NFC South: Tampa Bay Bandits

Freeman, Bucs breaking new ground

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
11:30
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This really has been true for only five weeks, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the most exciting offense in franchise history and they have a true franchise quarterback for the first time.

Start thinking about the history of this franchise, because that’s a part of why I feel comfortable making those statements. We’ll run through that inglorious history in just a moment, but let’s start with the past five games.

In that stretch, Josh Freeman, who entered the season as a huge question mark, has established himself as a big-time quarterback. Rookie running back Doug Martin has become such a phenomenon that he finally might have shed that nickname he doesn’t like. And wide receiver Vincent Jackson has turned out to be worth every penny of that five-year, $55 million contract he signed back in March.

In each of the past five games, the Bucs have scored at least 28 points. When’s the last time that happened?

Never.

What’s happened in the past five games has vaulted the Bucs into the league lead in average yards per play (6.21). They’re averaging 28.9 points per game, which ranks them behind only New England (see Brady, Tom) and Denver (see Manning, Peyton). Speaking of Manning, he’s second in the league with an average of 8.20 yards per pass attempt. Freeman is No. 1 at 8.27.

Martin had a 251-yard, four-touchdown game at Oakland and has turned out to be the “all-purpose back” that coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about on the night they drafted him.

Jackson’s leading the league among players with at least 30 receptions by averaging 21.4 yards per reception. Heck, teammate Mike Williams is second at 18.3.

Heck, if this keeps up, we might be calling Freeman, Martin and Jackson “The Triplets,” the way Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin used to be referred to in their Dallas glory days. At times, some people got carried away and called the Cowboys’ stars “The Quadruplets” because they actually thought Alvin Harper was good.

That’s a perfect way to jump back into the history of offensive football and the Buccaneers. Harper was the receiver the Bucs signed in the mid-1990s to be their Irvin. Instead, the thing most Tampa Bay fans remember about him is that he got part of his finger sliced off in a training room accident.

For their entire existence, including the good years, the Bucs have been anywhere from dismal to mediocre on offense. They won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as their quarterback and Monte Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages. They won a lot of games and tasted their first sustained success under coach Tony Dungy ... with Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages.

At one point in the 1990s, Tampa Bay’s bread-and-butter offensive play was having Errict Rhett run into Mike Alstott’s back and fall as far forward as possible. They later upgraded and had Warrick Dunn run into Alstott’s back and actually make a cut or two.

Even back during the first rise to prominence (1979), Tampa Bay was much more defined by Lee Roy Selmon and the defense than it was by the offense and Doug Williams.

Speaking of Williams, he was the best quarterback in franchise history -- until Freeman’s emergence. Between them, the Bucs have trotted out the likes of Steve Young (before he became Steve Young in San Francisco), Vinny Testaverde, Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer, Shaun King, Brian Griese and Jeff Garcia.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin, Mike Williams, Vincent Smith
Matt Stamey/US PresswireA supporting cast that features receivers Mike Williams (19) and Vincent Jackson (83) and running back Doug Martin makes the Bucs' offense so fearsome.
Although Young, Testaverde and Dilfer had talent, they never had a chance in Tampa Bay because they didn’t have a supporting cast. Williams was easily the best quarterback in Tampa Bay history, but I’m not sure you can call him a franchise quarterback because his tenure lasted from 1978 until he left for the United States Football League in a contract squabble following the 1982 season.

Freeman’s not going to follow a similar route. He’s under contract through 2013, but, after what he has shown this season, I think it’s safe to say Freeman’s going to be around a lot longer than that. Sometime in the offseason, the Bucs almost certainly will give Freeman a big contract extension.

Freeman has bounced back from the disastrous final season of the Raheem Morris era. He’s turned out to be everything Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said he would be upon their arrival. Schiano and Sullivan said they wanted to build an offense that ran the ball consistently and they wanted to take some shots downfield in the passing game.

That formula’s working. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Freeman leads the league with 19 completions on throws of 20 yards or more. Jackson leads the NFL with 10 receptions on throws of 20 yards or more.

Mike Williams has revived a career that seemed to stall last year. The Bucs plucked receiver Tiquan Underwood off the scrap heap and he’s turning in big plays. Martin is making things happen in the running game and as a receiver, and the offense is clicking, despite the fact the Bucs are without injured Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph.

For the longest time, there was a joke in Tampa that the most exciting offense the region ever saw was the “Fun and Gun” orchestrated by Steve Spurrier and the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits, who, briefly, were more popular than the Bucs in the 1980s.

Those Bandits were wildly entertaining, but part of the reason they’re so fondly remembered is because the Bucs always were boring -- and usually bad -- on offense.

