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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. They say in life that timing is everything. Former general manager Bruce Allen built a great offensive line for the Buccaneers, but he started constructing it two years too late.
Instead of trying to take the quick fix approach with offensive tackles Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie and guards Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O’Dwyer back in his first season with the Buccaneers, imagine if Allen had traded down into the second round of the draft and selected guard Chris Snee and center Jake Grove instead of wide receiver Michael Clayton in 2004.
Imagine that Allen came back in 2005 and drafted offensive tackle Jammal Brown in the first round instead of running back Cadillac Williams. Imagine Allen drafting offensive tackle Michael Roos in the second round in 2005 to give Tampa Bay four outstanding linemen in Roos, Snee, Grove and Brown. All but Grove have been to the Pro Bowl.
Had Allen and head coach Jon Gruden started rebuilding together in 2004 when Allen took over as general manager, they might still be employed by Tampa Bay today. Instead, they waited until 2006 to lay a young foundation along the offensive line with the drafting of right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Both players are developing quite nicely for the franchise, and Joseph just played in his first Pro Bowl on Sunday as an alternate, but Gruden and Allen would have been better served in 2008 by an offensive line that featured five-year players on it instead of two- and three-year pros.
New Bucs general manager Mark Dominik understands the timing surrounding his promotion and the political capital that comes with being a brand new G.M. The leash is a little bit longer and the expectation bar is lowered just a little bit with a new regime. Now is the best time possible for Dominik and new head coach Raheem Morris to experiment at the quarterback position.
And by re-signing quarterback Luke McCown, who has just seven starts under his belt in five NFL seasons, and allowing him to compete for the starting job – this is an experiment.
In his short-lived playing days in which he has a 1-6 record as a starter, McCown has completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 1,617 yards and with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has also rushed 21 times for 157 yards (7.5 avg.) and has a QB rating of 75.2 over his playing career, which also includes a four-game stint as a starter in Cleveland in 2004.
But as a Buccaneer quarterback, McCown owns a 91 QB rating in seven games (three starts) in Tampa Bay, which is the second-highest QB rating in franchise history behind Jeff Garcia.â€¨While playing for the injured Garcia in 2007, McCown completed 94-of-139 (67.6 percent) of his passes for 1,009 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. â€¨
His first start in Tampa Bay came during the 2007 season in New Orleans where McCown completed his first 15 passes en route to leading his team to a 27-23 come-from-behind win over the Saints that helped the Bucs win the NFC South division title that year.â€¨
Despite having a limited resume´ that was not aided last year by McCown being passed over for a starting opportunity by veteran Brian Griese in Atlanta in Week 15, Dominik and Morris were intrigued by what they had seen from McCown over the years behind the scenes. They’ve seen a high character player with a strong arm, fast legs and – according to his teammates – the best athleticism on the team.
Does McCown have what it takes to be a starting quarterback for the Buccaneers? Dominik and Morris don’t know – nobody knows – but they feel comfortable enough about McCown that they are going to give him a shot.
McCown, 27, will be competing with Griese and second-year quarterback Josh Johnson for the starting job, but don’t be surprised to see the Bucs throw another quarterback in the mix to replace either Griese or Johnson and compete with McCown. Don’t expect that signal caller to be the 39-year old Garcia, who it seems has burned his bridge with both Tampa Bay’s old and new front office with his contract demands, his happy feet in the pocket and his erratic play late in games that made him the NFL’s 30th rated quarterback in the fourth quarter during 2008.
Pewter Report has been reporting Tampa Bay’s rumored interest in Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman since the Senior Bowl, and as crazy as it sounds to have the inexperienced McCown ahead of the raw Johnson and a rookie like Freeman on the Bucs’ depth chart in 2009 – don’t rule a scenario like that completely out. If there is a year for Dominik and Morris to really roll the dice with a youth movement at the position in hopes of finding the right, young franchise quarterback, it is 2009 when their political capital is at its highest.
Veterans on the team and Buccaneers fans may not like the possibility of a season’s worth of growing pains – especially three years removed from a similar situation in 2006 when the wretched play of Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski nearly cost Gruden and Allen their jobs with a 4-12 season – but it would show Dominik’s courage and conviction about building the team the right way. Dominik, who has been evaluating talent for the Buccaneers over the last 14 years, believes that winning teams are constructed from within, and that means building through the draft, re-signing core players who have been developed in-house and sprinkling in a select number of free agents where needed.
