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Tampa Bay reports to training camp in one month, but Buccaneers fans still are in the process of adjusting to the variety of changes that have taken place at One Buccaneer Place this offseason.
In addition to having a new head coach and general manager in Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, the Bucs also have new coordinators, including Jim Bates, who is charged with the difficult task of replacing legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay.
It's still perplexing Kiffin won't be roaming Tampa Bay's sidelines or running the "Tampa 2" defensive scheme. The last time those two elements were not in play in Tampa Bay was back in 1995.
Bates, 63, has 37 years of coaching experience, including 14 in the National Football League. But the Tampa Bay fan base still has plenty of information to attain about the team's new defensive coordinator.
In an effort to help Bucs fans learn more about Bates, PewterReport.com tracked down some of his former players. The insight they shared with Pewter Report will be provided in this column as well as next week's edition of Flynn's Focus.
Before we get into the particulars of Bates' 4-3 defensive scheme (we'll save that for next week), it's important to understand Bates as a coach.
This is Bates' fourth stint as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He previously worked in that capacity with Miami (2000-04), Green Bay (2005) and Denver (2007).
With the exception of his one-year outing in Denver, Bates' defenses have finished ranked in the top 10 every season.
His former players attribute that success to not only Bates' ability to coach, but also the respect he earns from his players because of his diverse coaching background.
"I have a lot of respect for Jim Bates," said former NFL defensive end Trace Armstrong, who played for Bates for one season in 2000 . "When I think of Jim and I think ‘Great teacher.' I think what makes Jim unique in the NFL is he has coached every position group. He's been a defensive line coach, a linebackers coach and a secondary coach. I think that gives him a lot of credibility with the players, but I also think it helps him put together schemes that make sense for players. Sometimes you could have a secondary coach that doesn't really understand line play, or you have a linebackers coach whose scheme revolves around linebackers, so Jim has a unique perspective and understanding of all the positions. That makes him a great teacher."
It was never difficult for Bucs fans to find Kiffin on the football field. He appeared to have energy that rivaled that of his players. That's a quality Bates shares, and one that helps him keep his players on their toes during practices and games, even if it lands the veteran coach on the injury report.
"The best time I ever had playing pro football was under Coach Bates," said linebacker Zach Thomas, who played for Bates in Miami from 2000-04. "He's an energetic guy. Anytime we had a drill and we were taking on the offense, Coach Bates was already over there right after we would make the play, slapping your helmet and things like that. I mean, he was over there quick.
"Coach Bates got some friendly fire a few times. His glasses broke, and one time he pulled his calf muscle really bad. I think Coach Bates was in the training room as much as we were. He definitely has passion for the game, but he earned guys' respect. He didn't just demand it, he earned it."
Cornerback Jamar Fletcher was a first-round pick with the Dolphins in 2001. He spent three seasons playing under Bates and in his defensive scheme in Miami. Fletcher has played with four teams since his tenure in Miami ended. His experience outside of his playing days in Miami has helped Fletcher build an even better appreciation for Bates.
"You could tell he had been around football. The guy knew what he was doing," said Fletcher. "I had a lot of respect for him then and I have a lot of respect for him now. He's a good coach."
Miami's defense was a top 5 unit in all but one of Bates' years with the Dolphins. One of the keys to Miami's success was the fact that the players bought into Bates and his scheme while it was being implemented during the 2000 offseason. According to Armstrong, who posted a career-high 16.5 sacks in his only season with Bates, it will be critical for the Bucs defensive players to do the same.
"The players did a great job of buying into Jim as a person and a coach, as well as a scheme," said Armstrong. "He's a great teacher. Players will decide really quickly whether or not you can help them. If they don't think you can help them they're not going to listen to you. This is where Jim's teaching skills come into play. The scheme is very simple, and as a player that allows you to play very fast, master other parts of the game like distance and tendencies. Because the scheme is simple if allows you to focus on the nuances of playing football."
Players like Armstrong and Thomas were experienced and proven veterans before Bates arrived in Miami in 2000. They say old dogs can't learn new tricks, but Armstrong and Thomas did, which helped them earn a total of five trips to the Pro Bowl under Bates after making just one (Thomas in 1999) before his arrival.
"I learned so much from him," Thomas recalled. "He definitely has the mind. He adjusted better during the game than anybody I've ever been around in terms of knowing what is happening. He had you prepared. That's what I remember about playing for Jim Bates."
