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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. Do you know how much former Tampa Bay third-string running back Earnest Graham will make in incentives if he finishes 2007 as the Bucs’ leading rusher? Nothing.
Do you know how much Graham will make in incentives by taking the most snaps at running back for the Bucs in 2007? Nothing.
Do you know how much Graham will make in incentives by leading the team in rushing touchdowns? Nothing.
Do you know how much Graham will make in incentives for getting 1,000 yards? Nothing.
The reason? Graham made a costly mistake last year when he negotiated his own contract in 2006, a fact first reported last year by PewterReport.com.
He was scheduled to make $425,000 in 2006, but walked upstairs to general manager Bruce Allen’s office at the end of last year and negotiated a two-year extension that would run through the 2008 campaign. Graham received a pay increase of $318,750 that essentially served as a signing bonus without the proration. By the end of 2006, Graham’s base salary rose to $743,750 before falling to $512,520 in 2007.
Graham knew that he was viewed as a third-string running back and a special teams contributor in the eyes of Allen and the Buccaneers and knew that he wasn’t going to agree on a bank-breaking contract even if he had an agent. The value of the deal that Graham negotiated totaled $1,436,270 and the maximum that NFL agents can make is a three percent commission.
Graham didn’t want to have to hand over approximately $43,088 to an agent for such a simple, routine deal for a backup player, so he pocketed the money himself when he served as his own agent. In hindsight, big mistake by Graham.
Allen is the kind of general manager who certainly doesn’t mind a contract that has performance-based incentives. In fact, he loves it. Graham should have had some likely to be earned incentives in his contract for leading the team in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, playing time and even going over 1,000 yards – just in case.
Sure, the odds were extremely long that any of these accomplishments would ever happen to a career backup, but guess what? These accomplishments are happening.
Graham leads Tampa Bay with 631 yards on 154 carries (4.1 avg.) and six rushing touchdowns – all career highs. And with one-year left on his contract – in 2008 in which he is scheduled to earn $605,000 – Allen does not have to give him a raise or an extension. But that is something that Graham will attempt to do, although this time, not by himself.
Earnest Graham has played. Now Earnest Graham wants to get paid, hiring the notorious Drew Rosenhaus as his agent with plans to get a lucrative contract extension in 2008. With starting running back Cadillac Williams likely shelved until midway through the start of next season due to a torn patellar tendon injury, and backup running backs Michael Pittman and Michael Bennett both unrestricted free agents next spring, Graham has some leverage due to the fact that he might have earned the starting job in 2008.
“It was kind of a no-brainer situation," Graham said of hiring an agent. “Things have been going really good. It’s kind of a natural thing to happen.
“In the situation before where I was my own agent, it was different than it is now. When I was my own agent, I was in a situation I was comfortable in. Now I’m not. You want to get someone who will fight for you and get you what you think you are worth. In anything, once you start taking on more responsibility, your value increases. I signed a two-year deal, so we’ll see where it goes.”
Basically, Graham wants a contract that reflects his worth as potential starting running back – not a third-team runner.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Graham said. “It’s a business. I’m not an agent and I don’t really know the ins and outs of the business like that. You try to hire somebody that does and somebody that has had success and has done well for other players.”
Rosenhaus certainly has done that for some of his clients, sometimes doing so in notorious ways, such as having his clients hold out for more money. However, that is something Graham isn’t even contemplating, and given the fact that he will not likely be looking to necessarily break the bank with this deal, it appears that it wouldn’t come to that.
“I would never hold out – I never would,” Graham said. “That’s an absolute no-no for me. That’s out of the question. You just are looking for what you are worth. I know I can’t go in there and negotiate what I’m worth. You can’t cheat anybody in this game. Nobody is going to pay for something that you’re not doing. I’m just trying to get what I’m worth, and everybody feels like he’s the guy who will get that. That’s the reason I went with Drew.”