With his first major free agent signing completed as a general manager, Dominik has taken a potentially big step in addressing the Buccaneers’ quarterback situation. I’ve always said that the Bucs can’t afford to let McCown walk to another team and become the next Jake Delhomme (who languished as a backup in New Orleans before becoming the starting quarterback for NFC South rival Carolina) without knowing what they have in the Louisiana Tech product.
Time will tell if McCown is the answer at quarterback or whether he is simply the next Simms or Gradkowski in Tampa Bay. But the timing is right for Dominik and the Bucs to find out.
FAB 2. In some on-line stories and some posts on the PewterReport.com message boards, Pewter Report has been hinting for some time now that quarterback Luke McCown would be re-signed by Tampa Bay. In fact, in our Free Agency Preview, which was actually at the printer when the McCown signing occurred, Pewter Report had McCown as the No. 1 Bucs’ Best Bet at quarterback.
Yes, Pewter Report had reported at the beginning of the 2008 season just after training camp that McCown had his share of detractors at One Buccaneer Place. And as soon as that was written in an SR’s Fab 5, the McCown supporters came out of the woodwork the next day, vehemently stating that in fact he had support within the building.
So who was on McCown’s side? Virtually the entire front office, which consisted of former general manager Bruce Allen, current general manager Mark Dominik and recently departed senior assistant Kevin Demoff. Allen was a big supporter of McCown’s and resisted former head coach Jon Gruden’s notion of spending a first- or second-round pick on a quarterback like Louisville’s Brian Brohm because of the promise McCown showed in well documented limited action in 2007.
Based on Pewter Report’s conversations with Demoff and Dominik last year, both men were high on McCown’s potential, which became obvious when Dominik made him Tampa Bay’s first big free agent signing of 2009. Like some Bucs fans and others within the halls at One Buc Place, Dominik was shocked – and perhaps a bit perturbed – when McCown didn’t get the opportunity to start at Atlanta in Week 15 in place of injured starter Jeff Garcia. In pre-game warm-ups, Dominik had even gone up to McCown and wished him well and expressed his excitement for him getting the chance to start only to find out later that Gruden had tabbed veteran Brian Griese the starter instead.
As Tampa Bay’s chief personnel man, Dominik was excited about the opportunity to evaluate McCown in a pressure-packed NFC South road game with the division title still within reach – similar to the same set of circumstances McCown was faced with in 2007 at New Orleans. But alas, Griese, who was coming off tendinitis in his throwing elbow, got the start and proceeded to drive the Bucs’ offense across midfield only twice despite 12 possessions. For Dominik, it was not only a failed chance to clinch a playoff berth, but also a wasted opportunity to further scout a candidate to become Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback in 2009.
So who was not necessarily in McCown’s corner? Well obviously, Gruden. He was the one who decided to start Griese over McCown in Atlanta, and he originally had McCown pegged as the third-string quarterback heading into the season opener at New Orleans behind Garcia and Griese. Bucs quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was also said to favor Griese over McCown because of the speed with which Griese processes the information.
In fairness to McCown, who only has seven career starts on his resume´, part of the reason he may have trouble instantly processing information as it pertains to coverages and defensive fronts is simply a lack of experience. Gruden and others liked Griese’s bravado and the way he wouldn’t dwell on mistakes, and likened him to Rich Gannon, Gruden’s Pro Bowl quarterback from his days in Oakland. That may be a little much.
Griese has 76 more starts under his belt than McCown has, but he has become labeled as a guy who will throw the untimely, game-killing interception. That happened in 2008 as Griese threw seven touchdowns and nine interceptions while going 3-2 as a starter in Tampa Bay. But despite his experience, Griese has yet to lead any team to the playoffs in his 11 years in the NFL.
Olson is still on staff, and Griese is still on the roster, so McCown will have to win over his quarterback coach in addition to new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski with improved play in the spring and summer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But now that Gruden’s gone, you have to wonder if Olson’s perception of McCown was influenced by Gruden or if it was an honest, independent assessment of McCown’s ability.
In order to win the starting job, McCown has to do a better job of being more decisive with the football and become better at anticipating windows in the defense to throw through. While he gives an awful lot of credit to Gruden for developing his game and preparing him to play, perhaps Jagodzinski can further his development and speed up his anticipation.
