And the Bucs Shall Rise Again

Chris O'Meara/AP

It’s been a long time since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were worth your attention. They’ve gone 30-66 since firing Jon Gruden after the 2008 season, a win total that only their in-state brethren in Jacksonville (29-67) have failed to match over the same time frame. That span’s one winning season, a 10-6 mark in 2010, included exactly one victory over a team with a winning record. An organization that rode over 13 years with two coaches — Gruden and Tony Dungy — hired Lovie Smith to be its third coach in six seasons last year. And after a mortifying 56-14 loss to the Falcons in Week 3, the Buccaneers meekly resided in the NFL’s basement for most of the season, finishing 2-14.

Look a little deeper and there are signs of hope in Tampa. Play- and point-based metrics suggest the Bucs played better in 2014 than their record indicated. This season, their schedule is projected to be among the league’s easiest. Their coaching staff should be much improved, and there’s prior reason to believe that the players will improve in a second season under Smith. Perhaps most crucially, they’ve made a massive upgrade from replacement-level play to likely competence at the game’s most important position. After years of teasing fans and Grantland writers alike, this should be the year the Bucs return to competency — if not more — in the NFC South.

The Numerical Case

No matter how you cut it, 2-14 is the indelible mark of a bad football team. There are no secretly great 2-14 teams. As far as 2-14 teams go, though? The Bucs were among the better two-win teams in league history. They posted a point differential of minus-133, which is still bad, but it’s much better than the average 2-14 team. The 2014 Titans, for example, were 2-14 with a point differential of minus-184. And since the league went to the 16-game schedule, the typical 2-14 team has posted a point differential of minus-175, more than 40 points worse than last year’s Buccaneers.

That’s more than meaningless trivia, because we know that point differential is a better predictor of win-loss record than prior win-loss record is. It’s hard to get much out of 16 observations, especially when they’re not all created equal. Nobody thinks Kansas City’s 17-13 win against the Bills in Week 10 meant as much as its 41-14 blowout win over the eventual Super Bowl–winning Patriots, but using win-loss record as a sole metric of value implies they’re identical. The Chiefs lined up for nearly 2,000 plays on which they could have scored or allowed points in 2014; that much larger sample offers far more value in examining how they performed and how they’ll do this year.

Using the Pythagorean expectation football formula developed by Daryl Morey, then of Stats LLC and now of the Houston Rockets, the Bucs’ points scored and allowed figures suggest they were playing at the level of a 4.5-win team last year. Not great, no, but a damn sight better than 2-14. In the past, that 2.5-win gap has been a reliable, meaningful indicator of improvement to come. In fact, over the past 10 seasons, 18 teams have had a Pythagorean expected win total that was two to three wins greater than their actual win total, and all 18 have improved the following year:

Take the team that had the first overall pick in last year’s draft, the Houston Texans, who were highlighted as a team likely to improve for many of the same reasons in this very space last July. Like the Buccaneers, the Texans were 2-14 during their down year, but they had posted the point differential of a 4.2-win team. That 2.2-win gap suggested they were likely to improve the following season, and despite getting just 143 defensive snaps from top pick Jadeveon Clowney and going through three starting quarterbacks, the 9-7 Texans improved by seven wins, three more than any other team.

You have to go back to 2003 to find teams with this large of a Pythagorean win gap whose win-loss record declined the following season, and they were the aberration. Since the league went to a 16-game schedule, teams that underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by two to three wins have jumped an average of 2.4 wins1 the following year, with 50 of the 62 teams in that group (80.6 percent) improving on their previous record. Nothing in the NFL is foolproof, but this is about as close as it gets.

The most likely cause of a gap between a team’s win-loss record and its expected win-loss record is bad luck in close games, and the Buccaneers fit the bill there, as well. It’s another way in which they’re similar to those 2013-14 Texans, as J.J. Watt & Co. went a grotesque 2-9 in one-touchdown games in 2013 before improving to a still-middling 2-4 in 2014. With a little more luck in narrow losses to Dallas and Indianapolis, Houston might have made the playoffs.