Allen does not comment on contract negotiations with players, but Pewter Report has learned that the Bucs plan on extending the contracts of some young players in order to help roll over approximately $14 million into next year’s salary cap through a cap loophole regarding the use liberal incentives.
Although Rosenhaus may have a bad reputation in the eyes of the average football fan, he and Allen have a track record of working well together. Rosenhaus has several other Buccaneers aside from Graham, including tight end Anthony Becht, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and left tackle Luke Petitgout. Becht will be an unrestricted free agent next March and Buchanon will have one year left on his deal, which means that Rosenhaus and Allen may be working on a few more deals other than Graham’s. That may play a role in not getting too crazy regarding asking Allen to give Graham a raise and an extension because they will have to work together quite a bit in 2008.
In the meantime, don’t feel too bad for Graham. He’s living a dream with all of this playing time he is receiving. The NFL also has a mechanism in place through the Collective Bargaining Agreement to help out players like Graham who log an unusual amount of playing time. It’s a performance based pay program, which is a fund that each team must account for in the benefits portion of the salary cap, thus it does not affect the team salary portion of the cap.
For the Bucs, this year’s number will be $3-4 million that will be spread out mostly to young players who received more playing time than expected based on their contract status. Graham will receive an unscheduled bonus in the range of $100,000-$200,000. Other players who will likely receive a nice little unscheduled bonus at the end of the year for playing time include defensive end Greg White, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, left tackle Donald Penn, fullback B.J. Askew and rookie starters Arron Sears and Tanard Jackson.
But the reality of Graham’s contract situation was that he would have likely cashed in on much higher bonuses, perhaps into the millions, if only he had put some incentives into his contract.
FAB 2. Move over, Chris Berman. Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden is famous for throwing out nicknames, too. His latest nickname creation is for Tampa Bay second-year wide receiver Maurice Stovall, who is tearing it up on special teams covering punts.
Stovall, who was forced to move to the gunner – or flyer – position this year due to season-ending injuries to safety Sabby Piscitelli and cornerback Torrie Cox, is tied for second-place on the team in special teams tackles with linebacker Ryan Nece with 13 stops. Only safety Kalvin Pearson (14) has more tackles on special teams.
“That’s his new nickname – Gunner. He’s Gunner Stovall,” said Gruden. “He’s magnificent. We would like to see some of that on offense. We have to put him in some positions to try to generate some plays, and we think we will. We had his number called a couple of times, but the protection wasn’t right. But he’s just a force. He’s very confident in his physical status and his ability to get off blocks and make plays. He’s been stellar for us over the past three or four weeks.”
Stovall, who typically shies away from attention, doesn’t mind his new nickname.
“Gunner – he’s starting to call me that,” Stovall said of Gruden. “He’s been calling me that since last week. I’m just doing my job.
“[Special teams coordinator] Rich Bisaccia and Dwayne Stukes – they expect us to go down and make plays, do your job and stay in your lane. With the kind of guys we have – fast and physical guys at the gunners – that’s what they expect us to do. We get down there first, be disruptive and go make a big hit.”
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Stovall uses his imposing size and long wingspan to charge down the field. He’s been so effective at either downing the ball inside the 10-yard line for punter Josh Bidwell or making the tackle on the return man that his opponents have taken notice.
Against Washington last Sunday, Stovall was double-teamed throughout the second half and was even triple-teamed on Tampa Bay’s last punt. At the 3:05 mark in the fourth quarter, Stovall had two Redskins lined up against him outside in the vise position.
At the snap of the ball, one of those players used a bail technique and dropped back, ready to pick up Stovall later down the field, while another Redskins player peeled off the line of scrimmage and jammed his inside release after a few steps. Stovall knocked one of them down, got knocked down himself, got back up, knocked down a second Redskins player and made it downfield in time to help corral the Washington returner.
