With the train wreck that was the Bucs’ season officially over, the search for survivors officially begins. And that search just might start internally with the team’s coaching staff.
Although no formal word has come down from the Glazer family, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s demeanor and speech at Monday’s post-season press conference would lead one to believe he will be conducting business again in 2007.
He’s certainly not oblivious to the criticism he’s received this season for the team’s poor performance.
“You have to win or you’re gone, everybody knows that,” Gruden said. “And going 4-12 is not really pretty on my reseme. I don’t really like it.
“I’m sure plenty of fans are disappointed in me right now. But the same people that were cheering after the Super Bowl were there yesterday for me and I appreciate those people. I learn a lot about myself in the darkness you know, when it’s tough. I kind of like this right now.”
While Gruden’s future with the organization is apparently good for one more season, the fate of his assistants may not be as secure. An offense that finished the season ranked 29th out of 32 teams could produce a fallout that reaches into the coaching staff.
Bucs offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir, who just completed his 29th season in the NFL, could be one fall guy. With so much emphasis sure to be put on the quarterback position in the offseason, quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett’s future in Tampa Bay is also unclear. And with the Bucs having over 30 drops this season, one has to wonder what the future holds for Bucs wide receivers coach Richard Mann.
On the defensive side of the ball, the most pressing issue will be re-signing linebackers coach Joe Barry. In his six seasons with the team he has had a linebacker named to the Pro Bowl six times while helping to produce the league’s No. 1 defense in 2002 and 2005. Some even see him as the eventual successor to Bucs defensive coordiantor Monte Kiffin. But Barry’s contract has now expired and is up for renewal, something Gruden addressed Monday.
“We can’t do much other than let him know we love him,” Gruden said. “I want Joe Barry to max out his potential.
“You want guys to continue to excel and get better. But at the same time you want to keep great coaches on your staff and clearly he is a fine coach that we’d like to have around here.”
Although there were some rumblings from critics and fans at the beginning of the year about Kiffin, they were due largely to the defense’s poor start. As the longest tenured defensive coordinator in the NFL, having just completed his 12th season with Tampa Bay, he should be safe. But which coach the axe falls on is anybody’s guess.
“Well, you know a lot can change here in the next couple months. I’m not going to speculate,” Gruden said Monday.
“None of us can be satisfied because there’s clearly a lot of areas we need to improve. But I thought the effort was there and well take a good look at the results carefully.”
Gruden used the ‘P’ word early and often on Monday. Pressure was a reoccurring theme. He reiterated the need to find a way to get pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback, something that was sorely lacking from the defense this season. There is pressure to do the right thing when it comes to spending draft picks and salary cap money, and there is pressure to do the right thing concerning fullback Mike Alstott’s situation.
SAPPED OF TALENT
There were many areas that the Bucs did not perform well in 2006. But high on Gruden’s list appears to be the productivity in the defensive line. The scheme, he said, gets results. It’s the caliber of player that makes it happen though.
Anthony McFarland didn’t work. Simeon Rice didn’t play much. Ellis Wyms didn’t either.
The Bucs’ once feared defensive front produced just 25 sacks this season. Eleven less than a year ago. And a majority of those came too late in the season, not when the team needed them early in the year.
Gruden made it painfully obvious that he intends to make finding a pass rusher a top priority in the off-season.
“You’ve got to have pressure,” he said. “You’ve got to have pressure. You’ve got to have pressure. And then you’ve got to have more pressure. Okay, that’s what you’ve got to have.
“Warren Sapp applied pressure. Real pressure. Every snap. A disruptive force. And I think certainly we’ve got to do a good job of adding to the guys that we have and trying to find a couple more that can generate pressure.”
Rice, who went on injured reserve in the middle of the season to undergo shoulder surgery, is under contract through 2007. He produced 14 of the Bucs’ 36 sacks in 2005, but had the lowest sack output of his career this season with just two. Part of the reason may have been due to the injury and the fact he was shelved after the eighth game of the year, but he did take a lot of heat early in the season for his lack of pressure on the quarterback.
WHITE TO GET GREEN
Fourth-year pro Dewayne White, who stepped in for Rice as a starter, was the Bucs’ most promising pass rusher for the second half of the season. He finished tied for the team lead in sacks (5) with defensive end Greg Spires and Wyms.
