NFC South Dominance Continues

As a Buccaneers’ fan, you may or may not be capable of rooting for the Falcons, who will be hosting the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game next week.  We can understand either decision here in the Captain’s Blog, but one thing is undeniable: The NFC South has been the NFL’s most competitive division, across the board, since it was created during the 2002 realignment.

Atlanta’s advancement to the NFC title game didn’t really change that.  The Bucs’ division was already the only one of the eight that had already sent all four of its teams to a conference championship game.  Tampa Bay went en route to capturing the title in 2002, and New Orleans did the same in 2009.  Carolina went to the NFC Championship Game in both 2003 and 2005, making it to the Super Bowl in ’03 before losing to New England.  Atlanta was there in 2004, losing to Philly.

No other division can match that this year.  San Francisco is the third NFC West team to make it to the conference title team, but St. Louis is still left out.  New England, obviously, has been there multiple times, as has Baltimore.

Again, whether or not you can stand to root for Atlanta is your business, but it’s worth noting that the South could also be the first division since realignment to get all four of its teams into the Super Bowl.  The Bucs’ division is already the only one that has crowned two different Super Bowl champions, and there’s a chance, of course, that could become three this year.

The Buccaneers kicked off the NFL’s newest division in grand fashion in 2002, winning Super Bowl XXXVII.  Since then, no other division has consistently been in the running for the title as the NFC South.  Whether or not you root for other teams in the division, it’s clear that winning in the NFC South really means something, and that is good for the Buccaneers.

NFC Playoff Results Guarantee Another Buc Pro Bowler

Gerald McCoy will have a teammate with him in Hawaii at the end of the month when the NFL plays its 2013 Pro Bowl.  He just doesn’t know which one yet.

The results of the two NFC Divisional Playoff Games this weekend essentially guaranteed that a second Buccaneer will be added to the conference’s Pro Bowl roster, joining McCoy and about four dozen others.  When the Falcons take on the 49ers in San Francisco Atlanta next Sunday for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII, they will also determine which Buc gets a ticket to Honolulu.

Here’s why: Both Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin were named first alternates for the Pro Bowl when the teams were announced in late December.  That means that either one would automatically be the next player chosen if one of the Pro Bowlers at their position is unable to play in the game for any reason.  Going to the Super Bowl is one of those reasons.  Since the Pro Bowl is now played the weekend before the Super Bowl, no player who is getting ready for the big game is going to go to Hawaii.

And, no matter what happens next Sunday, one of the players in front of either Jackson or Martin is going to be going to New Orleans to battle for the Lombardi Trophy.  If San Francisco wins the NFC Championship Game, then 49ers RB Frank Gore will pull out of the Pro Bowl and that will create a spot for Martin.  If Atlanta wins, then Falcons WR Julio Jones will pull out of the Pro Bowl and that will create a spot for Jackson.

So it’s a win-win for the Buccaneers, in a way.  And, of course, there is always the possibility that one of the NFC’s Pro Bowl backs or wideouts will pull out of the game for another reason, and both Jackson and Martin will be booking flights to Hawaii.  However, though nothing is yet official, it’s clear that at least one of the two is definitely headed to the Pro Bowl.

Bucs Abound on PFW All-Rookie Team

Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers of America have been capping every NFL season with an All-Rookie Team for as long as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been around (PFW and the PFWA combined forces on the matter in the 2000s).  They have rarely liked a Buccaneers rookie class as much as they do the most recent group of newcomers.

The PFW/PFWA selections are as close as it comes to an official NFL All-Rookie Team. The first Buc to get a PFW nod was LB David Lewis way back in 1977, the team’s second year of existence.  The first Tampa Bay class to place more than one player on the team was the 1984 group, with LB Keith Browner and T Ron Heller.

This year, the PFW/PFWA voters have included three Buccaneers on their annual rookie squad: RB Doug Martin, S Mark Barron and LB Lavonte David. Continue reading

Point/Counterpoint: How do both John Lynch and Warren Sapp make the Class of 2013?

There’s a big announcement just around the corner, and it is generating quite a bit of buzz about possible busts in the Buccaneers’ future. With Mark Dominik behind the wheel, we’re not talking about the NFL Draft, but rather the much more celebrated and sought-after type of bust: those of the bronze sort that can be found in Canton, Ohio.

Currently the field of potential Pro Football Hall of Fame 2013 inductees sits at 27, and it will shortly be chopped down to 15 semifinalists. Past Buccaneer greats John Lynch and Warren Sapp find themselves up for the honor and are widely expected to make it to the next round. Since the maximum number of modern-era selections in a single class is five, it’s time to figure out what it’s going to take for both Lynch and Sapp to make the Hall of Fame Class of 2013.

