It’s been a decade since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the NFC South and last made the post season. Since 2007, the Atlanta Falcons have won the division 3 times and made the playoffs 6 of the last 10 years. The Carolina Panthers have won 4 division titles and made 5 trips to the post season. The New Orleans Saints, last year’s division champion, has won it 3 times and made the playoffs 5 times in the last decade.
Of course, when the NFC South was first put together, most believed it would be the Buccaneers who would dominate for a decade. Tampa Bay had competed in the tough NFC Central and made the playoffs 3 of the last 4 years. Atlanta was on a string of 3 straight losing seasons. Carolina missed the playoffs 5 straight years and was coming off a 1-15 season. The Saints had missed the playoffs in 8 of the last 9 seasons. The first 6 years proved a little less dominant than the Bucs would have hoped, as they won 3 division titles, including the Super Bowl season of 2002.
After they last captured a division championship in 2007, only the Bucs have failed to qualify for the playoffs or win a division title. In fact, Tampa Bay has just 3 winning seasons since then.
We all know how the Bucs got to be so bad but how do they join their NFC South brethren in competing for division titles and World Championships? Is there a secret sauce in the NFC South? Let’s see what we have to do to make the Bucs win again.
How have the Falcons continued their dominance in the division and routinely made the post-season? Well, of course it all starts with Matt Ryan and the offense. In their six playoff seasons, the Falcons have finished no worse than 15th in scoring offense. Balance, though, seems to be the way to a division championship.
In the years the Falcons captured the NFC South here were their scoring ranks on offense and defense –
2010 5th in scoring offense, 5th in scoring defense
2012 7th in scoring offense, 5th in scoring defense
2016 1st in scoring offense, 27th in scoring defense
Only 2016 was the outlier here, but Atlanta compensated for a bad defense by being 4th best in turnover margin. Of course, that defense came to bite the Falcons in the backside in the Super Bowl when Tom Brady staged the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
In their other playoff years:
2008 10th in scoring offense, 11th in scoring defense
2011 7th in scoring offense, 18th in scoring defense
2017 15th in scoring offense, 8th in scoring defense
Carolina has captured the most division titles in the last decade, but the interesting thing is how they got there. In their 4 division championships, they were top 10 in scoring offense or defense – with 2014 being the exception (19th in scoring offense, 21st in scoring defense). Of coourse, 2014 was also the year the Panthers won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record, so let’s throw that one out.
The other 3 division championship years:
2008 7th in scoring offense, 12th in scoring defense
2013 18th in scoring offense, 2nd in scoring defense
2015 1st in scoring offense, 6th in scoring defense
In their other playoff year
2017 12th in scoring offense, 11th in scoring defense
New Orleans Saints
With Drew Brees, there’s only been one season the Saints weren’t a top 10 scoring offense (2010, when they finished 11th). When you have an offense like that, you don’t need a great defense. You need just an adequate defense, as the Saints proved in their playoff years.
Division Championship Seasons
2009 1st in scoring offense, 20th in scoring defense
2011 2nd in scoring offense, 13th in scoring defense
2017 4th in scoring offense, 10th in scoring defense
In other playoff years
2010 11th in scoring offense, 7th in scoring defense
2013 10th in scoring offense, 4th in scoring defense
So Where Are the Bucs?
Since 2007, Tampa Bay’s offense hasn’t ranked better than 13th in scoring offense. The defense had two seasons (2008, 2010) where they had a top 10 defense in scoring but haven’t finished better than 15th since 2010.
The 2015 season where the Bucs finished 5th in total offense and basically got Dirk Koetter the head coaching job in Tampa Bay? They were 20th in scoring offense.
Yards don’t matter, folks. It’s all about the points. Under Koetter’s offense, Tampa Bay hasn’t finished better than 18th in scoring (each of the last two seasons). In his 11 years in the NFL, Koetter has had a top ten offense in yards 5 times, including last year. Points however, are a different story. Only twice in his NFL career have his offenses finished in the top ten and it hasn’t happened since 2012.
Mike Smith was a bit better for defense, as his defenses finished top 10 in scoring defense 4 times in his 5 years as a defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. If you want to count his time in Atlanta (debatable since it’s not known how much input he had on the defensive side of the ball), they did it two more times.
So in 14 yrs of coaching, Mike Smith’s defenses finish in the top 10 in scoring defense in nearly half of those years (6 times).
So What Have We Learned?
To win the NFC South, you need to be really good at either scoring offense or defense. 8 of the last 10 division champions have had either a top 5 scoring offense or defense. It also helps to have balance. In 8 of the last 10 years, the division champion was no worse than 15th in scoring offense or defense.
How does NFC South compare to the rest of the league?
7 of the 8 division opponents had a unit in the top 5 five in scoring. The only outlier was the Kansas City Chiefs, who were 6th in scoring offense. Yes, even the Patriots and their defense that was ranked 29th in total defense had a scoring defense that was 5th overall.
Balance was there as well, as each division winner had both units no lower than 15th in scoring.
So Is There No Hope?
There is hope, as teams do have dramatic jumps in production. Only 3 of the 8 division champions were repeat champs. The new division winners made significant leaps.
2016 16th in scoring offense, 12th in scoring defense
2017 3rd in scoring offense, 4th in scoring defense
2016 23rd in scoring offense, 6th in scoring defense
2017 10th in scoring offense, 1st in scoring defense
2016 2nd in scoring offense, 31st in scoring defense
2017 4th in scoring offense, 10th in scoring defense
2016 32nd in scoring offense, 23rd in scoring defense
2017 1st in scoring offense, 12th in scoring defense
2016 25th in scoring offense, 25th in scoring defense
2017 5th in scoring offense, 2nd in scoring defense
Look at those numbers! The Eagles improved on both sides of the ball by a +21 in combined ranking improvement. Minnesota was a +18. The Saints actually got worse on offense (2nd to 4th) but made a +21 jump on defense. The most dramatic changes though, were by the Rams and the Jaguars. Los Angeles went from worst to first on offense and improved from 23rd to 12th on defense, giving them a shocking +40 improvement jump. Jacksonville was even better. They improved 20 spots on offense and 23 spots on defensive scoring for a jaw-dropping +43 improvement.
The Bucs don’t even have to go that far. To be a Top 5 offense, they would need to improve their scoring by 13. To be a top 5 scoring defense, they’d need to improve by 17.
Remember, you need a top 5 scoring unit and a top 15 unit to have a very good chance at a division title. Say the top five unit is the offense, as we already said, an improvement of 13. The defense would need to improve by 7 spots. So, +20.
If, by some miracle, it’s the defense that’s the Top 5 unit, the Offense would only have to improve their scoring by 3 spots. Again, +20. Only Minnesota had less to go. Every other team, including the Super Bowl Champions, went farther than the Bucs to get to the numbers they need.
Of course, it’s an over simplification of an outdated cliche. Score more points than your opponent and you will win. Duh. However, I think what these numbers suggest is that teams can become much more consistent and those that make the leap can go from worst to first and win a division.
So there it is. Don’t worry about yards. Don’t worry about where the running game is or where the Bucs rank in total defense. Worry about where the Bucs are in red zone and overall scoring on both sides of the ball. That is why it’s been an emphasis by the coaching staff this year and it’s where we will know if the Bucs are a playoff contender or going to watch their division rivals in January yet again.