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Don’t discount the Bucs

It’s been a rough couple of years at the New Sombrero. The team fell pray to a staph infection which ended two players’ careers. The promise shown in 2010 evaporated under draconian loon Greg Schiano, as the franchise went 0-8 and risked being the only franchise to win after Jacksonville did (which they did chronologically speaking, though it was on the same matchday. Phew). Schiano himself could be reasonably suspected of acting as a double agent for Bill Belichick, what with his gifting some of the franchise’s best players (LeGarrette Blount, Aqib Talib) to New England for peanuts and kicking out franchise quarterback Josh Freeman in acrimonious fashion. The Bucs continued their Costa Concordia-like swashbuckling by cutting Darrelle Revis, a man they gave a first round pick for in 2013.  Even worse, personal tragedy struck the franchise with the passing of Malcolm Glazer. In other words, what better opportunity to talk up the team? In all seriousness, bringing in a coach not named Greg Schiano may just propel them to .500, even a playoff place.

What they’ve got going for them

Greg Schiano went to great lengths to emulate another famous Italian

Greg Schiano went to great lengths to emulate another famous Italian

The Buccaneers were unlucky last season, the sixth-unluckiest according to Bill Barnwell, losing 1.3 games more than their Pythagorean expectation. Put simply, Pythagorean expectation tries to calculate how many games a team should have won by basing itself on the amount of points it scored and conceded. It is a very reliable tool, made even more so by the fact that teams who wildly overshoot or underperform tend to return to the mean the following season. A good example is a team that scores more than it concedes, but loses a lot of close games: is bound to get better the following year. Tampa Bay could very well rank in that number, going 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. A couple more wins could propel them to 6-10.

Things are also going to get better on offense, starting from the return of Doug Martin, one of the NFL’s standout running backs before a 2013 season blighted by injuries. It will be even harder to stop him now that Tampa have discovered other running backs capable of carrying the rock, Bobby Rainey and Mike James doing a brilliant job last year in keeping defenses honest.

There is little need to introduce Tampa’s own defence, which ranked in the Top 12 in DVOA against both the pass and the run last year. Freaks like Gerald Mccoy and Lavonte David will shore up the front seven, though barring Clayborn there is no-one else with more than 3 sacks. David himself was the object of a reddit thread analyzing every single play he made against the Falcons running game. Not the best opposition by all accounts, but he looked monstrous. The loss of Darrelle Revis is certainly a shock, but Alterraun Verner is going to be a good, not great replacement. The arrival of Lovie Smith, a known defensive guru, will certainly improve the defence.

There he is! Smoke the bugger!

There he is! Smoke the bugger!

Morale-wise, Smith will also be a major improvement over Greg Schiano. If press reports from last season are anything to go by, Schiano seems to have behaved like Satan’s representative on earth (as played by David Byrne… sigh). From rigging the vote for team captain to strong-arming quarterback Josh Freeman by leaking news of his failed drug test, it is likely Schiano lost his players as early as the first month, which explains how a talented team could push the Saints, Cardinals and Seahawks, but also mail it in on other occasions.

They could also improve in the NFC South, especially if one considers the Panthers (their Week 1 opponent at Bank of America Stadium) don’t have anyone to throw the ball to, or indeed a decent secondary. The Falcons couldn’t stop the run if they’d had access to spygate technology, and don’t look much better on defence this year. This could be the Bucs’ chance to improve on last year’s 1-5 record.

What might go wrong

Expectations should be tempered by the Buccaneers’ lack of receiving options: Tim Wright’s average numbers from 2013 (571 yards, 5 TDs) were enough to rank as Tampa Bay’s number 2 receiver behind Vincent Jackson.

Though Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Mike Evans are physical freaks, most rookie receivers need at least a year’s apprentiship before truly putting up monster numbers. Not everyone can draft Randy Moss or Keenan Allen. Then again, with Mike Freeman barely contributing last year, it’s not as if Tampa Bay can do any worse this time round. At least they’ll have bodies to throw to. An eye should be kept on the Austin Seferian-Jenkins, about whom Walter Cherepinsky had this to say: “From his first day at Washington, Seferian-Jenkins was a difference-maker. He was one of those rare players who looked like he could play in the NFL as a true freshman. Along with Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins in the fall of 2011, Seferian-Jenkins looked like a special NFL talent from the very beginning.” Jeepers.

14-9 Tampa Bay 3

Seferian-Jenkins: can play!

There are questions at the top as well, not least in gauging how much of an impact new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who has been absent from team activities since undergoing a medical procedure undertaken on August 25th. Knowing just how poor Lovie Smith is as an offensive mind, not to mention his reputation for wasting timeouts and flags, concern on that side of the ball is more than justified. It is a true pity, as Tedford is known for being a sharp offensive mind and an excellent improviser.

#Hottake dispensers the world over will focus on the quarterbacks he worked with, many of whom promised mountains and came up with molehills. With the exception of Aaron Rodgers and (cough) Trent Dilfer, Tedford will be remembered for working with Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington and Akili Smith. An unfair red flag which should be viewed from a different perspective: what does it say about him that he made so many duds look like sure-fire first rounders? Even allowing for the less challenging nature of college football, that is downright impressive.

The quarterback situation is another unpredictable facet of this Florida team: they picked up a player (Josh McCown) with a preposterous 13-1 TD to interception ratio nearly took the Chicago Bears to the playoffs. It is hard to gauge just how well he will do this year, though many see him regressing somewhat towards the middling numbers he had put up before losses. Will it be enough? Perhaps not, though Tampa Bay have a perfectly capable replacement whose ceiling could well surpass expectations: despite middling DVOA scores, Mike Glennon posted a 19-9 TD-INT ratio last year, something incredible for a team in the midst of a rebellion, and for a rookie throwing to Vincent Jackson and precious little else. Despite a quarterback controversy brewing over the summer- owing in large part to Lovie Smith’s u-turn- Tampa Bay have a promising signal-caller who took on the league’s toughest schedule in 2013 waiting in the wings. I say he eventually takes that job and becomes a regular long-term starter.