But first things first. McCown and Tampa Bay’s other quarterbacks need to get up to speed on the Bucs’ new offensive scheme. McCown’s first step towards becoming the Bucs’ starter will be knowing the playbook better than his competition.
Gruden’s bypassing of McCown caused some hard feelings for the 27-year old quarterback, who is eager to prove to himself and his teammates that he can be a starter. But those hard feelings wouldn’t have precluded McCown from re-signing in Tampa Bay even if Gruden hadn’t gotten fired.
In fact, just days before Allen and Gruden were fired, Allen told Pewter Report that he had planned to reach out to McCown in early February and mend the fences, and that the young quarterback was on Tampa Bay’s free agent wish list.
McCown was obviously on Dominik’s wish list, too.
FAB 3. For those inquiring minds who want to know, Pewter Report has gotten to the bottom of the decision-making process that went into Jon Gruden going with Brian Griese, who at the time was Tampa Bay’s third-string quarterback, over Luke McCown as Jeff Garcia’s replacement for the Atlanta game. Multiple Bucs sources – past and present – that Pewter Report has spoken with have told us that Garcia, who will not be returning to Tampa Bay, deserves as much blame as anyone for the surprise quarterback situation that developed against the Falcons just prior to kick off in Week 15.
As it turns out, Garcia injured his calf in practice on Wednesday, but was well into the reps when the injury occurred. McCown wound up taking a little more snaps that day than he typically did as Tampa Bay’s backup quarterback. On Thursday, Garcia insisted he would be able to play and kept getting starter reps. McCown did not receive enough reps to be indoctrinated into the game plan, and the same could be said of Griese, whose elbow was feeling better and was able to take some backup snaps on Thursday, too.
On Friday, McCown took more starter reps and Griese’s workload increased, too. On that fateful day, McCown had a disastrous red zone performance, throwing several interceptions and showing too much hesitation in his decision-making. With the Bucs struggling in the red zone all year, the last thing Gruden wanted was another game that featured wasted opportunities for touchdowns and too many field goals.
Still, as of Friday, December 12, Gruden was under the impression that Garcia would start against Atlanta, especially with the NFC South division title still in play. It came as a shock to Gruden and others on the coaching staff when Garcia said he couldn’t go. How much of Garcia’s decision not to play was based on trainer Todd Toriscelli’s input and how much of it was his own decision to opt out remains unclear to Pewter Report. But what was clear was the fact that this caught Gruden and the Bucs off guard and had them re-think the quarterback situation with just a couple hours prior to facing the Falcons.
Gruden and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson huddled with offensive coordinator Bill Muir about Garcia’s situation and their options for the game. With such an important divisional game, Griese’s experience was deemed a plus, as was the fact that Griese had helped the Bucs defeat the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium in Week 2. Griese’s victory over Atlanta and the fact that he had already studied and suited up against the Falcons’ personnel played as big a role in the thought process as McCown’s shaky red zone portion of practice on Friday.
Pewter Report has learned that another factor in the decision to start Griese in Atlanta was McCown’s performances from 2007. Gruden felt that the young quarterback fared much better in games against New Orleans, Houston and Carolina when he had a full week’s practice with starter’s reps as opposed to coming into the San Francisco game at halftime after only taking backup reps behind Garcia, who started that contest. The fact that McCown only took partial reps during the week along with both Garcia and Griese led to no one other than Garcia being truly ready for the game plan as the 38-year old veteran was the one who was taking the walk-through reps with the starters on Saturday.
To this day, there are at least a handful of folks who are disappointed or angry that Garcia let on all week like he was going to play, only to not be able to go on game day despite what looked to be like a pretty productive warm-up session. Had McCown got the start in that game and won, who knows what would have happened with the Bucs’ postseason hopes or the fate of Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen. And had McCown played against Atlanta and bombed, how would that have changed Dominik’s perception of him?
It’s interesting to note that sometimes the less teams know about young quarterbacks the more intrigue there is over them. It should be said that NFL teams line up for guys like McCown, Matt Schaub and Rob Johnson when they have limited film and interesting physical tools, more so than guys that have started a full year like Chris Simms or Shaun King. Schaub and Johnson both played sparingly in Atlanta and Jacksonville, respectively, before being traded to Houston and Buffalo, respectively, for first-round draft picks despite limited experience.
