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FAB 1. What do Buccaneers running back Derrick Ward and the groundhog known as Punxsutawney Phil have in common? They both find one day per year to come out of their hole and show their face to the media.
For Punxsutawney Phil, it’s Groundhog Day on February 2. For Ward, it was last week during the Bucs’ first round of OTAs.
Ward finally broke his silence after not talking to the media since just after the 2009 season got started last September. You can read his comments in this story on PewterReport.com, or I can save you the time by telling you that Ward said he was disappointed in himself and that’s why he instituted a media boycott, which came off to myself and other members of the media as rather childish.
It’s not like the Tampa media is nearly as harsh and unforgiving as the media in places like Philadelphia or New York, which is where Ward came from in free agency in 2009. There was no reason for him to dodge Pewter Report and others the way he did.
Some players don’t like talking to the media, but do so periodically, such as tight end Kellen Winslow and cornerback Ronde Barber. Yet those two are rarely seen during the open locker room at all. Ward, however, was regularly seen in the locker room last year during the media sessions. He just refused to talk.
Ward finally talked to the media, but said little of substance other than he’ll work harder and have a better attitude in 2010. That’s a good start. Showing up at OTAs is also a nice touch and the right thing to do.
Last year, Ward raised eyebrows after by skipping several of the voluntary workouts after signing a four-year, $17 million contract last offseason. That irked some members of the Bucs’ brass who were counting on him to be the starting running back while Cadillac Williams diligently toiled in his rehab for his second torn patellar tendon in as many years. Ward was signed because the team didn’t know how much Williams would be able to contribute in 2009 and at what level.
But a funny thing happened along the way to training camp. While Ward was supposedly carousing with new girlfriend Khloe Kardashian last May and June, it was Williams who was learning all of the plays in Jeff Jagodzinski’s new offense by attending all the OTAs and making a favorable impression on the coaching staff. Ward was not.
When the preseason came, Ward underwhelmed, rushing for nine yards on four carries (2.3 avg.) in the preseason opener at Tennessee. He fared better in the next game, rushing for 40 yards on five carries (8.0 avg.) at Jacksonville, including a 27-yarder. But aside from that big run, Ward only rushed for 25 yards in his other 12 carries (2.1 avg.) in the preseason.
Meanwhile, Williams had nearly outrushed Ward in just one preseason game, racking up 54 yards on eight carries (6.8 avg.) against Miami. That performance, plus the improvement Williams showed during training camp, allowed him to capture the starting job heading into the 2009 season.
Ward’s most productive game of the year came in the season opener as he ripped off 62 yards and one touchdown on 12 carries (5.2 avg.), in addition to two carries for 21 yards while backing up Williams. Ward would only surpass 50 yards rushing in one other game the entire season, which was a 19-carry, 67-yard effort (3.4 avg.) at Seattle with most of those rushes coming in the fourth quarter during mop-up duty in Tampa Bay’s 24-7 romp.
Ward finished his first season in Tampa Bay in disappointing style with 114 carries for 409 yards, one touchdown and a pedestrian 3.6 average. He also caught 20 passes for 150 yards and two scores. Perhaps the most notable thing Ward did all season was catch Josh Freeman’s first NFL touchdown pass, which came in Tampa Bay’s 38-28 victory over Green Bay.
This offseason there has been a growing chorus in the media suggesting that Ward needs to get more carries in 2010 and that the ball needs to be more evenly distributed between he and Williams.
What has Ward done to deserve to take away carries from Williams, who rushed for 823 yards and four touchdowns on 211 carries (3.9 avg.)?
Ward had 114 carries in 14 games last year – an average of 8.1 per game – and only had three runs longer than 20 yards and none longer than 28. During Ward’s 1,025-yard season in 2008 with the Giants, he only carried the ball 68 more times – 182 times (11.4 times per game) – yet produced a 5.6-yard rushing average.
In 2007, Ward only had 125 carries on the season, but still produced 602 yards, three touchdowns and an impressive 4.8 average.
