Young Bucs improving but lack fans
by Alex Marvez
Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.comhttp://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/young-bucs-are-talented%2C-but-lack-fans
The “Unite and Conquer” billboards near Tampa Bay Buccaneers headquarters are too large to miss.
Not to mention prophetic.
The Bucs have lived up to their 2010 slogan by emerging as one of the NFL’s biggest early-season surprises. Yet, a 3-1 record still isn’t enough to patch the divide with a gutted fan base.
Even a visit by the defending Super Bowl champions – let alone an NFC South rival in a critical division game – won’t generate a full house Sunday when the Bucs (3-1) host New Orleans (3-2). A Bucs spokesman admitted this week that no sellouts are expected for the entire 2010 campaign.
The lack of support is staggering. The Bucs bragged of a 145,000 season-ticket waiting list in 2007. Now, home games are blacked out locally because team ownership refuses to buy unsold seats at 34 cents on the dollar to guarantee sellouts like in 2009 when the fan base was crumbling.
The 2010 Bucs couldn’t sell out a Week 3 contest against Pittsburgh – a club that usually draws a huge contingent for road games – and drew just 41,554 for the season-opener against Cleveland in 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium.
Dissatisfaction with the Glazer family’s penny-pinching ways has contributed to public backlash. So have the nation’s economic woes that are causing a league-wide dip in ticket sales. The problem is especially pronounced in Tampa/St. Petersburg. The American League-East winning Tampa Bay Rays also had trouble selling tickets down the stretch in an area with a 12.6 percent unemployment rate.
A lack of star power is another issue. There are 30 first- or second-year players now wearing pewter. Only one veteran – cornerback Ronde Barber – remains from Tampa Bay’s 2002 Super Bowl-winning squad.
“Nobody knows them,” Bucs coach Raheem Morris said of his roster after Friday’s practice.
But such anonymity won’t last long if Tampa Bay’s fast start is a sign of things to come.
What the Buccaneers have lacked thus far – sacks (a league-low four), stout run defense and a strong offensive ground game – is being offset by blossoming second-year quarterback Josh Freeman and other players who have embraced Morris’ mantra of playing “fast, smart, hard and consistent.”
The difference in last Sunday’s 24-21 road victory over Cincinnati was discipline and execution. The NFL’s second-youngest roster – average age: 26 years, 8 days – avoided gaffes like turnovers, penalties and dropped passes that doomed a veteran Bengals squad.
“We’re making good adjustments now because guys are responsible for what they’re doing,” Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said. “It’s not like, ‘What happened?’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, that was me right there. This is how we’re going to fix it.’ Just guys knowing what their assignments are and being more accountable is big for us.”
The performance against Cincinnati reflected well on the work being done by Morris and his staff. Hired as the fourth-youngest head coach in NFL history (32 years, four months), Morris was in over his head when the Bucs opened last season at 0-7. But what at the time seemed like a suspect decision – personally replacing defensive coordinator Jim Bates in Week 11 and reverting to the trademark “Tampa-Two” zone-coverage approach – was the best move Morris made in 2009 besides pushing the team to draft Freeman. The Bucs improved so much that the Saints were upset, 20-17, in a Week 16 road matchup.
Barber said Morris was ill-suited as “an administrative head coach who would sit in front of the team and say, ‘Yada yada,’ and lay out the schedule. He likes to get his hands dirty and be involved in the game plan … When he put that hat back on, the energy came back. He’s a better head coach.”
Morris, who also fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski during the 2009 preseason, admits he was “bored” as an overseer.
“I need something to do. I’m going to go with my passion –coaching this team from a defensive perspective,” said Morris, a disciple of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and ex-Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. “I’ve seen coaches do it across the league through offense. Very few do it through defense, but it’s a style of play that I wanted to formulate and get across to my team. It’s helped us change our whole mentality.”
Having a quarterback like Freeman doesn’t hurt, either.
A 22-year-old who would still be a fifth-year senior at Kansas State shouldn’t be this far advanced. Freeman’s 5-2 record in his past seven starts (dating back to 2009) was as notable for his clutch fourth-quarter efforts as the yards and points he produced.
Freeman is judicious far beyond his years in ball protection. He has thrown just three interceptions in 116 pass attempts this season. Credit an uncanny knack of knowing when to run or throw the football away rather than force a pass into sticky coverage.
“Everything changed on our team when we gave Josh the reins,” Dominik said.
Freeman isn’t the only member of a group that should be known as the “Young Bucs.” Just like in 1990s drafts that produced franchise cornerstones like Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, Dominik and his staff have quickly overhauled an aging roster left behind by former general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden. Eight of nine 2010 draft choices are on the active roster ranging from starters like defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and wide receiver Mike Williams to key special-teams contributors.
Dominik said he wanted to pair Freeman with other youngsters at wide receiver in hopes of creating the kind of classic pairings that happened in Dallas (Troy Aikman/Michael Irvin-Alvin Harper) and Miami (Dan Marino/Mark Duper-Mark Clayton). Mike Williams (19 catches) has made an immediate impact, but not without Freeman riding the rookie wideout in practice when needed.
“He’s expecting (Williams) to catch everything he throws to him,” said Morris, who was on the Kansas State coaching staff for one season when Freeman played there. “When he doesn’t deliver, instead of saying the typical young guy, ‘My bad,’ it’s the, ‘No. You better catch the ball.’”
Said Freeman: “That definitely comes with familiarity with your teammates. You don’t really know the veterans you’re playing with. I knew the guys, but I didn’t really have a real good feel for them. I was a rookie. I wasn’t playing nearly as well as I needed to. When I was in that position, it wasn’t my spot to correct anybody. We’re all working together and I realize that. But it’s definitely a good addition to my game – being a more vocal leader.”
Dominik is thrilled that Freeman embraced that role.
“His development is because of his desire to be great,” Dominik said. “All players think they have it, but it just burns inside him. He’ll do all the extra work you could ever ask of a young quarterback. He was throwing the ball in February all the way through July every day being around the building and being a leader. He’s really starting now to show it on the field.
“From training camp on, you see a different demeanor. He’s a lot more demanding in a respectful but correct way. The players take heed and listen. Even though he’s 22 years old, they don’t see him that way. They see him as the leader of this team.”
From a business standpoint, Tampa Bay needs Freeman to become a local household name like Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn were during their lengthy Bucs heyday. Morris said the Bucs specifically graded draft prospects as to whether they had the psychological makeup for community outreach.
“In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, we saw people fall in love with this team and its players,” said Barber, 34. “We need to get back to that. We need to have four, five, six guys become the cornerstone of this organization and people will start to show back up. That’s the nature of fans in this area. They need their guys to cheer for.
“They’ll be back. I don’t know when because of the way the economy is, but the stars are starting to emerge right now.”
The big question now is when Bucs fans will care enough to gaze in person.