I’ve previously mentioned Tampa Bay’s woes in one-touchdown games. The Buccaneers were a brutal 1-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer, becoming the 19th team since 1990 to lose eight or more one-score games in a season. And while it can sometimes be the case that a team trails for most of a contest before getting a meaningless late score to make the game seem close, that really wasn’t the case with Tampa Bay last season. Let me include the table from that May article again, since it points out how the Bucs realistically had a shot at winning eight of those nine games:

Teams that miserable in one-score games almost always improve. The 19 previous teams to lose eight or more went 39-155 (.201) in games decided by seven points or fewer during their grotesque seasons. The following year, they were essentially league-average at 70-72 (.493). Overall, they improved by an average of 3.5 wins. You can slice up the league’s history into all kinds of groups, and you can occasionally find exceptions on teams with truly transcendent quarterbacks, but for the vast, vast majority of the league, there’s just no consistency to winning (or losing) close football games.

It’s also a good sign that the Bucs were able to take leads for meaningful chunks of game time, even if they didn’t necessarily hold on to them. That’s something else they had in common with the 2013 Texans, who blew a league-high six halftime leads. The 2014 Texans didn’t blow a single game they led at halftime.

The Bucs lost five games they led at halftime2 last season. That tied them for the league lead with the Rams and Titans. Twenty-two other teams since 1990 have blown five or more halftime leads in a season; the following year, they blew an average of two such leads and improved their overall win-loss record by an average of 3.4 games. The year-to-year correlation of a team’s blown halftime leads over that time frame is 0.04, meaning that what happened the first year has absolutely no predictive value; it’s better to just use the league average, which is 1.6 blown halftime leads.

The one other semiquantitative factor buoying the Bucs’ chances is strength of schedule. Schedule analysis based on the previous year’s win-loss record is often pretty useless, but as I wrote about this spring, even more advanced measures of schedule projections suggest the Buccaneers should face an easy slate in 2015.

In terms of both 2014 point differential (29th) and 2015 Vegas win total projections (27th), the Buccaneers are due to face one of the league’s easiest schedules. Look at their slate and you can see a friendly run. In addition to the wildly flawed NFC South, the Bucs get four games against the AFC South and four more against the NFC East, finishing up with their last-placed NFC brethren in Chicago and St. Louis. Tampa Bay has just four games against 2014 playoff teams, the lowest possible figure, and plays seven games against teams that picked in the top 10 of this year’s NFL draft.

The only reason to be sour about this improving Tampa Bay’s chances? Its schedule was pretty easy last year, too. My favorite method of calculating schedule strength is to use the — get ready, this is a mouthful — Pythagorean expectation of the point differential for a team’s opponents in games not involving the team in question. In other words, we want to calculate how Tampa Bay’s opponents performed in games when they weren’t playing the Bucs. Last season, Tampa Bay’s opponents played at a .460 mark, which was the second-worst rate in the league. The only team with an easier schedule in 2014? The Houston Texans.

The Qualitative Case

The obvious massive upgrade the Bucs have made comes at quarterback, where they’ll be replacing the departed Josh McCown with first-overall pick Jameis Winston. It’s always difficult to project top quarterback prospects — remember that we’re barely a year removed from a process that led the Browns to take Johnny Manziel over Teddy Bridgewater — but Winston’s on-field performance at Florida State, especially in terms of his accuracy and the style of offense he ran, suggests he should be an above-average NFL starter.

Even if he struggles as a rookie, Winston should still be a step above the combination of McCown and Mike Glennon. The Bucs posted the league’s fifth-worst QBR last year at 39.7, only topping the Titans (37.2), Raiders (37.1), Browns (34.8), and Jaguars (25.6). It won’t surprise you to find out that most dramatic increases in wins are associated with a change at quarterback, but you don’t necessarily need to find a superstar to dramatically improve overnight, as shown by this list of teams with six-plus-win increases during the QBR era:

Sure, it would be great if Winston turned out to be Andrew Luck or Matt Ryan, and given pre-draft projections, approaching their rookie performances wouldn’t be out of the question. But he doesn’t need to be a superstar to help the Buccaneers improve. Even guys who didn’t ultimately pan out, like Derek Anderson, Christian Ponder, and former Bucs starter Josh Freeman were able to serve at the helm of significantly improved teams.

Winston will get help that the combination of McCown and Glennon didn’t have last year. While Vincent Jackson may decline some with age, Winston’s second and third receivers, wideout Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, should each improve in their second seasons. Logan Mankins should be more comfortable with the scheme after arriving last year at the end of training camp, and while the Bucs are likely to start a pair of rookie second-rounders on the offensive line in left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet, they’re replacing two of the worst starters in the league last year, still-unsigned tackle Anthony Collins and deposed guard Patrick Omameh.

