In my never-ending search for enlightenment among the legions of bloggers covering every NFL team, I tracked down Patrik Nohe of thepewterplank.com and persuaded him to divulge a few modern-day secrets about Green Bay's opponent on Sunday, Tampa Bay.
Andy Tisdel: The Buccaneers have clearly made their defensive line one of the top priorities in the last couple of drafts. How are the early returns from McCoy, Clayborn, Bowers, etc.?
Patrick Nohe: Well, Gerald McCoy is out for the year (again), Da'Quan Bowers is coming along though maybe not at the rate we'd hoped for and Adrian Clayborn came as advertised. Of the three I think Bowers has the highest ceiling, Clayborn has the best shot and I'm going to come right out and say I have never liked Gerald McCoy since he got to Tampa. McCoy will, in my mind, be the bust coming out of the group. He skated by one pure ability in college and he looks absolutely lost a lot of the time in the pros. Clayborn, on the other hand, is also very raw but he has the kind of motor that lets him get away with that while he develops a proper pass rushing repertoire and gets better with the mental part of his game. Clayborn and Bowers are solid with Clayborn a little ahead, Gerald McCoy hasn't accomplished anything outside of signing an NFL contract.
AT: What do you think of the decision to pick up Albert Haynesworth?
PN: It's funny, the day before they claimed him off waivers I wrote a post about how the Bucs needed to give him a shot. I love the move. At worst you cut him with no penalty and very little harm done, at best you've got a motivated player with the potential to be the premiere 4-3 DT in football. At the very least he's worth the shot.
AT: WR Mike Williams has had a very disappointing season, at least based on his rookie campaign last year. What would you attribute his relatively low production to?
PN: On the surface the same can be said for many Buccaneers players. Here's the truth, the team wasn't as good as their record last year, and is probably a little better than their record this year. Josh Freeman for instance is making the same exact kinds of decisions he made last season when he had six interceptions, but this year he's being held accountable by the football gods (if you will) and the picks and deflections have sky-rocketed. He's playing the same, the ball just doesn't bounce the same way twice. Same goes for Williams, last year and this year the targets-per-reception ratios were the same, he catches about half of what's thrown to him. That hasn't improved since last year, but this season he's not catching those balls in the end zone or ripping them off for big gains. Is he actually any worse? No. He's just not progressing. A lot of Bucs are having that issue.
I think that's partially coaching, and partially what happens when you get lucky for a year and players get away with a lot of bad decisions and dumb plays. They don't learn and it eventually catches up to them.
AT: The numbers vary, but the consensus among media outlets I've seen is that the Bucs have by far the most cap space of any team in the NFL. Why is this, and what does the Tampa Bay brain trust plan on doing with it? Or are they just content to stay way below the salary cap, keeping in mind that teams are supposed to spend 89% or more of the cap beginning in 2013?
PN: A lot of people have mentioned that but they fail to think it all the way through. Yes, the Buccaneers have a ton of cap space currently unaccounted for, but they're also the youngest team in all of football. They have a lot of guys they're going to want to re-sign in the coming months. Guys like Freeman and LeGarrette Blount will likely prove costly too. Could the Buccaneers have gone out and signed Nnamdi Asomugha or a top-tier free agent? Yeah. But Asomugha hasn't done anything in Philly and they're strapped with him for a lot of cash. The Bucs are content to re-sign their core, make second-tier free agent acquisitions and build through the draft. Spending money doesn't equate to winning, the Packers are a good example of that. They'll get to the threshold, but the whole reason this was even a topic was because the media wanted them to go make splashy moves because it's a better story. They're still talking about the Eagles' off-season. Didn't work out like they envisioned though, did it?
AT: From the outside, it looks like the Buccaneers are willing to tolerate character risks on their team. Haynesworth, Aqib Talib, LeGarrette Blount, et cetera. Do you think this is accurate, and if so, is Raheem Morris a coach who can keep his players in line?
PN; I think that gets overblown. Let me tell you something, the people who think character wins in football aren't rooting for the team they're talking about. Going back to Superbowl I, Max McGee the first ever SB MVP (and a Packer) played hungover because he'd been out late the night before. That's not a character move, but those are Vince Lombardi's Packers. That's NFL lore. The Steelers of the 70's are the fore-fathers of modern-day NFL doping. The 80's saw a disciplinarian coach (Bill Parcells) rise to prominence on the back of a cocaine-addicted linebacker (Lawrence Taylor). Then you had the cocaine Cowboys of the early 90's, Ray Lewis won a Super Bowl MVP the year after he was accused of murder. You've got Big Ben Roethlisberger, Eugene Robinson, who else? My point is character is overrated. Talent matters.
Obviously there's a line, but in the context of that Buccaneers lockerroom things seem to be working out fine and players seem to buy into what Raheem Morris is selling. It hasn't been an issue.
AT: Coming off a 10-6 season, the Bucs were expected to be a major contender in the NFC South in 2011. Sitting at 4-5 after nine games, obviously that hasn't happened. What would you attribute the Buccaneers' record to?
PN: The schedule largely. I mean last year the Bucs had a 4th place schedule and got to play the NFC West and AFC North, this season things are lot more challenging. Their losses aren't to bad teams, Texans, Saints, Bears, Lions and 49ers. Most of those teams seem to be headed to the playoffs. The flip-side though is the Buccaneers really haven't become a more mature, smarter team. They're still making a lot of dumb penalties, they don't start games well, they get frustrated and lose their cool occasionally. They are playing like the youngest team in football. It's frustrating because they do have quite a bit of talent. But between shooting themselves in the foot and offensive play-calling, it hasn't always been evident this season.
AT: If you were the Buccaneers' head coach, how would you game-plan the Packers?
PN: My game-plan would be simple. You have a 6'0 250 pound running back who can pound the rock as well as anyone in football. You give him 30 carries, you play a smart, ball-control offense and you try to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field as much as possible. That's the only way the Bucs win. They're not going to win a shoot-out, they're not going to out-pass the Packers and they're not going to stop the Packers on offense. As soon as you try any of those three, the game is over Green Bay wins. The Bucs need to control the ball, control the clock and keep it close down to the end of the game. Trust me on this, Josh Freeman is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL once the 4th quarter starts. He's up to about 10 4th quarter comebacks already in his career and he's just 23. If it's close late, then the Bucs do have a shot.
AT: Related question: What are some of the Bucs' strengths and weaknesses, both on offense and defense?
PN: On offense the Buccaneers have a good power run-game that they just largely ignore for inexplicable reasons. They also have a fairly deep, if unheralded, receiving corps. Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn are solid, though both have been unspectacular this year, but the real problem for defenses is when they go four wide. Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker are both guys to watch on Sunday. If they get matched up on a third or fourth corner, or worse a linebacker, the Packers will have issues. Unfortunately, the Bucs don't really use a power run game or spread you out. So the Packers may only see that a few times all afternoon. Obviously the biggest weakness on offense is play-calling.
Defensively, the Bucs have potential, but a talented quarterback with an intelligent offense can really throw them for a loop. Their biggest weakness is their inexperience and that can undo a lot of their potential.
AT: What's your predicted final score?
PN: Green Bay 38 Tampa Bay 17