Disappointment filled Tampa Bay's locker room after a frustrating, 24-14 loss to the visiting New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card playoff game. The Buccaneers' hopes of advancing in the postseason were dashed, but this team was still encouraged by the progress it made in 2007 in several key areas – the biggest of which was improving from 4-12 to 9-8.
Not only did Tampa Bay win the NFC South division title for the second time in three seasons, the Buccaneers accomplished that feat with 14 players on injured reserve and a cast of "no-names" filling the voids left by injured players like running back Cadillac Williams, left tackle Luke Petitgout and fullback Mike Alstott.
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, serviceable backups like RB Earnest Graham, LT Donald Penn, FB B.J. Askew and defensive end Greg White could only get the team so far as they were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday.
"We had four or five guys play that didn't have lockers when training camp started," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "It's a great story, a great achievement by these guys. Many of our rookies from our rookie class got to step in here and make huge contributions. I think what they saw today is where we are and what we need to do to turn the corner to try to get them to compete for a world title."
Despite losing several key players throughout the year, including quarterback Jeff Garcia, who played in just four quarters over the final six regular season games of the year, Tampa Bay's offense showed significant improvement, going from 29th in the league in 2006 to 18th overall in 2007.
With Williams, who was the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year, out of the lineup after sustaining a season-ending knee injury in Week 4, Graham, a 2003 undrafted free agent, nearly rushed for 1,000 yards and scored 10 touchdowns en route to helping Tampa Bay's ground attack improve from 28th to 11th, which was the highest the running game ever finished a season ranked under Gruden since he arrived in Tampa Bay in 2002.
"We made the best out of what we had," said Graham. "We brought in some players, added some pieces to the puzzle, we won our division, and had a shot at going to the Super Bowl. That's all you can ask for. Nine wins, [the] 16-0 Patriots could lose the next game, you know, what does it mean? Who cares? We have a shot at winning that title. We had our shot, and we did it with a team that went through a lot of adversity, so it was a great year, anything anybody could want."
Tampa Bay played with the youngest offensive line in the NFL in 2007. With another year of experience under the belts of tackle Jeremy Trueblood and guards Davin Joseph and Arron Sears, and the anticipated return of Petitgout from his knee injury, the Bucs are confident their offensive line will be more consistent up front in 2008.
"It's going to be great, I'm telling you.These guys are only going to get better," Graham said of Tampa Bay's offensive line. "Most of them are first or second year guys, with the exception ofJohn Wade. You've got to think the sky's the limit for those guys. Definitely in the offseason, they'll get in the weight room, get set physically and mentally – they've got two years under their belt, experience most guys don't have their first or second year, so definitely they're ahead of the learning curve as far as NFL players [go], and they'll only get better."
With Garcia leading the way and QB Luke McCown filling in when needed, Tampa Bay's passing attack improved as well, going from 26th to 16th. Penn, who started 12 games in place of Petitgout, helped protect the blindside of both quarterbacks.
The Bucs' offense produced just 271 yards of offense vs. the Giants and scored only two touchdowns in Sunday's playoff loss, but this unit proved to be more productive during the 2007 season compared to 2006.
Tampa Bay's offense scored just 20 touchdowns while averaging 11.9 points per game in '06. In 2007, Gruden's offense scored 33 touchdowns and averaged 19.6 points per game – an improvement of eight points per contest.
The Bucs suffered several more key injuries in Sunday's playoff game. Wide receiver Joey Galloway re-aggravated a shoulder injury and guards David Joseph and rookie Arron Sears both played hurt during the 24-14 loss to the Giants.
"It's just deafening, just, the music stops. It's hard," Gruden said. "I'm really proud of these guys. They gave us everything they had. We just kind of ran out of football players there at the end. The Giants are a hell of a team, and you've got to be full force in these playoffs because these guys are playing for all the marbles."
The injuries mounted on the defensive side of the ball as well. Tampa Bay took the field Sunday without starting strongside linebacker Cato June (foot) and lost starting free safety Tanard Jackson to a knee injury on the first play of the game.
As a result, Tampa Bay's No. 2-ranked defense allowed New York quarterback Eli Manning to complete 74 percent of his passes and toss two touchdowns and produce a total of three four scoring drives, including a 92-yard drive that ended with a touchdown in the second half.
Still, Monte Kiffin's defense rebounded from finishing 17th in the NFL in total defense a year ago to end 2007 with the second-best defense in the league, statistically.
With the return of Bucs defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay's pass defense improved from 19th in the NFL in 2006 to first in the league in 2007.
The Bucs' run defense remained the same, ranking 17th in the NFL, but this unit, led by defensive line coach Larry Coyer, surrendered 12 less yards per game than a year ago. Tampa Bay's scoring defense also rose from 21st to third, and the number of sacks climbed from 29th with 25 QB captures to 16th in the NFL with 33 sacks.
Perhaps one of the most important improvements for the Bucs in 2007 came in the turnover column. Last year, Tampa Bay finished the season with a minus-9 turnover ratio. Thanks to the caretaking ability of Garcia and the Bucs' opportunistic defense, Tampa Bay finished the 2007 regular season with a plus-15 turnover ratio, which ranked fourth in the NFL.
After going 0-6 in NFC South division play in 2006, Tampa Bay finished the 2007 regular season record with a 5-1 record vs. NFC South teams, which was unexpected by many pundits and played a key role in the Bucs' ability to unseat the New Orleans Saints as division champs.
"I mean, I think it was successful because of what most people thought we were going to be like," said Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud of his team's 2007 season. "You know, I thought we played well. We were a tad inconsistent at times, we did lose three or four games where we should have won, but I think we have a lot of good things to build on."
No team has ever repeated as NFC South division champion since the division was formed in 2002. Some wonder if the Bucs might struggle next year after having some success in 2007. However, cornerback Ronde Barber believes the Bucs can use 2007 as a stepping stone to even more success in 2008.
"It's never a good season when you don't get to where you want to go," Barber said. "We made some strides obviously, coming back from a 4-12 year. Finding some personnel that we can use in the future will help us down the line. We'll be back. This is a team that I think that grew up a lot in ‘07 and I'm excited about what we can do in ‘08."
Graham concurred with Barber's sentiments regarding 2008.
"When you consider this team having a veteran leader at quarterback, the additions we made, Cato June, you know, different guys that we've got in this locker room, I think we definitely have a great mix of guys," said Graham.
The Bucs will soon turn their focus to the offseason, where they will attempt to re-sign some players, including center John Wade, running backs Michael Bennett and Michael Pittman, tight ends Jerramy Stevens and Anthony Becht, among others, while targeting new players in free agency and the 2008 NFL Draft.
If Tampa Bay's current core of young players can continue to compete and improve and the team can use some of the $30 million in cap room they have along with a full board of first day draft picks, the Buccaneers feel like they can make another run at the playoffs in 2008. That confidence stems from what the Bucs accomplished – and who they accomplished it with – in 2007.
"Some of the guys that were expected to perform at the highest level in this game weren't here, like Cadillac Williams and Luke Pettigout – key members of our football team," Gruden said. "Cato June, guys like that. We've got to continue to add pieces and that will be something we will talk about here in the coming weeks. But the heart of a champion is in that locker room."
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