Until now.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

December, 15, 2010
12/15/10
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» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Jeff Davidson, Panthers offensive coordinator. It's kind of tough to come up with guys whose stock is falling when three NFC South teams are coming off victories and virtually everybody with the Panthers has been used in this category at one point or another. So we're going to be creative -- in other words, something Davidson is not. I know the head coach sets the tone for what his coordinators do and there's no question John Fox has limited his offense for virtually his entire tenure. But Davidson deserves some heavy blame. I mean, at least try to come up with ways to get Steve Smith the ball. As Fox's time in Carolina comes to an end and I reflect on it, I think one of the worst moves was making Dan Henning the scapegoat for a disappointing 2006 season. Fans thought Henning lacked imagination. After four years of watching Davidson's offense, Henning's offense, in hindsight, looks like the Tampa Bay Bandits of Steve Spurrier in the United States Football League. Fox's staff will be scrambling for jobs. Davidson might have to return to his roots as an offensive line coach because his coordinator résumé isn't looking too good.

2. Geno Hayes, Buccaneers linebacker. He's doing fine on the field, but he got into trouble in the wee hours of Monday morning. If the Bucs really are a playoff team, they should be focused entirely on football at this time of year.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Pierre Thomas
AP Photo/Bill HaberPierre Thomas accounted for 68 yards of offense in his first action since Week 3.
3. Charter flights for the Falcons. They have to cross the country to Seattle this weekend after playing road games at Carolina and Tampa Bay. But if the Falcons keep doing what they're doing, they won't have to get on a plane again this season -- unless it's to Texas for the Super Bowl.

RISING

1. Pierre Thomas, Saints running back. Thomas, who injured his ankle in late September, returned to the playing field Sunday when the Saints defeated the Rams. He wound up probably getting even more playing time than the Saints envisioned. The logical thing to do would have been to ease Thomas back into a rotation with Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush. But that plan went out the window when Ivory started experiencing hamstring issues early in the game. Thomas ended up carrying 12 times and catching four passes. His numbers weren't overhelming (39 rushing yards and 29 receiving yards), but he held up well. Thomas' long-term future in New Orleans might not be all that bright because of Ivory's emergence. But a strong finish could help Thomas get a nice contract somewhere else.

2. Michael Turner, Falcons running back. With backup Jason Snelling banged up, the Falcons have been riding Turner even more than usual. He carried 28 times in Sunday's victory against Carolina and produced 112 yards and three touchdowns. Turner has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of the past four games and five times in Atlanta's seven-game winning streak. He has scored at least one touchdown in four straight games.

3. Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers wide receiver. He was chosen in the second round of this year's draft and fellow receiver Mike Williams was picked in the fourth round. But Williams emerged instantly as the No. 1 receiver and Benn wasn't much of a factor early on. But Benn had a huge game in Sunday's victory at Washington. He had a career-high four catches for a career-high 122 yards.
résumé

Buccaneers a real playoff contender

November, 14, 2010
11/14/10
6:44
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FreemanAP Photo/Brian BlancoBucs QB Josh Freeman completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards and two TDs against Carolina.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Once upon a time -- as in any time before Sunday -- the talk in these parts was about if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the playoffs. Times have changed. Fact is, the Bucs should make the playoffs.

Look at their schedule. If the Bucs simply do what they should do, they will be in the playoffs.

That’s precisely what the Bucs did Sunday as they defeated the Carolina Panthers 31-16. It wasn’t particularly pretty and it came against a very bad team.

But guess what? The Bucs are now 6-3. Look at their remaining schedule. In San Francisco, Washington, Detroit and Seattle, the Bucs have four opponents that aren’t much better than the Panthers. They’ve also got games with Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans. Pull off a surprise in one of those and the Bucs could even end up with an NFC South title or at least be above the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.

“We’ll get better and better as the process of the season goes on,’’ Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said.

They might because they already have improved more than anyone could have imagined in doubling their win total from last season. But just for the moment, let’s say the Bucs go 4-3 the rest of the way and let’s also say the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints do what they’re supposed to do.

There could be a few variables from the NFC East and NFC North. But let’s forget variables for now. If the Bucs do what they should do, they’re 10-6, and that should get them into the playoffs and could give the NFC South three teams in the postseason.

You couldn't judge it from the crowd because Raymond James Stadium was far from sold out again. But some people are starting to believe.

“We feel as a whole in this locker room that there’s unfinished business,’’ said veteran center Jeff Faine.

There was some evidence of that on the field as Carolina’s 16 points basically represented an offensive explosion for the Panthers, fourth-string running back Mike Goodson rushed for 100 yards and the Bucs committed 10 penalties for 80 yards.

Keep in mind, though, Tampa Bay started seven rookies Sunday, some by choice and some because of injuries.

