Paradise lost would be the way to describe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their first year under coach Greg Schiano. The resort atmosphere disappeared, replaced by more rules and regimentation than a boot camp.
“We had one big thing we had to do. We had to establish a culture in the building,’’ Schiano says. “Sometimes, you have to go overboard one way or another to get that culture established. But I think at this point our football team understands who I am and how our football program is going to be run. I think that happened as the season went on.”
A 6–4 start collapsed into a 1–5 finish, mostly because of a wildly inconsistent defense that was first against the run and worst against the pass.
GM Mark Dominik spent the offseason retooling the secondary by signing 49ers free agent safety Dashon Goldson, swinging a blockbuster trade for Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and drafting Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks in the second round. Revis Island may have relocated to Tampa Bay, but it’s still going to be a very inhospitable place.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 13th
Josh Freeman set single-season club records for passing yardage (4,065) and touchdown passes (27) last year. But 10 of his 17 interceptions came in three games, leaving the Bucs still to wonder whether to make a long-term commitment to their enigmatic quarterback, who enters the final year of his contract.
Freeman will benefit from one of the best guard tandems in the NFL. Davin Joseph returns from a season-ending knee injury he suffered in 2012, and Carl Nicks has recovered from a foot injury that limited him to seven games.
But you can bet the offense will run through Doug Martin, who ranked second among rookies with 1,454 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 49 passes for 472 yards and a score. Receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are terrific big-play targets for Freeman, but the Bucs could use a better tight end than Luke Stocker and don’t have a slot receiver.
Tampa Bay traded running back LeGarrette Blount to New England and will go with free agent Brian Leonard, who played for Schiano at Rutgers, and Miami rookie Mike James to round out the backfield. The team also added former Cleveland and Kansas City running back Peyton Hillis to the mix before the start of training camp, although the one-time 1,000-yard rusher may have a hard time making the roster.
Freeman should thrive in the second year of the system under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. The Bucs will do more to move the pocket and change his launch sites, because he can be very accurate on the move. He also has a new quarterbacks coach in John McNulty, who had the same position with the Arizona Cardinals and coached with Schiano at Rutgers.
But Schiano still is hedging his bets a little with Freeman long-term. Perhaps that’s why NC State quarterback Mike Glennon is here.
“The reality is this is a performance-based game … to say you’re married (to a player), well, nobody is married to anyone in this game,’’ Schiano says of Freeman. “They’re not married to me. You’ve got to win or I’m not going to be the coach.”
It’s extremely unusual for a defense to play in polar-opposite ways against the run and the pass. Statistically, Tampa Bay had the best run defense in the league in 2012. Perhaps that’s because opponents preferred to travel by air. The Bucs fell just 38 yards shy of setting the NFL record for the most passing yards allowed.
With so much scorched earth in the secondary, the Bucs knew they needed an overhaul. Cornerback Aqib Talib, who was suspended for four games last year for illegal use of the stimulant Adderall, was traded at midseason to the New England Patriots. Eric Wright, who lost four games for the same reason, was forced to take a one-year, restructured contract, and then was subsequently traded to the 49ers in July for a conditional 2014 draft pick. Wright, however, failed his physical, which nullified the trade and led to his eventual outright release by the Buccaneers.
Dominik began the makeover by signing Goldson to a five-year, $41.25-million deal. A few weeks later, he persuaded the Jets to part with Revis for the 13th overall pick and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2014. Revis still is recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 3 last year but is expected to be full go by training camp. If he is 90 percent as good as the old Revis, it could be scary for the NFC South. The Bucs finally will have a player to match up with the Falcons’ Julio Jones or the Saints’ Marques Colston.
The Bucs will benefit from the return of right defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who was lost for the season because of a knee injury after only a few games. Da’Quan Bowers, who battled back from a torn Achilles to play 10 games a year ago, should be a powerful bookend. Rookies William Gholston and Steven Means fortify the pass rush.
But the rush is anchored by man in the middle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall choice in 2010. McCoy finally put together a full season, finishing with five sacks, and was named to his first Pro Bowl team.
Tampa Bay lost starting nose tackle Roy Miller to Jacksonville and its leading sackmaster Michael Bennett to Seattle. But the Bucs seem confident in veterans such as Derek Landri and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim as well as Illinois nose tackle Akeem Spence, a fourth-round pick.
The linebackers are solid with Mason Foster and Lavonte David, who led the team in tackles as a rookie. The Bucs have to replace Quincy Black at strong-side linebacker. He was released after suffering nerve damage following a hit on San Diego running back Ryan Mathews.
Playing in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton means having to stop big plays in the passing game. The Bucs also face Tom Brady this year. But the first game of the season will be at MetLife Stadium against the Jets. What better place for Revis to make a statement that he is back?
The Bucs' kicking game sustained a big blow in July when Connor Barth tore his Achilles playing in a charity basketball game. Barth, who hit on on 28-of-33 field goal attempts last season, will be replaced by veteran Lawrence Tynes. Tynes connected on 33-of-39 field goal attempts for the Giants last season, but he doesn't have near as strong a leg as Barth (six made FGs from 50+ yards in 2012). Punter Michael Koenen, who also handles all the kickoff duties, needs to pick it up after only netting 37.4 yards in 2012.
Long-snapper Andrew Economos re-signed, keeping the Bucs’ battery intact. What the team could use is some return yardage. Cowboys free agent Kevin Ogletree has a chance to bring back punts and kickoffs this year.
Final Analysis: 3rd in NFC South
If Revis is Revis again once his knee heals, and he plays the entire season, the Bucs have the main ingredient for an antidote to the Falcons’ and Saints’ passing games. Freeman, as usual, will be the key. Avoid two of the three meltdown games, and the Bucs could sneak into the postseason after a five-year hiatus.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)