Game 8 Preview: Tampa Bay

Because I’ve followed the NFL closely since 1970– and have read about the years before that time– I am a rarity among fans. I have a tangible opinion– and some degree of rooting interest (for or against)– in all 32 franchises.

In any game, regardless of the teams, I’m rooting for one side or the other. It’s usually based on some event– sometimes recent, other times past– that makes me feel a team “deserves” to win.

Which puts me in strange positions. Most Browns fans are probably apathetic about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Maybe they begrudge the team winning a Super Bowl before the Browns or hate Jon Gruden– and any team he is associated with.

I dislike the Bucs intensely and actively root for them to lose, for three reasons:

1. They forced out Ron Wolf. Wolf, one of the finer GMs in NFL history. ran the personnel department in Oakland from 1963 to 1975. When Tampa got an expansion franchise, they hired him as GM and John McKay (from USC) as coach.

Wolf and McKay didn’t get along– and owner Hugh Culverhouse sided with his coach. Wolf ran the draft in 1976 and 1977, and did all the scouting and set the draft board in 1978 before leaving in February to go back to LA.

Culverhouse put Phil Krueger, one of his flunkies, in charge. The Bucs made the NFC Championship in 1979, had winnign seasons in 1981 and 1982… and then went into the toilet, having losing records every year until Culverhouse died in 1993.

2. They forced out Rich McKay. The Culverhouse estate took a year to sell the team. When Malcolm Glaser took over, he made the somewhat surprising decision to promote his new GM from within.

The guy he chose, Rich McKay, was the youngest son of John McKay. He’d gotten a degree from Princeton, then his law degree and begun working in team operations.

There was some doubt about whether McKay was qualified. He dispelled it quickly. In 1994, Tampa spent their top two draft picks on the players who will be familiar to Browns fans (not in a positive way): QB Trent Dilfer and RB Errict Rhett.

In McKay’s first draft (1995), his top pick was DT Warren Sapp– and his second pick was LB Derrick Brooks. If you drive about an hour south of Cleveland, you will find plaques of both men.

In 1996, McKay replaced Sam Wyche as coach with Tony Dungy… who dusted off one of his old Pittsburgh Steeler playbooks to create the Tampa Two (AKA “Cover Two”), which quickly made the Bucs into contenders.

After six seasons with Dungy– which included an 8-8 year, four winning seasons and four disappointing losses to underdogs in the playoffs– McKay finally decided to fire Dungy. TheGlaser family had been pressuring him to make a move for at least two years, making the same complaints that myriad owners made against Marty Schiottenmheimer and Chuck Knox– conservative defense, dull offense, bad playcalling and poor game decisions.

McKay examined all the available options for coach and chose a man that he felt was highly qualified, and could take the team to the next level.

The ownership– specifically Glaser’s two idiot sons– refused to let him hire the man. They conducted a search that… resembled some of the exhibitions put on by the Browns. They tried to rent Bill Parcells. They offered the job to Florida’s Steve Spurrier. They tried to woo Steve Mariucci from San Francisco.

Eventually they hired Jon Gruden away from Oakland, giving Al Davis the following compensation:

  • Their#1 and #2 picks in 2002,
  • Their #1 in 2003,
  • Their #2 in 2004
  • $8 million in cash

Gruden hot-rodded the offense just enough to get the Bucs to 12-4 and a Super Bowl win in 2002, but (like many men) failed as coach and GM and was fired with a 57-55 record (45-51 after his first year).

When his contract expired at the end of the 2003 season. McKay left to join the Atlanta Falcons… who, unsurprisingly, began to improve soon after.

The coach McKay was trying to hire for the Bucs caught on with another team. The Browns will be facing his team Thursday night (it’s Marvin Lewis).

3. The ownership is arrogant and it does stupid things. The Glazers bought Manchester United in the EPL, and often congratulate themselves on how smart they are. They win there because they can simply outspend competitors.

In the NFL, where they have revenue sharing and a salary cap, Tamps has to be smarter than their competitors. They simply aren’t. ‘Chucky’ has turned out to be the high water mark in coaches. The Glaser Boys decided to replace him with Raheem Morris, who:

  • Was 33
  • Had never advanced further than defensive backfield coach in the NF
  • Had been a coordinator for one year at Kansas State

Morris had a slew of conflicts with players, coaches and media and was fired after going 17-31 from 2009-11.

His successor (who went 11-21 in 2012-13) was Greg Schiano, who made even less sense:

  • Schiano had only three seasons in the NFL,
  • They took place in 1996-98,
  • Two of those seasons were as a defensive assistant; one was defensive backfield coach,
  • He was working for Dave Wannstedt, who went 40-56 in Chicago
  • He’d spent 2 years as a coordinator at the University of Miami
  • He had compiled a career 68-67 record as a head coach in college
  • He did it at Rutgers.

Either coaching at Rutgers or the .500 record would be a reason not to hire Schiano– both made it unfathomable. Also, it wasn’t like Schiano started 4-32 and tended up 31-6. In his last four years, he went 30-21.

All of which explains why Tampa fans are, by and large, thrilled to have Lovie Smith running the team. He isn’t a championship coach by any stretch of the imagination, but his career record in Chicago (81-63 in 9 seasons) works out to exactly 9-7, which is better than Tamps has had in many moons.

Smith is an example of the Peter Principle– a guy who has been promoted past his level of competence.. His defenses in Chicago were #1 in points allowed once, finished #3 twice, #4 once… and were never lower than 21.