It wasn't just Bates' coaching, teaching and adjusting techniques that earned the players' respect. It was his ability to mold his coaching technique to each individual player, which more often than not helped him get through to players.
"There were a few guys we had in Miami that were uncoachable, but Coach Bates could always talk to those guys and they would listen to him," said Thomas. "I've never seen anything like it. He always knew how to talk to guys. Anybody who knows football knows there are a lot of different personalities in a locker room. That impressed me. He had to talk to one guy one way, and then talk to another guy another way. That's impressive, but it's so important to be able to do that because once a guy is uncoachable you're not going to get the best out of him. He did that. He got the best out of everybody, and he knew how to handle different situations and relationships. He had respect for the room, and guys loved to play for him."
When Dave Wannstedt resigned as Miami's head coach on Nov. 10, 2004 the team promoted Bates to interim head coach. Many of the Dolphins players wanted Bates to be retained as head coach in 2005, and it showed in the team's play.
The Dolphins had posted a 1-8 record before Wannstedt resigned. Bates produced a 3-4 record, but his players competed hard in a season that was lost several weeks earlier. The effort was impressive, evidenced by three of Miami's four losses under Bates coming by seven points or less, and one of the team's three wins coming vs. the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
"When he took over as our head coach things were terrible, but he made it fun," said Thomas. "Really, we played fairly well under Coach Bates as head coach. We could have won all of those games. He did one hell of a job."
Instead, the Dolphins hired Nick Saban as head coach, which led Bates to Green Bay, where he helped the Packers defense rank seventh overall in 2005.
A coaching change in Green Bay led to Bates' departure during the 2006 offseason. He became Denver's defensive coordinator in 2007, but things didn't go as planned with the Broncos.
The Broncos promoted defensive backs coach Bob Slowik to defensive coordinator and Bates was given the title of assistant head coach/defense. Denver's defense finished the season ranked 19th overall, and Bates resigned shortly after its season ended.
Bates' former players urge critics to view Bates' one-year stint in Denver as an exception, not the norm, which is a notion supported by his impressive resu'me'.
"I don't know anything about what happened in Denver," said Armstrong. "But if you look at Jim's total body of work in Miami and Green Bay, what you've seen is rapid turnarounds. I don't really know what happened in Denver. I don't think they played great defense before he got there and I don't know that they've done well since he left."
After another year off from football in 2008, Bates jumped at the opportunity to join Morris' coaching staff in Tampa Bay. He was familiar with Morris since Bates' son Jeremy and Morris served as quality control coaches together in Tampa Bay.
Morris, 32, is the youngest head coach in the NFL, but Bates' former players believe Morris will be a better head coach with experienced coordinators around him.
"I said from the beginning when Raheem got the job that Tampa needed a staff with experienced coordinators," said Armstrong. "If you look at what Mike Tomlin has done in Pittsburgh, he's done an amazing job, but he's also had a very experienced staff around him. I think Tampa is trying to do the same thing with [offensive coordinator] Jeff [Jagodzinski] and Jim [Bates]. They are good coaches that will give their head coach a lot of great support."
Kiffin left the Bucs in January to take the defensive coordinator job with Tennessee, which ironically is Bates' alma mater. While they are big shoes to fill, Bates' former players believe he can help Tampa Bay's defense thrive.
"Monte is a great coach. I've long admired him and the way he's gotten players to perform in that system," said Armstrong. "I think he is a Hall of Fame caliber assistant coach. But I also expect Jim to come in there and do very well. If you look at Jim's history and his body of work as a whole you'll find that Jim is also a very good coach and I expect him to do a great job in Tampa Bay."
Not only has he succeeded Kiffin, whose defenses finished 11 of 12 seasons ranked in the top 10, Bates has also inherited a defense that features a mix of veterans and young, inexperienced players.
Adjustments, hard work and good coaching are in order, but those are three of Bates' strongest attributes, and ones he brings to Tampa Bay's defense.
"I admire Jim for taking that job because a lot of coaches might have passed on that job since Coach Kiffin is a legend there," said Thomas. "It's hard to go into a situation like that because if something doesn't work right away then everybody is going to talk about it and question it. It's a tough one, but Coach Bates doesn't care. He's going to come in there and do what he does because he believes in it. He's going to do what guys are comfortable with, too. He's not one of those old school guys that can't adjust for anybody or anything. He'll adjust and change based on what he believes in, but also what guys are comfortable with.
"Jim went crazy in his time off from football. I can also tell you he's working like hell to try and help that team in Tampa win. I promise you that."