With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: The Youngry Bucs went hungry ... for wins. Talk about a season that went down the tubes fast. Many will point to a 4-2 start gone sour, but the writing was on the wall in the preseason if you saw the signs. One of my colleagues did.Raheem Morris got fired after the season ended with 10-straight losses, and the Bucs are right back where they started in early 2009 after Jon Gruden's firing. Or are they?
What Went Right: Not much. Regardless of what happened in 2011, let's put this out there: Josh Freeman still can play. He showed it plenty of times this past season, despite the apparent regression.
Considering how little help he had, it's amazing he even was able to stay healthy or productive. The 22 interceptions were bad, and they contributed to his poor 74.6 passer rating. Freeman often was asked to carry an offense that had receivers who got little separation, an unexplosive tight end whose better days might be behind him, and an inconsistent lead back. Despite those factors, Freeman still threw for 3,592 yards and 16 touchdowns, while completing 62.8 percent of his passes. Those aren't awful numbers.
The offensive line was probably the next-best thing on the offense, as Tampa Bay only allowed 32 sacks and paved the way for a running game that averaged 4.2 yards per carry. This team ran for four yards or more 46 percent of the time, good for eighth in the league. This isn't to say the front five was great, either. But if you're writing a prescription for Tampa Bay in 2012, the O-line is not your first, second or third stop.
Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount showed flashes, but he clearly wasn't the same player he was down the stretch in 2010, nor was he able to stay fully healthy. That said, the book on him has yet to be finished.
What Went Not So Right: The same cannot be said for the defense, which looked plain awful. In homage to the great John McKay, the Bucs couldn't cover anybody, but "made up for it by not tackling."
The secondary did not play well and was hurt by a pass rush that rarely pressured the quarterback. No doubt, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy's absence in the middle greatly hurt this team. Linebackers Quincy Black, Geno Hayes and Mason Foster might be young, but they stunk in 2011. Overall, the defense finished last in both stopping the run and points allowed. That qualifies as not working.
Over the summer, I feared the Bucs were one of the teams that would be hurt by the lockout. They had youngest roster in the league in 2010, and a young team would have benefited from the OTAs and minicamps in the offseason. Then they were hammered by the Patriots in the preseason, falling behind 28-0 while the starters were playing. Morris seemingly accepted his team's performance as if it were no big deal, saying "We just wanted to ... follow our rules, see who could pick up the rules, see who could do it, see who could communicate and see who could play on their feet. And that's kind of how we want to judge those guys. Usually, that's how you get the better players on your football team."
Sometimes preseason losses mean nothing. Sometimes they mean a team got exposed.
Offseason Crystal Ball: New head coach Greg Schiano has a tough job in front of him, and this offseason already has presented some challenges. Because it took the Bucs so long to hire a new head coach, Schiano was immediately thrust behind the eight ball when it came to trying to find assistants.
2012's notable free agents
Forget holes in the staff. This roster has more holes than the plot to *Star Trek III: The Search for Spock*. Plugging the leaks prior to the draft starts with re-tooling the cornerback position, perhaps first by getting Ronde Barber to come back. Acquiring a player like Vincent Jackson in free agency would give Freeman an established weapon, as opposed to another young unreliable receiver full of "potential." The Bucs have stockpiled enough of those. Finding an affordable back to compliment Blount might be another free agency option (Kevin Smith, anyone?).
General manager Mark Dominik has said the team will be active in free agency, and there's power behind those words ... namely, a ton of cap money. The Bucs were $23 million under the cap in 2011, and they can roll it over this year. After cutting Albert Haynesworth (what a shocker!), the club acquired $7.2 million of cap space. Reports are that the Bucs might have as much as $60 million to use. That's power, and enough of it to re-sign their own guys (Connor Barth, Jeremy Zuttah, Barber, Sean Jones and Corey Lynch among others.)
Team Needs and Draft: Secondary for sure. I had the Bucs taking Morris Claiborne from LSU fifth overall in my first mock. With Barber possibly gone and Aqib Talib mired in legal troubles, the need for corner is great. Linebacker remains a serious hole, and getting defensive line help either provides insurance for the injury woes up front or adds a fresh pair of legs in the rotation.
Let's be honest: Any time a team has an active 10-game losing streak, there are needs. Wide receiver is one of the biggest cracks in the dam. There's a difference between the young wideouts the Bucs have and Justin Blackmon. The OSU star probably won't fall to fifth, but if somehow, some way, he does ...