I didn’t see much speed and power in Ward’s game last year. Did you? Not to the degree a less-than-100-percent healthy Williams displayed.
Yet there is a movement to get Ward more involved in the offense in 2010 – likely because of his large contract and the fact that he is making more money than Williams is in base salary. Frankly, Ward should have to earn more carries.
If I’m head coach Raheem Morris and offensive coordinator Greg Olson, I’m heading into 2010 with the same ratio that was used last year with Williams getting nearly twice as many carries. If Ward does more with his limited opportunities, then he earns more carries. That’s the way it should be handled.
And if I’m general manager Mark Dominik, I probably want to see more of what the 28-year old Williams, who is in the last year of his contract, can do two years removed from knee surgery than I do from Ward, who will turn 30 this year. I would want to see more of Williams – not more of Ward – so that I would have a firm understanding of what type of contract to offer Williams next offseason.
I would think that Dominik, Morris and Olson would also want to see what the speedy Kareem Huggins could do, too. If Huggins, who was on the Bucs’ practice squad last year, could be more of a home-run hitter in this offense he might offer a better change of pace to Williams than Ward currently does.
It was nice to see Ward talk to the media. Hopefully he has adjusted to life without a Kardashian and realizes that Tampa is essentially a sleepy little town compared to the glitz and glamour that encompassed his previous New York lifestyle. Hopefully he doesn’t feel like he’s entitled to more carries this year, but the various media reports and whispers coming from One Buc Place suggest that more carries are indeed coming.
In the end though, talk is cheap. I want to see if Ward is still the back the Buccaneers thought they signed in free agency last year. I want to see Ward show up for the rest of the OTAs and work harder. And most importantly, I want to see Ward start off with a light smattering of carries and rip off some big runs to earn more opportunities rather than steal some from Williams without justification.
FAB 2. The Buccaneers passed over a couple of talented wide receivers in Santonio Holmes and Brandon Marshall that were available via trade in April due to character concerns.
Part of the reason why the Bucs parted ways with Antonio Bryant was because of his outspoken nature as he spouted off to the media about the play-calling and his contract. That didn’t sit well with either general manager Mark Dominik, head coach Raheem Morris or offensive coordinator Greg Olson.
So why did the Bucs pull the trigger last year on trading for moody and mercurial tight end Kellen Winslow, who had his share of issues in Cleveland – not to mention an infamous media outburst while in college at the University of Miami?
Part of the reason was because Winslow got ringing endorsements from former Bucs quarterback Luke McCown and center Jeff Faine, who are two of the most quality, high character NFL players you’ll ever come across. McCown and Faine both played with Winslow in Cleveland in 2004 and spoke highly of him when the Bucs’ brass was gathering intel on Winslow.
“When we went after him, I was his teammate in Cleveland and Raheem and Dominik both asked me about him and I told them hands down that I would love him on my team,” Faine said. “He’s definitely a guy that won’t bite his tongue and will say what he wants to say about his teammates that are under-producing. That’s not necessarily an attribute that you would like out of your teammate all the time, but this is a high performance business and you need to hold people accountable. If they are not holding up their end of the bargain it’s time to make a change. It isn’t necessarily his job to say that, but who is to say that it is not? We would like to keep a lot of things in-house and I know that you guys don’t like when we do that, but he’s one of those guys that wears his heart on his sleeve and I like that.”
To his credit, Winslow didn’t have one tirade in the media last year despite the frustration of the Bucs finishing with a 3-13 record. Granted, Winslow didn’t make himself available to the media that often, which was probably a good thing given the circumstances. The fact that Winslow had a great individual season and set franchise records for tight ends with 77 catches for 884 yards and five touchdowns did nothing but help, too.
“Kellen wasn’t detrimental at all,” Faine said. “He was the guy that we wanted him to be. He was the go-to receiver. Now he has to do it again, and I know he will. He’s going to produce and do his thing. I’m excited to see what that collaboration between Josh [Freeman] and him can do with another year under their belt together.”
