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Thanksgiving is here, but it appears there isn't much to be thankful for these days if you're a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. The Bucs are off to a 1-9 start, their worst since the 1985 season, and coming off a 38-7 loss to the Saints, which was their worst defeat in a decade.
Some don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, either. Fans have questions regarding whether first-year head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are the right men for the job in Tampa Bay after the team's shaky start, which has featured the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and demotion of defensive coordinator Jim Bates over the past two and a half months.
There are also concerns about the Bucs' player personnel, which in many areas is young and inexperienced, and in other areas simply ineffective.
With an offense and defense that are ranked 29th and 27th in the NFL, respectively, one could make the case for the Bucs needing upgrades at nearly half of the starting spots on the offensive and defensive sides of the football. While they will have a top 10 draft pick next year, the track record for Tampa Bay's more recent draft picks doesn't exactly make people feel optimistic that the Bucs will successfully add key playmakers and long-term solutions at a few positions.
One thing the Bucs had going for them was the fact that the team had more salary cap room than any other team in the NFL this year. One of the reasons why the Bucs managed to reach that status was by rolling over unused cap dollars to the ensuing seasons. Last year, Tampa Bay entered free agency with $60 million in cap room thanks to the rollover trick. The Bucs currently have approximately $30 million in cap room.
Unfortunately, those unused cap dollars won't do the Bucs any good in 2010 unless a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is executed. As of right now the 2010 season is scheduled to be uncapped, which would prevent the Bucs from rolling over cap room. Some would say it's a moot point since the Glazers have been accused of being frugal spenders in recent years due to financial hardships. If there's validity to that notion, the Bucs wouldn't utilize a significant portion of cap room even if there was one next year, and if the season goes uncapped it's unlikely the Bucs would be willing to compete with big-spending teams like Dallas and Washington.
Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber talked to the media Tuesday for the first time in a pre-game interview huddle since the regular season started. He entered Tampa Bay's locker room to field questions about Bates' demotion as defensive coordinator. Before any questions were asked, Barber said unsolicited, "Rest assured, the roof isn't falling down here. We'll be okay."
That might sound like wishful thinking on the surface, but a closer look at the Bucs now and as the team prepares for 2010 reveals a few bright spots that should give fans some hope that the Tampa Bay franchise can become a more competitive team sooner rather than later.
Tampa Bay's future will be greatly impacted by how the team fares in free agency and the draft. The good news for the Bucs is if a new CBA is put in place a greater number of talented playmakers will be eligible for free agency, which would afford the Bucs the opportunity to at least pursue and recruit some of the top-rated players.
The Bucs are also likely to have a top 5 pick in a draft class that's considered deep at a number of positions. And unlike several other teams, the Bucs have already identified their franchise quarterback, Josh Freeman, whom they will attempt to build around. If Freeman can continue to grow and solidify the quarterback position the Bucs franchise will be much better off for it moving forward.
But none of those things are guaranteed, and critics would argue that some of these scenarios aren't even realistic. However, the one thing that is assured and could instantly improve Tampa Bay's win-loss record next year is the Bucs' 2010 opponents, which appear to be much more favorable than the ones they've taken on this year, which has played a significant role in the team's 1-9 outing.
Tampa Bay entered the 2009 season with the fifth-hardest schedule in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Bucs, that schedule has lived up to its billing thanks to the tough AFC and NFC East divisions, as well as the 10-0 New Orleans Saints, who are already on the verge of clinching the NFC South division.
Through 10 games, Tampa Bay's 2009 opponents have compiled a record of 69-61 (.531). The Bucs' home slate has proven to be the most difficult part of the team's schedule, evidenced by the opponents' 49-31 record and the fact that only two of Tampa Bay's eight home opponents – Carolina and the New York Jets — currently have losing records. The Bucs also lost one of their home games at Raymond James Stadium this year due to the trip to London to face the 7-3 New England Patriots.
Although the schedule probably won't be announced until April, Tampa Bay's 2010 opponents have already been determined. In addition to facing their NFC South rivals twice, the Bucs are scheduled to play the AFC North and NFC West divisions, as well as the last place teams in the NFC East and NFC North divisions.
That's good news for the Bucs, whose 2010 opponents have produced an overall record of 58-72 (.400) through the first 10 games of the 2009 season. Tampa Bay's 2010 home opponents are particularly favorable. In addition to facing the one-win Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams, and two-win Detroit Lions at Ray-Jay, only two of Tampa Bay's eight regular season home opponents currently have winning records.
The away schedule is a little more intimidating, but Tampa Bay's 2010 opponents should definitely be one thing the Bucs have going for them next year, regardless of the moves the team makes in its front office or on its roster. Take a look for yourself.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2010 Opponents
New Orleans (10-0)
St. Louis (1-9)
Overall Record: 32-48
New Orleans (10-0)
San Francisco (4-6)
Overall Record: 45-35
If you're superstitious, there might also be another glimmer of hope regarding the Buccaneers next year. It has to do with the strange trend that has taken place in the NFC South since the division was formed in 2002.
Not only has it featured a new division winner in each of the seven years it has existed, the NFC South has also seen every team that finished in last place one season secure a spot in the playoffs the next. The trend used to be every team in the NFC South went from last to first, but the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons snapped that streak while still managing to make the playoffs last year.
It's hard to believe, but the New Orleans Saints finished in last place in the NFC South division with an 8-8 record last year. The undefeated Saints clearly are cruising towards a division title and possibly more this season.
The Bucs appear to be a long way from a playoff-caliber team or division winner, but the 2007 Falcons, who endured a season of chaos due to quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting scandal and first-year head coach Bobby Petrino's resignation, are proof of how quickly things can turn around in the NFL, especially for a team in the NFC South.
At the very least, Tampa Bay's 2010 opponents will give the Bucs a chance of keeping the strange trend in the NFC South division alive and well for another year. The favorable matchups should give Bucs fans some hope, and that, along with many more important things outside of football, is reason to be thankful this time of year, even if you're a Bucs fan.