Need More than “Youngery” to win in NFL

By on December 2, 2011

In training camp this year Raheem Morris boasted about his youngest team in the league, the immaturity shows now. (photo by US Presswire/Kim Klement)

Tampa, Fla. — Ask ten different Tampa Bay fans why their team is struggling to replicate the breakout season from a year ago and you could very easily get ten different answers.

 They may point to the pitiful way the defense has looked (ranked 31st in defensive yards per game and 29th in scoring defense), the mind-boggling number of penalties (87 through 11 games, fourth most in the league), or the lack of impact roster moves made in the lockout-shortened offseason, .

 All of these answers have bits of truth to them, but can any of them fully describe the free-fall that the Bucs have experienced in the middle-third of the season?

 After starting the season with wins in four of their first six games, Tampa Bay dropped to 4-7 on the year in a cold, wet, miserable, 23-17 loss to Tennessee last Sunday. The loss was the fifth in a row for the youngest team in the NFL, a team many expected to compete with New Orleans and Atlanta for supremacy in the NFC South.

 That hasn’t happened.

 Instead, the Bucs have fallen out of contention for the division title and are only hanging on to the slimmest of postseason hopes. After holding the division lead earlier in the season, Tampa Bay needs to win out and receive a lot of help to extend its season.

 The Bucs have already lost more games this year than they did in all of 2010. In their most recent setback, they allowed 190 yards rushing to former all-pro running back Chris Johnson. Worse yet, most of those yards came after halftime to a player that has been struggling for most of the year (Johnson had 13 yards rushing the week before).

 Fans that point to the defense being the cause of the current woes of the Bucs may be nodding their head right now, but coach Raheem Morris noticed something else amiss in the second half against the Titans: that his franchise quarterback, Josh Freeman, isn’t closing out games the way he did last year.

 “We’ve had about, I think, three games right now with the ball in our hands and a chance to take the lead and win,” Morris said, “Last year we won those games. We finished the game and (Freeman) was the fourth quarter Comeback Kid. We haven’t been able to get that this year.”

 What made the first round pick from Kansas State so special last year was his penchant for rising to the occasion in the fourth quarter. What separates good signal-callers from great ones is the knack for finding ways to win, even when trailing late in the contest.

 When Tom Brady steps out onto the field, trailing by six or fewer points with a few minutes to go, he puts the fear of God in opposing defenses (just ask the Dallas Cowboys, victims of a Brady-led comeback earlier in the year). Number Five was starting to develop that sort of reputation, but has ran into a few speed bumps this year. When given the opportunity this year, he just hasn’t been able to close opponents out late.

 Freeman, who has had eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first two seasons (an NFL record), had a couple of opportunities in the final minutes of the Tennessee game to do just that. An interception and a fumbled snap/no gain on a fourth-and-one quarterback sneak ended those possessions and proved to be a microcosm of the first 11 games of the season.

 Freeman might not be the only offensive player underperforming for the Bucs right now (that’s an understatement), as his team is tied for the league lead in dropped passes, but his struggles late in games this year has had a direct impact on both the offensive inconsistency of the Bucs and the win-loss record.

 Mistakes in pivotal moments, like those against the Titans, have been the death of the Bucs (whether they be penalties, turnovers, or drops) in 2011. Freeman, who threw six interceptions in all of last year, has thrown more picks than anyone in the NFL not named Philip Rivers, with 16.

 Free, as Morris and his players call their leader, has also had a strange statistical trend that should be noted: in odd-numbered games this year Freeman has yet to attain a QB rating of at least 80 (with four of those six contests resulting in ratings below 60), while in even-numbered games his rating has yet to fall below 90. To be expected, the Tampa Bay record reflects the trend. The Bucs are 3-2 in even numbered games and 1-5 in odd-numbered ones.

 Nobody doubts the talent of a quarterback many have compared to a young Ben Roethlisberger, but his inability this year to put together consecutive quality starts is alarming.

 However dreadful the Bucs offense may have seemed at times this year, there have been signs of life coming from needed contributors in recent weeks. Receiver Mike Williams has caught six or more passes in five of the past six games and running back Legarrette Blount has ran for over 100 yards the past two weeks (after totaling just one such game, in week four against Indianapolis, up to that point). If those two players continue to play well, then Freeman and Tampa Bay both have a chance to finish the season respectfully.

 “We feel like we are a better team than our record portrays,” Freeman said, “We have to stop doing the things that have been killing us all year long. We have to come together and finish this thing out.”

 The Bucs start “finishing this thing out” on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, as they host the Carolina Panthers (3-8) in a battle for last place in the NFC South. A win from the Bucs would not only keep them out of the cellar, but also end a five game losing streak that cannot be good for the psyche of Freeman nor for the job security of Morris.

 If the trend from this season holds up, then we are about to see an exceptional game from number five (we are heading into the 12th game of the season, an even-numbered contest).

 That type of performance may be necessary against Carolina, which boasts a two-headed attack at running back, the Rocket Sports and Entertainment midseason rookie of the year in quarterback Cam Newton, and the Rocket Sports and Entertainment midseason comeback player of the year in wide receiver Steve Smith.

 At this time last year, the Bucs had the look of a team on the rise. Is there a better time for them to start living up to those expectations than this week? With a five game losing streak that seems much, much longer, and an opponent coming to town bent on climbing out of the cellar, I think we all know the answer to that.

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