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Once a new Super Bowl champion dethrones the Pittsburgh Steelers in Miami on Feb. 4 in, Tampa Bay’s disappointing 4-12 season will be behind the Buccaneers and most of their fan base.
A new season, one we commonly refer to as the offseason, starts after the Super Bowl, and it likely will be more exciting than the Bucs’ 2006 regular season was.
Some fans aren’t too optimistic about the Buccaneers, who are coming off of their worst season since 1991 and have produced three losing seasons over the past four years. But there will be several resources available to the Buccaneers that could help them climb out of the gutter rather quickly.
The same salary cap that hindered their efforts for the past several years is now being deemed a valuable asset. The Bucs have $24-plus million to spend in free agency, and that’s without even parting way with any veteran players, which would create even more cap room.
The Bucs will also be armed with a top 5 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, and four selections in the first three rounds.
Of course, Tampa Bay’s schedule appears to be much kinder in 2007, with its regular season opponents producing a combined record of 96-112, and just three of those 13 opponents (only counting Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans once) having winning records in 2006.
Even with all of those things in Tampa Bay’s favor, the Bucs probably aren’t the most confident team in the NFL after last season’s performance.
But don’t be surprised if Bucs head coach Jon Gruden mentions the New Orleans Saints an awful lot this offseason and during training camp and preseason in an effort to motivate his team and give his players hope.
Why? Because the Saints, who visit Chicago to play the Bears in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, were sitting in last place in the NFC South division with a 3-13 record this time last year.
Every team has its challenges, but you could make the argument that the Saints had more than their fair share after Hurricane Katrina ripped apart New Orleans and forced the Saints to practice in Texas and play their home games on the road.
But after one offseason, the Saints went from 3-13 to 11-6, and from last place to first place in the NFC South division. They’re also just one win away from going to the Super Bowl.
What was the secret to New Orleans’ success?
Well, there’s no place like home, but low expectations and an easier schedule certainly helped as well.
The Saints also made several key changes, including the hiring of head coach Sean Payton, the signing of quarterback Drew Brees in free agency and the drafting of running back Reggie Bush and wide receiver Marques Colston.
Perhaps the most interesting part about New Orleans’ success story is the fact that it’s not uncommon these days in the NFL.
In 2006, the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles became the 27th and 28th teams in NFL history to win their respective divisions one season after finishing in last place.
Thanks to free agency and the salary cap, 13 of those 28 Cinderella stories have been told over the last eight years.
In fact, at least one team in the NFL has gone from worst to first in seven of the last eight years. And history certainly bodes well for the Saints as there have been instances in league history that a team that finished in last place went on to play in the Super Bowl the following season. And two of those teams – the 1999 St. Louis Rams and 2001 New England Patriots – have gone on to actually win the Super Bowl.
There are several sources of inspiration for the Buccaneers, including the Saints and Eagles.
However, Tampa Bay doesn’t need to look any further than its own franchise history to find hope for much better results in 2007.
A closer look at the Bucs’ recent history reveals that the Bucs were one of those 28 Cinderella stories just two seasons ago.
In 2004, the Buccaneers produced a 5-11 record and finished in last place in the NFC South division. The following season, the Bucs flipped that record, going 11-5, winning their division and making the playoffs.
History suggests New Orleans will have trouble staying on top of the NFC South division next year. In fact, no team has repeated as NFC South champs since the division was formed in 2002. And if the Saints win the Super Bowl, staying on top will be even tougher as history has not been kind to defending Super Bowl champs.
A quick turnaround in Tampa Bay is quite possible and realistic. However, like the Saints, the Bucs will have to take advantage of the resources available to them and make the right moves to help them keep the recent tradition of “from worst-to-first” going in the NFL next season.
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