Even though the Bucs had exceeded expectations predicted by several media outlets by winning the NFC South division title and reaching the playoffs, there was a disappointing feeling that surrounded One Buccaneer Place on Monday. With players and coaches shuffling in and out of the facility, cleaning out lockers and offices, Sunday's 24-14 loss vs. the New York Giants was an unexpected end to the 2007 season.
The Bucs had confidence in hosting a postseason game in Raymond James Stadium for the second time in three seasons and was hoping to be game-planning for a trip to Dallas instead of saying goodbye to their teammates and coaches.
"I would just like to say obviously very disappointed that the season is over. I would also like to reiterate that I'm very proud of our football team," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "It was a great group of men we had this season and unique combination of veteran players, young players and some players that came to our football team even after training camp that helped us capture a division championship. They gave us an opportunity to play in the playoffs and the camaraderie and unity that we had this year was unique. We overcame a lot, but unfortunately we weren't able to overcome the New York Giants. I'm proud of our team and our coaches."
Gruden wasn't ready to say goodbye to the 2007 season and his team on Monday, but it was something that he had to face.
"The best way to explain it, I guess, was that the stadium atmosphere yesterday was unbelievable," Gruden said. "The flags, the noise, the passion, the excitement, and now it's suddenly quiet. To say goodbye to these guys this morning was very emotional for me and very hard because they mean a lot to me and I'm proud of them."
Now Gruden and his staff must look toward what needs to be done to improve the current roster to go deeper in the playoffs next season. The fiery head coach, however, wasn't too specific on what areas he thought needed improvement to avoid another first round loss in the postseason.
"We have to improve in all areas. I think the No. 1 item on our agenda is to get some of our players to return to health," Gruden said. "That includes Sabby Piscitelli, our second round draft choice, Luke Petitgout, Carnell Williams; a number of players that we need to return to full health so they can make key contributions. We will have time to analyze our season and our individual and collective performances, but we want to improve in every area."
There were a lot of positives that came from this season including breakout seasons from running back Earnest Graham and defensive end Greg White. There was also stellar play from the rookie class with left guard Arron Sears, safety Tanard Jackson and defensive end Gaines Adams playing a big part in reaching the playoffs.
Gruden was impressed with what he saw out of his team this season in dealing with all the injuries that plagued this year's squad and feels it was a tight-knit group. The chemistry in the locker room was the best that it had been in years and came together quite rapidly with so many new faces. The additions of quarterback Jeff Garcia, defensive end Kevin Carter and linebacker Cato June added a good mix of veteran leadership with the youth movement that the Bucs were trying to accomplish.
"Yeah I think it is," Gruden said of being the closest team he's been a part of. "It was first portrayed when Parris Warren got hurt in the preseason, when Cadillac went down in North Carolina. You don't see that, it's not scripted. It's just special and especially at this level. This is a unique bond and togetherness that we shared and hopefully we can continue to build on that."
Gruden believes that the team has the work ethic and ability to build another potential Super Bowl-caliber team heading into 2008.
"We may not have won a Super Bowl championship. We won a division championship and that's a great accomplishment in itself, but in the National Football League it's not enough," Gruden said. "We do have a heart of a champion and around that heart we are going to build what we feel is a World Championship football team. The character is unique, the work ethic is tremendous and the camaraderie you have to be here behind these doors to feel it. Those are things that we are going to emphasize and hopefully strengthen in the years to come."
GARCIA IMPRESSIVE IN HIS FIRST SEASON WITH BUCS Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia joined Tampa Bay with thoughts of leading this team to the playoffs and quickly became the leader of the offense. He brought fire and energy back to the offense and his confidence in Gruden's offense continued to grow with every game under center.
Garcia's accuracy throwing the ball was evident in his first season in the pewter and red as he completed 63.9 percent of his pass attempts in the regular season. He threw for 2,440 yards with 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Three of his four interceptions came in a 24-23 loss vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8 at Raymond James Stadium.
Gruden feels that Garcia has what it takes to lead this team to a Super Bowl and was impressed with how he led the offense this season. He expects more of the same when Garcia takes the helm of the offense for a second season in 2008.
"I think when you acquire free agent players like a Jeff Garcia particularly at the quarterback position and you put a guy in a new offense with a new supporting cast in a new conference and you get a guy that comes in here and performs the way the he did, I think he certainly showcased that he has juice left," Gruden said. "Obviously we have to keep him healthy for 16 games, but I think there's a lot left in Garcia's tank, I certainly do."