“We like to say it’s the non-blink factor,’’ Morris said. “All these guys have the ability to go out and contribute.’’

The Bucs didn’t do much blinking as rookie Arrelious Benn caught a touchdown pass for the second straight game and rookie running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown. All that came a week after the Bucs lost an emotional and physical game to Atlanta in the final minutes.

Pretenders blink after a loss like the one in Atlanta. Contenders do what the Bucs did against the Panthers.

As they’ve done all season, the Bucs simply relied on second-year quarterback Josh Freeman and hoped a few other guys stepped up. Freeman, who seems to get better each week, turned in a nearly flawless performance. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and had a 134.2 passer rating. He also found tight end Kellen Winslow in the end zone for the first time this season.

“When we took over this program, [general manager] Mark Dominik and I sat down together and said we know it’s a lot easier to win with a quarterback,'' Morris said. "It wasn’t a popular decision at the time to go against our defensive town, but it’s a lot more fun to win like this with a quarterback. And it’s a lot easier to win when you have a quarterback of this caliber that can go out there and get the ball to all these weapons.’’

There now is no doubt drafting Freeman last year was the right call. And it sure looks like the Bucs made the right calls in the offseason to set him up with a good, although extremely young, receiving corps. For the first time in franchise history, the Bucs are a team that can win with the quarterback after generations of playing great defense and asking the quarterback to be a game manager.

“I keep saying it, but it is fun to watch,’’ Morris said.

Morris was talking about watching the emergence of guys like Freeman, Benn, Blount and rookie receiver Mike Williams. He’s right. These Buccaneers could be the most exciting offense Tampa Bay has seen since the days when Steve Spurrier was calling the plays for the Bandits of the United States Football League.

It’s kind of sad, though, that much of Tampa Bay isn’t seeing it in person or live on television. Last year’s 3-13 record, the economy and Florida’s transient population often are cited as reasons the Bucs haven’t had a sellout this season after selling out every previous home game since Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998.

According to the Bucs, Sunday’s paid attendance was 44,264, and the game was blacked out on television in the Tampa Bay market. The sudden winning hasn’t caused attendance to jump -- yet.

Intentionally or not, the Bucs might have pulled off a marketing coup last week when they announced 2011 ticket prices would either stay the same or drop (depending on the location) and offered a 10-month payment plan.

Gee, Christmas is coming and maybe more than a few stockings will be stuffed with season tickets. Much like it’s easier to win with a quarterback, it’s easier to sell tickets when you’ve got a serious playoff contender with lots of upside for the future. Even though the Bucs are probably another offseason away from having the talent to go deep in the playoffs, they should at least get there, if they just do what they’re supposed to do.

“We have the skill level to get things done and take care of business,’’ Faine said. “It’s going to be competitive all the way down to the end.

“And it’s definitely going to be a good race.’’

'Tom McEwen: A Tampa Bay Treasure'

October, 8, 2010
10/08/10
4:20
PM ET
I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier to post an item on the NFC South Blog than this one.

Let’s go ahead and declare Nov. 2 a holiday or day of celebration throughout the entire NFC South. On that day, Saint Leo University (my alma mater) will host a luncheon to announce the exhibit “Tom McEwen: A Tampa Bay Treasure.’’

McEwen was the longtime sports editor and columnist for The Tampa Tribune. For those in other NFC South cities, don’t stop reading because McEwen also had an impact on each of your franchises and cities.

In fact, I’m going to make a case right now that McEwen is the single most important figure in the history of the NFC South -- owners, players and coaches come and go, but Tom has been a presence through all of it. Tom came from a different era, when columnists were more like ambassadors or sports mayors of their cities. In that regard, McEwen was the king.

He was the driving force behind the effort that landed Tampa Bay an expansion team. The NFL granted the franchise to Tampa Bay before it even had an owner in place and the Bucs began play in 1976. That’s when McEwen really started to develop clout with owners across the NFL and in the league office in New York.

He’s a big part of the reason Tampa has become a regular Super Bowl host. McEwen also was instrumental in keeping the Bucs in Tampa Bay when they were looking for a new stadium in the mid-1990s. McEwen worked behind the scenes with NFL officials and owners to make sure the Bucs didn’t leave and that resulted in the construction of Raymond James Stadium.

The greatest demonstration of the power of McEwen might have been when he helped get Lee Roy Selmon elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I’ve been in that room on a couple of election days and I know how things work. Unless you’re the prototypical first-ballot guy, your candidacy depends largely on the guy who is making your case. I wasn’t in the room the day Selmon got elected, but I spent most of the rest of the day with McEwen. Other voters repeatedly came up to him and said he made the most convincing case they’d ever seen.

(Read full post)

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