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WHERE HAS RB BENNETT GONE?
What has happened to Tampa Bay running back Michael Bennett? Have the Bucs traded him back to Kansas City? Well, no, but they haven't been using him, either.

The Bucs traded conditional draft picks in 2008 and 2009 to the Chiefs in exchange for Bennett on Oct. 16 after losing running backs Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman to their respective injuries.

The 5-foot-9, 207-pound Bennett got off to a fairly quick start in the limited action he saw in his first two games as a Buccaneer, rushing for 22 yards on three carries vs. Jacksonville and scoring on a 19-yard run vs. the Jaguars just two weeks after he was acquired from the Chiefs.

But Bennett, who has rushed 10 times for 57 yards (5.7 avg.) and one touchdown as a Buccaneer, hasn't been part of Tampa Bay's game plans over the past two games.

He was declared inactive for Tampa Bay's game vs. Atlanta after Pittman returned from the sprained ankle he suffered vs. Indianapolis and did not play last week vs. Washington.

While he still is digesting head coach Jon Gruden's offensive system, which he compared to learning Chinese when he was first traded to Tampa Bay, Bennett had hoped to be used more in Gruden's offense at this point.

"I hope [to play more against New Orleans]," said Bennett. "The last two weeks have been great with us winning, but I really want to be out there. It's an empty feeling inside. I want to help our team. We're doing well. I just want to be out on the field. I don't care what I have to do. It gets frustrating, but you just have to be patient and wait until your number is called. I hope that happens sooner rather than later."

There are several reasons why Bennett has not been used more over the last two games. A big part of Atlanta's defensive scheme was foreign to Bennett, and with the return of Pittman the Bucs felt no need to activate three running backs for that contest, so Bennett wound up as the odd man out and was made inactive in the Bucs' 31-7 win over the Falcons.

Last week vs. Washington, Tampa Bay's offense struggled mightily without quarterback Jeff Garcia, who injured his back on the first offensive play of the game. With second-year QB Bruce Gradkowski filling in for Garcia, the Bucs ran just 51 offensive plays to the Redskins' 82 plays. Tampa Bay, which couldn't sustain drives, evidenced by its 1-of-12 (8 percent) third down conversion rate, ran just 13 offensive plays in the second half of last Sunday's contest.

It's also important to remember that Earnest Graham, not Bennett, is Tampa Bay's featured back, and rightfully so. Graham has rushed for 631 yards (4.1 avg.) and six touchdowns and caught 29 passes for 191 yards this season.

But Gruden also wants to see Bennett perform better and make less mental mistakes in practice before he uses him more on game days. According to several coaches, Bennett turned in his best week of practice last week leading up to the Washington game. Bennett agreed and hopes more consistency in practice will translate into more playing time on Sundays.

"To come in and play a little here and a little there in the first two games and then basically be inactive for the last two games sucks," said Bennett. "But I have to continue to get better at what I'm doing and continue to learn. That way, if and when my number is called I'll be ready."

Bennett, 29, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2008. The Bucs are using the time they have between now and the end of the year to evaluate Bennett and make a decision in terms of whether they want to re-sign him, and for how much.

But if his playing time doesn't increase during Tampa Bay's final five regular season games of the year, there's a chance Bennett might not even want to play for the Bucs beyond this season.

"I love winning, but I would like to be part of it," said Bennett.

One area the Bucs are contemplating using Bennett in is special teams, where he's been fielding kickoffs in practice with wide receivers Michael Clayton and Michael Spurlock.

Spurlock has averaged 25 yards per return on five attempts, but the Bucs are intrigued by Bennett's speed and what it could bring to Tampa Bay's return game. He's never returned a kickoff during his seven-year NFL career, but Bennett said he's willing to do whatever the Bucs need him to do in order to get back out on the field on game days.

"I am working back there with [Clayton and Spurlock]," said Bennett. "Hopefully I'll get a chance to do something because sitting on the sideline and watching the game is definitely boring."

DID BUCS DROP THE BALL ON THE BACKUP QB JOB?
Bucs fans were well within their right to be disappointed and frustrated with Bruce Gradkowski's performance in place of injured quarterback Jeff Garcia last week during the Bucs' 19-13 win over the Washington Redskins.

The one positive thing the Bucs had hoped to come away with from their mediocre 4-12 season in 2006 was a more experienced Gradkowski, who entered the league as a sixth-round draft pick last year.

However, after watching him complete 9-of-19 (47 percent) passes for 106 yards and miss several open receivers, it has become apparent that Gradkowski just doesn't have a very accurate arm, which is perplexing seeing as he set an NCAA record for completion percentage at Toledo.

After reading some message boards and listening to some sports talk radio this week, it seems there are a large contingency of Bucs fans that believe the team dropped the ball on the backup spot behind Garcia.

That notion, however, simply isn't true.

Let's go back to the offseason for a moment. The Bucs knew they had to address their quarterback position after last year. That's why they made a run at Garcia, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million with the Bucs and traded for Denver QB Jake Plummer on the same day.

It's a bit ironic, or perhaps hypocritical, that some of the same fans that complained about the Bucs' decision to sign Garcia and trade for Plummer in one offseason are now accusing Tampa Bay of failing to address its backup quarterback position.

What some fans also forget about is the fact that the Bucs did not foresee QB Chris Simms' spleen injury/surgery lingering into the 2007 offseason.

So not only did Plummer not report to the Bucs, instead opting to retire, but Simms was placed on injured reserve for the second straight season.

Had Plummer decided to play for the Bucs and Simms been healthy this year, Tampa Bay's depth chart would look much different at the quarterback position.

In fact, there's a decent chance that neither Gradkowski nor Luke McCown, who probably will play vs. New Orleans if Garcia (back injury) cannot go on Sunday, would be on Tampa Bay's active roster right now.

