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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are set to report to training camp Friday, but perhaps the team shouldn't even bother reporting for duty under first-year head coach Raheem Morris.
That's basically what is being implied or suggested by some NFL critics and pundits. Their forecasts for Tampa Bay include plenty of cloud cover over One Buccaneer Place this season.
Pewter Report can be included in the media outlets that suspect the Buccaneers will be hard pressed to post a winning year in Morris' first season as head coach in Tampa Bay.
Why? Well, not only is Morris a first-year head coach, he's also the youngest head coach in the NFL. The Bucs have had a ton of turnover on their roster and coaching staff. The team also lacks depth and experience at several positions, not to mention Tampa Bay owns the fifth-hardest schedule in the league.
But there's a reason why they play the games on Sunday. Anything can happen. Just ask the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons. Miami posted a 1-15 record while Atlanta compiled a 4-12 record in 2007.
So, what did the experts believe those two teams were going to do under new head coaches in 2008? Not much, but Nostradamus' prophecies haven't been perfect, so why would anyone expect a better success rate from the media?
Case in point, just look back at the 2008 NFL season. Who saw the Dolphins and Falcons posting 11-5 regular season records? Who could have seen Miami beating out the New England Patriots to win the AFC East division title? Who would have thought that the Falcons, led by a rookie quarterback, would have kept the perplexing NFC South streak alive, the one where the team that finishes last in the division one year goes on to make the playoffs the next?
While not all media predictions come to fruition, many of them do turn out to be fairly accurate. Maybe the Bucs will struggle and post a losing record in 2009, as many believe the team will.
But maybe you're someone that chooses to look at the glass as half full. If that's the case, and the Bucs are going to follow in the footsteps of the Dolphins and Falcons from a year ago and surprise the NFL by playing better than expected, these are five things that likely will happen along the way in Tampa Bay.
Bates Makes Defense Better
Despite registering just 29 sacks in 2009 and having more salary cap room than any other team in the NFL this offseason, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik didn't do a lot to address Tampa Bay's need for an improved pass rush in free agency.
Because Dominik and Raheem Morris believe the addition of new defensive coordinator Jim Bates and his 4-3 system will automatically make the pass rushers more productive.
That will have to be the case as there is plenty of room for improvement, evidenced by the last two Super Bowl champions – the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers – notching 53 and 51 sacks, respectively, and the Dallas Cowboys recording a league-leading 58 sacks last season.
Bates' system has produced, and not just sacks. His Miami defenses ranked in the top five in four of the five seasons he served as the Dolphins coordinator. Miami recorded 212 sacks (41 avg. per season) in Bates' five seasons with the Dolphins.
If the Bucs defense is going to have that type of success under Bates, third-year defensive end Gaines Adams, who has 12.5 career sacks, will have to live up to expectations, and veteran DE Jimmy Wilkerson, who is in a contract year, must produce a double-digit sack season that earns him a new long-term, lucrative contract next year.
While the pass rush is key, the play of Tampa Bay's cornerbacks is just as important. That means Bates' system and coaching will have to help make second-year CB Aqib Talib a dominant bump-and-run corner, and CB Ronde Barber must prove to have plenty of gas left in the tank at 34.
Has Bates' success as a defensive coordinator in the NFL been a product of a unit loaded with talent, which Bates did have in Miami, or will his system truly help Tampa Bay's young defense dominate like it did more often than not under Monte Kiffin?
We won't have to wait long to learn the answer to that question.
Quarterback Play Surpasses Expectations
Byron Leftwich has 46 starts under his belt. Tampa Bay's other three quarterbacks – Luke McCown, Josh Johnson and Josh Freeman – have combined for seven career starts in the NFL. That lack of experience is one of the main reasons why so many pundits believe the Bucs will struggle in 2009.
While experience certainly helps young quarterbacks, it's not necessary, as Matt Cassel proved with the New England Patriots last year.
Cassel hadn't started a game in college at USC or in the NFL for the Patriots, but when Tom Brady was injured last year he started 15 games. Even though the Patriots roster is littered with talent and has one of the best coaching staffs in football, many wrote New England off after the team lost Brady.
