Giving it the ol’ college try worked impressively for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through 10 games in 2012.
New head coach Greg Schiano, hired from Rutgers, had his team at 6-4 and in playoff contention.
For a team that had missed the playoffs the previous four seasons and finished last season 4-12, postseason talk became a popular topic among fans and media.
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Then, the season spiraled downward. The Buccaneers lost five straight en route to a 7-9 mark and a fifth straight year missing the playoffs.
Disappointing? Sure, no 6-4 team envisions taking such a quick fall. In the big picture, however, the Bucs made gains in their first year under Schiano.
Here’s a closer look at the Bucs’ 2012 season.
Quarterback Josh Freeman led an offense that finished ninth overall (10th passing, 15th rushing). Freeman (4,065 yards) became the first 4,000-yard passer in Bucs history and set franchise records for touchdown passes in a season (27) and a career (78).
Rookie Doug Martin burst onto the scene, running for 1,454 yards. That was fifth-most in the NFL this season and second-most ever by a Buccaneer (James Wilder had 90 more yards on 88 more carries in ‘84). Martin fumbled just once in 319 carries.
Vincent Jackson caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards and 8 touchdowns. Fellow receiver Mike Williams fell four yards shy of 1,000 but had 9 touchdowns.
Although Tampa Bay finished ninth in total offense and Freeman put up a high yardage total, the QB struggled down the stretch. He threw nine of his 17 interceptions in the final three weeks and seemed to regress. His QB rating was 81.6, well below his career high of 95.9 in 2010.
The Bucs were without their starting guards, two of the league’s best linemen, for significant time. Carl Nicks (left foot) missed nine games and Davin Joseph (knee) was sidelined the entire season.
For the first time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, a team went from last to first in run defense in one year. The Buccaneers allowed only 82.5 running yards per game after yielding 156.1 in 2011.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy became the first Bucs defensive lineman voted into the Pro Bowl since Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice in 2003.
Rookie linebacker Lavonte David had a team-high 139 tackles, including 112 solo. Defensive end Michael Bennett had 9 sacks. Safety Ronde Barber had 4 interceptions.
In a passing league, the Bucs were the league’s worst defense against the pass by allowing 297.4 passing yards per game. That helped make them the 29th overall defense.
Signed to a five-year, $37.5 million free-agent deal in March, cornerback Eric Wright was suspended for violating the league’s policy against performance enhancing drugs.
Reports say he might be released in the offseason.
CB Aqib Talib was traded to New England in early November while serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.
The Bucs had only 27 sacks. Losing defensive end Adrian Clayborn (knee) for the final 13 games certainly didn’t help.
The Bucs weren’t too bad when kicking away the ball. They were eighth by giving up 25.2 return yards allowed on kicks and ninth with 11.0 punt return yards allowed.
Connor Barth was 6 of 9 on attempts of 50 yards and beyond.
There’s work to do on special teams. Tampa Bay was 19th in punt return yards (9.0) and 30th in kickoff return yards (20.3). Arrelious Benn (13 returns, 23.5 avg) was the top kick returner. Roscoe Parrish (30, 9.9 avg) handled punt returns.
Barth hit 28 of 33 field-goal attempts, putting him 16th with an 84.8 percentage.
Punter Michael Koenen averaged 45.3 yards (21st), with a net of 37.4 (26th). He put 22 kicks inside the 20, which tied him for 23rd.
Safety Mark Barron (1st round, 7th overall), RB Doug Martin (1st, 31st), LB Lavonte David (2nd round), CB Leonard Johnson (undrafted) were the top contributors.
Barron displayed toughness and run-stopping ability during a solid season.
David has some Bucs followers invoking the name of former Tampa Bay linebacker and Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks.
Martin produced 1,926 total yards, third-most behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
Johnson had three picks after getting playing time due to injuries and suspensions in the secondary.
Unrestricted free agents: CB Ronde Barber, DE Michael Bennett, CB E.J. Biggers, TE Dallas Clark, LS Andrew Economos , CB Brandon McDonald, DT Roy Miller, WR Roscoe Parrish, WR Sammie Stroughter T Jeremy Trueblood,
Restricted free agents: RB LeGarrette Blount, DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim.
Exclusive-rights free agents: DT Corey Irvin
Barber played his 16th season with Tampa Bay and might retire.
Bennett had a career-high nine sacks.
Clark had 47 catches for 435 yards (9.3).
Only four teams currently have a longer playoff drought — Buffalo (13 years), Oakland (10), Cleveland (10) and St. Louis (8). Tampa Bay joins Jacksonville in missing the playoffs the past five years. But unlike Jacksonville, the 2012 season indicated Tampa Bay was headed in the right direction under Schiano.
A major question heading into 2013 concerns Josh Freeman. Is he the QB seen through the first 10 games of 2012, or the guy who struggled down the stretch?
Also, the 5-foot-9 Martin had a tremendous season, but can he withstand the workload long-term?
The pass rush, secondary and special teams are among the areas that need improvements.
Assuming Schiano can put a better pass defense on the field, there’s no reason Buccaneers fans can’t be thinking about a playoff berth next season.