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At midway point of season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers are clearly better than anyone realized

This morning, it is fair to say that most of us were wrong. We were wrong about how good the Buccaneers might be or, rather, how bad we assumed they would be. I know this because I just rechecked the Las Vegas odds from early September, and the Bucs and Rams began the season in the 300-to-1, bottom-of-the-NFL, ain't-that-a-funny-joke category to win the Super Bowl.

Let that sink in for a moment. Give it a chance to roll around your brain. Because Detroit was 150-to-1. Cleveland was 150-to-1. Poor, pathetic Buffalo was 150-to-1. And yet the Bucs' hopes were considered twice as bleak.

Naturally, this doesn't mean Tampa Bay is on its way to the Super Bowl. Or even the playoffs. But it does suggest a lot of people seriously misjudged this team's potential.

So, halfway through the season, where did we go wrong?

Or, if you prefer, where did the Bucs go right?

In other words, what have we learned that we did not know before?

Josh Freeman can be a legitimate franchise quarterback.

You might have suspected this. You might have even prayed about it. But no one knew for certain if Freeman could live up to the pressure or expectations of being Tampa Bay's highest-drafted quarterback in 15 years.

And though the verdict might not yet be unanimous, the evidence is beginning to lean heavily in Freeman's favor. You can begin with the arm strength, size and athleticism, but those were easy to spot in Freeman's rookie season in 2009.

The difference is how quickly he has grown as a manager of the huddle in 2010. He is reading blitzes and breaking down pass coverages. He is walking the fine line between avoiding turnovers and yet taking calculated risks. Best of all, he has shown calm and confidence in the fourth quarter time after time.

When you consider how many first-round quarterbacks have flamed out in the past decade — JaMarcus Russell, Matt Leinart, Alex Smith, J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington, David Carr — Freeman's growth at age 22 is a huge step forward for Tampa Bay.

Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik just may be the next generation.

The combination of thin resumes and a fistful of shaky decisions last season made it fashionable, and probably logical, to question their promotions. Yet two months into the 2010 season, they are leading the way for the NFL's 30-something bosses.

Dominik, 39, turned the roster upside down and shook out much of the fluff and riffraff. In less than two years on the job, he has the youngest team in the league and potential building blocks on offense with Freeman, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount.

As for Morris, 34, what more could you want halfway through the season? The team does not commit a lot of penalties, it has a positive turnover ratio, and it has won several close games, all considered hallmarks of well-coached teams. Not to mention, all three losses have come against clearly superior teams.

Or, you could look at it this way: The Bucs are 21st in total offense, 20th in scoring offense, 24th in total defense and 26th in scoring defense and still have a winning record. That suggests someone is managing the game well.

A receiving corps can be rebuilt in a day.

At least, that's the way it looks now.

Rookies Williams and Arrelious Benn have accounted for 60 percent of Tampa Bay's receptions by wideouts and 60 percent of the team's touchdown passes. That's a pretty good chunk of offense for two guys picked up in the draft less than seven months ago.

Williams and Benn, and return specialist Micheal Spurlock, have given Freeman more weapons than he had a year ago.

The defense is opportunistic, if not consistent.

This is a better defensive team than in 2009, but not by much.

The Bucs still can't stop the run and still can't rush the passer. They began overhauling the defensive line in the draft and still have a lot of work to do. Defensive tackle is a difficult position to play as a rookie, and Gerald McCoy is far from a finished product, but you can now see why Detroit favored Ndamukong Suh when the Lions had the choice between DTs in April.

Tampa Bay's linebackers have been adequate, but you can still make it through an entire afternoon without ever really noticing Quincy Black or Barrett Ruud.

What has given the defense the appearance of success is turnovers. The Bucs are tied for the NFL lead with 14 interceptions, and they have made most of them count. Cody Grimm, Aqib Talib and Geno Hayes have returned interceptions for TDs, and all three either tied the score or gave the Bucs a lead in games they went on to win.

So is that it? Is Tampa Bay's turnaround that simple?

Of course not.

There is the matter of getting the comically inept NFC West on the schedule rotation, and there have been more than a couple of questionable decisions by coaches on the other side of the field.

There is also the realization that Tampa Bay is only halfway home. We know more than we did in September, but we still don't know if Blount can be a full-time back or how quickly McCoy can grow or how opponents will adjust to Tampa Bay's array of blitzes.

What we do know is the Bucs are 5-3 and a whole lot better than we imagined.

You can bet on it.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

At midway point of season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers are clearly better than anyone realized 11/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 7:42am]

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