The High Hurdle

April 29th, 2020

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The Buccaneers find themselves with company in the all-in sweepstakes.

A sense of urgency permeates the NFC South, where the Bucs and Saints are reshaping their rosters to fit the specs of a short window. That’s what happens when one quarterback turns 43 in August (Tom Brady) and another (Drew Brees) is 41 and already has a broadcasting job lined up for 2021.

The Bucs finished six games behind New Orleans last season, despite scoring exactly the same number of points (458).

Winning the division is critical to Super Bowl aspirations because only once in the past 12 years has a wild-card club reached the NFL’s showcase game. The 2010 Packers, who finished with the same 10-6 record as Tampa Bay, won three road games before beating Pittsburgh at Cowboys Stadium.

Can the Bucs close last year’s six-game gap?

In the aftermath of the draft, Bruce Arians and Sean Payton are eyeing each other warily, for good reason.

The Saints have ruled this division for three consecutive years and this is likely the final chance for Brees to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy for a second time.

How final? You don’t sign 33-year-old Emmanuel Sanders and 32-year-old Malcolm Jenkins as free agents unless it’s all about the 2020 season.

Jared Cook, who quietly led NFC tight ends with nine TD catches, is 33, so Michael Thomas finds himself surrounded by the NFL’s version of Jurassic Park.

In the draft, New Orleans selected center Cesar Ruiz and traded up for linebacker Zack Baun. Both are expected to start for a team that has posted a 37-11 record since 2017, only to suffer some galling playoff setbacks.

“We weren’t drafting someone that high to come in and be a backup,” Payton says about Ruiz, who will likely be shifted to guard this fall.

New Era

There was a time not long ago when the Bucs showed little interest in adding or bringing back any player who had turned 30. Brady’s arrival changed that mindset in a big way, so Jason Licht rolled out the welcome mat for Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Rob Gronkowski.

In theory, they will play key roles in dethroning the Saints, who allowed 108 fewer points than Tampa Bay. A major factor in that glaring disparity was the turnover chasm between the teams.

While the Bucs topped the NFL with 41 giveaways, the Saints set a league record for fewest turnovers (8) in a season. That’s an average difference of two giveaways per game and Arians is convinced that was the winning edge for Payton and an underrated coaching staff.

For the most part, NFL depth charts are set. While the Bucs and Saints might add a few late training camp cuts, these are the rosters that will compete in the fall.

Tampa Bay hasn’t swept New Orleans since 2007, when Jon Gruden was preparing the Bucs for their last postseason matchup. That was only Year 2 for the remarkable collaboration between Brees and Payton.

Jameis vs. Blaine Gabbert

Now, that partnership is approaching its conclusion, so the Saints decided to take out an insurance policy for 2020 by signing Jameis Winston. Brees has been amazingly durable, but he missed five games last year and the Saints won all five with Teddy Bridgewater under center.

You never know.

Winston’s presence behind Brees gives the Saints an edge over Tampa Bay at the game’s most important position. It may not come into play — but it might. If Brady is sidelined for five games, the Bucs will turn to Blaine Gabbert, whose main attribute is he knows Arians’ offense.

Fourth Down, Last Call

Little things like special teams have set the Saints apart from their division counterparts.

Will Lutz was the NFL’s No. 2 scorer, converting 32-of-36 FG tries and missing only once in 49 extra-point attempts. Meanwhile, rookie Matt Gay was unsuccessful on 5 PAT attempts and 8 FG tries.

Little things.

Thomas Morstead is an elite punter whose net average of 43.1 yards was almost 5 yards better than Bradley Pinion. Undrafted rookie free agent Deonte Harris made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist and don’t forget about the impact of Taysom Hill. Four different Saints blocked or deflected a punt in 2019.

Little things.

The Bucs won’t finish minus-13 in turnover differential again if Brady stays healthy, but the Saints aren’t going away.

If this is indeed the final roundup for Payton and Brees, that’s a hard truth for the Big Easy. But Tampa Bay’s desperate quest for a division crown is about to be met by an equally driven champion.

Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in their 40s. Two windows closing. Two starving fan bases.

Sounds like fun.

Ira with his good friend Sean Sullivan, general manager of Bill Currie Ford, Tampa’s first family of Ford. Sean will help you personally in any way he can. It’s the Bill Currie way. Click Ira’s nose to visit

18 Responses to “The High Hurdle”

  1. Youngbucs Says:

    Tell me again why is the saints roster so much better? I don’t see a big gap by any means.

  2. Bruce Blahak Says:


  3. shorttrooper Says:

    Setting a league record for fewest turnovers is the exact kind of stat that gives me so much hope that NO isn’t going to be as good. That’s a fluke number and is going to regress to the mean, just as our high turnover number is also bound to regress to the mean.

  4. JP09 Says:

    These match ups are going to be fu@king awesome!! Can’t wait to watch

  5. bojim Says:

    Why Gabbert? Rather see Griffin. Still can’t figure that one.

  6. Don_RyJo(e) Says:

    Iron sharpens iron. Bring. It. On.

  7. Look at my stats, I'm ballin Says:

    Cant wait for the bucs to spank one of the whiniest overrated clubs

  8. LJS4th Says:

    The year the Bucs went to and won the Superbowl New Orleans beat the Bucs twice!! I can live with that!!!

  9. rrsrq Says:

    What’s BA record facing SP, this game will come down to Payton v. Bowles

  10. Defense Rules Says:

    You’re on fire Sage. IMO 3 lines tell the whole Bucs-Saints story last year, in that the Saints “allowed 108 fewer points than Tampa Bay. A major factor in that glaring disparity was the turnover chasm between the teams. While the Bucs topped the NFL with 41 giveaways, the Saints set a league record for fewest turnovers (8) in a season.”

    That’s the difference between playoffs & no playoffs in a nutshell. And it’s not so much that their defense is better; their ‘108 fewer points allowed’ came from 33 fewer turnovers.

    And because of that, I think we can compete with them this year for the Division Championship. I look for us to split the 2 games with the Saints this year. The fly in the ointment will be the Falcons. I think they’ll be better than they were last year. In any event, all the NFC South teams have a harder schedule this year than they did last season IMO, so EVERY GAME will be super important.

  11. stpetebucsfan Says:

    The best thing about the Saints is they are great rivals. Easy to dislike Cam when he was rolling in Carolina..The Falcons…meh they just don’t generate the hate needed for a really hot rivalry.

    I think the Saints are now are #1 rivals. Not simply because the NFC South will have to go through New Orleans but because of the extra curricular stuff…from Payton’s bounty to his threatening demeanor with Koetter…to the fights with JW and ME’s suspension…there’s just bad blood between these teams to go along with the on field playoff ramifications.

    And now JW a Saint. Just adds to the stew. This rivalry is the most exciting in the league this year. The two old GOATS at QB now in the same division going head to head twice a year…Gronk and Brady coming to the Bucs…lots of interesting stories. We’ll be media darlings this year lets’ hope it doesn’t distract us.

  12. 2020 year of the GOAT Says:


  13. Rayjay1122 Says:

    Bucs games will be must watch TV and if fans must watch from,home, TV ratings are going to be insane.

  14. Tampabaybucfan Says:

    We will have 15 other games to be concerned about…..need to take care of business…….yes….the Saints are in the way.
    Stop the turnovers….the key.

  15. Darin Says:

    That’d be 14 other games tbbf. And gives the saints the edge ira? I’ll take Gabbert over Winston any year…oh except last when he was hurt.

  16. Jim Says:

    Great work, Ira…hit it out of the park. But everything I hear assumes Jameis is locked in as first back-up, even though he appears to be a 3rd stringer. I would like to hear you comment on that.

  17. Nick2 Says:

    Great analysis Ira, your picture and subtitle of Winston and Gabbert is a scary proposition. I have heard your lack of confidence in Gabbert as a backup and I am right behind you. I like Arians alot, but what he has seen in Gabbert completely escapes me. Lets pray it doesn’t come down to those two because Jameis will be licking his chops!!!!

  18. Buczilla Says:

    Good article Ira. I figured that there was no way in hell that I could possibly despise the Saints any more and then they go and sign our former failed quarterback. This year’s matchups with the Saints are going to be even more intense than normal and I’ll be lucky if my wife doesn’t kick me out of the house. 🤭