Garcia was unable to remain healthy for the entire season as he missed three games during the regular season. After a short stint by quarterback Bruce Gradkowski vs. Washington, quarterback Luke McCown got his first start vs. New Orleans and led the Bucs to a 27-23 comeback victory that all but wrapped up the NFC South division title. McCown hit tight end Jerramy Stevens with the game-winning 4-yard touchdown vs. the Saints and showed flashes of what he can do with the ball in his hands.
McCown completed 67.6 percent of his pass attempts (94-of-139) for 1,009 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He was sacked 15 times in four games, however, as he gained a reputation of holding on to the ball too long. Garcia was sacked just 19 times in 13 carries.
Gruden liked what he saw out of McCown during this season, but is still looking for long-term stability at the quarterback position, something the Bucs have lacked during Gruden's tenure.
"You know what Luke McCown did some good things. He obviously had seven or eight plays that we all remember that were negative, but he helped us in Louisiana win a division championship in his first start in over three years. He completed a lot of passes and moved our football team," Gruden said. "I think with the quarterback you have got to consider everything and as we continue to improve around him, I think Luke McCown has talent to be a player no question at that position. We are going to continue to look as we always do. We have been accused of that for probably justifiable reasons. We are going to add as many quality players at that position as possible. It's been a real problem position for us here in terms of the lack of continuity and we want to try and get stability, long-term stability at that position."
With quarterback Chris Simms possibly returning next season presumably healthy, there will be a log jam at the quarterback position in Tampa Bay. There's also a small possibility that quarterback Jake Plummer, who was acquired in a trade from the Denver Broncos this season and sat out the season, could make a return to the NFL with Tampa Bay in 2008.
"Here we go again," Gruden said. "Jake, no on is going to accuse me of not being persistent brother."
JACKSON TORE MCL Tampa Bay rookie free safety Tanard Jackson sustained a torn MCL Sunday in the first quarter of the Bucs' 24-14 loss to the New York GIants on Wild Card Weekend, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said during his weekly radio show on WDAE 620.
Gruden went on to say that Jackson probably would not have been able to return to action even if the Bucs had advanced to the Super Bowl.
BUCS NEED PLAYMAKERS AT WIDE RECEIVER One tendency of the Bucs offense that was exploited vs. the New York Giants was the lack of a compliment to deep-threat wide receiver Joey Galloway. Even though Galloway was battling through a shoulder injury, the Giants made a point to not let him beat them deep. With shutting down Galloway, the Bucs didn't have another receiver that could make some plays down the field.
Wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton are solid pass-catching targets, but they don't have the speed or play-making ability to take the pressure off of Galloway. This is one area that the Bucs must look at through free agency or through a trade to get a veteran playmaker to counter Galloway.
"Guys do make profound impacts in games. You turn on Sportscenter and you see week in and week out some of the greatest plays you will ever see. We need that here certainly and we are hoping that some of that is on our football team at this point and time. We do want to have firepower, explosive play-making ability," Gruden said. "We did have guy lead the National Football League in yards per catch, almost 18 yards a grab, in Galloway and we missed him yesterday. We lost a guy who think can hit the ball out of the park with Cadillac Williams. We need these guys and we need to continue to address speed and explosive play-making ability in all phases of our football and in our return game as well."
There are a couple of likely free-agent wide receivers that could give the Bucs passing attack instant credibility. Arizon's Bryant Johnson and Chicago's Bernard Berrian have all shown the kind of separation speed down the field that Tampa Bay sorely needs to softened a defense and keep the pressure off of Garcia.
A couple of other names that likely will be tossed around in trade rumors include Cincinnati's Chad Johnson and Oakland's Jerry Porter. Gruden is familiar with Porter when he was the head coach of the Raiders. The Bucs had 18 total receiving touchdowns and only seven came from receivers with Galloway recording six touchdown receptions by himself.
Gruden likes the players he has on the current roster, but he's always to upgrade any position.
"We are going to need to continue to add players. The hard part about the National Football League is no matter who you are there is going to be change with the draft, free agency, but we do want to try to remain consistent in terms of keeping continuity," Gruden said. "As stated earlier, we are going to try to compete for the best players out there that are available this year to try to help ourselves get better."
GRUDEN LOOKS TO PREVENT SLIDE IN 2008 Following an NFC South division title and a home playoff loss vs. the Washington Redskins in 2005, the Bucs entered the following season with high expectations and Super Bowl aspirations. The season, however, quickly got away from them and they ended with a disappointing 4-12 season.