In talking with some NFL front office folks, they’ve told me that sometimes teams are more intrigued with young, talented quarterbacks that have teased a little on the field. So yes, there would have been a pretty healthy market for McCown’s services in free agency had he not been given the opportunity to start in Tampa Bay.
And yes, the Bucs are certainly hoping that McCown ends up being more like Schaub than Johnson.
FAB 4. As we turn the page on the Jon Gruden era and begin the Raheem Morris era in Tampa Bay, let’s reflect once more on Gruden’s exit. Don’t think that Gruden lost the locker room just because wide receiver Michael Clayton and quarterback Jeff Garcia spoke out against him during Super Bowl week. In fact, most of Gruden’s critics over the years, including defensive end Simeon Rice, wide receiver Keenan McCardell, Garcia and others have either been injured players, aging players or both.
Were there a couple Bucs players who had problems with Gruden’s double talk? Yes. That’s certainly not a secret and he didn’t always treat every Buccaneer player the right way. But the argument that Gruden lost the team doesn’t hold weight when you look at the evidence.
The Bucs had the lead or were tied in the fourth quarter of every game in December. If the players were truly tuning Gruden out, you would have seen the Bucs lifeless heading into games and getting blown out – not losing close games at the end after fighting for nearly four quarters.
The media’s portrayal of the comments by Garcia and Clayton painted a picture like they were speaking on behalf of the entire team. That’s not the way center Jeff Faine thinks. Or what tight end Jerramy Stevens is feeling. And they aren’t speaking for nose tackle Chris Hovan.
So why isn’t anyone speaking up and defending Gruden publicly? Well, a few have, including linebacker and team leader Derrick Brooks, who called in to the Steve Duemig show to defend Gruden, but unfortunately in the media these days it’s negativity that sells, which is why the comments of right guard Davin Joseph and running back Cadillac Williams weren’t heavily circulated.
“He doesn’t do the best job satisfying everybody, (but) the majority loved him,” Joseph said on the Jim Rome Show on WDAE 620 AM on January 28. “I’m biased towards him. He drafted me.”
“Coach Gruden and Bruce Allen, they drafted me and gave me a chance to establish myself. Those guys did a heck of a job,” Williams said. “I know one thing about Coach Gruden, there’s nobody in the business that’s going to work harder than him. I enjoyed playing for the guy.”
Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber agrees that the time was right for a change, but isn’t one to publicly pile on Gruden and former general manager Bruce Allen since they’ve been fired.
“It’s unfortunate that it gets out sometimes,’’ cornerback Ronde Barber said of the negative comments of Rice, Clayton and others. “I never want to hear people talk ill of anybody, especially Jon. I had seven good years with Jon. I made four of my five Pro Bowls working for Jon. And Bruce Allen did great things for me. He gave me a new contract when I was 29 years old – a long-term contract. The decision was the Glazers’ and it’s everyone is entitled to his opinion, but I don’t think it’s very becoming to make them all public.’’
It makes little sense for current Bucs players to come out and not only bash Gruden, but also to defend him. To do so could be seen as a sign of not supporting new head coach Raheem Morris, and that might not be the best career move for any Buccaneer right now. Some players, like Williams, have come out defending Gruden and supporting Morris.
“I think Coach Morris will do a great job,” Williams said. “He’s one of those players’ coaches, but at the same time, he had that respect where you don’t want to step on his toes. He’s going to be a great coach. I definitely like the hire.”
There has been a groundswell of legitimate, upbeat support for Morris, and that has been encouraging to see. Many players have decided to chime in on Morris’ hiring rather than walk a tightrope with their comments about Gruden’s firing.
Was it time for a change from Gruden? No one is arguing that, just like no one argued that Dungy should have stayed in 2001 after failing to beat the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs for a second straight year. Just know that the players weren’t grabbing pitchforks and torches and heading for Chucky’s office.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until the next installment of SR’s Fab 5:
• In a sneak peak at the Pewter Report 2009 Free Agency Preview, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs’ biggest hauls in free agency consist of Tampa Bay quarterback Luke McCown, Tampa Bay wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who has a better than 50-50 chance of being slapped with the franchise tag, Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and Oakland punter Shane Lechler. And you shouldn’t be surprised, either.
