COMMENTARY | After five frustrating seasons of missing the NFL playoffs, with the release of the team's 2013 schedule fans of the Tampa Bay Bucs can study the task that awaits second-year head coach Greg Schiano.
Though last year's 7-9 record proved disappointing, sufficient signs of progress were witnessed in order to believe the organization is capable of advancing. An analysis of the Bucs' schedule reveals that the league has not overly burdened such a goal. Highlighted by a pair of prime-time home games, and landing the NFC South's easiest schedule by 2012 winning percentage, Tampa Bay's docket offers hope that 2013 can bring a return to the playoffs.
The revelation of the Bucs' opponents was not surprising, since these rivals were predetermined by last year's positioning and an annual rotation of extra-divisional foes. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the combined winning percentage of future opposition will add up to only .500, based on 2012's records.
This is a manageable figure and also provides to the lightest challenge within the NFC South.
If yearly home-and-home matchups with the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons are set aside, that winning percentage plummets even further in considering Tampa Bay's other 14 opponents. Indeed, 11 of 16 games will feature a team that possessed a losing record in 2012. Contests against the Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, and Philadelphia Eagles likely offer promising opportunities, upon which the Bucs must capitalize with more wins during year two of the Schiano era.
Prime-Time Games and Filling Raymond James Stadium
Due to expansion of the Thursday night slate of games, every team is now guaranteed at least one prime-time opportunity throughout the NFL season. Last year, that contest occurred in Week 8 when the Bucs traveled to meet the Minnesota Vikings and posted a convincing 36-17 victory.
Receiving no additional evening home games in 2012, fans were rewarded with two such games this year, including hosting the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, October 25, and the Miami Dolphins on Monday, November 11. Both matchups under the lights will feature teams with the same 7-9 record that the Bucs posted in 2012. Additionally, these high-profile games will offer a better chance to sell tickets and avoid the tendency for being blacked-out from local television. While the Carolina game will be a divisional clash, starring one of football's most dynamic players in Cam Newton, any meeting with the cross-state rival Dolphins always intensifies passion in the stands.
Opportunity for a Quick Start
With six of the first 10 games at Raymond James Stadium, combined with an early bye in Week 5, the Bucs have a legitimate opportunity to embark upon a solid start. Opening hot would certainly help build momentum for a young team and also instill confidence within a fan-base that often struggles to get enthused about their squad's chances. That formula may prove a mixed blessing, however, as the Bucs opened with a 5-3 record last year before dropping five of the final seven contests in the second half.
While Schiano must avoid a similar letdown, the season appears to possess a good balance, as the calendar's most intimidating dates with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are separated by a beneficial six weeks. Even with four of the final six games played on the road, late, winnable matchups with the Lions and the St. Louis Rams provide hope that the Bucs may not become overwhelmed once again.
Avoiding Cold Weather
While Tampa Bay has historically taken advantage of its acclamation to warmer weather, the team equally struggles dealing with colder climates. In fact, the Bucs were haunted for years by the inability to win when the temperature dropped below freezing. While that streak mercifully ended, it is comforting to realize that this team will likely avoid playing in conditions less than 50 degrees.
In addition to eight home games in Florida, the Bucs will travel to face the New York Jets, New England Patriots, and Seattle Seahwaks during the campaign's warmer first half. For players hoping to avoid the cold entirely, the season's latter half will be blessed with road games in three domes. This fortunate scheduling means the Bucs' December 1 contest in Carolina will likely be the only opportunity for a chilly kick-off.
The Darrelle Revis Bowl
Though many remain hopeful the Bucs will address a weakness at cornerback with a trade for All-Pro Darrelle Revis, the chances of such a deal are rapidly diminishing. With Tampa Bay unwilling to meet the high cost for the injured player, the draft will likely instead be employed to address the deficiency.
However, the NFL shrewdly scheduled a season opener that will raise eyebrows. The Bucs will commence 2013 with a September 8 road game against the New York Jets. If Revis is traded to the Bucs, his former fans will kick off the season by booing the disgruntled veteran mercilessly. If Revis is not dealt, and can overcome a torn ACL from 2012, what better showcase for his return than by playing a team that was unwilling to meet his asking price?
If 2013 proves another disappointing campaign, the Tampa Bay Bucs will be unable to blame bad fortune from their schedule. With manageable opponents, a pair of prime-time home games, and a lack of cold-weather challenges, this team could not have asked for much better from the NFL. The time for real improvement has arrived and fans must now demand greater progress under Greg Schiano.
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
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