Names like Larry Allen, Charles Haley, Jonathan Ogden, Michael Strahan, Bill Parcells and a host of other greats are some of the key contenders. Since you and I are obviously pulling for both Bucs to get their busts this year, let’s not ask, “Will they make it?” Instead let’s focus on what could happen in the final closed-door voting session to make it so.

So, sir, just how do both John Lynch and Warren Sapp make the Class of 2013?

Scott Smith: You’ve framed the issue nicely, Andrew.  I could and would gladly go on at length on the reasons why I believe both Lynch and Sapp should be immediately ushered into the Hall, now that they’re eligible.  But the problem isn’t whether they’re deserving.  It’s whether or not the competition is too strong this year.

You mentioned Allen, Ogden and Strahan, all of whom are first-year-eligibles along with Lynch and Sapp, and those are usually the most worrisome contenders.  (K Morten Andersen is also on the first-year list, and while Hall voters don’t seem too keen on kickers and punters, we are talking about the NFL’s all-time leading scorer here.)  Logically, any of the other 21 finalists have already had at least one crack at it and didn’t get the necessary votes, so they wouldn’t seem like as much of a concern.  However, some of them may have just been squeezed out in particularly strong years, and others may garner support over time.  That happened last year with Chris Doleman, who finally made it in his eighth year of eligibility and second year as a finalist.  Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf also made it in as second-year eligibles in 2012.

That’s why we also have to pay attention to such candidates as Haley and Parcells, as you mentioned. I would also throw in Jerome Bettis, Will Shields, Paul Tagliabue and that three-headed receiving monster of T.C.A. BrownCarterReed.  (I guess one could also take a look at Steve Atwater, Kevin Greene, Joe Jacoby and Aeneas Williams, but I don’t see them usurping any of the above, and we have to draw the line somewhere.)

So, the task is clear: Take Allen, Ogden, Strahan, Andersen, Bettis, Shields, Tagliabue and those three receivers and eliminate all but three of them.

And here’s my take: Sorry, returning candidates, but this year’s group is just too strong for this to be the year you break through.  I think the Hall has a spot for the sixth-leading rusher in league history (Bettis), especially when you compare his numbers to Martin and add in his Super Bowl ring.  Shields, too, given his amazing 12 Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro selections.  I know many were surprised that Parcells didn’t make it last year, and I think his time is coming, but hopefully not this year.  Haley’s best number is his five Super Bowl titles, which is enough in my book.  Brown, Carter and Reed look like they will continue to split the vote for a while, but there is still hope.

But none of those guys had enough support last year to get in, and even if they’ve gained some in the interim, is it enough to blast through this year’s top-heavy class of first-year eligibles?  I don’t think so.

And that’s crucial, because I think Allen, Ogden and Strahan are locks.  Some consider Ogden the greatest left tackle of all-time, with apologies to Anthony Munoz, and there are simply no holes on his resume.  He’s got the 11 Pro Bowls and the nine All-Pro selections, he’s won a Super Bowl, he’s been the NFL’s Lineman of the Year and he had the reputation of an all-time great while he was playing.  Allen’s resume is nearly identical, and he was a member of the All-Decade Teams for both the 1990s and the 2000s.  How could that not be a Hall of Famer.  And if we think Sapp is a Hall of Famer, it’s hard to argue against Strahan, who has an almost identical list of accomplishments (Pro Bowls, All-Pros, Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl ring) plus the NFL’s single-season record for sacks (even if you don’t like the way he got it).

I also think Andersen will eventually find his way into the Hall of Fame.  True, there’s only three kickers or punters in Canton so far, and only one who was exclusively a kicker in Jan Stenerud (George Blanda played QB; Lou Groza played T).  But there’s going to be another one eventually, and wouldn’t you start with the all-time scoring leader?  I just don’t think it will be this year.

So there’s how the two Bucs go in together: Your final class is Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden and Michael Strahan.

(By the way, for this to work, voters have to determine that Lynch was the superior player to Atwater in the end, and it’s close.  Atwater had eight Pro Bowls to Lynch’s nine, two All-Pros to Lynch’s four, two Super Bowls to Lynch’s one.  They both had standout reputations as punishing hitters; Atwater has an all-decade team to his name but Lynch has a defensive back of the year award.  It’s close, but I think Lynch gets the nod because he was such a key figure on a defense that changed the NFL.)

Andrew Norton: As deserving as most of the players on the list of 27 are, you’ve narrowed things down quite nicely and I have to agree with you for the most part on your whittled-down list.