“We have a very strong special teams unit,” Stovall said. “Not only on punt, but on all of the other phases as well. I think our kickers – Matt [Bryant] and Josh – did a good job of helping us put points on the board. Josh had a big punt, and played a great game. Collectively, we played well. They tried to tie me up early in the game, but I kept fighting. I got down and was able to make some plays later on in the game to help us with field position.
“At the line of scrimmage you have to have your move ready before the snap. A lot of times watching film, you see guys’ tendencies. A guy might wiggle his fingers, which means he’s going to quick jam you. You might see a guy with his feet staggered, which means he’s going to bail. Bailing means that he’s just going to drop back and not cover you or jam you. At the same time, you have to be ready to react. There’s no difference in playing receiver and adjusting to a different coverage. It’s all about reaction, going full speed and being physical.”
Covering the Buccaneers professionally for 13 years, I’ve seen some real standout special teams players in that span. Guys like Curtis Buckley and Kenny Gant come to mind. I didn’t think I would ever see a better punter-gunner tandem than that of Tom Tupa and Dwight Smith. But then there was Tupa and Corey Ivy, followed by Bidwell and Cox.
Now it’s Bidwell and Stovall.
“Josh communicates with us on the sidelines,” Stovall said. “On the field he’ll throw me a signal as to where he’s kicking it. After the first punt, he’ll tell me how he feels he’s kicking it today. If he feels better kicking the ball short or feels like he’s kicking it deep. We communicate well as a team. After that, it is all about flying down there, being fast and physical and using your hands and your technique.”
Fans have been anxiously waiting for last year’s third-round pick to get more opportunities at wide receiver and start dominating on Sundays. Stovall is already becoming a dominant player – just watch number 85 on fourth downs. He’ll get the chance to dominate on offense soon enough. Man, is this guy fun to watch.
FAB 3. There were several huge plays in Tampa Bay’s thrilling, 19-13 victory over Washington last week. Let’s talk about them in this week’s X’s and O’s installment. I’ve also got some good commentary from defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to help break down a few plays.
• First of all, don’t think the Buccaneers pass rush was to Kiffin’s liking on Sunday. Yes, Washington quarterback Jason Campbell got sacked a couple of times and fumbled. But Tampa Bay let the cat out of the bag too many times on third-and-long. The Bucs were gassed at the end of the game because they couldn’t get off the field on third down and the offense couldn’t sustain any drives, racking up only 15 yards of total offense in the second half. It was days like this one where you can see the method to new defensive line coach Larry Coyer’s madness as he frequently rotates all eight defensive linemen. “I always check the temperature before [the games],” Kiffin said. “The average temperature today, this time of year, is 76 degrees. [Sunday], it was 82 at kickoff. That makes it warm and humid. I always look at that. When the other team is playing from behind, that’s what happens. You get tired. It happens all the time on defense. Part of that is our fault for not getting off on third down. We played a lot of snaps today, and when you do you are dead tired. And when you are tired it is hard to rush the quarterback. I’m totally ticked off about our third downs. We caused our own problems. Third-and-longs. We didn’t get off.”
• Kiffin gets knocked a bit by having some stale blitzes that rarely get to the quarterback, evidenced by the fact that through 11 games, safety Jermaine Phillips is the only non-defensive lineman to record a sack. But Kiffin unveiled a new wrinkle against Washington on third-and-9 at the 3:39 mark of the first quarter. Nickel cornerback Ronde Barber came off the left side on a blitz out of the slot. But instead of trying to get around the block of tight end Chris Cooley to the outside, Barber crashes hard to the inside. This selfless act clears the path for middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who looped around Barber and almost sacked Campbell. Campbell was hurried on the throw and the pass was incomplete. “He’s a team guy,” Kiffin said. “That blitz that we ran with Barrett Ruud early where we got great pressure early in the game. Ronde just gave himself up on that. Usually Ronde is the guy [we blitz and send after the quarterback], but we buried Ronde to wrap Barrett Ruud around. Ronde will do whatever it takes to win.”