The only problem is that Winslow has yet to show up to the Buccaneers’ OTAs (organized team activities). He is believed to be recovering from a minor arthroscopic procedure that removed some scar tissue from his right knee, which is his fifth surgery in six years on his right knee, as Pewter Report first reported last week.
It is not known exactly when Winslow had the surgery this offseason or when he will report to One Buc Place. Other Buccaneers that are recovering from recent surgeries or ailments, including right guard Davin Joseph (knee surgery) and wide receiver Mario Urrutia (foot), defensive tackle Roy Miller (hamstring) and defensive end Erik Lorig (pectoral), may not be on the practice field, but they are training at the team’s headquarters and watching film this offseason.
Ideally, Dominik, Morris, Olson and Freeman would love for Winslow to at least be in the building if he cannot physically participate in the on-field work. After missing the first three OTA sessions, I’m sure the hope is that he will be able to attend the rest of them when they resume on June 2, but the front office is being tight-lipped about when to expect Winslow in Tampa.
The good news for the Buccaneers is that even though Winslow is not taking part of the offseason program – he is likely training in San Diego as he is custom to do – attendance is way up. Faine and veteran cornerback Ronde Barber told me last year that only 75 percent of the team was regularly participating in the offseason workouts and the OTAs. Unofficial estimates from the first week suggested that attendance was between 90-95 percent, which is a huge increase.
It may be annoying that one of the team’s best and highest paid players is not buying into the team concept 100 percent, but Winslow is a top-notch talent and he still had a phenomenal year despite missing close to half the OTAs last year. Dominik and Morris would like Winslow, who is entering his seventh year in the NFL, to be around the younger players and assert himself as a leader on offense, but Faine said that the talented tight end isn’t exactly that kind of player.
“I think Kellen is one of those guys that is going to lead by example,” Faine said. “That’s the way that he leads. He’ll call out guys – don’t get me wrong – but I don’t think he’s going to sit down next to Sammie Stroughter and get him through a tough time. He’s not that guy. But he will show him how to prepare for a game, how to practice and how to do the things you have to do to push through an injury. I don’t know if there is a guy that prepares harder on this team than him. He was that way before his injuries, but a lot of it is him having to prepare a certain way because of the injuries in his past. He has to prepare the way he does, otherwise he won’t be able to produce the way he does. Otherwise those injuries will come back to haunt him. For him, he can really lead by example and show how to be a professional. The guy is always in the film room.”
Faine, who is the veteran leader on offense, doesn’t seem concerned by Winslow’s absence this offseason. As disappointing as it may seem to be, perhaps we shouldn’t, too, as long as Winslow performs like he did a year ago when he was the primary weapon in the passing game.
FAB 3. The one player who doesn’t seem to mind that Kellen Winslow is missing from the OTAs is veteran tight end Jerramy Stevens. Stevens shared the title of “forgotten man” on offense in 2009 with running back Earnest Graham.
After coming off a season in which he caught 36 passes for 397 yards and two scores in 14 games in 2008, Stevens knew his numbers would diminish with the arrival of Winslow in the 2009 offseason. But he didn’t think they would dwindle the way that they did.
Stevens started the season with a bang when veteran Byron Leftwich was the quarterback. He hauled in four catches for 41 yards in the season opener, and followed that up with three catches for 24 yards and his lone touchdown on the year the next week at Buffalo.
Yet after catching seven passes for 65 yards and a touchdown in the first two games of the 2009 campaign, Stevens only caught eight passes for 65 yards over the remaining 14 contests.
After totaling 54 receptions for 586 yards and six scores in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay, including a game-winning touchdown in New Orleans in 2007 and a game-tying TD to force overtime in Chicago in ’08, Stevens was perplexed by the lack of passes thrown his way.