As much as I would love to see the NFL’s all-time leading scorer make the top five, I think it is still out of reach for the time being. With the ever-increasing value of statistics in the NFL, and the fact that the general public now recognizes the majority of kickers thanks to the prevalence of fantasy football, I do see him getting in in the near future, just not in a year as stacked as this one.

That being said, I think that when the five inductees are announced there will be massive cheering heard in Tampa Bay and Dallas. My five selections: Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Larry Allen, Bill Parcells and Charles Haley.

Like you, I think that Larry Allen makes the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Already a member of the Cowboys Ring of Honor (which holds 12 Hall of Famers and three past nominees), Allen is largely heralded as one of the best offensive linemen to ever play the game. In 14 years, he made 11 Pro Bowls, was an All-Pro seven times, member of two All-Decade Teams and Super Bowl Champion.

Now, the prospect of why Larry Allen makes it is my main argument as to why Jonathan Ogden does not. It’s not especially often that two people from the same position make the Hall of Fame in the same class. The last time two offensive linemen made it in one year was 2007, but only one of them was a modern-era player. The last time two modern-era offensive linemen have made it together was 2001. That said, Ogden is massively worthy of the title, but I feel that with such a deep field only one offensive lineman makes it and Allen’s credentials give him the edge.

In his place I put Bill Parcells. Last year was his first year of eligibility and I believe that many would argue that he should have made it as a first-ballot inductee. In my mind, he is a shoo-in. He won two Super Bowls and took four different teams to the playoffs. If that isn’t impressive enough, look at the teams that he turned around and made contenders. The Giants were 3-12-1 before he took them to the playoffs. It took him two years to turn around the Patriots and bring them to Super Bowl XXXI. He took over a 1-15 Jets team and got them to 9-7 a year later and 12-4 the year after that. NFL Coach of the Year two times, 183 total wins. I like him.

Finally, I will give Charles Haley the slight edge over Michael Strahan. Haley gets my pick because he has five Super Bowl rings. And its not just that he has them, it is that he was a pivotal player on each of those Championship teams. He was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year twice, five-time Pro Bowler, seamlessly transitioned from linebacker to defensive end, recorded double-digit sacks in a season six times and was a part of a division winning team in 10 of his 12 seasons.

Strahan is popular, likeable and very public, and that is before mentioning his record of sack in the season. (And since you mentioned it, no, I do not like how he got there.) Being that Charles Haley (and Kevin Greene) are both in contention as well, I think that Strahan falls short of the two.

Did I mention Haley’s five Super Bowl rings?

Scott Smith: Yes, you did.  You couldn’t have emphasized those five rings more if you had painted them colors and arranged them into the Olympics logo.  Of course, neither that stunt nor your above arguments would make me budge from Ogden and Strahan.

You mentioned the “last time” that two offensive linemen got into the Hall in the same year as 2001 (as if that is unfathomable eons ago…ooh, who can remember ALL THE WAY BACK to those murky Y2K days), but didn’t say who they were.  So I will: Mike Munchak and Ron Yary.  (Of course, it also happened just three years before that, too, with Anthony Munoz and Dwight Stephenson, but who’s counting?)  Do you think that’s maybe because…oh, I don’t know…that’s the last time that a single class had two candidates as mind-numbingly worthy as the Allen-Ogden combo.

Your two connected reasons for removing Ogden, as I see them, were that, 1) No way two OL get in at the same time (yeah, right); and, 2) Allen’s credentials are better than Ogden’s.  Of course, you didn’t bother to say WHY you chose Allen over Ogden, so I’ll just assume it’s because you prefer the player with the same number of Pro Bowl bids and Super Bowl rings but fewer All-Pro selections.  Hey, to each his own.  I tend to prefer $20 bills to 19 singles, but that’s just me.

All of that said, I would definitely agree that Parcells and Haley are the two people I most worry about busting up my plan.  I can’t find fault with any of your supporting arguments for those two, and I’m truly surprised they’re not already in.

Fortunately for me, you conveniently paired up our different choices as such: Parcells over Ogden and Haley over Strahan.  So, while I am surprised Parcells didn’t get in last year and the fact that he’s now a second-year candidate (three second-year finalists got in last year) makes him more dangerous, I think I’ve sufficiently argued for Ogden.  Can’t have Parcells if you don’t bump Ogden, so no Parcells.