More notably, the Bucs will have a far steadier situation at offensive coordinator. Things never got on track last year after Jeff Tedford, in his first season with the team, had to undergo August heart surgery that prevented him from serving in the role for the remainder of the season; he was replaced in the interim by then-34-year-old quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, who had never previously been an NFL coach. Tedford left the Buccaneers in December and is now coaching in Canada, while Arroyo was let go after the season ended.

Tampa Bay scored a coup by replacing Arroyo with former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who was regarded as a possible head-coaching candidate as recently as two seasons ago. In each of his first two NFL stops as a coordinator, Koetter has driven drastic improvement in his offenses immediately upon arrival. When he took over as Jaguars offensive coordinator before the 2007 season, Koetter was able to coax a David Garrard–led offense that was 10th in DVOA in 2006 all the way up to third.

His offenses slowly declined in Jacksonville before crashing in 2011, when the Jaguars replaced Garrard with rookie first-rounder Blaine Gabbert. Unable to draw blood from a particularly athletic stone, Koetter moved on to Atlanta, replacing Mike Mularkey, who himself took over as Jaguars head coach for one ill-fated season. With Atlanta’s overall offensive performance relatively stagnant, Koetter moved away from Atlanta’s moribund running game and focused more on Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ passing attack. Ryan’s numbers in the three seasons before Koetter and his three seasons with the former Arizona State coach around are notably different:

History also suggests the Buccaneers should improve in their second season under head coach Lovie Smith. Tampa Bay’s defense was more impressive in 2014 than the raw numbers suggest; it finished 25th in points allowed, but that was in part thanks to a miserable offense that left it facing the league’s third-worst average starting field position. Tampa Bay finished the season 18th in DVOA, a drop from its eighth-place finish in 2013.

Smith was able to turn the Bears defense around when he took over as head coach in 2004, but it took a couple of years. The Bears were 16th in defensive DVOA the year before Smith arrived, and he improved them to ninth in 2004 before taking a much bigger leap forward the following year. In his second season at the helm, Smith turned the Bears into the league’s best defense.

It would be unfair to expect him to do quite that much with these Bucs, but there’s plenty of talent along the defense. Smith had a wrecking ball on the interior in 2005 in defensive tackle Tommie Harris; now, he has Gerald McCoy, who’s an even better pass-rusher than the oft-injured Harris was in his prime. In lieu of fleet-footed weakside linebacker Lance Briggs, Smith has the rangy Lavonte David, one of the NFL’s most underrated players. Granted, middle linebacker Danny Lansanah isn’t exactly Brian Urlacher, but you get the idea: There’s top-level talent here.

Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier simply have to get more out of their pass rush and secondary in 2015. That’s the obvious weakness on this team, and it’s hard to see where it gets much better. Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn were both disappointments during their various stints in Tampa, but they had far more of a pedigree than the relatively anonymous contributors expected to start at defensive end. Tampa Bay is going into the season with Jacquies Smith and former Lions backup George Johnson as its starters, a worrisome combination at best. As distasteful as it would have been for the Buccaneers to sign released Saints edge rusher Junior Galette last week, it’s also true that it would have been a massive, much-needed upgrade at defensive end.

The secondary also remains a massive question mark. While the Buccaneers are hoping Alterraun Verner and 2013 second-rounder Johnthan Banks improve in their second year under Smith, safety continues to be a mess. The high-priced Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson have both been traded in the past 12 months, and there’s little waiting to take their place. Tampa Bay signed former Bears starter Chris Conte to a one-year deal, and although Conte had his best season during Smith’s final year with the Bears in 2012, it’s fair to say he’s been one of the worst safeties in football over the past two seasons. Major Wright and Texans castoff D.J. Swearinger figure to compete for the other safety spot, but these aren’t promising names.

In fact, this seems like a good time to launch into a bit of naysaying …

The Case Against the Bucs

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. There’s a perception, right or wrong, that Grantland is always suggesting the Buccaneers are going to take a massive step forward. That is … OK, it’s mostly true, but this is a different situation, and I’ll explain why. Let’s run year-by-year and compare the differences between those Bucs and the 2015 team.

2012: I was high on Tampa Bay’s chances. I wrote about the Bucs’ shot at improving dramatically, built around the idea that they were a young team that had invested in the right places and had a promising young quarterback in Josh Freeman. They did improve, but it was only from 4-12 to 7-9. They collapsed during the second half of the season, falling out of the playoff race with five straight losses after starting 6-4, but a three-win bump isn’t anything to be disappointed by.