“I honestly don’t know what it was,” Stevens said. “I had a conversation with Olie (offensive coordinator Greg Olson) and he said the same thing. He feels bad that it went that way. The emphasis just kind of turned in a different direction. I don’t have the answer. That’s not my job to figure it out. I was just staying ready. I just didn’t get many opportunities after the first two games. It was disappointing for me, for my position coach (Alfredo Roberts) and for Olie, too. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
During the four games in which Josh Johnson was the starting quarterback from Week 4-7, Stevens caught only one pass for one yard, which came at Philladelphia. That catch was his only reception during a five-week span from the Washington game until the Miami contest in Week 10 after the bye. From Week 10 until the end of the season, Stevens posted a catch in six of the last eight games, but no more than just one reception as both Olson and then-rookie quarterback Josh Freeman were literally forcing the ball to Winslow and wide receiver Antonio Bryant almost exclusively down the stretch.
“I felt good last year,” Stevens said. “I had a great camp. I felt good going into the season. I was healthy all last year. It was frustrating, but I am trying to stay ready. I’m in great shape. I had a silly-ass day (on Tuesday) with a few drops. I just wasn’t focused, and that’s on me. My legs are good, I’m running good and I’m looking forward to having a great camp.”
At age 30 year with eight years worth of experience, Stevens knows he doesn’t necessarily need to impress the coaches during the OTAs. But there is one person he does need to foster confidence in, and that’s Freeman.
“I don’t feel like I need to do anything extra,” Stevens said. “This is my ninth year. They know what I can do. Olie and I have known each other for a long time. I just need to go out and be consistent in my performance so I can make the best of my opportunities. I’ve approached the season the same way the last five or six years, so I don’t think I need to try harder or do more. I don’t think I end up playing my best when I’m trying to do more.
“I hope I build some confidence with Freeman so that he will know that I will make plays for him. That’s why drops have been the most frustrating thing. Not just because I didn’t make a play, but I never want a quarterback to lose confidence in me. As a tight end doing what I do best, the quarterback has to trust me enough to throw me the ball. To throw the high ball in traffic, he has to have trust.”
The 6-foot-6, strong-armed Freeman should appreciate what a 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end like Stevens can do on the football field in terms of creating mismatches. Stevens has made his living in the red zone in Tampa Bay with half of his scores coming from inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
His favorite route is the fade in the end zone, similar to his pivotal touchdowns against the Saints in 2007 and the Bears in 2008. When Stevens lines up wide near the goal line, it creates match-up nightmares for opponents. Do teams put bigger, less athletic linebackers on Stevens, or do they take they chances with smaller more athletic defensive backs?
For whatever reason, Stevens did not have the opportunity to create a mismatch last season as he had done in years past.
“I hope things will be different from last year,” Stevens said. “I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some frustration from a year ago. I know Coach Olson is excited about having an entire offseason and training camp to install his own offense and get Josh Freeman more acclimated with everybody. I feel like I am the same player as I was when I had more production. Athletically, I don’t feel like I’ve lost a step. I might be a little faster. I’m a little lighter. I still bring the things that I’ve always brought to the field.
“I hope Olie feels more confident in me and that Freeman feels it, too. You are not going to throw the fade pass into the end zone if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. That’s where the mismatch I create with my size advantage can really have an effect in the red zone. I want to get those opportunities this year. They weren’t that comfortable with putting him in position to throw those last year. I want to get comfortable with Freeman and I’ll get those shots.”
While Winslow stays away from OTAs as he recovers from minor knee surgery, Stevens gets to step in as the starting tight end and has more opportunities to earn Freeman’s confidence. Stevens and Olson should show Freeman some red zone clips of New Orleans and Carolina in 2007 and Chicago 2008 when Stevens was the team’s primary weapon in the passing game near the goal line.
Winslow got nearly all of the Bucs’ red zone opportunities last year with four of his five touchdowns coming inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Stevens would love to at least be a secondary option in the red zone.
Stevens was under the impression last year that the arrival of Winslow might put lesser defenders on him while teams keyed on Winslow. It didn’t turn out that way despite Stevens getting those favorable match-ups. He never got the opportunity as the end result was 77 catches for 884 yards for Winslow and only 15 catches for 130 yards for Stevens.
