SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Bucs Must Defend The Bay
Just how important is it to have a true home-field advantage in the NFL?
Consider that the Buccaneers have had a winning record at home – a mark of 5-3 or better – 13 times in franchise history and have made the playoffs in all but four of those seasons. In the four seasons in which Tampa Bay didn’t make the postseason, the team only had a losing record in two of those years.
The Bucs were 6-2 at home in 1984, but finished 6-10 after going winless on the road. In Sam Wyche’s last season in Tampa Bay, the Bucs started off “5-dash-2,” but finished “7-dash-9” despite a 5-3 record in the Big Sombrero.
In 1998, Tampa Bay went 6-2 in the first year at Raymond James Stadium, but finished 8-8 after struggling on the road. In 2008, Jon Gruden’s final season as head coach, the Bucs missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record that included a 6-2 record at home. Gruden’s problem was the fact that both of those home losses came at the end of the season after his team started off with a 6-0 record at Ray-Jay and a 9-3 mark overall before the team’s 0-4 collapse to end the year.
Home Record of Tampa Bay’s Head Coaches
Jon McKay (1976-84) – 28-67 (.418)
Leeman Bennett (1985-86) – 2-14 (.125)
Ray Perkins (1987-90) – 10-20 (.333)
Richard Williamson (1990-91) – 4-6 (.400)
Sam Wyche (1992-95) – 15-17 (.469)
Tony Dungy (1996-2001) – 34-14 (.708)
Jon Gruden (2002-08) – 34-22 (.607)
Raheem Morris (2009-11) – 7-9 (.438)
Greg Schiano (2012-13) – 6-10 (.375)
Lovie Smith (2014-15) – 3-13 (.188)
Dirk Koetter (2016-current) – 4-4 (.500)
The Bucs haven’t had a winning record at home since the 2008 season, which is part of the reason the team has struggled with attendance. Since Gruden’s departure, Tampa Bay has won just 35.7 percent of its home games since 2009 with a 20-36 record.
Contrast that with the team’s home record from 1996-2008 under Tony Dungy and Gruden when the Bucs were a combined 68-36 and won 65.4 percent of their home games and it’s easy to see why fan apathy set in and some of the buzz left the Bucs.
While fans in Tampa Bay watched a lot of bad football in person under Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith, new head coach Dirk Koetter went 4-4 at home last year, matching the mark that Morris’ 10-6 team had in 2010. It should be noted that neither Morris’ 2010 squad or Koetter’s Bucs from a year ago made the playoffs.
Going .500 at home almost always won’t get a team to the postseason.
“It’s a simple formula, really,” said Bucs defensive coordinator and former Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith. “You’ve got to win at home and split on the road. If you do that you’re 12-4 and you’re going to be in the playoffs.”
Bucs’ Best Regular Season Home Records
1999 – 7-1 – 11-5 overall record
2002 – 6-2 – 12-4 overall record
2005 – 6-2 – 11-5 overall record
2000 – 6-2 – 10-6 overall record
1997 – 6-2 – 10-6 overall record
2007 – 6-2 – 9-7 overall record
1981 – 6-2 – 9-7 overall record
2008 – 6-2 – 9-7 overall record*
1998 – 6-2 – 8-8 overall record*
1984 – 6-2 – 6-10 overall record*
2001 – 5-3 – 10-6 overall record
1979 – 5-3 – 10-6 overall record
1995 – 5-3 – 7-9 overall record*
*indicates no playoffs
The Bucs have never gone a perfect 8-0 at home, but they did finish with a 7-1 home mark in the 1999 regular season en route to an 11-5 record and a win against Washington at Raymond James Stadium in the playoffs. Those eight wins at Ray-Jay – seven during the regular season and one in the playoffs – are the most ever in one season in franchise history. The Bucs were a 16-13 loss to the New York Giants in the season opener away from perfection in Tampa Bay.
Even during Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl season the team finished with a 6-2 home record in the regular season, capped off by a Wild Card playoff home win over San Francisco.
With a challenging home slate that features games against Chicago, the New York Giants, New England, Carolina, the New York Jets, Detroit, Atlanta and New Orleans, winning all eight games at Raymond James Stadium seems like quite a stretch this season. But the Bucs do have some momentum on their side.
After starting off Koetter’s first season at the helm with a 3-5 record due to a 0-4 mark at home, the Bucs finished 6-2 down the stretch thanks in part to a four-game winning streak at Ray-Jay.
The Bucs got their first win at home under Koetter by beating Chicago, which happens to be Tampa Bay’s home opener opponent this year, 36-10. After a 19-17 upset win at Kansas City, the Bucs returned home to beat Seattle, 14-5 before venturing out to San Diego to claim another victory, 28-21. The Bucs won their fifth straight game of the year with a 16-11 home win the next week, which marked Tampa Bay’s third straight triumph at Ray-Jay. After dropping games at Dallas and New Orleans by a combined 13 points, the Bucs returned home to beat Carolina, 17-16, for the team’s fourth straight home victory.
Now it’s up to Tampa Bay to continue that home streak. Although Saturday’s preseason home opener against Cleveland doesn’t count, it would help the team continue to build on the “Defend The Bay” slogan and further develop the mentality of always winning at home.
But the four-game home winning streak starts in earnest on September 18 when Chicago comes to town. That’s when the Bucs need to be focused on winning their fifth straight game at Ray-Jay, dating back to 2016.
