Contender?

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 03: Quarterback Josh Freeman #5 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates against the Indianapolis Colts at Raymond James Stadium on October 3, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

The captain of our ship here at BucNation, Sander, posed a question to our readership - Are the Bucs a playoff team? It was a query spawned by the words of the esteemed NFL analyst Mike Mayock who believed the answer was a resounding yes.

After 1010 responses, 84% believe the Bucs will either make the playoffs or get very close.

But is it a realistic proposition?

First, let's analyze the thought of worst to first.

Since 2002, 19 teams that finished last in their division made the playoffs the next season. Of those 19, 12 of those teams won their division and one, the 2003 Carolina Panthers, played in the Super Bowl (losing to New England).

Last season, three teams - Cincinnati, Denver and Detroit finished last in 2010 only to rise to the playoffs in 2011 (San Francisco actually finished 3rd in the NFC West in 2010, if you're wondering).

Of those 19 teams that made the playoffs the next season, 8 teams had won four or less games the previous season.

It's particularly interesting in the NFC South, where 7 of the last 9 years, the team that finished last in the division went to the playoffs the next season. For the two that missed: Tampa Bay made a heck of a run at it in 2010, finishing 10-6 and losing out of a playoff berth on tie-breakers. Carolina wasn't close in 2011, but sure looked good in losing with the emergence of their star Cam Newton.

Indeed, throughout Bucs history, there's worst to first stories. In 1979, the Bucs went from worst to first reaching all the way to the NFC Championship game. They did it twice in the 2000's, in 2005 and 2007.

So there's no debating that it's possible. Every year there's at least one team that pulls it off. But are the 2012 Bucs that team?

After the jump, we're going to break down the 2012 Bucs by position and discuss whether they've strengthened or weakend in that particular area. We'll look at the coaching staff, the schedule and finally I'll give you my thoughts on whether or not I believe this team can make the playoffs.

Before you can start with the positions, you have to begin with the Buccaneers coaching staff.

Coaching

After the 2011 season, Raheem Morris and his entire staff was jettisoned. The Bucs wanted such a clean slate, they even canned some of water boys (okay, I made that last bit up but Bucs ownership certainly completely wiped clean the organization of any remnants of the Morris regime).

Since his dramatic hiring in 2009, Morris had given off the aura of a nice guy who was in way over his head. Ownership certainly didn't help, gutting the team of its past stars and leaving Morris the captain of a ship filled with rambunctious twenty-somethings that were more interested in the NFL lifestyle than the craft of being great.

Reportedly, even the head coach himself was out partying with his players.

The players didn't refer to him as "Coach Morris," but "Rah". Many fans referred to him as "Raw". He looked uncomfortable in press conference, speaking quickly and stumbling on his words. He began his coaching career calling out poorly performing players by name in press conferences. Later, he would brashly say his team was the best in the division and called his players "youngry".

He fired his first offensive coordinator in first training camp. He fired his first defensive coordinator with a month left in his first season.

In 2010, the team surprised many by going 10-6 in the rugged NFC South. Yet rather than build upon that success, Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik felt the team had "arrived" and didn't want to rock the boat by adding free agents. Despite the lockout, which robbed the coaching staff of working another off-season of OTA's and minicamps with his young players, many of his players took the same attitude and after a 4-2 start with victories over division powers New Orleans and Atlanta, the Bucs headed over to London fully believing they were ready to ascend in to the top.

Only the players and coaching staff know for sure what happened overseas. There were rumors of Aquib Talib getting into an altercation with the Head Coach in a hotel lobby. Other accounts bubbled of seeing Bucs players and coaches out enjoying the London nightlife into the wee hours of the morning. Others said the starting quarterback returned to his room with ladies on each arm the night before the ballgame. Some rumormongers even mentioned drug use by some players.

None of this can be substantiated, of course. It's not the kind of thing anyone would come on record about, especially with King Roger doling out extensive punishment for tarnishing the shield.

Perhaps one day it will be revealed but right now there's only the whispers in the wind and we have no idea if any of it was true.

