Final Power Ranking: 29
Preseason Power Ranking: 12
After a breakout year in 2010, Josh Freeman took a step back in 2011.
Biggest surprise: In a season in which almost nothing went right, it at least looked like the Buccaneers got it right with their first-round draft pick. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was a starter from the beginning and was solid all around. He played the run well and finished with 7.5 sacks. That sack total is more impressive than it sounds when you consider that the Bucs spent most of the season trailing and other teams didn’t have to throw a lot against them. Clayborn and second-round pick Da'Quan Bowers both showed plenty of potential and that bodes well for whoever ends up coaching this team. Clayborn also was able to put together an impressive rookie year despite the fact that defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price both were injured much of the season and there wasn’t a lot of help in the middle. If Clayborn and Bowers continue to develop and McCoy and Price can stay healthy, the Buccaneers have the ingredients for a good defensive line.
Biggest disappointment: The total collapse of this once-promising team was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen. In October, the Bucs beat the Saints. That wasn’t a fluke. The Bucs flat-out were better than the Saints that day. They left the next morning for a game with Chicago in London and they never won again. As the losing streak grew, eventually to 10 games, the games became less competitive even against mediocre teams. Tampa Bay’s youth, a point of pride in 2010, was apparent in 2011. Former coach Raheem Morris was never known as a great disciplinarian or organizer, and the Bucs weren’t even operating like a legitimate NFL team by the end of the season. Quarterback Josh Freeman, running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Mike Williams all had great years in 2010, but each of them regressed in 2011.
Biggest need: There are many needs for a team that finished 4-12. But if I had to go with just one, I’d say the Bucs need to solidify their backfield situation. Although he’s a good power runner, Blount never could convince the coaching staff that he could catch passes out of the backfield or provide protection for Freeman in the passing game. That made it obvious to defenses that the Bucs were running if Blount was in the game or passing when he wasn’t. Blount also had problems with fumbles, so it’s possible the Bucs could be looking for an all-around feature back to replace him. Even if the new coach wants to keep Blount as the primary runner, the Bucs will have to go out and get a third-down back more dynamic than Earnest Graham or Kregg Lumpkin. It also would help Freeman a lot if the Bucs add a speed receiver because the current crop of receivers struggled to get separation.
Team MVP: There’s not a lot to choose from here, so we’ll go with guard Davin Joseph. Cornerback Ronde Barber and left tackle Donald Penn also got consideration. But I’m going with Joseph because, even in a year when the rest of the league was laughing at the Bucs and fans weren’t voting for them to go to the Pro Bowl, coaches and players from other teams had enough respect for Joseph to put him on the NFC all-star squad. The guy is a pro and one of the few veteran leaders in the locker room.
What about Freeman? In 2010, his first full season as a starter, Freeman looked like the first true franchise quarterback in team history. He kept mistakes to a minimum and seemed to have a knack for pulling off fourth-quarter comebacks. All of that suddenly disappeared this season and Freeman didn’t look like the same quarterback. There’s no doubt he deserves some of the blame. But I think the bigger factor in his regression was his supporting cast. Blount’s deficiencies made the offense predictable, Williams showed he’s not a No. 1 wide receiver and tight end Kellen Winslow had a disappointing year. It also didn’t help that the defense was giving up a ton of points and Freeman almost always was playing from behind. I still believe Freeman is a big-time talent. But it’s going to be up to the new coach and his staff to get Freeman’s career back on a positive track.