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Here are 10 random thoughts to hold you over until the 5-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the practice field again next week to prepare for their next opponent – the 2-6 Atlanta Falcons.
1. It will be really interesting to see how Tampa Bay fares over its final seven regular season games this season. The Bucs got off to a 4-2 start and are currently 5-4 and in sole possession of first place in the NFC South division.Â
You've heard plenty of pundits call for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden's job this past year after watching the Bucs produce a 4-12 record in 2006, giving the team three losing seasons over the last four years. But it will be tough for Gruden's critics to make a strong case for him getting fired if the Bucs finish this season with a winning record and a division title.
Gruden is 44-45 during the regular season in Tampa Bay, but he has produced an 82-71 overall regular season record and a 5-3 playoff record in 10 seasons in the NFL. Should Tampa Bay win the 2007 NFC South division title, Gruden will have won five division titles in 10 seasons as a head coach in the NFL. It would also be the Bucs' third division title under Gruden, who also delivered the team's first and only Super Bowl title to date.Â
How important is it for Gruden to lead the Bucs to another division title this year? If the Bucs do not win the division and somehow produce a losing season, critics will state that his team has posted four losing seasons over the past five years, and rightfully so.
Yet if Tampa Bay does win the NFC South in 2007, it should be noted that Gruden and the Bucs will have won two division titles over the past three seasons. In short, a division title should earn Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen contract extensions.Â
However, failure to win the division or at least finish the season with a winning record could – and perhap should – lead to the end of their tenures in Tampa Bay.
2. The NFC South division stinks, eh? Here's something that could potentially put a sour taste in Tampa Bay's mouth during the bye week. Should the New Orleans Saints defeat the winless St. Louis Rams at home on Sunday, they will improve to 5-4 after an 0-4 start and climb into a first place tie with the Bucs in the NFC South division.Â
If Carolina defeats Atlanta at home it will also improve to 5-4 and be in a first place tie with the Bucs and Saints, but it's tough to see the Panthers competing for the division title down the stretch without their starting quarterback and a brutal schedule ahead. Still, that would give the NFC South division three teams with winning records.Â
Those losses to Detroit and Jacksonville are starting to look like ones that could come back to haunt Tampa Bay.Â
It certainly doesn't look like anyone is running away with the NFC South division. Tampa Bay and New Orleans have nearly identical strength of schedules from here on out. The Bucs and Saints each face just one team that has a winning record over their final regular season contests.Â
Tampa Bay will host the 5-3 Washington Redskins and New Orleans will host the 5-4 Buccaneers. The Saints' remaining eight opponents have produced a 24-43 record. The Bucs' remaining opponents have compiled a 23-43 record. Needless to say, it looks like Tampa Bay's contest at New Orleans on Dec. 2 will have a lot riding on it.
3. If the Bucs do not win the NFC South division I don't see how they're going to make the playoffs. It looks like the 6-2 New York Giants, 5-3 Washington Redskins and 6-2 Detroit Lions are the frontrunners for the two available Wild Card spots in the NFC.Â
The Lions own a tiebreaker over the Bucs thanks to their 23-16 win over Tampa Bay on Oct. 16. Tampa Bay certainly cannot afford to lose to Washington on Nov. 25. Otherwise, the Bucs will face a similar obstacle.Â
The Bucs' best bet is to win the NFC South division, which comes with an automatic post-season berth and home playoff game.
4. Should the Glazers decide to fire Bucs head coach Jon Gruden after the 2007 season, don't be surprised if he lands in Philadelphia. The Eagles probably won't fire head coach Andy Reid, who has produced a 136-83 regular season record and taken the Eagles to the playoffs six out of the eight seasons he's coached there, including a Super Bowl appearance.Â
However, given the legal and drug trouble Reid's two sons are in, no one should be surprised if he steps down from his post with the Eagles, who are currently 3-5, at the conclusion of the 2007 season. Gruden has strong ties to Philadelphia from his three-year tenure (1995-97) as the Eagles' offensive coordinator.
