Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The problem with the Buccaneers' 2017 schedule that needs to be fixed now

Some thoughts on the Buccaneers' 2017 schedule, which was unveiled last night:

Danger ahead

Because Tom Brady and the Patriots need the help, the NFL schedule overlords have offered the Bucs as a Week 5 sacrifice in front of a national audience on Thursday Night Football.

The problem with this stretch of Tampa Bay's schedule isn't that it plays the Super Bowl champions just four days after it plays the New York Giants. It's that the game against the Giants is scheduled for 4:05 p.m. instead of 1 p.m.

The time between the late Sunday game and the Thursday night game isn't "short rest"; it's a Gatorade break. And the NFL should fix it. It's a competitive balance issue — New England plays at 1 p.m. the week before — as well as a safety issue. As it stands now, the Bucs will lose precious recovery time.

RELATED STORY: Bucs will take on a parade of great QBs

This looks an awful lot like the condensed Raiders-Falcons portion of last season's schedule. In those games, Tampa Bay allowed a total of 73 points and 1,087 yards. The defense allowed 19 plays of at least 20 yards (it allowed an average of 3.3 in all other games).

The game against Oakland went nearly five full quarters and was part of the basis for the league competition committee's proposal last month to limit overtime to 10 minutes. Of particular consideration were teams, like the Bucs, who played a full 15-minute overtime period on a Sunday and then played again on a Thursday. Tampa Bay was the only team to face such a circumstance.

RELATED STORY: NFL overtime proposal takes aim at a problem that doesn't exist

In answering a question about a potential increase in ties if the rule were to pass, committee chairman Rich McKay, the Falcons president and former Bucs general manager, pivoted and said, "We're more concerned about player safety."

This presents the NFL an opportunity to act on that concern and to prevent history from repeating.

No 'Hard Knocks' bump

It turns out that the announcement that Tampa Bay will be featured on the HBO series this summer was not a signal that the team would be considered must-see TV come the fall. The Bucs are scheduled to appear in prime time only twice — once on Thursday night (Oct. 5 vs. the Patriots) and once on Monday night (Dec. 18 vs. the Falcons). That's the same number of prime-time games they were originally scheduled to play last season.

The Rams, who were featured on Hard Knocks last season, and the Texans, who were featured in 2015, didn't get bumps, either. Both were scheduled to play two prime-time games (Houston ultimately played a third when its game against the Patriots was flexed to Sunday night).

RELATED STORY: Bucs and 'charismatic' roster set for 'Hard Knocks'

Two might seem low, especially when the Alex Smith-led Chiefs got a league-high six and the 7-9 Eagles got five. While fans in Tampa Bay might feel Jameis Winston, Mike Evans and Gerald McCoy deserve the national exposure, the fact is that this is not Dallas or Washington. Unless paired with a team with a large following, the Bucs historically are not a big ratings draw. They didn't help their cause last season when they and the Panthers took turns trying to lose on Monday Night Football.

I don't see it as a sign of disrespect, as columnist Tom Jones wrote in today's Times. Eight games ago, no one but the diehards cared, and even their interest was on life support. There were a lot of empty seats when Tampa Bay hosted Chicago in Week 10, and the ones that weren't empty were occupied by people inhaling sahsige sammiches. But then the Bucs beat the Bears. And the Chiefs. And the Seahawks. And the Chargers. And the Saints. Suddenly, they were on Sunday Night Football playing the Cowboys.

RELATED STORY: Jones: NFL thinks Bucs aren't prime-time ready. It's wrong.

Hard Knocks isn't enough to get people's attention. Not even Winston is enough. Winning is, and the Bucs haven't done enough of it. If they do, NBC will have plenty of interest in flexing that Week 13 game against the Packers.

The lack of strength in 'strength of schedule'

While we learned the schedule last night, we've known the Bucs' opponents since January. Even so, this is the time when "strength of schedule" talk kicks into high gear. Strength of schedule is calculated by combining opponents' winning percentages from the previous season and is often used to gauge the difficulty of a team's schedule.

Tampa Bay's 2017 opponents had a combined winning percentage of .518 last season, which is the 14th-highest. By this measure, Denver has the hardest schedule (opponents had a .578 percentage), and Indianapolis has the easiest (opponents had a .424 percentage).

About strength of schedule and the numbers in the previous paragraph: They mean nothing. They're junk. Toss them out. Forget about them.

Schedules matter; teams with weaker slates of opponents have a clear advantage over teams with stronger slates. It can be the difference between who makes the playoffs and who watches from the couch. But here's the thing: Last season's winning percentages aren't predictive of schedule strength. What appears to be a difficult schedule now could very well be easy. What appears to be easy could be difficult.

Let's go back to last season. The Bucs and Seahawks were projected to have the fifth-most difficult schedules based on their opponents' .543 winning percentages in 2015. Tampa Bay's opponents ended up finishing with a .490 percentage, and Seattle's ended up finishing with a .439 percentage.

Does that late-season stretch of Falcons-Packers-Lions-Falcons worry you? Don't sweat it. A lot will happen between now and Thanksgiving.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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