The Bucs now enter the off-season with the same credentials as in 2005 – a NFC South title and a home playoff loss vs. the Giants – and the same expectations heading into next season. Tampa Bay has been down this road before, but understands that their 9-7 record this season won't mean anything in 2008 as shown in a recent trend.
Since the inception of the NFC South division in 2002, the team that has finished last in a particular season has come back to win the division the following season. The Bucs finished in last place in 2004 and in 2006 and pulled off the feat winning the division title in 2005 and this season. Gruden and the Bucs will look to end this trend next season.
"It's tough in the National Football League especially in the NFC South. I think the team that finishes last finishes first the next year," Gruden said. "That's a heck of a trend and I've never seen anything quite like that. I think we have to concentrate on the reality of where we are. We have to continue to add players and continue to develop players and we need a few players to explode on to the scene as dominant great players for us to move onward."
In case Bucs fans are curious, the Atlanta Falcons finished in last place in the NFC South this season with a 4-12 record.
EXCITEMENT GROWING ABOUT YOUNG OFFENSIVE LINE The Bucs offensive line finished the season with the 11th ranked rushing offense and 18th in total offense. There is a lot of youth on the offensive line with left guard Arron Sears, left tackle Donald Penn, right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Trueblood and Joseph wrapped up its first full season side-by-side and Sears and Penn had 13 games together including the playoff contest.
Joseph and Trueblood were selected in the 2006 NFL Draft and have been looked at to become a dominant duo. Even though Joseph showed little progression in his second season as a starter, Trueblood made major improvements and became the enforcer of the offensive line.
Sears started all 16 games as a rookie and became a lead blocker for Graham when he was used as a pulling guard on running plays. Penn stepped up after replacing Petitgout who went down with a season-ending knee injury. He had to learn on the go and held his own after facing top-notch pass rushers in New York's Osi Umenyiora, Atlanta's John Abraham and Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney.
"The right side of the line had a very good season, 16 starts together. Obviously Arron Sears is going to be a great player. He's a guy that I think is going to take his game to incredible height. What he did in that game yesterday to perform from a toughness standpoint will speak volumes about him and his career I think," Gruden said. "He's walking around here today in a boot and he's just one tough, hard-nosed football player that could be great. Donald Penn for him to do what he did and play as well as he did gives us depth at the left tackle position should Petitgout come back and that's exciting. I think we do have some key ingredients there, some guys that can be dominant and be a force to be reckoned with. We are excited about it."
The battle for the left tackle position between Penn and Petitgout is already the hot topic heading into training camp next season.
"We will talk about all of that because Luke Petitgout has a serious injury that he has to come back from and when he does come back he's going to have to prove to himself that he is the guy before the injury," Gruden said. "I've been impressed with his rehab and his work ethic and I expect him to be a key ingredient on this football team next year."
ALSTOTT SITUATION NOT RESOLVED Bucs fullback Mike Alstott was placed on injured reserve before the first preseason game, effectively ending his season. It was thought that Alstott would retire after injuring his neck for the second time in his career. However, nothing has been officially confirmed on whether Alstott will call it quits or possibly return for another season.
Gruden had yet to speak with Alstott about his future and was going to let the end of the season sink in before addressing that situation.
"No not yet and we are going to let the dust settle a little bit," Gruden said. "Obviously that was a tough start to training camp and there were a lot of things that were tough and hard to swallow and that was truly tough indeed. We will talk with Mike and let you know."
Alstott is one of only five players remaining from the Bucs 2002 Super Bowl championship team. The other four players included cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive end Greg Spires. Alstott holds the franchise record with 58 rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns with 71.
PLAYERS GET GAME JERSEY, PAY FOR HELMET There was a note on the white board in the middle of the locker room on Monday that stated if any player wanted to take their helmet home with them, they must pay $150 dollars. However, the players were allowed to take their white game jersey with them free of charge.
QUOTE OF THE DAY Gruden on his immediate plans following the end of the season.
"Well, I'm going to take my 13-year-old son out and start coaching him this afternoon, because that's about all I have left to coach right now. It's been a great year. I appreciate the interest, the enthusiasm that was thrust back into our football team. I think as we enter training camp next year the expectations will be higher. It will be more exciting, certainly, in the offseason program. What I'm going to do is take a little time off and try to help my sons with their homework and just try to rejuvenate a little bit."
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