The one thing that is certain is that the Buccaneers came back from London a drastically different ballclub.

As the losses and injuries mounted, the players bailed on their coaching staff. It wasn't just Raheem - but the assistant coaches. By the end of it, the message was clear. The young Bucs had mutinied on their Captain and they were running the ship into Davey Jones locker.

Something had to be done. The Glazers were hoping they had the next Mike Tomlin in Morris but when it was clear that they didn't - it was time to clean the house. Only Dominik survived the complete purging of the franchise.

After an extensive coaching search that frustrated the fanbase, which included being turned down by college coaches like Chip Kelly, the Glazers settled their sites on disciplinarian college coach Greg Schiano.

Schiano had taken one of the worst teams in the country and turned them into a contender in their conference. The success the Rutgers Scarlet Knights enjoyed during the Schiano era is unrivaled in the school's long history.

So enter Schiano - who instills a discipline into his young Bucs football team. He forms a coaching staff that blends NFL experience with college coaches who have experience relating with young players.

This coach will not be called by his first name by the players. This coach will not be out partying with the boys. He may go down as a Nick Saban-styled Captain Ahab - but he certainly won't let the inmates run the asylum.

But is he an upgrade over what the Bucs had previously?

Schiano had more than a decade of experience as a head coach and has served as a defensive coordinator at the collegiate level. The NFL is filled with stories of college coaches who fail at the NFL level, but Schiano counters that with a good point. There were plenty of NFL assistants and NFL coaches who had previously coached elsewhere that have failed as well.

While we never really could get a good grip of the type of team Raheem Morris wanted his Bucs to become, the message is pretty clear what Schiano's "Buccaneer Men" will be. A power running football team that relies on it's strong offensive line and big armed quarterback to attack deep. His defense will be physical and hard hitting. You're going to earn every yard you get against the Buccaneers.

With an improved level of discipline, a focus on details and a clear vision of what they are to become I do believe the Bucs have dramatically improved their coaching staff.

Verdict: Major Improvement.

Quarterback

When he looks back at his 2011 season, Josh Freeman just feels sick. While a lot of the woes of the franchise weren't his fault, Freeman shoulders a lot of the blame. After all, he had grown too confident in his abilities, turning into costly turnovers that hurt the team's ability to compete.

When the losses and pressure mounted, Freeman began to take chances in hopes of making the big play and changing the fortunes of his struggling ball club. It led to even more turnovers and a downright terrible season for the quarterback who was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2010.

"You learn a lot," Freeman told reports in April, "Really, it was just pressing too hard. I felt like I had a good offseason of work. But at the same time, you get into games and, coming off a good year (in 2010), you feel like you can do so much more and continue to get better. I was working harder, felt better, was throwing the ball better. But sometimes you try to force things when things go wrong in the game. You have to go back to your rookie year when you let it come to you. When you’re playing your best football, you’re not making plays; you’re just running the offense and letting the system make plays for you."

Freeman has come back as fit and trim as ever. He seems to have a focus we haven't seen from the young QB in Tampa Bay. With new weapons to work with and an offense that seems to accentuate his strengths, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Freeman return to the quarterback he was in 2010 rather than the guy who forced too many passes in 2011.

At back up quarterback, Tampa Bay let Josh Johnson leave via free agency while signing veteran backup Dan Orlovsky. While Orlovsky has only started 12 games in his 7 year NFL career, he actually has actually won a start - something Johnson had never done.

Third string QB Brett Ratliff has been in the league 3 years but has never played in a regular season game.

Verdict: Significantly Improved.

Freeman looks the part and while the Bucs won't get any wildcat success from Orlovsky, he's a wily veteran who knows how to win in spots.

Running Backs

We all know LeGarrette Blount can run the football. A human highlight reel, all one has to do is watch his unbelievable run against the defending world champion Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field last season to know the man can tote the rock.

It's all the other things that Blount can't do that forced the Bucs to trade back into the first round and select the "muscle hamster", Doug Martin.

