Who better to talk about the next opponent than the guys in there with them every day. Long-time Tampa Tribune NFL writer Ira Kaufman was good enough to answer five questions about the Buccaneers in advance of the Panthers trip there this weekend.
1. Do the Bucs believe they’re in this race, and did the loss at Atlanta show you any positives about that team?
At this point, the Bucs figure they're playing with house money. They have already passed last year's win total by two victories and the schedule appears soft down the stretch. Sunday's loss at Atlanta is further evidence the Bucs play hard to the final whistle. They could have been blown out early, but this club is resilient, although not overly talented.
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2. Did the lumps Josh Freeman took last year set the stage for this year’s improvement, and has he talked about how a difficult rookie year helped him this year?
Freeman has come a long way from the rookie QB who kept making poor decisions in 2009. He had thrown only three interceptions this season until the Falcons picked him off twice and he has learned how to check it down or throw the ball out of bounds when the play breaks down.
That rocky rookie year turned Freeman into a film freak in the offseason and it's evident all that time with offensive coordinator Greg Olson has paid off.
3. Along those same lines, how much difference is Raheem Morris as a coach this year? Seems like he was trying to keep his head down last year, but his “best team in the NFC” claim a few weeks ago drew some notice.
Morris appeared overwhelmed at times as a rookie coach, but he began asserting himself when he dumped Jim Bates and took over the defense for the final six games.
He is much more assured in 2010 and he has made a point of talking up his young team to show them he has confidence in them. Many of his motivational tactics come courtesy of Mike Tomlin, his mentor and confidante. They talk extensively every week. For the most part, Tomlin talks and Morris listens.
4. Is the local market there starting to warm to the Bucs yet? The Panthers keep selling out games with a 1-7 product, why do fans there seem chilly toward the Bucs?
Club officials have said all year that they expect all 8 home games to be blacked out.
The Bucs attribute the sparse crowds to the brutal Florida economy, and there's no doubt the Tampa area has been hit very hard in terms of plunging real estate values and unemployment. There is also some resentment toward the Glazers because the payroll is so low and many fans believe the quick start is a mirage.
Right now, fan interest is lagging well behind Tampa Bay's surprising early success.
5. How much longer can Ronde Barber keep this up? Seems like his brother’s been gone forever, and he just keeps going.
Barber is a special cat, amazingly durable and blessed with keen football intelligence.
With all due respect to Peyton Manning, I have lauded Barber as perhaps the smartest player in the league. His study habits are unique and he has compiled some special numbers, despite being an ordinary athlete by NFL standards.
He is exceedingly close with Morris and there's a decent chance this will be Ronde's final season, but it will likely be his call because the Bucs crave his work ethic to serve as an example for the league's youngest team.
-- Darin Gantt