“That’s definitely the theory and that’s the best case scenario,” Stevens said. “I’ll leave it at that. Sometimes the best-laid plans don’t always happen. I will say we have two great tight ends on this team. When the two of us are on the field, I think it makes the most sense. We both can create mismatches. You can’t cover us both down the seam. With our receivers outside, especially these young cats coming in, I think we can mix it up and get more variety out there. It will be better for our team and we’ll get more W’s.”
Stevens said he bears no ill will towards Winslow coming in and taking opportunities away from him.
“There is mutual respect there,” Stevens said. “He and I are two different kind of cats, but the respect is there for sure. We don’t hang out a lot, but I certainly respect him as a player. He’s going to help us get back to winning.”
At the same time, Stevens is ready to step in as a starter if Winslow gets hurt or has a setback with his knee.
“I think I’m in better shape and I’m healthier than I was a few years ago,” Stevens said. “My first year out here I was fresh off two knee surgeries. I’ve had no problems since. (Trainer) Todd Toriscelli has done a great job of managing me. I’ve got coaches that understand me, but Coach (Jon) Gruden was a big fan of mine and he got me the rock. That’s not to say that Olie isn’t, though. There were just some messed up things going on last year. Gruden used a lot more two tight ends and Winslow is the guy now. There’s not much I can do about that. He’s going to get his touches. That’s just part of being a veteran and understanding that.”
With Winslow playing the role of the receiving tight end last year, that forced Stevens into the role of being a blocking tight end at times, especially when primary blocker John Gilmore was out for much of the year. Not catching the ball and being called on to block did not play to Stevens’ strengths.â€¨
“When Gilly got hurt, I was asked to do some things that aren’t my strong suit,” Stevens said. “I did get exposed on some power blocks that weren’t my forte`. I went in there and did my best, but no question – Gilly is the component that we need in our power-blocking scheme. It’s certainly not Kellen, and that’s not what I do best. It was a rough few weeks in the middle of the season when Gilly was out. Zone blocking is my thing. The down block on the defensive end is what I am confident in. I’ve done that my whole career in Seattle. Blocking a 290-pound defensive end on a drive block – that’s not going to look good for me!”
Stevens knows that he must improve his blocking as the Bucs are going back to more of a power-based running game in 2010 because he isn’t going to be featured regularly in the passing game unless something happens to Winslow.
“We have to run those power plays for our offense to go, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to run those as well as Gilly does for us,” Stevens said. “That’s something I have to keep working on.”
Stevens isn’t asking for half of Winslow’s production. But what he is looking for is to not be forgotten in 2010, especially near the end zone where he can out-leap and out-muscle smaller defenders for jump balls on fades. With teams keying on Winslow even more this year, it would be wise for Olson to make sure that Freeman and Stevens get plenty of work this offseason to build confidence and trust in each other. It just may pay off with a few more touchdowns this fall and catch some opponents off-guard.
FAB 4. The one thing that Tampa Bay rookie wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn have in common is that they both had less than stellar quarterback play in college.
Benn doesn’t like to dwell on his frustrating Illinois career that saw him have to catch passes from the erratic Juice Williams, who was more of a rushing quarterback than a pure passer, during his three-year career in Champaign, Ill. In 2009 during his junior season, Juice Williams was benched twice and replaced by junior signal caller Eddie McGee and freshman quarterback Jacob Charest.
Needless to say, it’s not surprising that Benn, who was one of the top receiver prospects coming out of high school in 2006, only caught seven career touchdowns at Illinois.
In three seasons at Syracuse, Mike Williams never had a 1,000-yard season and played with nondescript throwers named Perry Patterson, Andrew Robinson and Greg Paulus. Patterson completed just 52 percent of his passes during Williams’ freshman season and was sacked a whopping 42 times. Robinson didn’t fare much better as the team’s QB in 2007 and was moved to tight end during the 2008 season when Williams was at a community college in Buffalo.
Upon his return to Syracuse last year, Williams’ new quarterback was former Duke basketball guard Greg Paulus, who hadn’t played football since high school. Paulus, who was a senior, was barely 6-foot and endured a fruitless 12-touchdown, 13-interception, one-and-done college football career.
