For the last decade the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots have provided the NFL with the best rivalry of the decade. Say what you want about Ravens-Steelers, Packers-Bears or Cowboys-Eagles, but no rivalry (especially between inter-divisional teams) has been more heated, with bigger implications over the last decade. Once members of the AFC East, these former divisional foes still typically square off twice a season, once during the regular season and once in the playoffs. The teams have met 14 times in the last decade with the Patriots winning eight and the Colts taking six.
The reason Pats-Colts was the best rivalry of the last decade is simple, they were both elite. Both teams carry over pre-realignment divisional animosities, feature elite quarterbacks, are perennial Superbowl contenders and win their division almost every single year. These teams are the best of the best, and when they get together the football is spectacular.
But in the NFL, things change quickly and despite ten years of impressive match-ups, it’s likely the mantle will be passed in the upcoming decade. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are both likely on their last pro contracts, and while both the Pats and Colts still rank amongst the NFL’s best, they are far from the NFL’s youngest teams. Just as the pinnacle of civilization flits between societies throughout history (Greece to Rome, then on to Europe, etc…) so to do the league’s best rivalries…
In the upcoming years, two young dynamic teams with great quarterbacks and winning MO’s will replace the Pats and Colts as the bearers of the NFL’s most hotly contested rivalry. And right now, no two young teams look more promising to take that distinction than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions. Two former divisional rivals with exciting young signal-callers and very solid foundations.
In fact, Bucs-Lions would carry more than a few parallels to the Pats-Colts. You can check out the similarities between the Patriots and Lions here from our friends at SideLion Report. The similarities between the Bucs and Colts are striking too. Beyond the obvious fact that both teams turned around at the hands of a cerebral and insanely talented young quarterback who found a favorite target in an exciting receiver out Syracuse.
It all starts with Tony Dungy. The Colts still owe the majority of their success to the leadership of Tony Dungy (and Bill Polian). Dungy instilled the virtues that are still valued by Jim Caldwell today. He’s the one who plugged in most of the coaches, bred the dynamic in the locker room and helped elevate the Colts to the top of the NFL for an entire decade. He’s the one who took the Colts to the promised land, helped Peyton Manning get the monkey off his back and helped the Indianapolis Colts develop young players into young men.
To say that you can still feel Tony Dungy’s influence in Tampa would be an understatement. Raheem Morris was a Dungy disciple, getting his start as an intern working long hours with former DB coach Mike Tomlin under Dungy at the end of his Bucs tenure. You can literally hear Dungy’s influence sometimes when Morris preaches about building young men and helping the guys to grow beyond the field. Both men are very service-oriented and share similar values despite having wildly different methods.
Mark Dominik started in Tampa 16 years ago, with Dungy and Rich McKay still building the team. The MO practiced by Dungy and McKay has quietly made its way back to the Bucs, it had been practiced in Indianapolis for the last decade. Jon Gruden made a big splash in Tampa winning it all his first season, but after a decade of building the right way he dramatically changed the way the Bucs did business and it hurt them in the long run. The Dungy-method seems to be back in the Bay area, or at least a variant of it, inspired by Dominik’s early years under Rich McKay.
Listen to Mark Dominik discuss the team’s vision for the future, to build a defense like the stalwart units of the 90’s, to draft and build from within, to re-sign players and keep continuity in the locker-room. It’s been the same nucleus in Indy for years. Sure players come and go as is wont to happen in the NFL, but the same core group of players has been responsible for the brunt of the Colts success the past decade.
The Bucs are aiming to build the same way, put an offense on the field that will run together for years, continuity breeds familiarity and that’s how good teams win. Josh Freeman is not yet proven enough to be considered an elite quarterback. But the signs are good. He had a fantastic season last year in which he threw 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. He came within one touchdown of tying the franchise single-season passing TD record in just his first full season. While expecting him to improve on his interception figures may be tough (six is low for anyone), it is reasonable to assume he’ll approach 30 touchdown passes this year, and that’s a conservative estimate, he could throw for as many as 35 or 40 (though 40 may be overzealous).