This situation was different because the quantitative case wasn’t anywhere near as strong; the 4-12 Bucs actually outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a half-win and were 4-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer. This was an argument built on more qualitative factors, like the idea of building a dominant running game around a pair of star guards in Davin Joseph (who missed the entire season with an injury) and Carl Nicks (who missed nine games) and the premise that the Bucs had quit on prior head coach Raheem Morris during a brutal season-ending 10-game losing streak.

2013: Not only was I still high on the Buccaneers, but I found a bandwagon buddy in my podcast partner, Robert Mays. We were both enthused about what Tampa Bay had done in the offseason by signing Goldson and trading for Darrelle Revis, giving the Bucs two Pro Bowlers in what had been a decaying secondary. There was reason to think that Freeman’s mysterious decline at the end of 2012 was injury-related, and that he would be back to the guy who threw 21 touchdowns against seven picks during the first 10 games of the previous campaign.

None of that happened. Freeman was at odds with coach Greg Schiano and played abysmally through three starts before being benched and released; other than one disastrous start with the Vikings on Monday Night Football later that year, he hasn’t played a professional down since. The team was afflicted by a staph infestation in its locker room that ended the career of kicker Lawrence Tynes and all but ended the career of Nicks, who played just two more games before leaving football. Shockingly, in a medically compromised practice facility, Revis struggled to recover from his torn ACL and wasn’t used to his strengths, eventually leaving after a lone season with the team. And Goldson was a disaster. Nothing went right, and the team eventually quit on Schiano after an 0-8 start, finishing 4-12.

Again, though, there wasn’t anywhere near the numbers case for the Bucs that there is this year.

2014: I was off the bandwagon by now. This was Mays’s alone. He saw a team that had massively upgraded at coach, and as a Bears fan, he had experienced the McCown revival firsthand. Despite the easy schedule last season, the Bucs still managed to underplay their Pythagorean expectation by 1.3 wins and finish 2-14.

This season is, by far, the strongest recent numerical case for the Buccaneers to improve. (It’s also worth noting that they actually made a notable improvement in one of those years!) Previously, it’s been soft, human-evaluated factors (notably personnel/coaching changes) with a much smaller quantitative bent lying underneath. This time, it’s the opposite; the numbers project a notable improvement, and there are some other personnel and coaching switches suggesting they’ll get better. To be honest, I trust the numbers’ ability to project future success more than my eyes or ability to read the millions of factors that go into offseason improvements or declines.

It’s also not out of the question for a team that hasn’t snapped in line with the numbers to finally take the leap forward we have expected. Take the 2014 Lions. During 2012 and 2013, Detroit was a combined 6-14 in one-touchdown games, often snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Matthew Stafford had developed a reputation as a quarterback who couldn’t come through when his team really needed a victory, who couldn’t manage the game late in the fourth quarter in close contests. Even I gave up on them.

And you know what? In 2014, the Lions didn’t just regress to the mean; they went well past it. The Lions went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, including a miraculous comeback win over the Saints and a brain-numbing comeback in London against the Falcons. The numbers suggested they would improve, and they promptly went 11-5 and made the playoffs.3

The other asset in play here that hasn’t really been the case in Tampa Bay’s recent years is at quarterback. Freeman, for all the promise he held in 2010 and halfway through the 2012 season, appears to have been toast from that point forward. The Buccaneers have gotten sub-replacement-level play from their quarterback trio of Freeman, McCown, and Glennon over the past two and a half seasons. Their combined numbers — 56.2 percent completion percentage, 6.6 yards per attempt, 51 touchdowns against 44 picks — is roughly similar to what Matt Cassel and Zach Mettenberger did last season.

It’s hard to imagine Winston being that bad, even as a rookie. It’s easier to figure that he could get injured, given that he isn’t a particularly mobile quarterback and will be learning behind what could be a very bad offensive line. And if Winston gets hurt and the team has to go to Glennon, the Bucs could very well play like a 4-12 team, as they did a year ago.

If Winston does stay healthy and lives up to expectations, the Bucs will almost definitely be better. And if he’s an above-average quarterback, their ceiling could be very high. It took only seven wins to win the NFC South last year, and while you could make a case that the Falcons, Panthers, and Saints could each be better than they were a year ago, they also each have major flaws. It would be difficult to project the Buccaneers to win the division, but when teams take these sort of enormous leaps forward, it’s almost always a combination of expected regression toward the mean with an upgrade at quarterback. Tampa Bay should be in line for both in 2015.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Preview, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jameis Winston, Lovie Smith, NFL

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell