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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. When watching an NFL game, have you ever seen a quarterback get under center and start pointing at the defense right before the snap? Of course you have. You’ve also probably seen the center do the same thing during the pre-snap read and point to the middle of the defense.
But why do quarterbacks and centers do that, and what does it mean?
The next time you see Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman or center Jeff Faine point to the defense they are doing something called “identifying the Mike.” In other words, they are pointing out the Mike – a coaching term for the middle linebacker position – on defense to help set the blocking scheme on that particular play.
“Identifying the Mike is the most important thing you do before the snap,” said Bucs quarterback Josh Johnson, who started four games in 2009. “All the protections are based off that in terms of who the offensive line is going to block and which guy the running back is going to block. We have different protections with different guys going to the Mike. The Mike is the center of the defense and you want to be able to be protected from both angles. Once you identify the Mike, they can still get you on some blitzes by hiding them, but knowing who the Mike is gives you a better understanding of where you are going to be hot with your throws.
“If you don’t identify the Mike, you better hope you have a smart center who does. Otherwise you will be in some trouble. You have to have the Mike pointed out.”â€¨
Now if Jonathan Vilma is widely regarded as the middle linebacker of the New Orleans Saints, why in the world must Freeman and/or Faine point him on before each snap? The reason is because sometimes Vilma isn’t the middle linebacker. And in Tampa Bay, sometimes Barrett Ruud isn’t the Mike linebacker, either.
“No, Barrett is not the Mike on every snap,” said Bucs secondary coach Jimmy Lake, who assists head coach Raheem Morris in defensive game-planning. “Barrett is our Mike, but he may not be in the middle of the field on every play. He may be outside on a given play. That messes with offenses a little bit. A few years ago when I was with Coach (Monte) Kiffin, we made Barrett the Sam ‘backer and we had somebody else play the Mike on a particular play. The offense keyed the wrong guy and we had the other ‘backer come in scot-free and make a play. The more we can disguise our Mike the more success we can have.”
For that reason, Freeman and Faine just can’t look for number 51 and expect that Vilma will be in the middle of the New Orleans defense on every play.
“The Mike should be identified on every snap between the center and the quarterback,” Johnson said. “But sometimes the middle linebacker is not always the Mike. That’s where it gets tricky when we play teams with guys that can play different positions. Sometimes they might try to lull you to sleep and then they switch it up on you. But that one play could change the game. That’s why it’s so important to go through the same process every time and make sure you identify the right Mike.
“Everybody has to know who the Mike is before any snap. The receivers have to know because they might have to run a hot route. The linemen have to know which player they are working to. There is always going to be one offensive lineman free unless they slide block down the line. The running back has to check his protection and then get out in the route. Identifying the Mike is extremely important.”
Teams, including the Buccaneers, are always looking for ways to try to disguise the Mike in order to fool the offensive line and get to the quarterback. That’s a big reason why Morris sprinkled in some 3-4 and 3-3-5 defenses last year to make it more difficult for opponents to successfully call out the Mike linebacker.
“Identifying the Mike is essential for protection,” Lake said. “If the offense can point out the Mike, then the rest of the offensive line and the center can point out who the edge rushers are, and who they are going to protect if a nickel linebacker or an outside linebacker rushes. For the quarterback, if it is a pass, pointing out the Mike is really going to tell him what the defense is going to be. Is it going to be a two high defense? Is it going to be a single high defense? Are they going to be blitzing? Identifying the Mike is huge. When Coach Morris and I get into the lab this spring, as much as we can mix up where the Mike is and who the Mike is the better it’s going to be for us, especially on third down when teams usually pass the ball.”
So how exactly is the Mike disguised?
“First, if you show them something that you’ve never done, that’s going to be confusing altogether,” Lake said. “The second part is showing them something that looks like something you ran the previous week – but it’s different. It makes the other team think we are doing something that we’re not. Those are the two big parts of a disguise.
“Who plays the Mike can definitely change at the snap. Barrett can be the Mike for two plays in a row, but then on the third play, he’s an outside linebacker. He’s still the Mike in our playbook, but not for the offense when they are looking at him on a particular play. He winds up playing a different role for our defense on that play.”
Identifying the Mike is the hardest concept for rookie quarterbacks to pick up. Freeman was no different and it was his failure to correctly identify the Mike early on during his first season in Tampa Bay that kept him on the bench until the eighth game of the year. The big reason why Johnson got the first opportunity to replace Byron Leftwich as the team’s starting quarterback instead of Freeman was because offensive coordinator Greg Olson had more confidence in Johnson identifying the Mike and setting the protection.
“In college at K-State, you knew who the Mike was every time,” Freeman said. “In our scheme here in Tampa, the Mike is not always the Mike. Sometimes you have to Mike the Will or Mike the Sam, and on some rare occasions you have to Mike the free safety on whatever the run play is or what the protection is so we can set it so we have the right people blocking it.”
What Freeman means is that sometimes the player who typically plays the weakside linebacker, strongside linebacker or free safety can actually be the middle linebacker on a given play. Because college defenses are rather generic in nature, Freeman didn’t have to do much Mike recognition at Kansas State and had to learn the tricks of the trade when it came to identifying the Mike at the NFL level.
“You can tell by the rotation on defense,” Freeman said. “You can tell by giving them a dummy count and see where the rotation comes from. You want them to show what kind of blitz they are going to bring on a pre-snap dummy count and match up your protection to that. Say they are bringing a Sam and a strong safety, and you’ve got Two Jet. On Two Jet, the line has the four down lineman and the Will. That’s five on five. Then you want to Mike the strong safety, so the line will block the Sam and the running back can get the strong safety. Stuff like that.