The Bucs have also worked to surround Freeman with playmakers, just like Manning had Wayne and Harrison and more recently Garcon and Collie, the Bucs are building towards having a dynamic receiving corps around Freeman, a good pass-catching tight end and a run game effective enough to keep the defense honest. While it’s premature to say Freeman has a Harrison/Wayne combo in the works, Mike Williams led all rookies in receiving and touchdowns during a fantastic rookie season and all early accounts say he is having a stand-out camp so far this year.
Think a comparison of Mike Williams and Marvin Harrison is outrageous? Look at the rookie seasons of the two Syracuse Orangemen.
- 1996, IND- 64 Rec., 836 yards, 8 TD, 13.1 YPC, long of 41
- 2010, TB- 65 Rec., 964 yards, 11 TD, 14.8 YPC, long of 58
While Mike Williams needs to continue to grow as a receiver, he broke into the league and made an even bigger dent than Harrison did in his first season. Now, granted, Harrison’s rookie season he did not have Manning as his QB, he caught passes from Jim Harbaugh, but what the two did with the ball in their hands is comparable with the edge to Williams.
Offensive identities and organizational philosophies aside, the biggest similarities can be summed up in two words: Tampa 2. The defensive identity of both of these teams are based out of the Tony Dungy/Monte Kiffin Tampa 2 defense. In Tampa, the defensive philosophy (and complimentary personnel) gave berth to one of the best defenses in recent memory, gave launching pads to head coaching careers for several defensive assistants and frankly swept the league. Every defense runs some variation of the cover-2-based defense Tampa had so much success with in the late 90’s and early oughts. When Tony Dungy left Tampa and wound up in Indianapolis, he brought the defense with him and it helped the Colts to become one of the best teams of the last decade.
While the defense has grown more nuanced over the years, the philosophy behind employing it, and drafting to employ it well, are extremely similar. Let me give you a great parallel. For all the critics of Barrett Ruud, there were many people with a wealth of football knowledge that still maintain he was excellent on the Bucs and it was a huge mistake to let him go, Pat Kirwan for instance. The Bucs middle linebacker position is based heavily on maintaining gap-responsibilities against the run and dropping into pass coverage, it’s not the traditional Ray Lewis crusher role. The MLB in the Tampa-2 doesn’t necessarily stand out.
Who is the starting middle linebacker in Indy?
It’s Gary Brackett, but my point is the Colts have had good defenses and been a perennial contender to win the AFC for the last ten years and they’ve never had an elite middle linebacker over that time by NFL standards. It’s not the talent necessarily, it’s the scheme.
Philosophy is Great, You Need a QB
My point is not to say that the Bucs are just like the Colts, though there are more than a few similarities. The point is that winning teams are built with similar philosophies, there’s a way that seems to work in the NFL if you want to win. Teams like the Steelers, Patriots and Colts have MO’s that keep them relevant and winning. The Bucs have begun to build a team with that sort of philosophy. They are building a winner, the men running the operation are guys off the Dungy coaching tree (I include the GM in that), utilizing the same ideals that have already built two sustained winning teams.
Of course all the winning philosophy in the world goes out the window if you don’t have a quarterback. But in the Bucs case it seems like they’ve found a guy.
Meanwhile in Indianapolis and New England, nothing lasts forever, and eventually Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are going to fade and retire. In the NFL you get the odd ball non-elite QB’s who win it all, the Trent Dilfers and Brad Johnsons. But for the most part teams need to have a great quarterback to win big. Replacing both of those two will be difficult, Denver and Miami have still never truly replaced John Elway and Dan Marino.
And as older dynasties begin to enter the final phase of their storied runs, several young new quarterbacks are emerging around football. Guys like Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford, or in the case of the Lions and Bucs, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman. As these guys come into their own and assume the mantle of the NFL elite, their teams will follow.
Stafford and Freeman could find themselves butting heads once per regular season if they rise to the top of their divisions over the course of a run, and then again in the playoffs. Their battles could replace those of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the best of the best in the NFL.
This is all hypothetical of course. Both teams, the Lions and Bucs, have to prove they are ready to move from promising young teams to perennial winners, and it all depends on the quarterbacks.
But I think if you ask fans of both teams, they’ll tell you they like the way things are shaping up.