1. The Buccaneers had an outstanding 2010 season, going 10-6 but missing the playoffs. How have they built on the success they had in 2010 as they try to take the next step forward as a franchise?
The Bucs continued to focus their attention on developing young talent. After their defensive front seven registered a putrid 26 sacks, they let go defensive line coach Todd Wash and brought in the duo of Keith Mallard and Grady Stretz. It's brought a dramatic philosophical change on how the defensive line attacks the football. Before, the Bucs' d-linemen were required to keep gap integrity while read-and-reacting. Now, the Bucs linemen have gone back to days of Rod Marinelli (we have a much different opinion of his coaching prowess than Lions supporters do), and are stopping the run on the way to the quarterback. They are attacking the football.
In addition to philosophical change, Tampa Bay worked extensively on their front seven during the draft, adding two edge rushers and an aggressive middle linebacker.
Finally, the Bucs are simply healthier. Tampa Bay was among the league leaders in players on injured reserve. Just getting back the talent is as good as any free agent spending spree or multiple high draft picks.
2. During the last two seasons, Josh Freeman has looked like the best quarterback from the 2009 draft, which included the Lions' Matthew Stafford. How has he developed as a player and become such a talented quarterback so early on in his career?
Josh has shown the drive to be great. Between his first and second seasons, Freeman spent an unbelievable amount of time in the film room, studying his own flaws, the Buccaneer offense, how the greats conduct themselves. Then he got with Saints QB Drew Brees and worked out with him, picking his brain on techniques and what he looks for when reading defenses.
Josh's personal dedication to his craft as well as his calm, confident demeanor in the huddle has made him the consummate leader on the football team. His teammates believe in him and it has a lot to do with his fourth quarter game saving success.
"Josh Freeman is going to win me a Super Bowl ring one day," Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn recently told Sirius NFL Radio.
He's not the only one on this team that feels that way.
3. The Buccaneers are one of the teams with the most cap room in all of the NFL. The salary floor hasn't gone into effect yet, but once it does they will have to spend some money to reach the minimum. Do you think the Bucs will extend current players, go after high-profile free agents or do a combination of both as they try to spend more money in the future?
That is the plan. One of the biggest gripes among Buccaneer fans (and a significant reason why the football team is struggling at the gate) is the belief that the Glazer family, who owns the Buccaneers, has funneled resources from their NFL team to Manchester United of the English Premier Soccer League. It's a perception that persisted as the Bucs sat idly by during this year's free agency frenzy, only signing a punter.
If you hear GM Mark Dominik tell it, he says the team is focused on their young players and the future of the team. He's said multiple times that he wants to be in position to extend Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount. He wants to have the flexibility to retain the young core of the defense. He didn't believe he could do that spending wildly in free agency.
The Bucs were once in cap hell - it ultimately led to the dismantling of the 2002 Super Bowl Championship squad (only Ronde Barber remains) - the Glazers have lost faith in free agency. They want to model their franchise after the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts - who aren't typically active in free agency but have been football powers for a long, long time.
4. The NFC South is one of the toughest divisions in all of football with the Falcons, Saints and Bucs. How much of a challenge does this present for Tampa Bay, and can they realistically make the playoffs in 2011?
Both the Saints and Falcons are formidable opponents. It's almost like being in the AL East in baseball. Still the Bucs competed well against these two NFC powers, splitting with the Saints and coming within a play or two of beating the Falcons in both games they faced them. Some see a slide back, but I don't count myself among them. With a significantly improved defense and another year of maturation for Freeman and his offensive weapons, the Bucs should be in it down to the wire.
5. Like the Lions a couple years ago, the Bucs are dealing with blackout problems. What is the feeling in Tampa Bay about the attendance issues, and is there any sign that this will become less of an issue going forward?
Tampa Bay had a run of 10 consecutive years of sellouts. The stands began to empty out as the stars from their time period faded away. Fan favorites Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Mike Alstott, Simeon Rice and Derrick Brooks were all eventually given their walking papers. Add to that the Bucs significantly raised ticket prices and since 2004 have spent less money on their football team than any other franchise in the league and fans are viewing the "new Bucs" with a skeptical eye. They want to see this team put together another good season before putting down their hard earned dollars.
Another major factor is the unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay area - which was hit harder than most markets in the league. The lack of discretionary income has affected all of Tampa Bay's sports franchises and the teams have had to come up with unique ways to peak fan interest. The Bucs and Rays, despite fielding good teams, have failed to make it a "must be seen at" event, while the Lightning hockey franchise has seen their season ticket base double. Right now, there's not much motivating fans to go see the Buccaneers in a hot stadium with overpriced concessions and obnoxious fans around them.
They'd rather stay at home and watch in on their 50 inch HDTV ... or circumvent the blackouts by pulling up the game on the Internet.
Until the Bucs make it a must see event - as in continue to win and compete in the NFC South - fans will stay away.