His offense, on the other hand, has been higher than 14th only once. In 2006, he team finished #2 in points scored (thanks to 5 TDs on kick returns and 3 on turnover runbacks and 1 after a blocked kick) and went to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at quarterback.

Grossman (71.4 career rating; 56 career TD passes and 60 career interceptions) was a rarity– a quarterback so bad that he simply could not outplay Peyton Manning in a playoff game (this is how Dungy and Manning won their titles). But Grossman lasted six years with Smith. Of Grossman’s 54 career games played and 47 starts, 36 games and 31 starts came with Smith.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that the Bucs (who averaged 18.0 points a game last year) are averaging 19.0 points a game (which will go down as the weather gets colder and field conditions get worse).

What is surprising (shocking, really) is that the defense has fallen from 24.3 points allowed last year (21st in the NFL) to 31.9 points a game. That’s dead last in the NFL.

But that’s misleading because the Bucs have allowed 141 of the 223 points in only three games:

That’s 20.9 scored and 47.0 allowed in those game– two of which were against division opponents (who play Tampa twice a year) and took place in a dome (where the track is faster and the winds don’t blow). In the other four games, they’ve looked extremely competitive:

All four games decided by less than a touchdown; averaging 17.8 points scored and 20.5 allowed.

That’s the kind of split that makes any analyst in his right mind say “Ruh-roh!” There’s a chance that the Browns could blow the Bucs out– they beat New Orleans (who crushed Tampa) and should have beat Baltimore. At this point, the Browns look like reasonable matchup against Atlanta.

But what happens if the other Tampa shows up?Or what if the Browns who have been playing the last three weeks makes an appearance?

The most positive note I can strike is that three of Tampa’s four good defensive performances were against substandard offenses:

  • Carolina’s quarterback was former Brown Derek Anderson
  • The St. Louis quarterback was rookie Auston Davis (whom you’ll remember from exhibition season)
  • Minnesota started rookie Teddy Bridgewater.

Tampa shouldn’t be able to score very many points:

  • Quarterback: The Bucs were one of the few teams on earth to believe that 35-year-old Josh McCown‘s 2013 wasn’t a fluke.

After a career spent posting ratings between 68.3 and 74.9, (37 career TDs and 44 INTs), McCown posted a 109.0 rating, with 13 TDS and 1 INT in relief of Jay Cutler last year. (This isn’t the McCown the Browns drafted; it’s his older brother.)

Having gotten a bit contract, he immediate reverted to form– losing his job after 3 losses, a 65.9 rating and 2 TDs and 4 picks. They’re back to second-year pro Mike Glennon, who is above average (84.3 ratings, 27 TDs, 13 INTs) but probably not world-class.

  • Running Back: After an amazingly good rookie year (1,454 yards; 4.6 per carry) in 2012, Doug Martin hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He missed 10 games last year (when his average dropped to 3.6) has missed 2 this year (it’s down to 2.9) and might or might not play Sunday.

If he doesn’t play– or gets limited time, Bobby Rainey will carry the load. Rainey is the player Rob Chudzynski thought was worse than Willis McGahee last year. He gained 532 yards (3.9 a carry) last year and has bumped his average up to 4.6 this year (he’s on pace for 656 yards).

  • Receiver: After getting 70+ receptions for 1,200+ yards in 2012 and 2013 (over 17 per catch) after coming over from San Diego, Vincent Jackson is on pace for 59 for 800 yards this year.

The catch is that he had 10 catches for 102 yards (which pro-rates to 52 catches for 544 yards) in the three games McCown started and is 16 for 255 (64 catches for 1,020) under Glennon. He looks to be slowing down (hes 31) but you still need to cover him.

The other guy Cleveland needs to worry about is rookie WR Mike Evans, the seventh pick this year. Johnny Football’s top target is on page for 66 catches and 896 yards. Rainey our of the backfield is the third option.

Defensively, Tamps still has Pro Bowl tackle Gerard McCoy. They signed DE Michael Jackson from Cincinnati to pair with him, hoping to shut down the rush and provide some sacks. It’s hard to tell if this is working, because the defense rarely has a lead to protect.

In the secondary, things are likely to be more calm, since Tampa unloaded Derrelle Revis to New England. CB Jonathan Banks looks OK, but the pass rush is so anemic that it’s hard to know if the completions are due to poor coverage or lack of pressure.

OutlooK: The Browns are playing a 1-6 team from Florida at home, in cold weather. That factor ought to decide it. Tamps, believe it or not, hasn’t played in cold weather in nearly three years:

2013: The Bucs’ road schedule in November and December was Detroit (dome), Carolina, St. Louis (dome) and New Orleans (dome).

2012: The only road game in an open-air cold-weather stadium in the last two months, the December 2 game in Denver was 68 degrees at kickoff.

2011: The only cold-weather game was November 20 in Green Bay—  32 degrees, wind chill 25

If these hothouse plants are anywhere close to being as bad as New Orleans (who always has problems when conditions are less-than-perfect), the Browns ought to clobber them.

Tampa isn’t a great run defense team; they’re 16th in average, allowing between 85-169 yards, But they’re truly horrific against the pass: St. Louis’s Davis (235 yards on 32 throws) has had the worst day. Opponents are averaging a 107.0 rating with 16 TDs and only 4 picks.

Even if Tampa stacks the line, the Browns should be able to find people open all day. And they only have 10 turnovers– only 4 of which are interceptions.

The only hitch is that Cleveland has a nasty habit of playing down to its level of competition. I’ll go with Browns 27-17 but there’s a 30-40% chance of a nasty surprise

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