With all due respect to the Bucs faithful who dominate this blog, I read a lot but didn’t post often in the second half of this season. I went every Sunday to root for my beloved Bucs (which I do win lose or draw) but somehow during the losing skid of 5 games (including two really bad loses to the Eagles and Rams) I couldn’t help but notice that most of our blog posts became captive to the extreme’s. Snap judgments maybe all the rage these days but let’s go with a more measured analysis of the season to see where we stand. I mean this is Bucs Nation a proud site with usually pretty good posts from a variety of views….not Yahoo blogs or Skip Bayless’s moronic twitter feed.
To really view where we stand I think it’s important to rewind…say to January of last season and see where we stand on key components:
Greg Schiano, Head Coach: The uncongenial hire from the non-title contending college coach was met with a great deal of skepticism shock and optimism all at once. The opinions ran the full gambit both here and with Bucs fans in general. He’s certainly brought a high level of toughness to the team and begun transforming the culture. He has placed a high degree of importance on players contributing both on the field and in the community, we will see if this bit works out in the long run. Shiano preaches a great deal about leadership and generally has everyone headed in the same mutual direction (a major positive we are not the dysfunctional Jets, Lions, Eagles, or even Bills teams with talent who clearly could not get everyone on the same page). His biggest area of improvement will need to be done in the personnel selection and roster setting options our 3rd Best WR was cut in pre-season(Tiquan Underwood) and not brought back until week 2, we carried seven corners on our opening day roster only 5 of whom were active and none of whom distinguished themselves as anything but off the field distractions, a marginal starter, and another 5 who either should be dime backs or grocery baggers. Further the early punt return game was pretty bad until Roscoe Parrish took over this should have been foreseen. All in all I give him a B.
Mike Sullivan, Offensive Coordinator: I’m clearly in the minority here but I give Sullivan a very solid A on his handling of the offense. I’ve heard some fairly pointed criticism of his play calling but I think most of this has to do with Freeman..every time you go back to the play calling splits Sullivan wants to throw early and on first downs early on but I can’t really expect him to keep calling pass plays when Freeman is having a bad day/quarter/week/stretch. Simply put I don’t expect him to get himself beat in the 1st quarter by letting his QB turn the ball over. Additionally he got Freeman to 4,000 yards and nearly 30 TD passes even dispite of Freeman’s accuracy problems.
Bill Sheridan, Defensive Coordinator: Did not come to Tampa with the greatest of reputations and has not improved that reputation. Leading the league in run defense is misleading, it was simply WAY too easy to throw the ball on us for teams to seriously consider the ground game. A great deal of this mess can be blamed on having to start street free agents at CB but some of his blitz schemes were poorly designed and outside of Leonard Johnson there was not a significant improvement from week to week in terms of playing ability by those street free agents. The execution and discipline of his unit was also fairly poor outside of anyone playing defensive tackle and Lavonte David. The coverage shells were misapplied at times by even veteran players and that’s concerning. All in all I would give him an F, but I feel if he had had two good corners it might have been respectable so I’m going with a straight D for Sheridan.
2012 Free Agency
Vincent Jackson WR – Nearly 1,400 yards to go with 8 touchdowns while working with a QB whose accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. Solid A+ signing here especially since it didn’t break the bank.
Carl Nicks OG – On IR after week 6 (compounding the pre-season loss of Davin Joseph) but was really dominate when he did play and clearly will be our best offensive lineman coming back. Does not have any real injury history so I’m still on a solid A here.
Eric Wright CB – An average starter payed above average money, given that we are giving him 7.8 million a season it would seem that we could have ponied up another 3 million and gotten Brandon Carr before he landed in Dallas. A shame I’m giving the blame clearly to Dom here as Wright is a hit and miss guy from play to play.
Missed Opportunity: Read Eric Wright vs. Brandon Carr and several other free agent corners who were available. All in all though we had a real talent dearth in 2011 and I give it an A-.
The Great: Doug Martin RB, called the most pro-ready back the diminutive muscle hamster (I don’t care if he likes it or not) exceeded all but the loftiest expectations. He’s potent running the ball and as a receiver, and as of right now I think he runs the draw better than any RB In the league.
The Good: Lavonte David WLB, ok better than good. Led the team with 139 tackles has an interception and 5 pass breakups. He was very good early against the run early and really came on late in pass coverage. Exceptional range and closing ability portend a tremendous future.
The Ok: Mark Barron SS. Controversial for me to say I’m sure the “Red Barron” came in with much hype and everyone was looking for a Troy Polamalu impact or Ed Reed type future saying he was lethal against both the run and pass. Barron has close to that sort of athletic ability but nowhere near the experience those two did in playing coverage and it showed on several occasions this season. To his credit he did finish second on the team with 10 pass deflections (to the wily vet Ronde Barber) but I had him as the second best safety in the draft after Harrison Smith and I think that played out this season. Considering we could have had Morris Claiborne or Luke Kuechly at 5 or 7 – at the end of the day we missed an opportunity to add a bigger impact player.
The AWFUL: Every pick after round 3, this is still the weakest part of Mark Dominik’s tenure. The man who once said he’d be judged by how many Pro-Bowlers he drafted on Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) failed to not only find a pro-bowler but couldn’t even find a solid contributor this season. Not every pick that let will work out in fact most of them won’t but he had the chance to draft: Alonzo Dennard CB, Jeron McMillian S , Asa Jackson CB/S, George Iloka….all of whom are contributing on secondaries much better than ours (NE, Green Bay, Baltimore, and Cincinnati respectively).
All Total : Still we have 3 new starters from the draft two of whom look like high impact players, I gave it a B then and given Martin’s suprising upside I’ll go B+.