If Martin is as advertised, he'll be the complete back the Bucs haven't had since...well...maybe James Wilder. Not only can Martin run with a blend of power and speed but he can also be an asset in pass protection and is a terrific receiver.

Blount, if he can cure his fumbling problems and at least find a way to understand blitz pickup just a little bit, can provide the Bucs with an outstanding one/two punch that will trample opposing defenses.

Don't sleep on seventh round pick Michael Smith, either. Speed wasn't a commodity in abundance in the Bucs backfield last season and it's certain that Smith possesses that. Whether he can translate that into becoming a 3rd down specialist or change of pace back remains to be seen.

Thankfully, the Bucs will no longer have to rely on the likes of Kregg Lumpkin. They also won't have aging veteran Earnest Graham - who had a solid NFL career with the Bucs but has seen the end of his run in a Bucs uniform.

Verdict: Significantly Improved.

With Martin and Blount bringing the thunder behind the Bucs' powerful offensive line, Tampa Bay should be able to play a lot more keep away against opposing teams.

Wide Receivers

Mike Williams isn't the second coming of Michael Clayton, folks. Granted, Williams struggled to duplicate the amazing numbers from his rookie campaign but he hardly was a non-factor in the Bucs offense. Williams pulled in exactly the same number of receptions he had in 2010 - 65. The major difference of course were his average per catch and the amount of touchdowns he scored.

Williams struggled as the team's "go to guy". With coverages rolling to him and without the benefit of an off-season to prepare for that likelihood, Williams had to figure it out on his own. He never really did.

As undrafted free agents Preston Parker and Dez Briscoe began to make plays in the offense, fans began to question Williams and his draft class teammate Regus Benn.

Benn at least had an excuse, coming off an knee injury. Williams just didn't seem to have the same magic.

When free agency opened in March, Tampa Bay decided that Williams was miscast as a number one receiver and spent mega-bucks to replace him at the top of the depth chart. Enter Pro Bowl wideout Vincent Jackson.

While not the fleetest of foot, Jackson has made a career out of making the big play for the San Diego Chargers as their top target. Still in his prime at age 29, Jackson should provide an immediate impact to the Tampa Bay receiving core.

His presence also improves the slotting of the receiving core. Now Williams can benefit from being the number two. He won't have the coverages focused on him and perhaps he can rekindle some of big play potential he and Josh Freeman enjoyed.

Regus Benn, now two years removed from his knee injury, may be ready to emerge as the Bucs slot receiver. Parker will be able to contribute while Dez Briscoe may not be teams plans after getting himself embroiled in a reality show controversy that caused him to miss part of Greg Schiano's first mini-camp.

Verdict: Significant Improvement

Jackson will make the Bucs receiving core potent.

Tight Ends

Kellen Winslow, Jr. returns for another season with the Buccaneers. Rumors abound that the Bucs tried to trade their moody tight end but found no takers. Winslow benefited from less work during practices and training camp under Raheem Morris. It will remain to be seen whether Schiano will also give him that benefit or work him like any other player.

If not, can Winslow's suspect knees hold up?

Luke Stocker didn't do much to make Buc fans believe he's the second coming of Gronkowski, but the young tight end is a solid receiver and decent blocker.

After the two top guys, the Bucs have a bunch of camp bodies and seventh round pick Drake Dunsmore.

Verdict: Weaker.

Assuming seventh rounder Dunsmore doesn't shock everyone and become the next Shannon Sharpe, we can safely say the Bucs aren't better here. Winslow's a year older, the jury is still out on Stocker.

Offensive Line

While the Bucs' o-line has been regarded as the best unit for awhile, it has underwhelmed. Enter Bob Bostad, offensive line coach. Bostad had been churning out NFL-ready offensive linemen at the university of Wisconsin for years and finally coach Greg Schiano decided to bring his skills to Tampa Bay.

In addition to Bostad, Tampa Bay plugged their huge hole at left guard with Pro Bowl free agent Carl Nicks, jettisoned oft-injured and aging Jeff Faine for the younger, more fleet of foot Jeremy Zuttah.

