1. Did I think the Bucs would beat the Rams at St. Louis on Monday Night Football? No, not at all. But they did and they are back on the hypothetical track towards the playoffs?
Wait a minute. The hypothetical track? What is that? The hypothetical track for the Bucs making the playoffs began when the team was 4-4 after the win at Detroit. The Bucs lost an unexpected home game at Chicago two weeks ago, which got them off the track. That game, by most experts' and fans' accounts, was a game the Bucs were "supposed" to win.
The Bucs were "supposed" to lose at St. Louis and Chicago on the road and beat Cincy away and New Orleans, Baltimore and Philadelphia at home. That hypothetical scenario would produce a 10-6 season, which would be good enough to earn a playoff berth and possibly host a wild card game.
Now that the win at St. Louis counters the home loss to Chicago, the Bucs are back on that hypothetical playoff track. Now if they can win the games they are "supposed" to win, the Bucs can turn this hypothetical scenario into reality and post-season life.
2. Hindsight is 20-20 right? Well, let's look at a couple of possible scenarios last April that could have changed the Buccaneers' fortunes this season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded their first- and second-round draft pick in the 2001 NFL Draft to the Buffalo Bills, who had the 14th pick, to get Florida offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker. Walker had slipped past Arizona, New England, Cincinnati and Jacksonville - all of whom desperately needed a left tackle or a right tackle, which Walker played at Florida.
Why did those four teams pass on Walker? Was it because he was only a 22-year old junior? Was it because he didn't play left tackle at Florida and would have to make the switch to the left side in the pros because he doesn't have the strength and ideal size to play on the right side? Was it because they felt that he could not step in as a rookie and compete at a high level?
Would the Bucs have been better off signing veteran Richmond Webb after the draft, or sticking with Pete Pierson at left tackle? Would the Bucs have been better off not trading up with Buffalo and drafting WR Quincy Morgan (22 catches for 295 yards and two TDs for Cleveland) or TE Alge Crumpler (18 catches for 243 yards and two TDs for Atlanta) at No. 21 and trading up in the second round to draft LT Matt Light (who is starting for New England) or WR Chris Chambers (28 catches for 569 yards and four TDs for Miami)?
Even tailback Anthony Thomas, who was drafted by Chicago in the second round, would look good in Tampa Bay right now. Thomas has 638 rushing yards and four touchdowns and has a blend of styles that falls somewhere between Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. He could have been had by the Bucs in the first round and could be viewed as a replacement for Dunn, who is in a contract year.
Walker hasn't performed near as well as the Bucs had hoped when they inserted him in the starting lineup after training camp, although he did have a very solid performance against St. Louis, and the Bucs may have been better off this year with a big, young receiver like Morgan or Chambers who could take some of the pressure of Keyshawn Johnson given the injury to Jacquez Green and the terrible inconsistencies of Reidel Anthony.
The interesting thing about Walker is that he usually went toe-to-toe with Simeon Rice in training camp, which gave the coaching staff some hope that he was on the fast track for early success. But Rice has had a sub-par year pass rushing in Tampa Bay's one-gap scheme, so maybe Walker's training camp efforts weren't that impressive after all because Rice isn't the pass-rushing force the Bucs thought he was going to be.
Given the investment that the Bucs have in Walker, let's hope he rebounds during the stretch and gets some confidence as he heads into next year. We're not saying he's a bust by any means, especially after his encouraging performance against St. Louis. But given what Tampa Bay has invested in him with a first- and a second-round draft pick and foregoing the signing of Webb, the Bucs can't afford to have Walker turn out to be another Charles McRae.
One last hindsight issue. Would the Bucs have been better off drafting South Florida cornerback Anthony Henry in the fourth round instead of CB Dwight Smith, who was the Bucs' third-round draft pick, or free safety John Howell in the fourth round? You bet. Howell filled in admirably for Dexter Jackson against Pittsburgh and recorded 13 tackles, but also gave up a touchdown. Smith hasn't seen hardly any playing time at cornerback and lost his kick return duties while bobbling the catch several times. As for Henry, he leads the Browns in interceptions with seven and has already had two games where he has intercepted three passes in a single contest.
3. The real bad thing about the Rams game being on Monday Night Football is that they have to travel to Cincinnati next Sunday on a short week. Although early weather reports in Bengals country say partly cloudy with a high of 52 degrees, which means the Bucs won't have to worry about cold weather, Cincinnati is 4-6 and will see the Bucs as a beatable team that will get them one step closer to .500. The Bengals will be up for the Bucs game after going 1-6 over the last seven games.
Cincinnati's offense has become one-dimensional after a 3-0 start due to the struggles of quarterback Jon Kitna. The Bengals' primary weapon on offense is tailback Corey Dillon, but receivers Peter Warrick and Darnay Scott can be dangerous if the running game gets going and Kitna can use play-action.
On defense, the Bengals do a lot of zone blitzing with linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, as well as their defensive backs out of their 4-3 scheme. The amount of blitzing the Bucs will see could rival the likes of Pittsburgh and Green Bay, which recorded double-digit sacks against Tampa Bay earlier this year - the Steelers had 10 sacks in one game, while Green Bay had 12 sacks over two games.
4. Tampa Bay wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson set a dubious record on Monday night when he hauled in five catches for 57 yards. Keyshawn now has 76 catches on the season and hasn't scored a touchdown. That bests Baltimore Colts receiver Raymond Berry for the most consecutive catches without a touchdown. Berry had 75. The good news for Keyshawn is that it didn't stop Berry from becoming a Hall of Famer.
Johnson might have the best chance he's had all season to get into the end zone against Cincinnati's secondary. The Bengals have surrendered 14 passing touchdowns this season, which is about average around the league, but are allowing opposing QBs to complete 59.6 percent of their passes. Opposing QBs have compiled an average quarterback rating of 82.7.
The Bucs can take some chances against a Cincinnati secondary which boasts no big-name players. Cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins and Mark Roman have just three picks between them, and safeties JoJuan Armor and Cory Hall aren't solid in pass coverage, and neither has an interception. The Bengals secondary is the most suspect defensive backfield the Bucs will face
5. Is this the week that Frank Murphy finally ends the Buccaneers' drought of not returning a kickoff for a touchdown? Murphy has started the last two games as the team's kick returner and leads the team with a 26.6 average. Over the last two games, Murphy has come close to breaking long kick returns on three occasions with just one or two defenders to beat.
The Bengals rank last in the NFL in kick coverage, surrendering an average 30.7 yards per kick return and have already given up a 101-yard touchdown to Tennessee kick returner Derrick Mason this year.
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