32 teams in 32 days: Tampa Bay

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 22, 2008

We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ... 
It took 32 seasons and 1,865 attempts, but the Bucs finally returned a kick for a touchdown in 2007.
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2007 record: 9-7 (334-270)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-3
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 10-6
All-time franchise record: 196-303-1 (.393)
Playoff record: 6-9 (.400)
Last five seasons: 36-44 (.450)
Best Quality Stat in 2007: Big Play Index (3rd)
Worst Quality Stat in 2007: Scoreability (18th)
Best game of 2007: 37-3 win at home vs. Atlanta (Week 15). Tampa's 2007 season did not feature a single signature victory – its two Quality Wins, for example, were squeakers over middling Tennessee and Washington. A pair of dominating victories over pathetic Atlanta, including this late-season beat-down, is the closest the Bucs came to looking like a champion-caliber team. On this day in December, the Bucs improved to 9-5, captured the NFC South crown and made a bit of long overdue history for the franchise.
The Falcons, in the wake of the Bobby Petrino-to-Arkansas scandal, cranked out a feeble 133 yards of offense, including an almost unbelievably miniscule 27 passing yards, against the tough Tampa defense. Nearly a quarter of Atlanta's entire offense came on a single 29-yard carry by Jerious Norwood.
The Bucs, meanwhile, scored on offense, defense and special teams, including a 90-yard score by Michael Spurlock for the first kick return TD in Tampa history.
Strength: Pass defense. Tampa finished No. 1 in pass defense (170.5 YPG), No. 2 in passing YPA allowed (5.99) and No. 8 in Defensive Passer Rating (76.2). If 2007 No. 4 overall pick Gaines Adams can evolve into an impact player at defensive end, it should help the Tampa defense continue to be one that's tough to pass against for the foreseeable future.
Weakness: Skill position talent. There is a major dearth of young, promising talent in Tampa at the offensive skill positions.
Most underrated players: MLB Barrett Ruud. He won the Massengill Award on the Cold, Hard Football Facts 2007 All-Douched Team as the player most deserving of Pro Bowl honors who failed to get it. The Buccaneers fielded one of the stingiest defenses in football last year, and you don't field a stingy 4-3 without a playmaking middle linebacker.
Unit on the rise: Offensive line. The Buccaneers started perhaps the youngest OL in football last year. Except for virtual dinosaur John Wade at center, a 10-year veteran, none of Tampa's regular starters had more than three years of experience. Rookie Arron Sears, a No. 2 pick in 2007, started the entire season at guard. The line in 2008 will be no older, on average, than it was in 2007: Tampa recently signed former New Orleans center Jeff Faine, whose entering his sixth NFL season and will be just 27 years old, to replace Wade at center. Offensive line skills usually take a few years to develop, which bodes well for the future of Tampa's kiddie corps.  
Silly-season activity: The Bucs have been quite active, but have mostly moved some pawns around the board. Nabbing Faine was probably their most important move. The biggest name moves came in the acquisition of two former Tampa players: running back Warrick Dunn, signed from Atlanta, and quarterback Brian Griese, acquired from Chicago for an undisclosed 2009 draft pick. It's likely the best years for both are behind them. Free-agent signings include DE Marques Douglas (San Francisco), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (Kansas City), S Eugene Wilson (New England),  TE Ben Troupe (Tennessee), TE John Gilmore (Chicago) and WR Antonio Bryant (who most recently played with the 49ers in 2006).
Youth/experience: The offensive line, as noted above, is one of the youngest units in the league. But the Bucs find themselves with a slew of players well into the twilight of their careers, especially at the skill positions. It's quite possible, for example, that Tampa will put an offensive unit on the field this year in which every QB, RB and WR are well into their 30s, which is like entering a group of 20-year-old horses in the Kentucky Derby.  
2007 Draft grade: A-. The Buccaneers selected 10 players in the 2007 draft and every single one made the roster. Contributions came from all seven players taken in the first six rounds, including some key performers. No. 1 pick Gaines Adams and No. 2 selection Arron Sears both became full-time starters. Another second-round pick, Sabby Piscitelli, looked to become a regular contributor before going on injured reserve early in the season, while Tanard Jackson, a fourth-round selection, started all 16 games at safety, where he recorded 56 tackles while knocking away 13 passes and picking off two others. If Gaines, Sears, Piscitelli, Jackson and the rest of the group who saw playing time last year continue to develop in their second season and beyond, the class of 2007 could prove a pivotal in the future fortunes of the Tampa organization.
2008 Draft power: 1st (20), 2nd (53), 3rd (84), 4th (117), 5th (148)
General Draft strategies: Since selecting WR Michael Clayton No. 1 in 2004 and Cadillac Williams No. 1 in 2005, Tampa has made a decided move toward building-block positions high in the draft. And, as it so often does, this second strategy has provided greater results. Clayton has more or less been a disaster. Since his promising 80-catch, 1,193-yard rookie year, Clayton has caught just 87 more passes for 1,029 yards and 1 TD in three seasons. Williams, of course, had a highly promising rookie year in 2005, but injuries have since hijacked his career.
Eyeing building-block players, however, has provided much greater success: the first two rounds of the last two drafts alone have yielded three starters on the offensive line (Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood and Arron Sears) and another on the defensive line (Gaines Adams). MLB Barrett Ruud, meanwhile, was taken in the second round of the 2005 draft, after Cadillac Williams, and looks a sure bet to better the more important of the two performers after an injury last year looked like it could ruin Williams' career.
Coaching: Head man Jon Gruden rose rapidly through the coaching ranks as an offensive whiz and young master of the acclaimed West Coast offense. In Tampa, this reputation has smashed upon the shoals of ineptitude and is taking on water rapidly. In six years under Gruden, the Bucs have never ranked better than 18th in scoring. It seems to be part of a long time curse against offense that has plagued Tampa since its very first year in the NFL (1976) when it went 0-14, suffered five shutouts and scored a modern record-low 125 points (8.9 PPG).
In their entire history, the Buccaneers have placed in the top half of the league in scoring just three times: 14th (of 28 teams) in 1984, 6th (of 31) in 2000 and 15th (of 31) in 2001.  In other words, Tampa enjoyed its offensive glory years under defensive specialist Tony Dungy. Even Gruden's Super Bowl championship team of 2002 aspired to offensive mediocrity. It ranked 18th in scoring offense and 24th in total offense, but was No. 1 across the board in most major defensive categories.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin remains one of the best and most respected in the league. But Gruden's future in Tampa will be dependent upon the ability of him and offensive coordinator Greg Olson to find a way to field an offense that complements a defense which, since the arrival of Kiffin in 1996, has routinely ranked among the best in the league.
Overview: The Buccaneers have taken its fans on a wild ride, with spastic changes in the team's fortunes from year to year under Gruden. It's time for him to prove he can bring some consistency to the organization – preferably in the form of consistent winning. With a number of key building blocks in place, a defense that annually stands among the league's best and a weak group of rivals in the NFC South, the Bucs have the potential to be a playoff contender for years to come. They need to find a franchise quarterback, however, along with young, productive skill position talent, to turn from playoff contender into championship contender.

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