A lot of people thought Tampa Bay was a team on the rise under Greg Schiano last year. The Buccaneers had improved from four wins in Schiano's first season to seven in 2012. The Bucs also had what they thought was a potential franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman.
Now neither Freeman nor Schiano is with the franchise. Schiano's hard-line, collegiate approach didn't sit well with many Buccaneers so he may always have been doomed. Freeman was nothing short of a disaster in 2013, but at least the team didn't give him a long-term extension before the season. The No. 17 overall pick in 2009, Freeman didn't complete better than 48.4 percent of his passes in his first three starts last year, and the Bucs lost them all on the way to an 0-8 start. He was benched and never played another snap with the team, as he was eventually released.
On the bright side, rookie third-round QB Mike Glennon was pretty solid in taking over for Freeman. In fact, he had the best numbers overall of any rookie signal-caller, throwing for 2,608 yards, 19 TDs and nine interceptions. Vincent Jackson had a huge year, catching 78 balls for 1,224 yards and seven scores, but that was about it for the offense. Running back Doug Martin, brilliant as a rookie in 2012, was limited to only six games and saw his yards per carry drop to 3.6 per game. The defense was middle-of-the-pack. Linebacker Lavonte David looks like a future star. He led the team in tackles (105) and interceptions (five) and was second in sacks (seven). The Bucs are also very high on young safety Mark Barron and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, so there are some pieces in place.
Key Offseason Moves
Schiano was expectedly fired, and the Bucs hired former Bears coach Lovie Smith, who once was an assistant under Tony Dungy in Tampa. Smith was 81-63 in Chicago and reached one Super Bowl before sitting out last season. Few teams were as active as the Bucs overall this offseason. They cut Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis rather than pay $16 million a season, and traded No. 2 receiver Mike Williams, who underperformed in 2013, and had some off-field problems.
The additions were many, led by Bears quarterback Josh McCown, who was one of the NFL's highest-rated passers in his eight games of relief of starter Jay Cutler last season. Smith says McCown goes to camp as his starter. The Bucs also added one of the top free-agent defensive ends in Cincinnati's Michael Johnson (56 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and top cornerbacks in Tennessee's Alterraun Verner (57 tackles, five interceptions). New center Evan Dietrich-Smith (Packers) is expected to start from Day 1. Expect the Bucs to go heavy after a receiver with their first-round pick in the draft as they are thin there after Jackson.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, St. Louis, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 18, at Atlanta, 8:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Washington, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Tampa Bay has a schedule that ranks as the 19th-toughest in the NFL with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .484. It has six games against playoff teams.
The Bucs are 2.5-point home underdogs on NFL odds for Week 1 against defending division champion Carolina. The Panthers dominated Tampa Bay last year, sweeping by a combined score of 58-19. Yet if you go by the offseason report cards, the Bucs are one of the most improved teams and the Panthers perhaps got significantly worse from a talent standpoint. It's the first time since 1992 that the Bucs open with two straight at home. They were 3-5 at Raymond James Stadium last season.
Tampa should know where it stands against the NFC South quickly as it finishes half its division schedule by Week 5. The Bucs and Falcons split two high-scoring games a season ago, each winning at home. Tampa was 0-2 against New Orleans, losing the home game 16-14 on a 27-yard kick at the gun. Perhaps Tampa Bay will get its first-ever win in Pittsburgh in Week 4. It hasn't played there since 2006.
If the Bucs can be .500 into the bye, they could be set up for a possible playoff run with then five straight games against non-playoff teams. The Bucs have won six straight matchups against Minnesota, tied for the team's current longest against any team (Cincinnati the other). Of course the Week 12 game is Smith's and McCown's return to the Windy City. It also might be the only outdoor cold-weather game Tampa Bay has to play all year.
The closing four-game stretch will be tough, although the Bucs won in Detroit last year, 24-21, thanks to four interceptions of Matthew Stafford. It was Tampa's only 2013 road victory.
Free NFL Picks: 'Over' 6.5 wins. It's crucial for Tampa to start 2-0 with three straight road games to follow. McCown might have been simply a product of the system in Chicago as he had never shown that kind of talent previously, but Glennon is a solid backup. There is a lot of talent on this team, especially on defense. The playoffs might be too much to ask, but seven wins (leading to a winning NFL pick) is not.