5. Speaking of the Eagles, expect Tampa Bay to be interested in signing quarterback Donovan McNabb if the Eagles decide to release him during the offseason. McNabb, who turns 31 later this month, has completed just 58.4 percent of his career passes since entering the NFL in 1999 as a first-round draft pick.Â
Yet McNabb, who is well versed in the West Coast offense, has thrown for 24,124 yards and tossed 161 touchdowns and just 76 interceptions. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound McNabb also has some mobility, evidenced by his 2,796 rushing yards (6.0 avg.) and 24 touchdowns.Â
The Eagles invested a second-round draft pick in QB Kevin Kolb in April, which has some thinking McNabb's days in Philadelphia could be numbered, especially with his base salary scheduled to increase from $5.5 million to $6.3 million in 2008.Â
Tampa Bay QB Jeff Garcia is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but he will turn 38 in February and is only under contract through the 2008 season.Â The Bucs still are hoping QB Jake Plummer, 32, decides to unretire and play for them next year.Â
In the meantime, they've filed three grievances against him in an effort to prompt him to play or pay up to $7 million in bonus money he received while playing in Denver. If Plummer refuses to play in the NFL again and McNabb becomes available next year, expect the Bucs to be interested in bringing him in as a backup and possible successor to Garcia.Â
6. I'm still trying to figure out how the Detroit Lions are 6-2. What is even more perplexing is the fact that Lions general manager Matt Millen actually lived to see this season in Detroit, where the Lions are off to an impressive start.Â
Millen was just 24-72 in his first six seasons with Detroit. In three of those seasons the Lions posted three or less wins.Â
And some truly believe Bucs general manager Bruce Allen is bad?Â The Bucs have posted a 25-32 record during Allen's three and a half seasons in Tampa Bay. He has already won one division title with the Bucs and could win his second in three seasons this year.Â
Allen also has the Bucs out of cap hell and scheduled to be approximately $30 million under the salary cap in 2008. He isn't perfect, but Allen isn't the incompetent general manager some make him out to be, either.Â
7. Do some Bucs fans really want Rich McKay back in Tampa Bay? Sure, McKay has produced a winning record (30-28) since he joined Atlanta in December of 2003, but the Falcons are absolutely imploding under his watch. Atlanta is 2-6 and in last place in the NFC South division.Â
The Falcons likely will finish the season with their second straight losing season, which will drop McKay's overall regular season record with the Falcons below .500.Â Atlanta also has some serious salary cap issues due to McKay's cap mismanagement.Â
Think about it for a second.Â Why did the Glazers willingly allow McKay out of his contract with Tampa Bay knowing he was going to take a job with Atlanta, an NFC South division rival? If he was as good as some advertised, why would ownership just let him walk?Â
To this day some members of the local media have failed to mention McKay's name in the same breath as the salary cap situation Tampa Bay endured from 2004-06, Unfortunately for McKay, he apparently is not as tight with the Atlanta media, which is tossing some heavy criticism his way this season.Â
The rebuilding process will officially begin for the Falcons in 2008. The question is will McKay be around for it?
8. Speaking of general managers, I found an interesting stat regarding Chicago Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo, who used to work in Tampa Bay's front office. Did you know the Bears produced just a 29-35 record in Angelo's first four seasons in Chicago?Â
In addition, the Bears posted three losing seasons during that four-year span. Some wanted Angelo fired after the 2004 season. Can you imagine if those critics had received their wish?Â
Perhaps the Bears wouldn't have gone 11-5 and 13-3 over the 2005 and 2006 seasons, respectively. The '06 season included Chicago's Super Bowl appearance vs. Indianapolis. It just goes to show you that sometimes it takes time and patience to build a good team in the NFL.
9. Tampa Bay has returned 1,851 kickoffs without ever scoring a touchdown during the regular season. No disprespect to wide receiver Michael Spurlock, but I just don't see him putting an end to this dreadful streak this season. The Bucs, who are averaging just 23.3 yards per kickoff return in 2007, need to find a dangerous and explosive return specialist in 2008.
10. After further review, it doesn't look like Tampa Bay is going to miss running back Cadillac Williams as much as some people, including myself, first thought. Even without Williams, a former first-round draft pick and the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year, the Bucs' ground game currently ranks 16th and is averaging 113 yards per game.Â
For inquiring minds that want to know, the highest Tampa Bay's running game has ever ranked at the end of a season under Gruden was 14th, which was Williams' rookie season. Running back Earnest Graham has been a pleasant surprise, carrying the ball 116 times for 454 yards (3.9 avg.) and four touchdowns and catching 26 passes for 176 yards.Â
The good news is Tampa Bay's running game should improve with the return of a healthy Michael Pittman and the presence of Michael Bennett, who is making some headway in Jon Gruden's playbook. Not only could Tampa Bay be without Williams in 2008 due to the rehab associated with a torn patellar tendon, Pittman and Bennett are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year.Â
While this position is far from unsettled for the 2008 season, Tampa Bay's current stable of running backs appear to be good enough to get the job done in 2007.
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