The NFL has a rule that teams can block other clubs from interviewing their personnel if it's for a lateral move. So, for example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can refuse the Philadelphia Eagles permission to speak with Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter if that's the job the Eagles want to hire him for. I mention this rule because if the NFL didn't have one, then Lovie Smith might still be Tampa Bay's head coach instead of in the same role at the University of Illinois.
In order to keep Koetter from interviewing for head coaching jobs this offseason, including in Philly, the Bucs dumped Smith and promoted Koetter. I have no idea if he will be a good head coach or not, but this franchise needs stability at the position. Since Jon Gruden was kicked to the curb after the 2008 season, Raheem Morris lasted three years and Greg Schiano and Smith two each. But Smith also improved the club by four wins last year, so there will be major egg on the face of Bucs officials if Tampa Bay regresses under Koetter.
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I know I'm supposed to make my predictions here with some expert knowledge, but there are a few teams each NFL season where I'm just not sure. And Tampa is one of them. If Jameis Winston improves even 25 percent from his rookie season and all the key guys stay healthy, then this team can make the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But if Winston has a sophomore slump, running back Doug Martin goes back to 2013-14 Doug Martin version and the offensive line isn't better, well, this team probably finishes last in the NFC South again.
Tampa didn't really add any big names in free agency or lose anyone, with the top move re-signing Martin to an extension. The Bucs traded down a few spots in the first round of this year's draft to take Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, a Tampa native. The surprising pick was the Bucs moving up back into the second round to take Florida State's Roberto Aguayo, one of the best kickers in NCAA history. So of course he missed the first-ever PAT of his NFL career in Tampa's preseason opener and has been really shaky thus far. Not sure I agree with taking a kicker in Round 2, especially giving up draft picks to do so.
The Bucs were 3-5 at home last season, 3-5 against the spread and 5-3 "over/under." They host three 2015 playoff teams this season. I project a 4-4 record at Raymond James Stadium, host of this season's College Football Playoff national title game. BetOnline gives Tampa a wins total of 7 on the season, with the over a -125 favorite. I'd try to find a total with a half-win attached because I think the Bucs push at 7. Overall, Tampa's strength of schedule ranks as tied for the fifth-hardest in the NFL with an opponents' combined 2015 winning percentage of .534. Odds listed below for the home team.
Sept. 25 vs. Rams (-1): Tampa is off trips to Atlanta and Arizona to open the season and probably 0-2. The Rams could be a bit flat off their regular-season return to Los Angeles in Week 2 against Seattle. L.A. does catch a break here in that it's a 4:05 p.m. ET start. Will this be matchup of No. 1 overall picks between Winston and Jared Goff? That's up to Jeff Fisher. Key trend: Bucs 3-7 ATS in past 10 at home vs. NFC West.
Oct. 2 vs. Broncos (+2.5): Denver is off a trip to Cincinnati in Week 3, the third straight really good opponent the Broncos face to start the year, so this has the potential to be a letdown game. Start of a really tough back-to-back as the Bucs then head to Carolina. Tampa has lost three straight to Denver. Key trend: Bucs 4-5-1 ATS in past 10 as home dog of 2.5 points or fewer.
Oct. 30 vs. Raiders (pick'em): The Pirate Bowl. Bucs off a trip to San Francisco in Week 7. Oakland is in Jacksonville the previous Sunday, so perhaps the Raiders just set up camp in Florida. The Bucs won the last meeting 42-32 in Oakland in 2012. Key trend: Bucs 6-3-1 ATS in past 10 at home vs. AFC West.
Nov. 3 vs. Falcons (-1.5): Thursday night game. Atlanta is home to Green Bay the previous Sunday. Tampa Bay beat the visiting Falcons 23-19 in Week 13 last year, the Bucs' final win of the season. That victory actually had them in wild-card contention. Winston threw the winning 6-yard TD pass to Mike Evans with 1:39 left. Winston also converted a third-and-19 on the winning drive with his feet. Martin rushed for 95 yards and a score. Key trend: Bucs have covered five straight as home favorite in series.
Nov. 13 vs. Bears (-2): There will be more Chicago fans most likely at this game. It's an easy flight down from the Windy City for a nice warm weekend. The Bears come off their bye week. Tampa lost at home to Chicago 26-21 in Week 16 last year. Winston was 15-for-29 for two scores (one a Hail Mary at the end of regulation that meant nothing other than for those betting on the total) and a pick (at the Chicago goal line). Key trend: Bucs 5-5 ATS in past 10 at home vs. Bears.
Nov. 27 vs. Seahawks (+5): Tampa off a trip to Kansas City in Week 11. Definition of trap game for Seattle in flying across country ahead of a game the following Sunday at home vs. Carolina. At least this one is a 4:05 p.m. ET start. Then-winless Bucs nearly pulled an upset for the ages in the last meeting but fell 27-24 in OT in Seattle in November 2013. Nearly every Survivor Pool on the planet would have blown up that day. Key trend: Bucs 4-6 ATS in past 10 as home dog of at least 5 points vs. anyone.
Dec. 11 vs. Saints (-3): Bucs are in San Diego the previous Sunday. New Orleans is in Detroit in Week 13. The Saints have won eight of the past nine meetings with the Bucs. New Orleans won 24-17 at Tampa in Week 14 last year to start the Bucs on a season-ending four-game skid. The loss stopped the Bucs from climbing over .500 for the first time in three years. Winston was 18-for-32 for 182 yards and a TD. Martin rushed for 81 yards and a score. Key trend: Bucs 1-5 ATS in past six as home favorite in series.
Jan. 1 vs. Panthers (TBA): As usual if you have been following these, no Week 17 lines with too much potentially up in the air on the final Sunday. Tampa Bay is off a trip to New Orleans on Christmas Eve. Carolina is home to Atlanta the previous Saturday. The Bucs lost to the visiting Panthers 37-23 in Week 4 last year. Winston threw for 287 yards and two scores but also four picks. Martin rushed for 106 yards and a score. The Bucs dominated statistically but had five giveaways overall. Key trend: Bucs 0-3 ATS in past three at home in series.
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