So now it’s Strahan versus Haley.  And here’s the strange thing about Haley, despite all of your jewelry-based points above: He’s been available as a candidate since 2005.  He was a semifinalist in ’05 but didn’t get enough support to make the list of 15 finalists until 2010 (he has been there four straight years now).  Heck, he didn’t even make the semifinalist list in 2006 before reappearing in 2007.  That’s kinda strange, huh?  Clearly, there is something holding some of these voters back…and remember, that group of voters doesn’t turn over very rapidly.

Still, let’s compare the two pass-rushers.  Yes, Haley has him on oversized diamond rings, five to one (Strahan does have one other SB appearance).  That’s not nothing.  It’s significant.  But does it make up for the fact that Strahan has 141.5 sacks to Haley’s 100.5?  Or that Strahan was once named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, an honor that escaped Haley (but not Sapp, by the way)?  Or that Strahan holds one of the most prestigious single-season records in the history of the game (22.5 sacks)?  Or that he was considered equally dominant against the run (in fact, a 2004 Football Outsiders post called him one of the best five two-way ends EVER).  Correct me if I’m wrong (that would be a first) but I don’t believe Haley had anywhere near the same reputation as a run-stopper.

Charles Haley’s five Super Bowl rings are a unique accomplishment and, to my mind, a ticket to the Hall of Fame, when combined with his 100 sacks.  Eventually.  I just don’t agree that you can bump Strahan to make room for him, so I think you need to go back to the drawing board.  And this time, stop drawing stars all over it.

Andrew Norton: I’m a little offended. You were so civil in your first discussion, but that counterargument seems a little hostile. I do completely believe that Jonathan Ogden does have a place in the Hall of Fame, just not this class. I apologize, as it seems to have put quite a bee in your bonnet.

And since you had so much fun with my first fun fact about the number of offensive linemen per class, I feel that I should follow that up with an even more fun fact making your predictions even more unlikely. The last time that three first-ballot players made it in a single class is 2006 with Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and Reggie White. No class since 1970 has had more than three. And all five of yours, sir, are in their first year of eligibility.

And to add one more note for each of my selections:

Larry Allen played multiple positions, and he did clear holes for that Emmitt Smith character who I’ve read used to be pretty good.

Bill Parcells has more wins than 15 of the 21 coaches in the Hall of Fame and as many or more playoff wins as 17 of them.

Charles Haley has been an available candidate since 2005, but when it comes to HoF voting, he is essentially the defensive version of Art Monk who was voted in on his eighth year of eligibility. He’s overdue, and I think that if Allen makes it, they have to also put in Haley. Also, FIVE Super Bowl rings. He has been on 10.9% of all Super Bowl winning teams. As a starter and linchpin. Come on.

For the record, I do have Jonathan Ogden next on my radar, but Cris Carter and Jerome Bettis higher than Strahan.

In closing though, I think we should really bring things home and talk about who we have in common and who everyone in Tampa Bay will be pulling for: Warren Sapp and John Lynch.

Both were the foundation of the Super Bowl Championship team, one of the NFL’s best defenses in history.

Warren Sapp wasn’t just one of the dominant defensive tackles, he was the dominant defensive tackle of his era. With 96.5 total sacks, seven Pro Bowls, four first-team All-Pros, a Defensive Player of the Year award and member of two All-Decade teams, it is hard to argue that he misses out as a first-year owner of the yellow jacket. And, honestly, who could possibly give a better speech?

John Lynch made nine Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro selection four times, first-team twice. He is on nearly every list of the hardest hitters in the history of the NFL. He piled up 13 sacks, 26 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles and 740 tackles in his 191-game career and is one of the most popular players ever to play his position.

We’ll know in the week leading up to the Super Bowl which ones come out on top. Hopefully you’re in a better mood by then.

Odds and Ends: Other Games on the Horizon

Backyard Game: For the second year in a row, the very useful East-West Shrine Game, featuring dozens of draft-eligible college all-stars, will be held practically in the Buccaneers’ backyard.

This year will be the 87th Shrine Game, which has been going strong since 1925, raising funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children.  It was staged annually in California for eight decades before spending four years in Houston and two in Orlando.  Finally, last year, the game was relocated to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, not far from the Shriners’ headquarters in Tampa. Continue reading

Hall of Fame Semifinalists Awaiting Next Step

In late November, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee whittled the field for its Class of 2013 down to 27 candidates, including six first-year-eligible players.  At the time, the Hall also announced that the next reduction, down to the 15 finalists, would take place in “early January.”  The timeline on the Hall’s official web site still uses that somewhat non-specific language, but the upshot is that the next announcement should be coming very soon.