And now his whole team f*&%ing here! Chulo!

And now his whole team f*&%ing here! Chulo!

Will all this be enough to make a big leap forward? It is if the goal is 7-9 or 8-8. Tampa Bay still have the 11th-toughest schedule this year, but with only six games against teams who made the playoffs, they certainly have a chance to stretch it to 9-7. The Bucs open against two teams who are in major quarterback trouble (Carolina and St Louis) and four five under .500 teams after their Week 7 bye. Their list also includes Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Washington and Carolina- franchises who could swing either way. Their situation seems to sum up the NFC: outside of the top 4 candidates (Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans) it’s hard to see anyone else end the season with a dominant record. After all, this is the NFL. Stranger things have happened.

 

 

 

 

 

Are the Saints overrated?

With football season’s first Sunday slate only 36 hours away, the NFL prediction machine has predictably kicked into gear, with every pundit under the sun giving his two cents about who will make the big dance, and who will come home with the prize. This article is the first of a two-parter tackling a couple of fancied teams who I think will fall short: New Orleans and Green Bay, both offensive juggernauts led by legendary quarterbacks, both held back by poor defenses. The Saints’ drum has been beaten by many, including one representative on NFL.com’s Around the NFL podcast, as well as Don Banks of SI and Sky’s very own Kevin Cadle.

Trouble is, defence has been a particular headache for New Orleans, never important enough to stop the Saints from regularly reaching the playoffs under Sean Payton, but always a problem once the proverbial dung hit the fan. Poor defending cost the Saints a run at defending their title in 2010, when Beast Mode was blasted into our living rooms and New Orleans was the only victim of Seattle’s man-made earthquake. It happened again in 2011, when Gregg Williams’ defense made Alex Smith (Alex Smith!) look like an All-Pro. In those two games alone, New Orleans allowed a mammoth 857 yards.

Admittedly, the arrival of Rob “Wolfman” Ryan in early 2013 immediately paid dividends: the Saints ended the season in the Top 10 in Defensive DVOA, and fans the world over got to enjoy Ryan’s ranting and raving on the sidelines. The trouble is, the Saints are far from being home and dry, their second playoff defeat to Seattle in 2014 proving that once the offense goes dormant, the defense isn’t good enough to keep New Orleans in the mix. With Brees throwing for a meagre 34 yards in the first half, Seattle took a 16-0 lead, and quashed any hopes for a comeback by converting on a gutsy call on 3rd and long- Doug Baldwin’s masterful catch paving the way for Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown. 23-8, game over.

The Saints have certainly done a decent job shoring up the numerous holes in their D, but will it be enough? Ryan has helped historically poor defenses return to the mean before, only to plateau around the middle of the pack. There is talent in the Saints back line- Keenan Lewis did a good job on Desean Jackson last year, whilst Jairus Byrd is the franchise’s big free agency prize- but is still not elite. Worse, pass rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette both topped 12 sacks last season, yet the next best contributor only made 4.5. For a team that actually got a remarkable amount of coverage sacks last year, an injury to one of these two – or a drop in secondary play- could have catastrophic consequences, possibly forcing Ryan to use the more expansive blitzes he is known for, thus exposing his defense even more. The Saints would also need to improve on last year’s 20th place in Run defense DVOA.

The offense itself is hardly spotless: despite all the past accolades, New Orleans return a lineup without former regulars Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, as well as a diminished Marques Colston and an irked Jimmy Graham, who saw his potential earnings reduced in a franchise tag dispute, and his trademark celebration outlawed by Dean of Distractions Roger Goodell. Mark Ingram is being touted by just about everybody who’s been to Saints camp as a sleeper- trouble is we’re in Year 4 of his career, and his talent has only come out in spots. Though there is little doubt the Saints’ offence will thrive to some extent this season – first round pick Brandin Cooks has looked incredible in camp- will it have enough options to keep defenses honest?

Any early season rust will certainly have an impact on a team whose away record last season was 3-5, and who plays three road games in the first month. Though none of its first five opponents had winning records last year (two, the Browns and the Cowboys, look to be in pretty bad shape), New Orleans will need every win they can get, as the rest of their schedule proves.  Those last 11 games will, for the most part, come against teams with strong playoff aspirations, with only a couple of them looking like they will fall short of contending. The NFC South, against whom the Saints went 3-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown, is also likely to improve- especially when we consider that the Buccaneers were one of last season’s unluckiest teams- losing three games more than their Pythagorean rating expected them to.

What makes the schedule so important is the Metrodome, and how certain Saints backers are citing it as a decisive factor in the playoffs: “Just you wait until the visitors come out of that tunnel!” Sean Payton has, after all, never lost a home playoff game, the franchise’s last L coming in 1992 at the hands of the Eagles. Trouble is , New Orleans needs to actually secure top seed in order to guarantee a home slate in the playoffs. With Seattle in rambunctious form following yesterday’s mauling of the Packers, the 49ers still one of the most consistent NFC franchises and, yes, the Packers still able to win at least 10 games through sheer firepower, this may be tougher than advertised.

Worse, the home game argument goes both ways, and has come to stink of desperation, almost as if it is implied that the Saints need to play in NOLA to progress to the final rounds. Hardly a ringing endorsement by all accounts.