• Some of Kiffin’s blitzes weren’t as effective, such as Cooley’s 41-yard touchdown on the Redskins’ first drive of the third quarter. The Bucs were in a similar blitz on that play, but Cooley beat linebacker Derrick Brooks, who was in man coverage. “We were mixing the coverage,” Kiffin said. “Sometimes we blitzed and on one blitz they hit a touchdown to the tight end.”
• But Brooks atoned for that play by coming up with a huge stop on fourth-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 3-yard line in the third quarter. Redskins center Casey Rabach fired out on the play, but Brooks stepped, quickly shed the block and then lunged into the backfield to stop running back Clinton Portis for no gain along with rookie defensive end Gaines Adams, who beat Cooley’s block. Tampa Bay was in an “Under” front, which is seldom uses anymore, preferring to go with an “Over” front. “That was a big play,” Kiffin said. “That was huge – the turnovers and the fourth-and-1. That was a big stop. We jumped into a gap front. We were looking for the sneak. That was even better yet. Campbell is a big guy and they usually run the quarterback sneak in those situations and Derrick was keyed in on the sneak and did a great job to make the play. That was huge. … We really don’t play that defense much, but it was the same one we used two weeks in a row. It’s the same one on fourth-and-1 that Ronde Barber made the hit on in Atlanta. If you look at the tape, it’s exactly the same defense. We jumped in it. We hadn’t shown it the last two weeks.”
• The fourth quarter interceptions by cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly naturally got Kiffin’s praise. As they have done so many times, each player helped cause their own fortune by setting up Campbell’s interceptions. Kiffin explains: “[Ronde] is so deserving of that [interception]. In the history of football – I shouldn’t say never – but to this day, I don’t think there has been a nickel corner – a slot corner – any better than Ronde Barber. That’s what the interception came off of – a slot corner. He’s the best. He did a great job reading it. He was in a Cover 3. He has to re-route first. He re-routes, then he buzzed [to the flat]. He buzzed out right away and that is exactly a picture perfect Cover 3, which is change up from Cover 2. I don’t think the quarterback was expecting that. When Ronde plays in the Cover 2 he doesn’t play in the flat. He caught Campbell off guard a little bit. [After] Ronde’s interception, B.K. ends it. That was Cover 2 at the end. People always try to get it right up the rail on us. There’s a soft spot in Cover 2 right up the rail if your corner doesn’t do a good job. There is a hole in between the corner and the safety and if your corner doesn’t turn his head … Brian is a great head-turner, and he turned his head and made the interception.”
• One of the forgotten key plays in Tampa Bay’s narrow victory over Washington was the fumble recovery by Bucs safety Will Allen off of Ike Hilliard’s muffed punt with 3:19 left in the first quarter. Hilliard let the ball slip out of his grasp and fall on the grass right in front of him. Redskins rookie linebacker H.B. Blades was right there in front of Hilliard and appeared to dive on the ball, while Allen was off to his left and was a half-second late. But as the scrum for the pigskins commenced, Tampa Bay rookie linebacker Quincy Black jumped on top of Blades and began to pry his left arm up. That helped Allen, who was at the bottom of the ball, pry the ball loose and maintain control and possession for Tampa Bay.
FAB 4. Something strange has been going on in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers locker room this year. Rookie strong safety Sabby Piscitelli is becoming a daily fixture at One Buccaneer Place.
Uh, kid. You know you are on injured reserve, right?
You see, players like Piscitelli that are on injured reserve typically don’t hang out in the locker room. They don’t typically go to team meetings or attend practices. The usual practice for players on IR is to just call it a season, stop by for treatment and rehab when necessary and enjoy the rest and relaxation that comes from being away from the daily grind.
I’ve seen wide receiver Paris Warren a couple of times since he broke his ankle in August. I’ve seen left tackle Luke Petitgout a couple of times as well.
The only time I’ve seen fullback Mike Alstott is on the sidelines on Sundays. I haven’t seen quarterback Chris Simms since he was placed on injured reserve back in early October. The same goes for running back Cadillac Williams.