On draft day, Benn admitted that he couldn’t wait to play with quarterback Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2009. During the first round of the OTAs, Williams was echoing Benn’s sentiments.
“Oh man, I’ve never seen anything like him before,” Williams said. “I was coming out of my breaks and it was like boom-boom! (The ball was right there.) That’s the way it’s supposed to be. He’s a great quarterback. I was seeing him make some throws that I’ve never seen before. I can’t wait to get more work with him.”
Williams, who has the makings of being Tampa Bay’s deep threat this year with his speed and freakish athleticism, likes the idea of having a much bigger, 6-foot-6 passer like Freeman throwing him the ball downfield than a short guy like Paulus.
“I’m used to looking back and seeing nothing but offensive linemen (at Syracuse) and then the ball would come out of the line like magic,” Williams said. “Now I’m looking back and I see (Freeman) at the top of the crowd. It feels good to have someone like that (throwing me the ball).”
Aside from playing with a quarterback that has a prototype arm and prototype size, Williams and Benn also appreciate the fact that Freeman stopped by their hotel room during last week’s OTAs to help them go over the playbook.
“He’s a jokester, but he’s also positive and work-oriented at the same time,” Williams said. “He will joke and can tell you a route, but he’ll get into you and let you know what you have to do, too. His accuracy is crazy, man. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I had to see how it was, and it was great. I have never seen anything like it. His accuracy was amazing.”â€¨
After completing just 54.5 percent of his passes during his rookie season, Freeman certainly has some room to improve. But compared to the quarterbacks that Benn and Williams played with in college, Freeman is the second coming of Joe Montana to them.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Last Wednesday, May 19, marked my 15th anniversary of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers professionally. I have a lot of people to thank for getting me this far, starting with my parents, who recognized my love of football and helped encourage it. I must also acknowledge former Buccaneer Magazine publisher Jeff Fox for giving me my start back in 1995 as a beat writer and editor-in-chief, in addition to Jim Flynn, who would work beside me for 10 years and raise the reputation of Buccaneer Magazine/Pewter Report. Flynn played a big role in helping me transition the company to the ownership of Hugh MacArthur, who has been the best boss a guy could ask for. I would also like to thank V.P. of business operations Kim Roper and editor-in-chief Charlie Campbell for being the best right-hand woman and man I could ask for, and for being great teammates. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our director of photography Cliff Welch, my graphics guru Mike Custer, website developer Malcolm Bowen, ESPN’s Pat Yasinskas, who is my mentor in the business, and radio hosts Steve Duemig and J.P. Peterson for their professional assistance and friendship through the years, too. But most of all, I owe the opportunity to pursue my dream of covering an NFL franchise to you – the loyal Pewter Report subscriber and visitor to PewterReport.com. Words cannot express how grateful I am for your support and patronage. I imagine the next 15 years of my career will be even more exciting than the last with an elevated profile in the sports world for Pewter Report, a much broader audience than ever before with record traffic numbers that could top 800,000 unique visitors this year, and a new, state-of-the-art PewterReport.com website coming this summer. As I end this edition of SR’s Fab 5, please allow me to give you some insight into some of the highlights and lowlights of my last 15 years covering the Buccaneers.