But with Plummer and Simms not available for different reasons, the Bucs went into this season with Gradkowski and McCown as the backups to Garcia. Certainly not ideal, but what else could the Bucs have done?

Tampa Bay went out and acquired arguably the two best available quarterbacks in the NFL last offseason in Garcia and Plummer. Should the Bucs have traded for – or signed David Carr instead? Ask the Panthers how life without Jake Delhomme is right now. As a matter of fact, how do you think the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts would fare without Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, respectively?

The bottom line is bad things usually happen when you lose your starting quarterback. The Bucs, who could have their ninth quarterback start under Gruden in Tampa Bay since 2002 if McCown plays in place of Garcia, clearly are not immune to this problem.

The Bucs had 11 starts invested in Gradkowski, which is why he was Garcia's backup from Week 2 on. McCown got his chance in Week 1 and held onto the ball a little too long for Gruden's liking when he replaced Garcia (concussion) in Seattle.

While McCown has four career starts, none of them have come with the Bucs. Some will say Gradkowski is "Gruden's guy," but the truth is it made sense for him to be the No. 2 signal caller … up until this week.

He might not come in and light it up vs. New Orleans' suspect secondary, but McCown is more accurate than Gradkowski, who clearly proved last week that he has not progressed much since his rookie season.

That said, McCown should be the No. 2 guy or the starter, depending on Garcia's health status. If that's not the case and Gradkowski plays again, Bucs fans will have every right to be upset with the team's backup quarterback situation.

SIMEON RICE UPDATE
If it wasn't before, it probably should be pretty clear now to Bucs fans and pundits that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers knew exactly what they were doing when they released defensive end Simeon Rice on July 26.

Rice, who notched just two sacks and played in just eight games due to a shoulder injury that ended his 2006 campaign prematurely, was recently claimed – and released by the Indianapolis Colts after spending the first half of the 2007 regular season with the Denver Broncos.

A wave of criticism was thrown the Bucs' way when they released Rice after the team asked him to reduce his base salary from $7.25 million to approximately $5 million after he failed a physical due to the shoulder ailment on training camp check-in day. Rice refused to take the pay cut, and the Bucs gave him his walking papers.

Apparently the Bucs weren't the only team that felt Rice was past his prime and is still dealing with the shoulder ailment, evidenced by the Broncos' and Colts' decisions to release him this season.

Tampa Bay's front office hasn't been perfect. It has made its fair share of mistakes, but let's give credit where credit is due – the Buccaneers were wise to part ways with Rice, a move that allowed younger players like Greg White, who leads the team in sacks with 5.5, and first-round pick Gaines Adams to get on the field and help the Bucs get off to a 7-4 start.

SUNDAY'S GAME IN NEW ORLEANS IS BIG FOR BUCS
Tampa Bay's game in New Orleans is huge. Now, before you slap me in the face for stating the obvious, let me explain why the Bucs' game is so big.

The Buccaneers are 7-4 and currently own a two-game lead over the 5-6 Saints in the NFC South division race.

With a win in New Orleans on Sunday, Tampa Bay would improve to 8-4 on the season and would extend its division lead over New Orleans by three games, but it would technically be a four-game lead since the Bucs would own the tiebreaker by sweeping the Saints in regular season play.

That would basically mean that the Buccaneers could win the NFC South division title in Houston next week if they defeat New Orleans first on Sunday.

However, if the Bucs lose to the Saints they will be 7-5 while the Saints improve to 6-6, putting New Orleans just one game behind Tampa Bay with four regular season contests left to play.

That scenario would give the Bucs, who are 3-0 in the NFC South, their first loss in the division, dropping their record to 3-1. With a win, the Saints' division record would improve to 3-2.

The Saints have just one division game remaining after the Bucs. That contest is at Atlanta. Tampa Bay has two division opponents to play in its final four games of the season. Both games are at home vs. Atlanta and Carolina, respectively.

If the Saints, who started the season 0-4, are going to make the playoffs they will have to earn their way in as they face the Bucs on Sunday and the Falcons the following week, and then have their final three games against Arizona, Philadelphia and Chicago, all of which are 5-6 and battling with New Orleans for playoff positioning in the NFC.

How big is Sunday's game between Tampa Bay and New Orleans? Well, it could be the difference between the division title basically being wrapped as early as Week 15 or as late as the final week of the 2007 regular season.

TIDBIT OF THE WEEK
Why have the Buccaneers posted three losing seasons since winning Super Bowl XXXVII?

You've probably heard all of the excuses, ranging from aging players to salary cap problems to a lack of premium draft picks. However, all of those "excuses" are legitimate, especially the lack of premium draft picks.

Dating back to 2000, Tampa Bay has traded away four first-round draft picks and three second-round draft selections in deals for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, tackle Kenyatta Walker and head coach Jon Gruden.

As a result, the Bucs entered the 2007 NFL Draft having the fewest points of any team in the NFL since 2000 based on the draft point system.

Based on the point system, the Bucs were five first-round picks short of the average NFL team heading into the 2007 NFL Draft.

Mix that ingredient in with an aging roster, escalating player salaries and salary cap values and blown draft picks such as wide receiver Marquis Walker (2002 – third round), linebacker Marquis Cooper (2004 – third round) and tackle Chris Colmer (2005 – third round) and you have a recipe for disaster, as the Bucs can attest.

The good news for the Bucs is they have a Super Bowl to show for it. They also somehow found a way to win the NFC South division title in 2005 and are in position to win the division again this season while having $30 million in cap room and all of their first day draft picks in 2008.

Perhaps Bucs head coach Jon Gruden wasn't kidding when he said the future was so bright he had to wear shades.

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