Welcome to “Pretty Much Screwed,” our definitive guide to the upcoming NFL season. This team-by-team preview details why your favorite franchise might have to start looking forward to next year — and highlights at least one reason for you to be hopeful. Today: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team with a coach who’s too predictable and a quarterback who’s not predictable enough.
Forget for a second about whether or not Greg Schiano is too much of a taskmaster, whether his approach wore thin on highly-paid professionals and contributed to the Bucs’ late-season slide last year after a promising start. Forget even the team’s offseason acquisitions of Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson (and drafting of corner Johnthan Banks), moves that figure to massively upgrade a secondary that got torched all year in 2012. Instead, just remember this:
As Josh Freeman goes, so go the Bucs, and no one knows where the hell Josh Freeman’s gonna go.
Bill Belichick is just as tyrannical as Schiano (which helps explain why the two get along so well), and no one worries about it because he wins. Why does he win? Above all, because of his quarterback. And so it is with the Bucs: like so much of the NFL, all about the guy under center. Good Freeman has the ability to make his coach’s leadership style every bit as much of a non-issue. From Weeks 6-10 last season, Freeman was splendid: 13 touchdowns against one interception. Granted, it wasn’t a murderer’s row of opponents (Chiefs/Saints/Vikings/Raiders/Chargers), but Freeman torched all of them, posting a QB rating of over 100 in each of those five games (of which, not coincidentally, the Bucs won four).
But Bad Freeman? Well, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell has the numbers, and you might want to turn away before you look: Freeman completed 50.6 percent of his passes from Weeks 13-16 last season, with five touchdown passes and nine interceptions over that span. He had back-to-back four-INT games in Weeks 15 and 16. If you extrapolated those numbers over a whole season… well, there’s no use doing that, because it’s impossible to imagine a quarterback playing that badly over an entire season and not getting benched. Given that the Bucs are fresh off using a not-insignificant draft pick on a quarterback (Mike Glennon in the third round this year), the bench is exactly where Freeman will be if he has another run like he did late last year.
On the plus side: as Barnwell says, that awful stretch wasn’t all Freeman’s fault, and he showed the ability in 2010 to be Good Freeman all year (25 TD passes, six picks, 61.4 completion percentage and 7.3 yards per attempt). On the minus side, he showed the “ability” to be Bad Freeman for an extended period in 2011 (16 TD passes, 22 INTs, 62.8 completion percentage but only 6.5 yards per attempt). Freeman’s career pattern is wildly inconsistent – enough that I have absolutely no idea how he’ll play this season. If I were a Bucs fan, I’d probably be cautiously optimistic… but also a little terrified. And that’s before you account for the fact that…
The NFC South is really tough.
The Falcons went 13-3 last season, nearly made the Super Bowl, then went out and got better, adding Steven Jackson to upgrade their running game. Despite some questions in the secondary, they’re contenders to win it all once again. The Saints emerge from Bountygate purgatory, getting their head coach back – along with, one would think, franchise stability. Oh, and nabbing Kenny Vaccaro in the draft to upgrade a secondary that was almost as bad as the Bucs’ last year won’t hurt either. They should be back in the playoffs. And then the Panthers also exist. (Seriously, though, a team led by a player as talented as Cam Newton can’t be overlooked.)
Point is: it’s going to be tough to emerge from the NFC South. I’ll believe the Bucs can do it when I see it. Whether they do depends not only on Freeman’s play, though, but also wear and tear of both the physical and mental variety. Specifically:
Greg Schiano has to avoid wearing out his welcome, and Darrelle Revis’s knee has to avoid wearing out, period.
I watched Greg Schiano operate for 11 years as head coach at my beloved Rutgers. I was a student there for four of those years, my interest in college football grew exponentially during that time, and much of that was due to Schiano’s work reviving what was arguably America’s worst program before he got there. Overall, I’m grateful for what the guy did. Buy good lord, is that dude stubborn. He’s not entirely allergic to change of any kind, but it takes a lot for him to enact it.
And this is where his personality comes in. Win and it won’t matter. Struggle, though, and you’ll see a lot more stories like this. Schiano’s abrasive tendencies might be a secondary concern, but they’re still a concern. There’s a decent chance he’ll have to make adjustments to his approach to effectively relate to NFL players, and if he does, I’m not sure he has it in him.
As for Revis’s knee: yeah, Adrian Peterson happened, but there’s no guarantee Revis’s surgery gave him the magical powers Peterson’s apparently did. Modern medicine is full of marvels and if I had to guess, I’d say Revis plays at a high level this season. Still, he’s coming off major surgery that caused him to miss nearly all of last year. There will be rust. He was worth the risk for a team that desperately needed to upgrade its pass defense, but it was still a risk.
Why you might not be screwed: The talent’s there. We’ve covered Freeman, but let’s not forget second-year running back Doug Martin, who got his career off to a superb start last year with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns last year (along with 49 catches for 472 yards and another score). If the offensive line can avoid the key injuries that felled it last year, that unit should be improved. The secondary is completely revamped, as it needed to be, and not with just anyone: Goldson and Revis (again, if healthy) are both among the best at their positions. And the run defense didn’t need upgrading: the Bucs allowed the fewest yards and yards per attempt on the ground in the league. On paper, the pieces are all in place to make a run.
Actual season prediction: 8-8, third in the NFC South, miss playoffs. This team has the potential to be very good… and the potential to implode. I’ll split the difference.
Getty photo, by Chris Graythen