The Improvement of the Incumbents:
Quarterback: As Josh Freeman goes so goes the Bucs. Freeman was better in 2012 than he was in 2011 the improvement was clearly there so let me get out of the way of saying that Freeman made a large stride forward; was it big enough? --- MY problem is I still don’t know. Four weeks into the season Freeman was 31 or the 32 starting Quarterbacks in QBR (ahead of only Brandon Weeden) and at the conclusion of the season was ranked 23 of 39 evaluated QB’s by Football Outsiders. Neither of those positions are Super Bowl material QB’s. His accuracy still has major issues he throws balls behind a receiver that should be thrown in stride and goes to the wrong shoulder on even short routes that should be easy to hit. MOST MADDENINGLY OF ALL…He doesn’t seem to realize there are linebackers on the defense Of his 17 interceptions I count no fewer than 8 that are caused by him misreading a dropping linebacker. Look back at the Kansas City game throwing directly into a cutting linebacker or throwing into triple coverage (a safety and two dropping linebackers) against the Rams and it makes you wonder if Freeman can mentally handle being an NFL QB. Not the pre-snap reads, not the deep throws certainly (which are among the best in the league) but everything intermediate is quite scary. I think the most disappointing part of this season is that 5 years into his career we still won’t have an answer on number 5 yet if he’s a legit NFL QB. Tom Brady or Peyton Manning he doesn’t have to be but he can’t be so maddingly inconsistent and keep missing easy throws either …lets face facts if he was throwing to the same core of WR’s the Jets have he would be Mark Sanchez. He has to step it up in 2013, fortunately we have done a better job of surrounding him with talent than the Jet’s did , we have two bad ball catchers (Jackson and Williams) and could really stand to add a third either for the TE or slot position if we want Freeman to be a success.
On the Good News Front: Schiano has already commented that he’s considering bringing in competitions for Freeman – I’m not sure what he has in mind but clearly he wants to go Plan B.
Runningback: My only regret here is that we did not trade Legarette Blount at the conclusion of the pre-season. That’s a missed opportunity I felt he wasn’t going to be used based on Schiano’s pattern with runningbacks – he wasn’t and we left assets on the table. Martin was so stellar though I think its easily overcome.
Wide Receiver/Tight End: If were sticking with Freeman we need to find another bad ball receiver at either spot. Dallas Clark has clearly lost two or three steps and was a stop-gap after the departure of the undisciplined Kellen Winslow. Tiquan Underwood is worthy of being on an NFL roster but given our level of QB play we need more talent at other positions. A combo TE who can block and catch would be an ideal and lucky for us this draft unlike last seasons is loaded with TE’s.
Offensive Line: You lose two-Pro Bowlers and your offensive line still has a 1,400 yard rusher and provides reasonable (but not great) pass protection – Bob Bostad should take a bow. Superlative work by him as the O-line coach given the number of injuries. Donald Penn was his usual up and down self but the unit held together, Demar Dotson is strictly a backup type at RT and the addition of a quality RT could pay huge dividends by reopening the right side for running plays. The nightmare of Trueblood’s poor pass blocking appears to be over (finally).
Defensive Line: Gerald McCoy took a huge step up, at times he was totally dominant not often but from time to time and was clearly consistent enough the rest of the time. Michael Bennett chipped in with 9 sacks and will hopefully be re-signed. The early loss of Adrian Claiborne hurt but Daquan Bowers came back late in the season and put together four good games. Roy Miller improved and Gibson was a serviceable backup. Some health and one more contributor and this could be a stellar unit.
Linebackers: I covered Lavonte David already he brought a key impact though to the D. Mason Foster was vastly improved contributing over 100 tackles, to be clear, Foster is nothing special but was serviceable and not a complete liability as he was at times in 2011. Strong side linebacker is seldom used anymore and we can quietly say goodbye to Quincy Black who will be replaced by Adam Heyward (who started late in the season) or an unnamed draft pick.
Secondary(And I use this term loosely) : Oh boy……these guys were horrid. Barron was ok , Ronde was serviceable. The corners were clearly not NFL caliber. EJ Biggers, Eric Wright and Leonard Johnson should get a chance to comeback but none should really be counted on. Ahmad Black as a backup safety is viable but the likes of Anthony Gaitor, Danny Gorrer, Cody Grimm, Myron Lewis, Brandon McDonald and Keith Tandy deserve to go (though Gaitor and Tandy will probably be back). I don’t think we have one starting caliber CB on this roster and in this day and age in the NFL 2 is the minimum and three the ideal.
I can’t call a season a failure when we improved in every aspect of our play save for the defensive secondary. We improved in the win column, we improved at QB, we improved at RB, we improved on the offensive line, our defensive line was better, our linebackers were playmakers not a liability. We improved by three in the win column and not with hollow victories the NFC South is tough , despite three sub .500 teams the Saints and Panthers are dangerous clubs, there is no Arizona, Oakland, Buffalo , Philadelphia, or Jacksonville that we play twice a year and get to pad our win column with. That’s life but anytime you go from 4-12 to 7-9 and improve almost every aspect of your team, change the culture, and set yourself up for a bright future I call that a success. Last season we were not going to fill all our holes with one off-season and one draft; we have another free agent period (with some 20 million in cap space after re-signings) and another fresh draft stock to continue to remake the team. To expect a rapid turnaround is nice but we didn’t add a game changer like Andrew Luck or RGIII because we were not in a position to do so. I think with 7-9 we did leave one or two games on the bone but beyond that I was proud of the improvement and expect to be even more so in 2013.