• There have been five rookies that instantly impressed me the most over my 15 years on the Bucs beat. The first was defensive tackle Warren Sapp in 1995. I was amazed at how a player with a bad body could move so quickly. It was Sapp’s quick first step more than anything else that made him a future Hall of Famer. The next two came in the same draft class in 1996. The first time I saw cornerback Donnie Abraham he looked like a polished veteran. He was so smooth and his instincts were so well honed. You could see from the first mini-camp he was destined for stardom. The same could be said of fullback Mike Alstott. I’ll never forget seeing Alstott take a swing pass down the sidelines in the first mini-camp and watching middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson try to forcefully push him out of bounds. Nickerson bounced right off him and Alstott’s incredible balance kept him trucking down the sidelines for a big gain. Even in a non-contact mini-camp, Alstott was able to show off his power and balance and that made a lasting impression on me. I remember telling myself, “I can’t wait to see this guy in pads.” Next up was seeing cornerback Aqib Talib up close for the first time in the rookie mini-camp in 2008. I had seen too much of Talib, a Kansas product, while watching him destroy my Kansas State Wildcats in Big 12 Conference play. To see him effortlessly skywalk and pluck interceptions out of the air in that first mini-camp left a lasting impression on me. I knew he was the real deal. Ronde Barber is right. If Talib gets his head on straight, he’ll rewrite the record books in Tampa Bay and supplant Barber as the franchise’s top interceptor if he plays long enough. And finally, the latest rookie to stun me with his athletic gifts is wide receiver Mike Williams from this year’s draft class. Williams made an immediate impact in my mind at the rookie mini-camp, and within minutes during the first OTA that was open to the media it was easy to see that he is the fastest and most explosive receiver on Tampa Bay’s roster. Putting Williams in the same company as Sapp, Abraham, Alstott and Talib is quite bold, but that’s the type of impression he made on me.
• The Bucs players I would gravitate towards the most over the years in the locker room were center Tony Mayberry, guard Frank Middleton, defensive tackle Brad Culpepper, punter Mark Royals, defensive ends Ellis Wyms and Tyoka Jackson and cornerback Ronde Barber. All seven are straight shooters that weren’t known for towing the company line (Derrick Brooks was the worst when it came to spitting out generic, bland company line quotes). Middleton and Culpepper were the biggest locker room jokesters I’ve ever covered, while Mayberry, Royals, Wyms, Jackson and Barber were so darn intelligent that you could reel off any topic – football or not – and they could go anywhere with it. I’ve always loved interviewing Barber. He’s my favorite over the years because I learn something very interesting about him, the team or the game of football every single time I talk to him.
• My favorite front office executive to talk to was former general manager Bruce Allen. He is so knowledgeable about the history of the NFL and the way the league works that when we would go out for beers I would walk away with a better understanding of the Buccaneers and the NFL. Allen was far from perfect in Tampa Bay, but I’ll bet that he has a much more successful tenure in Washington than he did here from 2004-08. Former Bucs senior assistant Kevin Demoff, who is now the V.P. of football operations and the C.O.O. of the St. Louis Rams, is easily the brightest and most forward-thinking football executive that I’ve ever met. He’ll be a G.M. within five years – before the age of 40.
• My favorite Buccaneers coach to interview was definitely Jon Gruden because of the sound bites and the insight you could glean in off-the-record conversations when he was in a candid mood. Runner-ups are special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, current head coach Raheem Morris and former head coach Sam Wyche. Bisaccia doesn’t talk much, but whenever he does it’s an information overload. I’ve learned so much about special teams and X’s and O’s from him over the years. Morris is also a master at X’s and O’s. When you see him in a teaching environment instead of a press conference setting he’s completely different and has the makings of a defensive mastermind. Wyche had the best personality and was the wittiest.
• Covering a professional football team definitely has its perks. The biggest one is that when I have a football-related question I can simply ask an NFL player, coach or front office executive and get the answer because I have the access. Then I usually relay that to you – the Buccaneers fan and PewterReport.com visitor – in the form of a news article or a column. However, I can usually only write about half of what I know because of the off-the-record nature in which I acquire the information. That’s the second biggest perk – actually knowing the whole story (or most of it) about the inner workings Buccaneers, even if I can’t always divulge it publicly.
