Tampa Bay had a pattern in 2010 of beating non-playoff teams, but losing to teams of substance. Which is why in hindsight, its Week 15 loss to Detroit looks -- and to Bucs fans feels -- so painful. A win might have launched the upstart Bucs into the playoffs and possibly kept the Super Bowl champion Packers out. If. If. If.
The Buccaneers' consolation was a 10-win season, which came out of nowhere and put them on the radar as a legitimate team to watch in 2011.
Coach Raheem Morris proved that he was every bit up to the task in his second season and general manager Mark Dominik showed great savvy in acquiring players others didn't want (running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Mike Williams) and standing firm with his policy to build through the draft, even though they were perceived as being cheap by not being aggressive in free agency.
Then there's quarterback Josh Freeman. The second-year signal-caller matured and developed faster than anyone expected. He rarely made mistakes, and upon further reflection, had a much better season than most of us realize.
If not for a slew of injuries, the Bucs' dream season could have happened in 2010. Now, there are expectations for them to make the move in 2011.
Let's take a look at six questions that will determine if they can live up to the hype that's in store:
1. What does Tampa Bay need to do to turn the corner?
The answer is not as simple as it appears. Obviously, the Buccaneers need to beat quality teams. They built their record in 2010 off a weak schedule and have confidence against teams with losing records. They won't be able to do that again next year. Lesser teams are going to try and make their mark against the Bucs and the tougher teams aren't going to get caught off guard. Morris is going to have to do his best job yet and he seems like he's on course to do so.
Morris knows the personality of this team and knows that it's young and easily distracted. If there is an offseason, he will push them hard like he did last spring and summer. But Morris also can't let the tough stuff seem unauthentic. Last offseason he worked his guys hard so he could get Freeman up to speed. Everything was built around Freeman. Now, he's got to dedicate things around other players -- like defenders who have to be tougher and more reliable.
2. How much better can Freeman be in year three?
This is going to be interesting because Freeman made such significant gains during his second year, which is typically the toughest season for quarterbacks. He threw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. That touchdown-to-interception ratio is so impressive that Freeman had to be one of the most overlooked players in the NFL, especially since he threw 10 touchdowns and 18 picks as a rookie.
Freeman won't make such radical statistical gains in 2011, but his feel for the game should be much better. His decision-making and work ethic already are his most impressive traits. What could get him into the next level of quarterback play is winning the big games against the tough teams. He made a ton of clutch plays last season. Now he has to make them against the teams the Bucs will be battling for playoff spots.
3. What are the biggest areas of concern?
The character of nucleus players Blount, Aqib Talib, Williams and maybe Tanard Jackson is more of a concern than their talent.
Let's start with Blount and Williams, who had great rookie seasons. They were top-tier talent coming out of college who fell in the draft -- in Blount's case, fell out of the draft -- because of character concerns. Both players stayed the course in 2010 and had great seasons, in large part because they were hungry and eager to prove themselves to teams that passed on them. Williams, especially, has Pro Bowl potential. Blount only signed a one-year deal but Tampa Bay retains his rights. They'll probably keep him on a short leash in the hope that he continues to develop.
If their success takes away their edge, then their production could decline. Morris has to monitor this.
Talib can be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he has to keep his focus in the right place. He was having a standout season before sustaining a season-ending hip injury. Morris is going to look to Talib as a leader to keep him in line. If Talib responds, we could be looking at the next superstar corner in the NFL.
Jackson was suspended indefinitely for violating the league's substance abuse policy for a third time. He had previously been suspended for the first four games in 2009. Jackson is an exceptional player, but Tampa Bay might not be interested in weighing the risk vs. reward for his services. He has to apply for re-instatement and won't be eligible until late-September. Missing training camp and the preseason after missing so much time last season could complicate his return.
4. Will we see defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price dominate after having their seasons cut short by injuries?
Dominate might be a strong word, although the potential is there. Though McCoy didn't make the monster impact that Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh made, the defense didn't play as well when he was lost for the final few weeks of the season with a torn biceps. Price never got on track, having been slowed first by a hamstring injury and later a season-ending pelvis injury near his hip. He needs to show some durability, but if he stays healthy, this duo could make life a lot easier for those on the next two levels of the defense.
5. Will Davin Joseph, Cadillac Williams, Ronde Barber and Barrett Ruud be back?
Joseph and Barber seem like priorities, with Ruud not far behind. Joseph is a good player on a nice, young line and is a key asset in Freeman's development. A long-term deal could be coming, but the franchise tag could be used just to make sure the team retains his rights while negotiating. Barber showed he still has some game and a short-term deal with modest money doesn't seem like it will be hard to broker.
Ruud might be a different story. He is a highly productive player that Tampa Bay hasn't rewarded with a desired contract extension for the past two seasons. His price tag is the issue. Tampa Bay clearly has a ceiling on what it is willing to pay and if Ruud thinks he can get more elsewhere -- in a market where there could be more than 450 free agents -- the Bucs might let him test the waters.
As for Williams, he's an inspirational player and his toughness and experience are treasured. Injuries have sapped him, though. With Blount surpassing him on the depth chart, the Bucs could move on to a more explosive player.
6. What might they do in the draft and free agency?
The Bucs have to find players who can rush the passer from the edge, and it's possible they'll acquire defensive ends and outside linebackers. There's a nice stable of both in the upcoming draft. There also could be some solid players available in free agency, such as Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards, at an affordable price.
With offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood a free agent and center Jeff Faine coming off a season-ending triceps injury, Tampa Bay also has to add depth along the offensive line. Depending on what happens with Ruud, middle linebacker could also be a priority.