Yet I see Piscitelli on a weekly basis. So why is he here, and haven’t the veterans told this kid to enjoy the easy life?
“It’s as important as anything to me,” Piscitelli said of being at One Buc Place regularly. “I love this game and I’m blessed every morning to be able to play this game. Right now, I can’t, so what satisfies me is to be around here and be around the players and be around the game as much as I can. I watch film by myself a lot. There’s nothing else I would rather do. I don’t want to be sitting around at home. I’d rather be here. I’m really looking forward to learning as much as I can and getting ready for next year.
“The veterans kind of laugh sometimes that I’m here so much. They make jokes sometimes that I can go home if I want. I get kind of pissed off about it. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. It’s even hard for me on Sundays when the team tries to tell me that I can’t be on the sidelines for the game. It’s hard to hear that. I guess they made it where they are trying not to let all of the IR guys on the sidelines. I have a real hard time coping with that, but a rule is a rule. Hopefully, they will let me on the field at the end of the season or for a playoff game. That’s the only fulfillment I get right now.”
If you can’t tell, there is a real passion for football inside this guy. On Sundays, his fire for football burns even hotter.
“I can’t sit at home and relax,” Piscitelli said. “I can’t even watch it at home, to be honest with you. I was with my Pops this weekend and he had it on in the living room. I watched about two drives and then I got sick to my stomach. It’s really hard for me to not be out there. I come in on Monday morning and watch the film by myself. I’ll watch the game in bits and pieces on Sunday, but I can’t watch the whole thing. I get too depressed. It’s really hard and anxious for me.”
This isn’t for show, folks. Piscitelli got a little flushed in the face when he was talking to me about not being able to play football this year after suffering a minor broken bone on the top of his foot against New Orleans in Week 2.
“Sabby’s pissed off at himself for being hurt,” Tampa Bay secondary coach Raheem Morris said with a smile. “He comes to work everyday like he is going to play. He comes to meetings, he rehabs, he lifts weights – he’s awesome. I can’t say enough about the guy. He’s getting better and he’s not afraid of asking questions. He’s watching his counterpart, T-Jack, have success and he can’t wait to have success with him. I can’t wait to see the cat next year. I’m excited.”
Making matters worse for Piscitelli is that it’s getting down to crunch time in the Buccaneers season, he’s been out of his cast for weeks and he’s very close to being able to play – if only he wasn’t on injured reserve.
“I’ll be good to go in two weeks,” Piscitelli said. “I’ll be 100 percent to where I could play [if I wasn’t on injured reserve]. Being around here is what I need right now. It fulfills me. I try to stay out of the coaches’ way right now because those guys have so much on their plate with the season going on and Tanard Jackson and Jermaine Phillips playing so well. I try not to ask too many questions and bug them right now because I’m out of the mix. I’m on the outside looking in right now, but I’ll go up to Raheem’s office once a week and shoot the [crap] with him for about 10 minutes. That’s fun and I miss those guys. I just try to study film by myself, but I told those guys that they are going to hate me come the offseason because I’m going to be up in their ears. I can’t wait for that time to come, but at the same time, I can’t wait to see how this season is going to turn out.”
Morris appreciates the fact that a rookie like Piscitelli isn’t being influenced by some of the veteran players who choose to stay away from One Buc Place while they are on injured reserve. He knows this kid is hungry for football and that his appetite won’t diminish until he can finally step back on the practice field in March for the OTAs (organized team activities).
“He comes to see me every Monday or Tuesday and sits down with me and Jimmy Lake as we game plan,” Morris said. “I like it. I look forward to seeing him when he comes through. Sabby’s going to be special next year.”
Ah, next year. It’s tough for Piscitelli to think about next year while there are at least five more weeks of this year. In the meantime, he has been taking his frustrations out in the weight room and is as big and strong as he has ever been. A quick look at a shirtless Piscitelli, who has the body of a Greek god, and you can tell that he’s added some serious muscle over the past two months.
