NEW ORLEANS -- They finished the race. But they didn't win it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris proclaimed before the 2010 season that his team was in a "race to 10" victories -- with the idea that would be good enough to get them into the postseason.
The Bucs got to the finish line in the race to 10 by beating the defending Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints 23-13 on Sunday, but they won't be moving on to the playoffs. When the Green Bay Packers defeated the Chicago Bears later Sunday, the Bucs, by then on the plane home, were eliminated.
That might put a damper on the now, but this much is certain: Watch out for Tampa Bay in the future. In fact, I'll make an early prediction that next season the Bucs will be a playoff team.
|In his second season in the NFL, Josh Freeman tosses 25 TD passes against six INTs in the Bucs' 10-win season. (Getty Images)|
"These young guys are stepping up," Morris said. "They come out and put a helmet on and they buy into the system. You put them in that room and start coaching. They get out there on the field and they play fast and they play hard."
What's so impressive about their beating the Saints on Sunday was that they did it with 22 first- or second-year players suited up. They did it with their first- and second-round picks from last April's draft on the injured-reserve list, along with their best corner (Aqib Talib) and two of their best offensive linemen (center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph).
It all starts with Josh Freeman. He is big, strong, has a good arm and -- maybe more important -- he loves the game. He's a workaholic and the rest of the young Bucs feed off of him.
On the podium after the game, Freeman was already talking about getting to work this offseason with young receiver Preston Parker, who was pressed into action late in the season because of injuries to two of Tampa Bay's top receivers.
That's the kind of desire you want from that position. His ability to spend hours dissecting tape makes him one of those gym-rat quarterbacks teams love. On Sunday, he completed 21 of 26 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns.
One of those scores came on a fourth-and-short play in which he faked a sneak into the line with the idea he would flip a short pass to a wide-open Kellen Winslow on the left side of the formation.
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The Saints covered Winslow, and Freeman calmly looked to the only other receiver out in the pattern, rookie Mike Williams. He was in man coverage with corner Jabari Greer.
Freeman, backpedaling to avoid the rush, lofted the ball deep to Williams, who jumped up and grabbed it for a 20-10 lead with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
"In that situation, a field goal doesn't do that much," Freeman said. "So, it being fourth-and-one, we said, 'Let's go for it and try and win this game.' "
With Freeman, Williams and rookie running back LeGarrette Blount, who on Sunday put his name in the NFL record book by becoming the second undrafted rookie to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, the Bucs have a nice three-headed offensive attack to build around.
The defense has some concerns, but it played like it had none against the Saints. The Bucs held New Orleans to 305 yards and made Drew Brees look human. Brees finished the game with 196 yards on 22-of-38 passing, an interception and a lost fumble. He was also sacked three times.
Despite the stellar defensive play, expect the Bucs to use early picks in the draft on pass rushers. They have to get more from the outside. The good thing is that it's a deep draft class for defensive ends.
The strange thing about the Bucs' postgame locker room was that there wasn't much concern about the other scores. Veteran teams would pay more attention to the games the Bucs needed to go their way. These kids seemed to have no idea.
Morris didn't even seem to pay attention, although I did see him catching a glimpse of the Bears-Packers game as he spoke to the media.
"No, I wasn't looking," he said. "We did our part."
Maybe their nonchalant act about the other scores underlies what we've been saying here. They know the future is bright, so why worry about now?
"Whatever happens, we have to look at it like we did it to ourselves," Freeman said. "We will all look back and say, 'We should have won that game.' But getting to 10 wins like we did is a great accomplishment and is something we can build upon for next year."
Maybe Williams summed it up best when he was asked about what this team should expect moving forward, considering all the young talent.
"Next year is probably a race to 11," Williams said. "We got to 10, so race to 11 and see what happens then."
Tampa Bay had all eight of its home games blacked out this season. Here's a wise word for Bucs fans heading into 2011: Get your tickets now. This is going to be a good football team -- not only next year but maybe for the next half of the decade.