• Covering a professional football team also has its downfalls. One of which is working close to seven days per week from August until January. Pewter Reporters like myself are lucky to have three days off per month during football season. Time off is literally measured in hours – not days. Another negative is getting into arguments with players in the locker room. It’s never a good thing for a reporter and a player to go at it in the locker room because it creates an embarrassing scene and can harm a reporter’s reputation in the locker room. I’ve had my share of verbal run-ins – twice with defensive tackle Warren Sapp (one that I lost and one that I actually won), once with wide receiver Alvin Harper, once with safety Melvin Johnson and once with quarterback Casey Weldon. I’ll rehash the Weldon story for you as it was the most comical. Back in 1995, Weldon, who was popular with Tampa Bay fans because of his Florida State roots, and Trent Dilfer had split time at quarterback, and editorially, I had thrown my support in Dilfer because I thought he was the better of the two quarterbacks and the team more invested in him as a first-round pick. Weldon apparently read an issue of Buccaneer Magazine where I said he was nothing more than an Arena Football League quarterback. I can’t blame him for taking offense at that, but he chose an odd time to verbally spar with me on that one. I was on the outskirts of a large media huddle around Dilfer’s locker in the cramped locker room at the old One Buc Place and I happened to be standing in front of Weldon’s locker when he approached from the shower wearing only a towel. I saw him coming, and suspected he had read what I wrote about him by the glaring look on his face. As I was making way for him to get to his locker, Weldon shouted loudly, “Where are you going? Aren’t you going to stay and listen to your boy Trent?” He also started to get derogatory with me and called me “Dilfer’s bitch” or “Dilfer’s butt buddy” or something like that. With Dilfer and the media literally two feet away, he then laid into me about the fallacies of my article and how great of a quarterback he was. Pretty soon, Dilfer and some of the media where looking at us and my only retort – which was actually a good one and helped defuse Weldon’s argument – was when I said, “Casey, listen … Trent is the worst-rated quarterback in the league … and you are behind him on the depth chart. What does that say about your game?” After that, I turned and walked away rather embarrassed. Weldon and I steered clear of each other after that. I avoided him and he avoided me. Thankfully Weldon’s diatribe against me only lasted a minute and wasn’t caught on camera. Otherwise I would have ended up like this guy. Weldon was known for his temper, especially the well-documented fistfight between he and Dilfer out on a golf course back in ’95. The next time I saw Weldon was the day before my wedding in 1999 when I was picking up my family at Tampa International Airport. They were flying in from Washington D.C. and I happened to see Weldon walking up the jetway as the plane was de-boarding. The only thing that flashed in front of me was the vision of him seeing him, punching me and then having these great wedding photos with a black eye or a broken nose. So I did what every groom-to-be should do in that situation – I ran and hid behind the check-in counter until he passed. Thankfully Weldon, who was carrying a Redskins duffle bag as he was the ‘Skins third-string quarterback at the time, didn’t see me, and the wedding photos came out great thanks to me being a chicken.
• I learned a lot from the Casey Weldon episode. I try very hard to not make criticism of players, coaches or front office members seem personal in nature. There were reporters and columnists that were quite venomous and over the top in their criticism of Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden from 2004-08. I think that’s why Pewter Report was so well respected by both of them. They always thought our criticism was fair. It’s one thing to say that Gruden called a bad game or that Allen had a poor draft. It’s another thing to try to make the case that they were the anti-Christ. I’ve always believed in the mantra that coaches and general managers should be fired based on the win-loss column – not the Sunday newspaper column. I am proud to say that I’ve never been associated with a witch-hunt to get any coach or general manager fired –not Sam Wyche, not Rich McKay, not Tony Dungy, not Gruden nor Allen. Those moves happened and I critiqued and analyzed them as best I could without grabbing the torch and pitchfork. The last time I got into any heated discussion with anyone at One Buc Place was probably when Monte Kiffin called me into his office back in 2001 (don’t worry – you’ll have very few problems with me, Jonathan Grella) and really laid into me about something I had written. Kiffin was furious and wanted me to reveal a source (which I didn’t do, and have never done), but that’s a story for another day. I hope you have enjoyed a smidgen of some of my insights into covering the Bucs for the last 15 years. I’ve had a blast and can’t wait until the next 15 years. If you want more anecdotes in a future column let me know. If not, I’ll be happy to keep those stories to myself and offer more current Bucs tidbits to end each SR’s Fab 5.