“They can absolutely carry that home momentum over from last year,” said legendary Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who is a TV analyst for Tampa Bay’s preseason games. “With anything, your confidence builds the more you do it. There’s a certain amount of pride that goes with a streak. You are best at what you’re comfortable at. If you’re not comfortable at home, it hurts your team. Ideally, you’d like to go 8-0 at home and split on the road. If you are doing that you are in the playoffs. The more you win at home, the more confident you get. It’s psychological against the teams coming in there against your home-field advantage.”
Koetter often talks about creating a much better home-field environment in his press conferences, and has said that the team needs to get visiting fans out of the lower bowl area where they are the loudest against the Bucs. Last year, Denver, Oakland and Chicago fans invaded Raymond James Stadium and had a large presence in the lower bowl.
That has the chance to happen again this year with Chicago, New England and both New York teams on the home schedule, although the Bucs have taken some measures this offseason to reduce the number of out-of-state season ticket holders, many of whom sell their tickets to ticket brokers who in turn sell the tickets to opposing fans.
That will aid in keeping the crowd on the Bucs’ side, but what will help even more is winning. After beating Chicago and Kansas City in back-to-back weeks to even its record at 5-5, Tampa Bay hosted a raucous crowd when the team faced Seattle in Week 11. After the Bucs took an early 7-0 lead, the red and pewter-clad fans were in full throat, creating the loudest home environment since the Gruden era.
“Everybody was into it,” Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said. “The fans were into it. It was an electric game. Especially the way the defense was playing. The defense was playing light out. We jumped on them quick 14-0. It was an exciting game. That was the first time we saw something electric in the stadium in a long time. It was an amazing game because of the defense. It was really because of the defense. It almost brought back memories of that old Bucs defense with Warren Sapp and John Lynch.”
The Bucs would go on to win 14-5, holding the Seahawks to a field goal with the defense holding Seattle to just 1-of-11 third down conversions and sacking Russell Wilson five times.
“When you’re at home everybody is behind you,” said Bucs defensive end Noah Spence, who had two sacks and a forced fumble in that game. “You definitely feel the difference. Home-field advantage is a real thing.”
It was so loud that the Bucs offense inexplicably had to go a silent count – at home – when the team went up 14-0 in the first quarter against the Seahawks.
“A team like Seattle, that won a Super Bowl, is one of the best teams in the NFL,” Dotson said. “When a team like that comes, even the home fans are excited. We’re on offense and they were so caught up in the game that they didn’t realize it. We’re like ‘Hey, we need ya’ll to be quiet when we have the ball!’ They were caught up in the moment and having fun.”
Smith shook his head recalling the frenzied atmosphere at Ray-Jay during the Bucs’ win over the Seahawks.
“You’d hope that’s not the case where you have to use a silent count at home and that the fans would know when to cheer and when to not,” Smith said. “But when we are at home we want it to be as loud as possible as it can be – on defense – so the offense can’t communicate.”
The Bucs fans calmed down a bit for the next home game, a win against the Saints, only cheering at fever pitch when Smith’s defense was on the field.
“You could feel the energy in the stadium and it matters,” Barber said, recalling his days as a Buccaneer from 1997-2012. “Early in the year we always tried to use the heat to our advantage and our conditioning in the heat, but I’ve been to stadiums like Lambeau Field, up in New England and in Philly and you are always 30 percent behind the eight ball when those teams are good. You knew it was going to take an extra effort, an extra something, to push you over the top and get a win in those places. The more they can create that here, the better. A lot of people might think the talk about home-field advantage is just fodder – just talk – but it’s real.”
Interestingly enough, the Bucs actually had a winning record on the road last year, going 5-3 away from Tampa Bay, while posting a 4-4 record at Ray-Jay.
“That’s crazy,” Bucs fullback Alan Cross said. “We’ve got to change the home side of that record this year. It’s a big thing to win on the road, but you’ve got to protect the castle at home. You’ve got to let them in, lock the doors and the only way out is through the back door. You’ve got to have a good record at home and your fans have to get into it. You have to want teams when they come here to be nervous playing in your house.”
Barber was befuddled over Tampa Bay winning more road games than home games last year, which is something he only experienced three times (2009, 2010 and 2012) in his 16-year NFL career.
“I wish there was a reason to explain that,” Barber said. “I don’t have enough metrics to tell you why that was, but it’s going to help them. I was calling games for Fox when the Saints were undefeated at home over I don’t remember how many games. And then they lost one – the game I did there. And then they lost another home game.
“It’s so quick how that advantage can wane, too. All of a sudden that confidence you had can become a hindrance to get over it. But at the end of the day, good teams win anywhere.”
Tampa Bay’s defense rose to greatness over the last eight weeks of the season, prompting the question of what happened first – did the crowd noise come from the big plays on defense, or did the defense feed off the crowd noise to help produce those plays?
“We started to play a lot better football in the second half defensively, and the crowd helped,” Smith said. “We were able to take the ball away. When you have a positive turnover ratio you’re going to win games. The offense did a good job of not turning it over and we were able to get some turnovers.
“When you start winning you get the fans behind you. We need a home-field advantage here. We need to make it hard for the offense to operate. It’s a big advantage to have the offense to not be able to communicate. If they have to start using hand signals we think it’s a huge advantage for us.”
Bucs safety Chris Conte got the crowd fired up early in the win over the Bears by recording a pick-six off quarterback Jay Cutler en route to a 36-10 blowout.
“Gaining home-field advantage is huge,” Conte said. “When people come to Tampa let’s not make it a destination city for other fans. Let’s make it a place where people come in and lose football games.”
Will the Bucs’ home winning streak continue? That will be determined in Week 2.