“I’m the strongest I’ve ever been in my upper body,” Piscitelli said. “I benched 310 pounds three times the other day. I used to do about 295 pounds only a couple of times, but I’m going to max out in whatever I can do right now. All I can do is the weight room, rehab and watch film, but I’m going to be the best I can be in those areas. That’s why I’m here early every day. I can’t stay away from this place.”
FAB 5. Here are some things that will hold you over until the next SR’s Fab Five:
• Buccaneers right tackle Jeremy Trueblood has been playing with an injured right shoulder since the Arizona game. I asked him this week if the shoulder was causing his play to suffer a little bit as he hasn’t been as dominant over these last two games as he was earlier in the year. “Maybe a little bit, but it’s nothing that should be hindering my play that bad,” Trueblood said. “Just a little bit, but I can still ball. It’s an injury I wish I didn’t have, but oh well.”
• Maybe this is the week Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden should activate all three quarterbacks instead of declaring one of them inactive as the emergency QB. Imagine if the injured Jeff Garcia gets the start and is knocked out of the game permanently fairly early. Then what happens if Luke McCown, who would likely be the number two quarterback, were to get dinged up and miss a play or two? Then Bruce Gradkowski, the emergency quarterback, would have to come in the game and neither Garcia nor McCown would be allowed to return. Making all three quarterbacks active on game day eliminates this potential scenario. Sure, it may mean that special teams gets robbed of a player like Byron Storer, but Storer won’t win or lose this big game for the Buccaneers – Tampa Bay’s quarterback will.
• Speaking of quarterbacks, I get the sense that Bruce Gradkowski’s lackluster performance on Sunday against Washington in which he didn’t show any improvement from a year ago may end up being quite damning to his long-term future as a Buccaneer. I know there was a great sense of disappointment in the Bucs organization about his lack of development and that could really send him into Jon Gruden’s dog house. After a game like that, and after Gruden has spent five long years trying to get Chris Simms to come around, Gruden’s patience may be wearing thin. It’s not guaranteed that Gradkowski is on the Tampa Bay roster next year.
• I know they play different positions, but I really see some strong similarities in the type of players that cornerback Ronde Barber and rookie free safety Tanard Jackson are. Throughout his career, Barber has shown an innate ability to always be around the ball and Jackson is doing the same thing in his rookie season with two picks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.â€¨"That was sick at the beginning of the game," Bucs defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said of Jackson. “I almost wished he would have scored on one of them but, it is what it is. He got the ball back and that's his job. You've got to realize, the guys he's playing with – Brian Kelly, he's been in this league for a while, he's got a guy like Ronde Barber, Jermaine Phillips has been in this league for six years – these guys have some experience and they're revving him up and giving him everything they have. He's bringing elite athleticism to the table and it's just working out for him. He's playing well."
• I had the chance to see left tackle Luke Petitgout in the locker room on Wednesday. Petitgout is healing up nicely after ACL surgery back in early October and will be ready to go when the team’s offseason workouts begin in March. “It’s coming along and progressing as normal,” Petigout said. “It wasn’t a reconstruction, but it still needed to be reattached. It’s been six weeks since surgery. I should be ready to go by offseason workouts if everything stays the course.” That will be one interesting training camp showdown between a veteran like Petitgout and a young, rising star in Donald Penn, who will be battle-tested with possibly 12-15 NFL starts under his belt by season’s end.
• Tampa Bay fullback B.J. Askew hasn’t practiced in two weeks due to an ankle sprain that won’t be fully healed until the offseason, yet he has still performed at a high level over the past two Sundays against Atlanta and Washington. If you hear the way Bucs head coach Jon Gruden talks about this guy with enthusiasm in his voice, you know that he has found his fullback for next year and years to come. Gruden simply loves Askew, who has done a fantastic job as a lead blocker for Tampa Bay’s backs this year.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org