While right tackle is still a concern, having three Pro Bowl players and a coach known for getting the best out of his linemen, Tampa Bay seems to be ready to dominate in the trenches.

Verdict: Significantly improved.

Defensive Line

The key to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line is health. When Gerald McCoy went down for the second straight season with a muscle injury, it left a gaping hole in the center of the Buccaneers defense. Tampa Bay tried hard to fill it with the likes of Roy Miller and were even desperate enough to nab Albert Haynesworth off waivers.

Still, nothing made up for the impact of McCoy at the three technique. Making things worse for Tampa Bay was the oft-injured Brian Price, who continued to struggle with problems with his hamstrings that contributed to his being physically out of shape.

On the ends, Adrian Clayborn showed Buc fans why Tampa Bay made him their first round pick in 2011 by nabbing a team leading 7.5 sacks. The Bucs liked Michael Bennett so much, they put a first round tender on him as a restricted free agent. DaQuan Bowers, still recovering from his injuries in college, contributed with 1.5 sacks.

Bowers is expected to provide more this season.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay added some depth by signing veteran DT Amobi Okoye and DE Gary Gibson.

Verdict: Improved.

The return of McCoy and Price to health can only help the Bucs defense. Another year of maturation for Bowers and Clayborn certainly can't hurt while depth was improved with Bennett being retained and the addition of Okoye and Gibson.

Linebackers

Of all the units that disappointed at the end of the Raheem regime, it was the linebacking core. Expected to be one of the strengths of the defense, it turned out to be one of the weakest units of the team.

The 2012 off-season saw the exit of Geno Hayes and the drafting of Lavonte David in the second round. While he has a lot to prove to fill Derrick Brooks shoes, David is the player that is the most like Brooks at the weakside linebacker position. A bit undersized for the position, David uses his speed, instincts and toughness to get to the football, traits that made Brooks a hall of famer.

Still, while the similarities are there - its unfair to compare the young David to Brooks. At this point, the Bucs hope that David will be an upgrade over Hayes, who missed to many tackles and was inconsistent.

Rather than bring in a veteran free agent or re-sign Barrett Ruud, the Bucs shoved rookie Mason Foster into the starting middle linebacker role despite no off-season (due to the lockout) and hardly ever playing the role in college. It came as no surprise the rookie struggled. While the Bucs reportedly considered moving Foster to his natural outside linebacker position and signing a veteran, the Bucs ultimately decided to keep the status quo. Foster will return as the team's starting MLB but with a year under his belt and an entire off-season to learn the Bucs new defense, you can expect at least a moderate improvement in the youngster's play.

At strongside, Quincy Black returns after a very disappointing 2011 campaign. While he's yet to live up to his 3rd round draft status, the Bucs hope to at least make Black servicable at the position. To keep it, Black's going to have to fight off Dekoda Watson, the little used but tantalizingly talented linebacker from Florida State.

Tampa Bay improved their depth at linebacker in the draft by selecting linebacker Najeh Goode. Goode is a versatile player who spent time at all three linebacker positions while at West Virginia.

Verdict: Somewhat improved.

I believe David will make an instant impact at weakside but I'm still concerned with Mason Foster and Quincy Black. I still believe Foster is playing out of position. Hopefully this year will see significant improvement for him but I still have my doubts whether he can man the middle. I do believe in Foster - the player. I think he's got the skills to be a starting linebacker in the NFL and I do believe some of that talent will show through this season.

Black has been underwhelming his entire career - not sure why we'd expect anything different from him now.

Secondary

If there was a unit as disappointing as the linebacking core - it was the defensive backfield. While Ronde Barber put together a decent season for a 37 year old, it seemed at times that he was out there by himself.

Aquib Talib, when not getting in trouble with the law, struggled with injuries. EJ Biggers showed his dedication to the team in an infamous photo published on Buccaneers.com that depicted him on the phone while Head Coach Raheem Morris addressed the team in the locker room. Perhaps he should have paid more attention, considering how many times he was torched last season.