White punctuated the season with an outstanding game against Seattle’s Walter Jones, who is considered the game’s best offensive tackle. White is now an unrestricted free and considered one of the Bucs’ most important off-season priorities. The team and Bucs general manager Bruce Allen might have to give up some green to keep him though.
On Monday, White spoke to the media about his hopes for his future.
“There is some excitement to see if you’re wanted or how much people really want you,” White said of his upcoming free agency period. He said he’s sure somebody, somewhere thinks he is capable of being a quality starter in this league. He hopes that somebody is Allen.
“This is all I know so obviously I feel very comfortable in this defense and know my role. That would be the first priority, to stay here,” White said.
The question throughout most of the season has been, how did the Bucs No. 1 ranked defense of 2005 get so bad so quick? Did they just get old in a flash? Gruden doesn’t think so. They were injury riddled and didn’t play a lot of snaps as a unit this year according to him. He wants Rice and cornerback Brian Kelly back.
Kelly, whose 17 interceptions since 2002 led the team over the last three years, played just two games this season and was put on injured reserve with turf toe.
Linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles are both in their mid 30s, and depending on the direction the team takes, are very capable of coming back for another season.
The Gruden snarl made an appearance at Monday’s press conference as he spoke of this being the most disappointing season of his coaching career. Where he changed expression was when talk of high draft picks and salary cap money were brought to light.
There was nothing shy or left to innuendo when it came to Gruden the salesman. He looked square in the eye of the camera and made his pitch.
“We are open for business,” Gruden said. “And if you are an unrestricted free agent that hasn’t resigned with your current club, just don’t resign until we get a chance to talk to you, because we are open for business.”
The coach labeled free agency as “a huge tool” in making a team better. And although seemingly a little giddy about the Bus’ potential offseason shopping spree, fans shouldn’t be worried he will go out and purchase the biggest, shiniest toy in the store. He says he and the team will be sensible.
Gruden does not expect the team to jump in and spend $100 million in the first night. Instead, they will try to be logical about they target and that it could very well be a variety of players, not just one big name. But rest assured, he understands the magnitude of finally being free of salary cap restraints.
“To be able to go shopping wherever you want to shop is kind of cool,” Gruden said. “To be able to knock on any door you want to knock on and ask someone to join you is very exciting.”
Even the possibility of a trade and accepting a big contract is there, where it wasn’t in the past.
The pressure again is to go into the most important offseason in years and make sound decisions. Gruden says he and general manager Bruce Allen will take a similar approach to the draft, which depending on a coin toss with Cleveland, could produce the No. 3 or No. 4 overall pick.
“Were in a position to draft high. Were going to draft a heck of a football player, the guy we think is the best player available and a guy that can dominate, be great,” Gruden said.
“Whether it’s a quarterback or a wide-out or a defensive end, we will see, but I’m not going to worry about we have to win tomorrow or we have to win next week, I just want to get it right.”
With three picks in the first two rounds, the Bucs will get high quality players. What position they will draft is questionable, especially on offense, where only a handful of players appear to have job security at this point.
Gruden went out of his way to tout the abilities of right guard Davin Joseph and show similar affection toward right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. He thinks tight end Alex Smith has a bright NFL future and veteran wide receiver Joey Galloway has a lot of gas left in his 35-year old tank.
While running back Cadillac Williams and wide receiver Michael Clayton had arguably the most disappointing seasons of any offensive players, the coach still appears to believe in their talents and value to the team.
It safe to speculate that offensive line, wide receiver and quarterback are all potential positions the team could use with the No. 3 or No. 4 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Tampa Bay has used five different starting quarterbacks over the last three years, three this past season alone. The three’s cumulative quarterback rating wasc66.2. Hardly what the offensive-minded coach desires.
Chris Simms, who started the ’06 season and went down in Week 3 with a ruptured spleen, just signed a two-year contract extension and said Monday he fully expects to win his position back in training camp.
But Gruden was adamant about not just finding a good quarterback to run his offense but in his words, “a great one.”
Simms, he said, is a tough guy with talent but who needs to learn how to stay healthy. Simms can win games for the team and that’s why they re-signed him.
Bruce Gradkowski, who took over when Simms went down and went 3-8 as a starter, is a player Gruden said had moments where he was on the “cusp of getting it,” but never was able to get over the hump. And the third quarterback to start for the Bucs this season, Tim Rattay, is a player Gruden hopes to re-sign, most likely to continue in his backup role.
