Carolina Panthers (0-0) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0)
Tampa Bay is one of my underrated teams. In case you haven’t been following throughout the offseason, what I attempted to do this year was identify 5 underrated and 5 overrated teams going into the season and then bet them pretty much blindly for the first few weeks of the season until the odds makers caught up or I was proven wrong. I think the Buccaneers are somewhere in between the 10 win team they were in 2010 and the 4 win team they were in 2011.
In 2010, everything went right for this team. They had an easy schedule and went 9-1 against sub .500 teams (1-5 against everyone else). They turned the ball over just 19 times and after regressing 6 wins from 2008 to 2009, predictably bounced back. Teams that regress 6 wins win an average of 3.0 more games the following season. The Buccaneers did that and more, going from 3 to 10 wins.
However, in 2011, they predictably declined. Like teams that regress by a big win total, teams that improve by a big win total also tend to go the other direction in the following season. Teams that improve 7 games win an average of 4.5 fewer games the following season. The Buccaneers are very familiar with this principle, going from 9 wins in 2008 to 3 in 2009 to 10 in 2010. It was easy to see how they’d do it. They turned the ball over less than 20 times in 2010, which is an unsustainable stat for a team without a true elite quarterback. There have been 36 teams since 2002 with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. They also had a much tougher schedule and proved in 2010 that they couldn’t beat tough competition.
The Buccaneers ended up regressing more than 4.5 wins. They regressed 6 wins and turned the ball over a whopping 40 times, going 4-12 and losing their last 10 after quitting on Head Coach Raheem Morris. They went from playing 6 games against teams that were .500 or better than 11 and didn’t improve, going 2-9 in those 11 games. There is definitely reason to be optimistic for the Buccaneers this season. Teams that regress 6 wins win an average of 3.0 more games the following season and teams that turn the ball over 35 times or more have averaged 9.74 fewer turnovers the next season and have won 1.61 more games. Raheem Morris is gone and is replaced with a much more disciplinarian Head Coach in Greg Schiano and the team finally spent money in the offseason. Though they overpaid each one of them, there’s no doubt that the trio of Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, and Eric Wright, overall, will have a positive impact on this team in 2012.
Their young defense should be better with another year of experience and they could get a bounce back year from Aqib Talib. They also get Gerald McCoy back from injury. McCoy is an incredibly valuable player when healthy. When he’s been in the lineup over the past 2 years, they’re 11-8 and allow 22.1 points per game. When he’s not, they’re 3-12 and allow 30.2 points per game. That’s obviously not all him, as those numbers are skewed because he missed most of his time last season when they had a tougher schedule and committed more turnovers. However, the 3rd pick in the 2010 NFL Draft is still a great player and they really missed him when he got hurt last season.
Eric Wright, though he was not worth his giant contract, will be an upgrade at cornerback over Ronde Barber, who has been moved to safety. They also add rookie safety Mark Barron to an improved defensive backfield and rookie linebacker Lavonte David to one of the worst linebacking corps in the NFL last year. The new coaching staff will also bring discipline to a team that missed the most tackles of any team since they started keeping the stat. Remember, this team had the 9th ranked defense in the league in 2010, allowing 19.9 points per game. They probably won’t be that good, but fewer missed tackles, additions, bounce back years, maturation of young players, an easier schedule, and fewer turnovers from the offense (which puts a ton of pressure on the defense) should help this defense be more middle of the pack.
Offensively, they have the additions of Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson, as well as potential bounce back years from Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, key parts of their 2010 team. They also add running back Doug Martin in the first round of the draft. Gone is Kellen Winslow, but that might be a good thing. Of Freeman’s 22 interceptions, 9 were targeted for Winslow, most in the league. Davin Joseph is also gone for the year with injury, but he’s one of the most overrated players in the league so that’s not a huge deal. Josh Freeman probably won’t have the 25 touchdowns to 6 interceptions he had in 2010, but he probably won’t have the 16 touchdowns to 22 interceptions he had last year.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are a little bit overrated right now. I agree they’ll improve their 6 wins from last season (especially since their Pythagorean Expectation was about 7.5 wins last season), but I don’t think they’re quite a playoff team yet. Cam Newton could have a bit of a sophomore slump. He won’t be bad or anything, but this was the league’s #5 scoring offense that year. He can regress while still leading a good offense, just not the elite one they had last year. It’ll be up to the defense to compensate and I don’t think they can. The addition of rookie Luke Kuechly and the return of Jon Beason from injury in their linebacking corps will help, but they’re still weak on the defensive line and in the secondary, which are more important.
The Panthers will probably be about a 7 or 8 win team this year. I think they’re a year away. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, figure to be right in that same area, between the 4 they won last year and the 10 they won in 2010. These teams are pretty evenly matched, with Carolina having the better offense and Tampa Bay having the better defense. For that reason, this line should be Tampa Bay -3 because it’s in Tampa Bay, but it’s the opposite, Carolina -3. There’s a lot of line value with Tampa Bay, an underrated team, and I like them to win a close game between evenly matched teams at home.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Carolina Panthers 24 Upset Pick (+115)
Pick against spread: Tampa Bay +3 (-130) 3 units