Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2010 Season Preview: Tall Mountain to Climb
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be -- and should be -- a much better team than they were in 2009 when they went 3-13, the club's worst record in nearly two decades. In the second year since the purge of head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, the youth movement under the direction of coach Raheem Morris and GM Mark Dominik appears to have yielded a second solid draft class.
A better roster, however, won't necessarily translate to a much better record for the Bucs. That's how low the starting point was for Morris and Dominik -- and how far this club has to go to be contenders in a division with two teams worthy of a Super Bowl march.
Offense -- It all starts (and stops) with quarterback Josh Freeman, the '09 first-round draft pick, whom the front office pegged as the centerpiece of the franchise by making him the first quarterback taken in Round 1 by the club in 15 years. Freeman wasn't great as a rookie. Far from it. He took over when the team was 0-7 and completed just 54.5 percent of his passes for 1,855 yards, 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. But Freeman went 3-6 as a starter, including a road win over the New Orleans Saints. During the offseason, the 22-year-old was a fixture at team headquarters and entrenched himself as a locker room leader and positive influence, and he figures to be ready to build on his body of work after missing the final two preseason games with a fracture on the tip of his thumb.
The Bucs hope to aid his maturation with a better running game than the 101.7 averaged a year ago (23rd in the league) and better overall play from an offensive line that underachieved. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (823 yards, 4 TDs) is coming off his first healthy offseason since 2007. Tight end Kellen Winslow (77 catches, 884 yards, 5 TDs) will be Freeman's best friend again, and second-year pro Sammie Stroughter is back with a wideout corps that figures to get big boosts from rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. HEAT INDEX: 4
Defense -- It all starts (and stops) with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the 2010 first-round pick, whom the front office pegged as the centerpiece of the franchise by anointing the former Oklahoma star as a second coming of Warren Sapp. Sound familiar? That's because McCoy is the defense's answer to Freeman. Everything will be built around his ability to penetrate and disrupt up front. The Bucs need him to do exactly that and nothing less after surrendering a league-worst 158.2 rushing yards per game last season.
The Bucs also drafted Brian Price, another defensive tackle, with the third pick in Round 2, to reiterate how serious they are about their commitment on defense -- the club's identity and calling card during its finest days -- after finishing 27th overall. They'll need more sacks (but Tampa Bay's defensive ends are among the worst in the league) and turnovers in the secondary (cornerback Ronde Barber is 35 and third-year counterpart Aqib Talib is suspended for Week 1 for violating the league's conduct code). Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is troubled he didn't get a new contract, but he needs to make more splash plays to warrant it. HEAT INDEX: 4
Special Teams -- Connor Barth was the Bucs' third kicker last season and the one they kept around for '10. Barth, who made three field goals of 50-plus yards against Miami last season, went 14 of 19 for a team that attempted a league-low 16 field goals. They like rookie draft pick Brent Bowden as a punter so much they kept him through the final cuts, then released him in favor of free agent Chris Bryan, an Australian free agent, on Labor Day. Micheal Spurlock's track record on kick returns and improvement as a receiver led Tampa Bay's brass to cut Pro Bowl return man Clifton Smith. HEAT INDEX: 3
Coaching -- Morris turned 34 this week and will be the NFL's youngest coach for the second straight season. His proximity in age with his players makes him an excellent communicator and popular in the locker room, but hopefully Morris has learned that he can't be "one of the guys" when he's coaching the guys. The team made improvements when Morris fired defensive coordinator Jim Bates midway through last season and took over the unit. That's a good fit. The jury is still out, though, on the rest of the staff, including offensive coordinator Greg Olson. A 3-13 record doesn't buy many benefits of the doubt. HEAT INDEX: 3
Intangibles -- For the first time since Raymond James Stadium opened for the 1998 season, Bucs home games -- probably as many as six or seven -- will be blacked out on local television. Considering the unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay area is the second-highest among the NFL's 32 markets, the economy gets some credit here. But so does the fan base, which recognizes Bucs ownership (which also owns the world-famous Manchester United soccer club in England) pinched pennies on free agents in recent years and the product has reflected as much. How the team plays to half-empty stadiums -- starting with Sunday's opener against Cleveland, arguably one of the most irrelevant Week 1 games in recent memory -- may go a long way in determining their success. HEAT INDEX: 2
Total Heat Index: 16/50 -- Tampa Bay drafted McCoy third overall in April. Unless Freeman and the offense make stunning strides, the Bucs figure to be looking for a franchise-type defensive end at about the same spot -- and quite possibly higher -- next April.