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Shortly after Tampa Bay’s 2006 regular season was put out of its misery, many pundits suggested the Buccaneers needed to get younger on defense.
That notion made sense. Tampa Bay’s defense, which had finished nine straight seasons ranked in the top 10, finished the 2006 season ranked 17th overall.
The pundits obviously weren’t the only ones who shared the belief that the Bucs needed to get younger on defense, and in a hurry if they were going to perform well enough for the team to improve upon its dismal 4-12 record.
So the Bucs used seven of their 10 picks in the 2007 NFL Draft to select defensive players. They also signed free agent LB Cato June and DE Patrick Chukwurah, and re-signed CB Phillip Buchanon, all of whom are age 27.
In addition, the Bucs released aging veterans Juran Bolden, 33, Shelton Quarles, 35 and most recently Simeon Rice, who is 33.
These three players had a few things in common – they were aging, injured and deemed too expensive.
By releasing Quarles and Rice, the Bucs created approximately $10 million in salary cap room. The Bucs are currently $15 million under the salary cap.
More importantly, these players' departures opened the door for third-year linebacker Barrett Ruud to replace Quarles and 2007 first-round draft pick Gaines Adams and/or Chukwurah to replace Rice, respectively.
The pundits got what they wanted, right?
Ever since Rice was released last week, some of the local reporters, columnists and sports talk show hosts have been criticizing the Buccaneers for essentially following their own advice, which was to get younger on defense.
Now, how does a defense that has emphasized the importance of generating a consistent and potent pass rush in 2007 part ways with a player that fell just 9.5 sacks short of breaking the franchise’s all-time sack record, which is currently held by Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon?
Let’s start with the fact that Rice notched a career-low two sacks last season. He played in just eight games due to a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery and rendered him unavailable for the entire offseason and the start of training camp.
While the Bucs said they released him because of a failed physical, some believe money was the bigger issue since Rice, who was scheduled to earn a team-high base salary of $7.25 million, refused to take a pay cut of approximately $2.5 million shortly after failing his physical.
Had he taken the pay cut, Rice still would have remained one of – if not the highest-paid player on Tampa Bay’s roster.
Now, it seems that Rice is destined for the Hall of Fame. He has, after all, recorded 121 career sacks and 37 forced fumbles. He also played an integral role in helping Tampa Bay’s defense ranked No. 1 overall in 2002 and 2005, the former of which is when the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII.
However, Rice has not been considered a team player, evidenced by the fact that he missed a walk through in Arizona in 2004 and missed a team meeting in San Francisco in 2005. He also refused to renegotiate his contract despite Tampa Bay’s tight salary cap situation.
In addition, Rice has been an extremely streaky player for the Buccaneers.
Rice recorded 69.5 sacks in 87 regular season games with the Bucs. Here’s a question for you – how many games did Rice actually notch a sack in as a Buc?
Seventy? How about 60? Maybe 50?
Would you believe 46?
That’s not a typo. Rice recorded a sack in just 46 of the 87 regular season games he played in as a Buc. That comes out to a 52 percent sack rate, meaning he was held without a sack in 48 percent (41 regular season games) of the games he played in with Tampa Bay.
That’s an awful lot of inconsistency and a lack of production for what amounts to about eight games per season for a guy that was the highest paid defensive player in the NFL for five years and refused to take a pay cut or even restructure his deal when the Bucs desperately needed some cap room during the Bucs’ post-Super Bowl era.
One of the reasons why Rice’s career sack total is so high is because he’s had 33 multi-sack games since entering the NFL in 1996.
Sure, the Bucs probably had a big issue with Rice’s shoulder still being injured and him still making over $7 million this year, not to mention they used the fourth overall pick in the draft to select Adams, who just happens to play the same position as Rice.
But let’s not forget about the fact that Rice acknowledged that his shoulder was not healthy enough to play football when he reported to training camp. So why are people still surprised that he failed a team physical? The bottom line is if Rice truly feels he was wrongfully released, he should file a grievance against the team. He has the right to do that based on the team releasing him after a failed physical.
Unfortunately, Rice’s release has brought back bad memories of the way former Bucs players like Lynch and Quarles were released in 2004 and 2007, respectively.
It’s hard for Bucs fans to say goodbye to some of these fan favorites, but it’s a harsh reality of the NFL.
Tampa Bay is five years removed from winning Super Bowl XXXVII, and only eight players – linebackers Derrick Brooks, Ryan Nece, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, defensive tackle Ellis Wyms, fullback Mike Alstott and running back Michael Pittman – remain from that championship team.
Some are unhappy with Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen and the front office’s decision to show players like Lynch, Rice, Quarles and even Warren Sapp, who left for Oakland via free agency in 2004, the door.
But would Tampa Bay’s defense really be better off with these players on its current roster?
Listed below are eight starters from Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl-winning defense and the respective ages they will be by December.
Ronde Barber – 32
Derrick Brooks – 34
Brian Kelly – 31
John Lynch – 36
Shelton Quarles – 36
Simeon Rice – 33
Warren Sapp – 35
Greg Spires – 33
As you can see, the average age of this group is 34. That’s considered quite old in the NFL.
To their credit, Tampa Bay’s defense managed to finish the 2005 season ranked No. 1 overall despite having seven starters, including the nickel cornerback, over the age of 30.
Now, if the Bucs are indeed attempting to get younger on defense why would they sign Kevin Carter, who turns 34 in September, during the offseason?
Carter’s base salary is over $5 million and he might not even start. However, the difference between Carter and the aging veterans the Bucs chose to release is Carter is durable and healthy. He’s notched 97.5 career sacks and has never missed a game since he entered the league in 1995.
This season, the Bucs’ projected starting defense has just four players – Barber, Brooks, Kelly and Spires – that are 30 years of age or older.
So do you really want Tampa Bay’s defense to somehow keep all of its aging players who have declining skills and bring back all of its former and fading superstars?
Or do you want the Bucs’ defense to get younger?
You’re well within your right to choose one or the other. But it’s important for the critics to realize the reality of the situation, which is you can’t have it both ways.
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