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No one was really surprised when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired defensive line coach Jethro Franklin and defensive backs coach Greg Burns earlier this week.
Changes can be expected when a team posts a disappointing 4-12 record, especially when it’s their worst season since 1991.
It’s hard to argue Tampa Bay’s decision to fire Franklin and Burns. The veteran players never really embraced either coach after Franklin and Burns replaced Rod Marinelli and Mike Tomlin, respectively, in 2006.
The defensive line failed to produce a potent pass rush and stop the run on a consistent basis, and the defensive backs produced just eight interceptions and allowed too many big plays in the passing game.
As a result, Tampa Bay’s defense failed to finish the year ranked in the top 10 for the first time in 10 seasons. The Bucs defense finished the 2006 season ranked 17th overall in the NFL.
The changes on the defensive coaching staff aren’t surprising. In fact, they were necessary, and in the case of Joe Barry, who became Detroit’s defensive coordinator after his contract as a linebackers coach expired in Tampa Bay, unfortunate for the Buccaneers.
But what’s been lost in the buzz regarding the flurry of coaching changes in Tampa Bay has been Jon Gruden’s offensive coaching staff.
The only mentions of possible changes on the offensive side of the ball have come when quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett and tight ends coach/special teams assistant Ron Middleton have been named in other teams' coaching searches.
Tampa Bay’s defense played a role in the team’s 4-12 season and deserves its fair share of blame, but the offense was worse and carried the torch in the Bucs’ third losing season in four years.
Gruden’s offense finished the season ranked 29th overall, and the team scored an average of just 13 points per game.
The offensive struggles in 2006 were the norm, not the exception. Since Gruden’s arrival in 2002, Tampa Bay’s offenses have ranked 24th (2002), 10th (2003), 22nd (2004), 23rd (2005) and 29th (’06).
Gruden was charged with the difficult task of building an offense in Tampa Bay upon his arrival from Oakland. Offense was something the Bucs really hadn’t had in Tampa Bay because of the fact that the majority of the Bucs’ salary cap money was allocated to the defensive side of the ball, which has dominated in Tampa Bay for quite some time.
After the Glazers traded four premium draft picks and $8 million to Oakland in exchange for the offensive-minded head coach, they got what they paid for in the latter part of the 2002 season.
Former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy’s teams scored just 59 points in six playoff contests before he was fired at the end of the 2001 season. Gruden’s Bucs posted a whopping 106 points in three post-season contests en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVII.
Although the highest Tampa Bay’s offense ranked during Gruden’s tenure was 10th, but the Bucs finished that season with a 7-9 record.
Several factors played a role in Tampa Bay’s offense struggling so much in 2006. Injuries, particularly at the quarterback position, certainly had a hand in the woeful offensive performance.
However, it’s important to note that starters that wound up on injured reserve, including quarterback Chris Simms, right tackle Kenyatta Walker and wide receiver Michael Clayton – were playing, and playing poorly during the Bucs’ 0-3 start.
The offense failed to score a touchdown in two of those three games, Cadillac Williams struggled out of the gate and never got on track, and Clayton failed to prove his sophomore slump was a fluke. In addition, the Bucs were held without an offensive touchdown in six of their 16 regular season games in 2006.
That said, not all of the blame can be placed on rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski’s growing pains or the injury bug that claimed several Bucs offensive starters.
Gruden's West Coast style of offense is a proven system. Several other teams have used it successfully, and Gruden earned the reputation for being an offensive guru by producing a potent offensive attack with the Oakland Radiers.
The Bucs have added young talent to their offense since Gruden's arrival, but several players appeared to regress in 2006, which contributed to the team's lackluster play on offense. You can make a strong argument that this falls directly on the offensive coaching staff, including Gruden.
So, with the exception of Middleton, who was allowed to leave Tampa Bay to become the new tight ends coach and special teams coordinator in Alabama due to his ailing wife's serious medical condition and need for treatment in Alabama, how can Tampa Bay's offensive coaching staff still be intact?
Gruden is the play caller, but he and general manager Bruce Allen appear to have been retained, so neither one of them will take the fall for Tampa Bay’s dismal offensive performance.
But doesn’t somebody have to?
If the Bucs can justify firing two assistant defensive coaches after one season on the job, how can the team justify keeping the offensive coaching staff together?
I decided to pose this question in this column because some of members of the Bucs have posed the same question privately to Pewter Report.
There has got to be a shakeup of some sort as last season’s offensive performance was simply horrific and unacceptable.