And that’s exciting news for former Buccaneer greats John Lynch and Warren Sapp. Continue reading

McCoy’s Favorite Number: 16

Gerald McCoy had a career-high five sacks in 2012 and led the Buccaneers’ defense with 16 quarterback hits.  He racked up nine more tackles in the opposing backfield and was a linchpin in the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense.  He was rewarded in December with his first Pro Bowl berth and by some measures was among the best defensive tackles in all of football in his third pro campaign.

Beyond all those stats and honors, however, is one number that meant the most to McCoy, to the point that he almost choked up a bit before and after the Buccaneers’ season-ending win in Atlanta two weeks ago.  That number is 16, as in games played in 2012, as in all of them.

McCoy, of course, was the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft and a player assumed to be destined for greatness after his spectacular college career at Oklahoma.  And he most definitely showed signs of that potential stardom during parts of 2010 and 2011, especially in the first month of his second season.  Unfortunately, the most memorable part of the story of McCoy’s first two NFL years were a pair of bicep injuries, one to each arm, each one bringing a season to an end.

Those freak accidents, which occurred relatively late in 2010 but early in 2011, not only suppressed his raw numbers but also had several other unfortunate effects.  They unsurprisingly kicked off whispers of McCoy being “injury prone,” and they meant his first two full NFL offseasons were as much about rehabilitation as refinement of his game.

And so he made no secret of the fact that playing in all 16 games in 2012 was a major goal of his, no matter what other numbers might follow.  He knew he wasn’t injury prone, but McCoy, who leans heavily on his faith, also did not know what God’s plan for him was.  He desperately wanted to experience Week 17 in the NFL – preferably with a playoff spot on the line, but not everything went according to plan – and that’s why he had some raw emotions in Atlanta on December 30.

“I kind of got emotional in the locker room after the game,” he recounted.  “I started thinking through everything I went through to get to that point.  I told the guys before the game – the D-Line always does a little breakdown – I told them, ‘Man, you’ve got to look at this game as a privilege and a blessing and an honor to play, because I’ve never seen this week before.’  This is my third season and it’s my first time seeing it.  I kind of got emotional.”

“It was a long journey.  To a lot of people, it may not mean anything, but if you’ve never been through what I’ve been through then you wouldn’t understand.”

So now, no more whispers.  And, even more importantly, McCoy gets to walk into the 2013 offseason with a fresh slate and nothing holding him back from the field.  He made impressive strides between his first and second season and between his second and third, despite the necessary rehab, so there’s reason to believe that a more comprehensive spring and summer of work will push his game to yet another level.

However, he does have one more game to play, after all.  His Bucs aren’t in the playoffs this month, but he’ll be headed to Hawaii at the end of January to take part in the 2013 Pro Bowl.  So maybe McCoy’s favorite number of 2012 was actually 17.

“It’s going to be great,” said McCoy of his upcoming Pro Bowl experience.  “It’s not the game I’d rather be playing in but, shoot, I definitely don’t mind it.  It’s going to be a lot of fun.  I’m just going to take it all in enjoy it and just have fun with it.”

All-Pros? Jackson, McCoy Close in PFF Analysis

Gerald McCoy is in the Pro Bowl and Vincent Jackson, a first alternate, could eventually join him.  There is an even more exclusive honor than the Pro Bowl (though it comes without a trip to Hawaii): The All-Pro team.

The official All-Pro squad is the one recognized by the Associated Press, and it’s a tougher draw because, rather than an entire game-ready squad like the Pro Bowl, it is the selection of just the very best players at every position.  When it’s all said and done, 94 players will take part in the 2013 Pro Bowl.  AP named 37 All-Pros last year.

Will McCoy or Jackson or any other Tampa Bay players warrant All-Pro honors?  That remains to be seen.  But the video-analysis crew over at ProFootballFocus.com obviously feels that those two Buccaneers should at least be in the discussion. Continue reading

Barth Hits the Mark…Again

The only people who could possibly be upset with Connor Barth for his 2012 season are fantasy football players, and that was due to circumstances out of the Buccaneer kicker’s control.

In the midst of another fabulous season as Tampa Bay’s three-point specialist, Barth unexpectedly got zero attempts to kick a field goal in Weeks 14 and 15 against Philadelphia and New Orleans.  Since those happened to be playoff weeks in most fantasy leagues, and the matchups certainly looked good on paper, Barth’s three combined points in those two games didn’t help some fantasy owners who were counting on bigger numbers.

In a more real-life sense, those two weeks also probably cost Barth the team’s single-season scoring record, and that’s only important because such a mark would have served well to highlight what a strong campaign the fifth-year kicker turned in.

Again. Continue reading