They say men get better looking with age. Maybe not Nick Nolte, but for the guys in the pewter and red, it holds true. The NFL's youngest team last season, and youngest roster in the preseason, is now only older than the Panthers.
While Carolina continues to stink, Tampa Bay is 9-6 and has a slim chance at the playoffs, despite having eight of its starters on injured reserve. With a little help -- okay, a lot of help -- this team will get a chance to surprise folks around the league even more come wild-card weekend. Tampa Bay needs Rex Grossman to channel his inner Mark Rypien (circa 1991) and deep-six the Giants and hope Aaron Rodgers channels his inner Brian Brohm and blows it vs. the Bears. If the G-men and Pack lose, all the Bucs need to do is win at New Orleans.
Alright, maybe it's not likely, but these kids beat the champs last year when no one expected it, winning at the Superdome in Week 16. Can you really say you'd be that surprised if they did it again? This group has definitely impressed, particularly its young, talented core. That's where the Bucs really sneak up on the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints of the world. Maybe those clubs are better now, but there are few organizations in the league that can boast Tampa Bay's youth at the major skill positions.
Quarterback Josh Freeman is all of 22. Ditto rookie wideout Arrellius Benn (who was recently placed on injured reserve). Rookie of the Year candidate WR Mike Williams is 23. RB LeGarrette Blount, who has been punching out the rest of the league down the stretch this season, is still a year away from getting a price break on his car insurance (he's 24). He'll probably eclipse 1,000 yards (he needs 59 this Sunday), despite not starting until midseason.
With 924 receiving yards this season, Williams also has a shot at passing 1,000. No rookies have done that since Marques Colston in 2006. Williams has also scored nine touchdowns. Since the 1970 merger, only two wide receivers in NFL history have had 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in their rookie year (John Jefferson and Randy Moss).
Young wideouts often have problems picking up the nuances of the pro passing game, like breaking off routes based on blitz recognition. Williams, however, developed a rapport with Freeman early, and it has translated into one of the best rookie seasons by a wide receiver in years.
Freeman, meanwhile, continues to develop under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. Yes, that Alex Van Pelt, the guy who played in Buffalo for seemingly 78 years as mostly a backup. He's turned into a pretty nice position coach. His teaching has translated into a 22-year old quarterback who has a 90-plus passer rating this year. In an NFL season that's seen 60 different quarterbacks start around the league, Freeman hasn't missed a game since being named the starter in Week 9 of last year. Not bad for a player and team that was supposed to be awful the day Jon Gruden walked out the door.
"I don't think people in the league respect us," tackle Donald Penn told reporters this week. "I think that's one of the big things and it shows with the Pro Bowl ballots. People around the league don't respect us. Analysts and commentators don't respect us. It shows. You take it for what it's worth."
Much of that may have to do with the fact that Penn plays with a bunch of guys on offense that were riding their bikes up to 7-Eleven and playing with Transformers just a few years ago. It's not much different on the defensive side of the ball. Of the 11 starters, five are 23 or younger. That's insane. And that's not counting top draft picks Brian Price (21) and Gerald McCoy (23), who are both on injured reserve.
The baby defensive tackles could be the key to this team being an 11-5 club next season, despite playing in such a talented division. Why? Because the team's Achilles' heel has been its lack of a consistent pass rush. In five of the six losses, the defense has generated no sacks. Zero.
That's where Price and McCoy come in. Picked third overall in April, McCoy got three sacks before being put on injured reserve after week 14. Price failed to record a sack in five games. If either can become a John Randle-like presence, it will open up the pass rush for everyone else. It also alleviates the need to blitz, which depletes the numbers in coverage. If both Price and McCoy turn out to be players, look out.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud can play. Corner Aqib Talib (another Buc on injured reserve) is tied for second in the NFL with six picks. If he can keep his butt out of trouble, he could be special. Fellow corner Ronde Barber plans to come back next season. Price and McCoy's injuries have provided valuable playing time for rookie defensive tackle Al Woods and last year's third-round pick, Roy Miller.
The pieces are there on both sides of the ball. Even if Tampa Bay misses the playoffs, it will be merely a bump in a road that should include more 10-6 seasons than 6-10s. Coach Raheem Morris, who some thought could get fired if Tampa Bay faltered out of the gate, should be a candidate for Coach of the Year. More importantly, he's got something going with these guys. The Baby Bucs might be here to stay.
Toxic Differential update
As previously written this space, Toxic Differential -- a team's turnover differential plus its big-play differential -- could be the best playoff predictor in a world of too many stats.
The Steelers and Eagles have been at the top of the list for weeks now, but the gap between them is widening. Because Pittsburgh has been so good at creating turnovers without allowing big plays, while also getting chunk yardage plays on offense, they're far and away the leaders in Toxic Differential. The one team that really handled the Steelers this season, the Patriots, are also high up, and have now gone seven games without giving the ball away.
One last note on the Bucs: they had the rare distinction of blowing out an opponent last weekend without forcing a turnover. Why? Because they had seven more big plays (20 plus yards) than the Seahawks, who couldn't muster much on offense.
Before I forget, Happy New Year everyone. Please don't spend $25 to get in a club.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.