The good news for the Bucs is Gruden is loyal, but only to a point, evidenced by the fact that he didn’t hesitate to make a change to his offensive staff in 2003 when he fired quarterbacks coach Stan Parrish.
One year later, Gruden pulled the trigger again, this time parting ways with QBs coach John Shoop and hiring Hackett.
Change could be coming again at Tampa Bay’s quarterback position as Hackett’s contract is set to expire. He has received some consideration for other job opportunities around the league, including Green Bay's offensive coordinator post, which means he might not be back.
But even if Hackett leaves behind Middleton, those two moves wouldn’t satisfy the critics that are expecting and demanding change on the offensive side of the ball.
To be fair, there’s still a strong possibility that the Bucs could fire one or more of their offensive assistants. They could simply be looking for their successors first, and the Senior Bowl could be a place the Bucs decide to conduct interiviews with different candidates, just as they did last year with several open spots on the defensive coaching staff.
There are also four teams still participating in the playoffs, which means members of their respective coaching staffs likely won’t be available to interview for any possible job opportunities in Tampa Bay until after their season concludes.
If the Bucs eventually do fire at least one of their offensive assistants, some people expect Bucs offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Muir to be given the first pink slip.
Although he’s been on Tampa Bay’s coaching staff since 2002, Muir actually was hired before Gruden arrived that year as he was planning to be part of Bill Parcells’ coaching staff before the future Hall of Fame coach turned down the job.
Muir did an admirable job of getting a makeshift offensive line to come together and play well down the stretch as the Bucs made their Super Bowl run in ’02,
But his players haven’t done much since. As Pewter Report publisher Scott Reynolds astutely pointed out in his SR’s Fab Five column a few weeks back, Muir has worked with a plethora of players, including Roman Oben. Kerry Jenkins. Jeff Christy. Cosey Coleman. Kenyatta Walker. Cornell Green. Zack Quaccia. Jason Whittle. John Wade. Matt O’Dwyer. Matt Stinchcomb. Lance Nimmo. Austin King. Sean Mahan. Derrick Deese. Todd Steussie. Anthony Davis. Jeb Terry. Dan Buenning. Scott Jackson. Chris Colmer. Davin Joseph. Jeremy Trueblood. Toniu Fonoti. Donald Penn. Nick Mihlhauser.
Unfortunately for Muir and the Bucs, few of those players have panned out, which has amounted to wasted draft picks, salary cap money and opportunity.
Muir, who is also the run game coordinator for Gruden’s offense, hasn’t had a single Pro Bowl offensive lineman in Tampa Bay. Last season, the offensive line struggled mightily to open up holes for the running game, which ranked near the bottom of the league.
The Bucs brought senior assistant Aaron Kromer in from Oakland to help Muir and Tampa Bay’s offensive line in 2005. Williams rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie, but Kromer and Muir watched Williams and the entire offense stall last season.
Sure, having a rookie quarterback in the starting ilneup and struggle so much certainly didn't help the offensive line as defenses stacked the box on a consistent basis, but if there were ever a time to part ways with Muir and/or Kromer, now would certainly appear to be the time.
Even if Muir is let go, the firing might not stop there.
Tampa Bay’s receivers had too many dropped passes last season, and 2004 first-round pick Michael Clayton has regressed since his sensational rookie campaign. Last season, the Bucs registered 34 drops in 16 regular season games. To put that number in perspective, it’s just one higher than the actual amount of passes Clayton caught in '06.
After watching several of his players contribute to that embarrassing stat, one can only wonder if Bucs wide receivers coach Richard Mann will survive the team’s 4-12 season.
Despite Williams suffering through a sophomore slump and the running backs scoring just five touchdowns last season, Bucs assistant head coach/running backs coach Art Valero could be safe.
Valero is well liked by the players and respected by the coaching staff, including Gruden, who made Valero the assistant head coach after Marinelli left for Detroit during the ’06 offseason. Valero has also appeared on the radar of some pro and college teams for different job opportunities.
It’s still early, which means changes on Tampa Bay’s offensive coaching staff could be announced sooner rather than later. Pewter Report is not suggesting that these coaching changes will happen – only to not be surprised if they do. Perhaps the Bucs are simply conducting their search for one or more new offensive assistants and have decided not to fire anyone until they make a new hire.
Let’s hope that’s the case because if it’s not, it will be disturbing to say the least as such a move, or lack thereof, would suggest no one will be held accountable for Tampa Bay’s lackluster performance on offense.
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