But Cassel, a former seventh-round pick, completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,693 yards and tossed 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions en route to leading New England to an 11-5 record.
The competition is too close to call, but McCown is the leading candidate to start for Tampa Bay this season.
In order for the Bucs to have a successful season, McCown will have to play like Cassel. If he doesn't, Freeman, a first-round pick, likely will see playing time at some point, and if his opportunity comes early in the season the Bucs will need him to play like Matt Ryan did for the Falcons last year.
Ground Game Gets Going
Tampa Bay hasn't had a running game ranked in the top 10 since the 2000 season, but that could change under new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.
Jagodzinski's new offense features the zone blocking scheme, which should benefit Tampa Bay's young and talented offensive line as well as its stable of running backs, which is fairly deep.
Graham and Ward have averaged 4.1 and 5.3 yards per carry, respectively, during their pro careers, and the zone scheme is notorious for helping running backs rip off 4- and 5-yard runs on a consistent basis.
This particular aspect of Tampa Bay's ground game will become even scarier to opposing defenses if Cadillac Williams returns to form after suffering his second major knee injury in as many seasons.
A productive running game will also take a lot of pressure off Tampa Bay's young group of quarterbacks, which could be a priceless plus in a season where the Bucs offense will face several blitz- and sack-happy defenses, including Dallas, the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, among others.
Tampa Bay Remains Injury-Free
This Bucs team appears to be lacking depth at several key positions, including quarterback, offensive guard and tackle, wide receiver and cornerback.
Tampa Bay simply can't afford to suffer a rash of injuries and hope to produce a winning record with this year's schedule.
That means more than one Bucs quarterback will have to perform well in training camp and preseason. It also means the Bucs offensive line must stay healthy, assuming guard Arron Sears will not participate in training camp due to an undisclosed personal issue.
The Bucs are also thin at the tackle position, which means Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood must play in all 16 regular season games, or the reserves will have to perform much better than they did during the offseason workouts.
The Bucs are high on Brian Clark, Sammie Stroughter and Kelly Campbell, but these players aren't Antonio Bryant. If Bryant or even Michael Clayton goes down with a long-term injury the Bucs passing game could be in trouble.
The good news is for the depth Tampa Bay lacks at wide receiver the team has plenty of it in its stable of tight ends, which will be featured quite often. However, that means TE Kellen Winslow, who has missed significant playing time during his career with various injuries, must find a way to stay healthy since he is supposed to be such a big part of Jagodzinski's offense.
Perhaps the cornerback position is the biggest concern to the Bucs regarding depth. Jim Bates' defense calls for the cornerbacks to play solid man-to-man bump coverage, and if the cornerbacks don't do that bad things happen on defense.
Even one high-ranking Bucs official told Pewter Report earlier this offseason that if Aqib Talib of Ronde Barber suffered a serious injury this year the defense would be in serious trouble. Yet, Tampa Bay claims its high on second-year CB Elbert Mack as well as cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and E.J. Biggers. Talib, Mack, Arrington and Biggers have combined for just two starts in the NFL.
If Barber, Talib and Mack manage to stay healthy for the entire season, the cornerback position should be much less of a concern in Tampa Bay.
Youth Goes Wild
Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik are the youngest head coach-general manager duo in the NFL, so it makes sense that they'd have a roster littered with youth heading into training camp.
While that youth and inexperience could work against the Bucs, it could also work for them, and here's why.
Tampa Bay's early opponents, particularly Dallas in Week 1, will not have a lot of tape to study in preparation for the Bucs, who have a new head coach and two new coordinators.
But the Bucs will need more than a surprise attack to make it through their 2009 schedule with a winning record.
Tampa Bay will also need some surprise players to emerge from the team's youth movement and solidify different positions on offense and defense.
That includes linebacker Quincy Black, who is the frontrunner to start at strongside linebacker this year, second-year cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Elbert Mack, guard Jeremy Zuttah, who has just five career starts and quarterback Luke McCown.
It will require some players from Tampa Bay's 2009 draft class to produce early. That could include first-round pick Josh Freeman if McCown struggles, and even defensive linemen Roy Miller and Kyle Moore, who aren't expected to start, but will be worked into the rotation along the defensive line this season.