Throw in third-year player Luke McCown, who the Bucs acquired in a trade with Cleveland last year, and that makes four quarterbacks in the shuffle. But that won’t be enough competition, according to the man who calls the shots.
“There’s a good chance that there will be another guy in town that will be competing [next year],” Gruden said. “We’re looking for a quarterback to come in here and take over the position for a period of years, a guy that can dominate and not be good, be great.
Stability at that position is the most important factor as the team looks to right what’s wrong in 2007.
After the headaches he suffered this season, Gruden wants a guy he knows will be there every Sunday.
He voiced his frustration at the tremendous turnover not only at that position, but the team as a whole.
Continuity is the goal.
END OF AN ERA
There isn’t much to laugh about when you’ve just completed a 4-12 season, but Gruden managed to produce a chuckle on Monday when asked how difficult it would be to explain to Bucs fans that fullback Mike Alstott might not return next year due either to retirement or simply not fitting into the team’s plans. Gruden just looked at the reporter and with a sarcastic grin asked, “What do you think?”
With the end of the career of arguably the franchise’s most beloved player at hand, the pressure to handle it in a professional manner is another issue for a team in transition and more specifically Gruden himself.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “I’ll just say this, I think he’s a darn good football player and I don’t want to speculate because this is Mike’s decision. Mike will decide what he wants to do, and if he decides to keep playing I’m sure you’ll see No. 40 around here.”
Twelve-year veteran Joey Galloway led the Bucs on offense this year with 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. But where were the promising careers of running back Cadillac Williams and receiver Michael Clayton?
Collectively, the two produced 1,154 yards of offense and two touchdowns. Plus they missed a combined six games due to injury whereas the 35-year old veteran played in all 16.
For most of the season, Gruden blamed Williams rushing troubles on having a rookie quarterback in Gradkowksi and the defense stacking the line of scrimmage. Still, he averaged less than four yards per carry and was ineffective.
Williams was supposed to be more productive in the passing game this season, but failed to show any promise, dropping passes on a regular basis. Gruden says he needs to get better at that and this was a big step forward in his career by utilizing him more in the passing game.
He said Williams should be getting 300 carries and 60 catches in season to be up to full potential and he believes he is still a “great back.”
“All year I felt like something was missing,” Williams said. “There just wasn’t enough play making out there, including myself.
“I think me personally, I think I’m really ready to be more of that vocal leader, not just that leader that leads by example.You know I had a good year my rookie year, now I had a down year. Therefore, I really feel like this third year I can really be more vocal and be a much better leader, and I’m just looking forward to it.”
While Williams was attempting to expand his game by catching balls, Clayton gets paid to do that at the highest level. Some believe he failed.
Dropped passes plagued the Bucs offense this year and Clayton was one of the biggest offenders.
“You lose your mind when you drop the football. Your job is to catch the football and I think we dropped 32 or 34 passes this season,” Gruden said. “Some, I believe were wide open touchdowns that can change games.”
It’s an area that wasn’t good enough this year, according to Gruden, and one that he calls inexcusable at the professional level.
The coach still has faith in Clayton, but said he must change his style of play to stay healthy and keep on the field. He calls Clayton one of the most physical wideouts he has ever seen, but his style of play is affecting his durability.
THE MAN IN THE MIRROR
Jon Gruden went into Monday’s final press conference with the media knowing he was going to be held accountable for the shortcomings of his team.
He admitted he might have made a mistake by not going to the veteran Tim Rattay instead of rookie Bruce Gradkowski and as he’s done all season directing the majority of the blame on himself for the overall performance of the team
But in the face of adversity, he says he smiles and deals with the pressure.
“You feel pressure. You feel pressure and you’re probably not going to be very good. You have to remain calm. You have to keep your cool and do what you think is right,” he said.
The plan, according to Gruden, is to get some players that can dominate at key positions. That begins with doing a great job drafting and acquiring players via free agency.
He said if he’s asked to coach the Senior Bowl this season he would absolutely jump at the chance. He said it was a great experience in 2005 and a great way to get ready for the draft.
He will also consider implementing the shotgun formation in the offseason, something he has opposed apparently until now.
It appears that Gruden will do anything to get the team back on track, and given the amount of rope he’s sure to be on, that’s not a bad idea.
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