• In another bit of inside scoop that is in Pewter Report’s 2009 Free Agency Preview, Pewter Report is learning more about what really transpired down the December stretch that saw the Bucs finish the 2008 regular season 0-4 en route to a 9-7 record. One source told Pewter Report that former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin “used to have an open door policy, but that in the month of December, the door was always closed and he was always on his cell phone, which he normally isn’t on during the day.” The source didn’t necessarily think that Kiffin was calling recruits for Tennessee, but instead that he was helping his son, Lane, line up a coaching staff. Regardless, Kiffin wasn’t putting in the time he normally would be into the Bucs’ game plans, according to the source. “Look at what happened in New Orleans with [Saints offensive coordinator] Doug Barrone. When he became the head coach at Syracuse, he stepped down. He knew that he couldn’t have two jobs. Why couldn’t Kiffin have done the same thing?” Another team source said that Kiffin’s biggest failure was his lack of adjustments down the stretch. “Look at the Carolina game. The Panthers ran the same plays in the fourth quarter that they were running in the first quarter. We had no answer. There were no adjustments.” There are more than just a couple people at One Buc Place – past and present – that believe that Kiffin bears some responsibility for the team’s 0-4 finish due to him taking the defensive coordinator position at Tennessee. They also don’t believe that Kiffin made up his mind after the Carolina game on December 8 and that he decided to leave prior to the New Orleans game on November 30.
• Here’s a quick trivia question for you. Name the Bucs’ highest-paid offensive lineman in 2009. Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph? No, he’s scheduled to make $1.505 million next year. Jeff Faine, whom the Bucs made the highest-paid center in the NFL last year? No, Faine will receive a base salary of $1 million in 2009. Unless restricted free agent left tackle Donald Penn breaks the bank with a new deal, Tampa Bay’s highest-paid offensive lineman will be reserve center-guard Sean Mahan, who is slated to earn $3.175 million in 2009. This stems from Mahan’s five-year, $17 million deal he received from Pittsburgh on March 10, 2007. Although the Bucs will be flush with over $45 million in salary cap room this year, having a backup interior offensive lineman making that much in base salary is not the best management of the Glazers’ money. Don’t be surprised if the Bucs go with a cheaper alternative this year or ask Mahan to take a pay cut now that he is not starting.
• The real benefit for Pro Bowl newbies like right guard Davin Joseph and kick returner Clifton Smith is that they have established themselves as being among the league’s best with their inclusion in the 2009 all-star game. This will greatly aid their chances of making the Pro Bowl again, especially for a player like Joseph, who was originally an alternate selection. Because the Bucs did not make the playoffs in 2008, don’t expect too many prime time games, which are often necessary in helping smaller market teams like Tampa Bay get their players the needed exposure to get voted into the Pro Bowl. Outside of the Bucs vs. Patriots game in London on October 25, the Bucs may only have one or two other primetime or nationally televised games, which will likely be against NFC South division teams.
• At the start of the 2008 season, the Bucs front office had surmised that Luke McCown just may be the most attractive option at the quarterback position in free agency based on the flashes of potential he showed in limited playing time in 2007. The team’s pre-season free agency list included a couple of old retreads in Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner, and some unheralded NFL backups like some guy named Matt Cassel. That was back in September. My how things can change over the course of six months.
• One final note on newly signed quarterback Luke McCown. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and others on the coaching staff were seriously contemplating benching starting quarterback Jeff Garcia at halftime of the Kansas City game. The coaches were upset at him missing wide open receivers in Dallas in Tampa Bay’s 13-9 loss to the Cowboys during the previous week, and with the Bucs down 24-3 with just over two minutes left before halftime, Garcia’s days as a starter appeared to be numbered. Garcia had completed just 10-of-16 passes for 110 yards with one bad interception in the first half just before Clifton Smith’s 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown kick-started the Bucs’ comeback. A late Buccaneers field goal cut the Chiefs’ halftime lead to 24-13 and gave Tampa Bay life heading into the third quarter. Gruden was contemplating making the switch because the bye week followed the Chiefs game and that would have given McCown two weeks to get prepared for the Vikings. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened to McCown, Gruden and the fate of the 2008 Buccaneers if McCown had taken over at quarterback in that Chiefs game and down the stretch after the team’s bye week.
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: email@example.com