Myron Lewis continued to disappoint and many are ready to affix the bust label to this former 3rd round pick.

To improve the corner position, the Bucs signed Detroit Lion Eric Wright.

At safety, injuries robbed the Bucs of Cody Grimm and Corey Lynch. The Bucs thought they were getting a boost with the return of Tanard Jackson from a year long suspension for smoking pot. Instead, they got a shell of the former player, who missed tackles and blew coverages.

At strong safety, they had Sean Jones. Do we need to expand on that any further?

It's no wonder the Bucs' brass zeroed in on Alabama All-American Safety Mark Barron. Barron is truly the Anti-Jones, a tremendous player who excels in supporting the run as well as coverage.

Tampa Bay dumped Jackson a few weeks before the draft and also added corner Keith Tandy during the third day of the draft.

The Bucs also signed undrafted free agent and former Largo High star CB Leonard Johnson, who at least through one rookie mini-camp appears to have a shot at making the roster.

Verdict: Significantly improved.

With Mark Barron patrolling the secondary, the Bucs have their first difference maker at safety since the perennial Pro Bowl player John Lynch was unceremoniously dumped by the franchise. If Talib can escape jail time and the wrath of King Roger, the Bucs should at least have a bit more depth at corner.

Special Teams

It remains to be seen whether Michael Smith can contribute to the return game. Tampa Bay still has Preston Parker who did a decent job returning kicks for the Bucs last season.

Kicker Connor Barth was designated the team's franchise player when free agency began in March and for good reason. The kicker had his best season as a professional, drilling 26 of 28 field goals with a career long 55 yarder. Yet Barth held out of the Bucs mini-camp and hasn't signed his franchise tender, forcing the Bucs to claim former Cowboys kicker Kai Forbath off waivers and sign free agent Jacob Walters.

Michael Koenen was Tampa Bay's big free agent signing in 2011 and he delivered with a Pro Bowl caliber season with a 45.1 average.

Verdict: Incomplete

We need to know if Barth's agent is really stupid enough to hold him out of training camp and if Smith can be a returner - something he didn't do a lot of at Utah State.

Final Thoughts

Of the eight teams that finished at the bottom of the standings in 2011 (Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and St. Louis), I believe the Bucs are the most likely to make the move back into the playoffs in 2012.

While the Saints remain a talented football team, I think it would be naive for anyone to assume they will go into the season in the wake of BountyGate and the contract issues with Drew Brees and not be effected. While I fully expect Brees to be there opening day - not having Sean Payton for the balance of the season will make a major impact.

Sure, you can skate by a few games without Payton as the Saints did last season when he broke his leg - but a season without one of the best offensive minds in the NFL is going to be an impact.

The Falcons are the Falcons - a team that is good enough to contend for a playoff berth but not good enough to do anything with it.

For all the greatness that is Cam Newton, the Panthers still have cavernous holes on the defensive side of the football. Drafting Luke Kuechly strengthened the one position on the Panthers defense that wasn't a problem. There's also Cam's sophomore slump to contend with. Any rookie who bursts onto the scene the way Newton did will have his game film dissected and poured over. Weakness will be exposed and exploited and it will be up to Newton and the coaching staff to counter.

So there's opportunity in the division to make a move.

Further, if you look at the schedule at first blush it seems daunting. Delve a little deeper though and you can see where the Bucs can make some hay. Sure, heading to New York and Dallas in your first road tests aren't fun - but Dallas is no world beater and the Giants, despite being Super Bowl Champions, were a 9-7 football team that got hot at the right time. Yes, I'm well aware Dallas took the Bucs to the woodshed last December on National television. That was a vastly different Bucs team.

In fact, the toughest stretch appears to be Week 13-15 where they have to navigate through the gauntlet of Peyton Manning's Broncos in Denver, a home game against Philadephia and a road trip to New Orleans.

I still maintain that the 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a 7-8 win team that quit on their coach. Considering the improvement in most areas of the football team and the state of the division around them, it's not difficult to see this team playing meaningful football in January.

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