“It’s all been about film study when it comes to learning that stuff. That was the most important concept to me when I first got here was pointing out the Mike. This year, we’re doing a lot in the running game too with me pointing instead of Faine. It’s different principles and rules as opposed to the passing game. It’s just one of those things you work on until you get it. It’s gone pretty smooth for me this camp so far.”
Olson wants Freeman to take full control of the line calls in 2010. Last year, Faine was doing most of them, but Olson points out that the league’s top quarterbacks, such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, make all of the calls at the line of scrimmage.
“I just think at this level the more the quarterback understands about the entire scheme, the protections, the run game, identification, and understanding what all the 11 players are doing the better,” Olson said. “It is just part of the maturation process of the quarterback. Last year we allowed Jeff Faine to handle that part of it. This year with another full offseason in the system, we think that is part of Josh Freeman’s maturation process is to learn not only what he is supposed to do but everyone else, how to get himself protected, how to get out of bad run play or a bad pass play depending on the checks. It is a very important process of it.”
The next time you see Freeman get sacked during a Bucs game it may not be the offensive lineman’s fault entirely. With Freeman learning how to identify the Mike in the middle of the defense and set the protection, he will play a large role in protecting himself with the right line calls.
And the next time you see Freeman pointing at the middle of the defense during a pre-snap read, you’ll know what going on.
Can you identify the Mike, too?
FAB 2. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik and the rest of the organization were absolutely thrilled that wide receiver Mike Williams was the first member of Tampa Bay’s 2010 draft class to sign his rookie contract. In fact, the Bucs are thrilled with every aspect of Williams thus far.
Since being drafted out of Syracuse with a lot of baggage in the fourth round with the 101st overall pick, Williams has been everything the franchise had hoped for. He dominated the Bucs’ rookie mini-camp and was clearly the star of the show, even upstaging first-round draft pick defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. In fact, he beat out McCoy in a recent poll question on PewterReport.com that asked Bucs fans which rookie they were most excited about.
Then Williams continued to make plays when thrown in with the veterans during the OTAs where it became obvious to all that he is actually the most physically gifted receiver on Tampa Bay’s roster. Williams has also stuck to new receivers coach Eric Yarber like glue, just as the team had hoped.
I have to admit that I have been thoroughly impressed with Williams since he did a fabulous job of explaining his situation at Syracuse regarding him quitting the team and everything that went into it on a post-draft conference call with reporters. He came across as accountable and straightforward then and in every interview and personal interaction I’ve had with him since draft day.
Williams is downright likeable, and this team is quickly moving from the likeable stage into the falling in love with him phase. The Bucs’ brass viewed Williams’ decision to tell his agent to get him signed quickly to show everyone how serious he plans on taking his NFL career as a great sign that they made the right choice in drafting him.
It’s one thing that Williams has the speed to blow by defensive backs and out-leap them for big plays downfield in practice. It’s another thing for him to personally want to repair his image and take advantage of the fresh start that is afforded to him as a rookie in the NFL by taking care of his financial business without incident and gettinf his contract signed in early June – ahead of all the other Bucs rookies.
These are the types of players that Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris want to bring in to the organization. Williams may have come to Tampa Bay with some character concerns, but he’s doing his part to quickly erase them. I know it’s still early, but I have a hunch that in no time we’ll actually be using the term “high character” and the name “Mike Williams” in the same sentence.
The fact that Williams’ contract is done is a very, very good sign. What helps make it so good is the fact that it’s a four-year deal. The maximum value of the contract is $3.15 million, which includes $1.36 million worth of bonus money and an escalator in the fourth year of his deal if he reaches certain performance incentives.
Like most teams, the Bucs are trying to get their rookies to sign four-year deals instead of three-year contracts because if a player like Williams winds up being as great as Tampa Bay thinks he will be, the organization won’t have to spend a huge wad of money on him as a restricted free agent with the priciest tender that comes first- and third draft picks as compensation if he is signed to a restricted free agent offer sheet by another club. Of course that would happen only if the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association reverts back to the old way of doing things where players will become restricted free agents if their contract is up after their first three years in the league.
But make no mistake. Dominik and the Bucs would gladly pay every penny of the maximum take of $3.15 million in Williams’ contract. That would mean that his play would be so great that Williams would hit his fourth-year escalator and that he would have thousands of receiving yards and likely dozens of touchdowns by then. More touchdowns from Williams will likely mean more victories by Tampa Bay. That would make Dominik just as happy as he was on Friday in getting Williams under contract.
Now it’s on to Williams’ next – hopefully bigger – deal in 2014.â€¨
FAB 3. I really, really like the Bucs making the commitment to use Earnest Graham as the starting fullback in 2010. But what I like even more about it is Graham’s attitude about the position switch.
Last Tuesday, Graham revealed that he was the team’s starter at fullback and that he has lofty individual goals for the upcoming season at his new position.
“Right now I’m a starter at fullback. As long as I’m on the field I’m good,” said Graham. “I’m shooting to be a Pro Bowl fullback. I really believe every time I catch the ball in the flat it can be a first down. I think I can break a few [tackles]. I’m focusing on being a fullback and catching 60 passes. I think I can really do that. Once Josh [Freeman] gets really comfortable and I’m running routes outside the backfield. I think we can do some damage out there.”
I know Graham is the ultimate team player, but last year even he would quietly grouse off the record about being the team’s third-string halfback. Who could blame him?
After rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns on 222 carries in 2007 and 563 yards and four scores in ’08, Graham got lost in the shuffle behind the reemergence of Cadillac Williams and the acquisition of Derrick Ward last year, rushing for only 66 yards on a measly 14 carries.
Graham actually got some full-time duty at the fullback position once starter B.J. Askew was lost for the year due to a neck injury from a car crash in October, but he did little more than lead block. Now with an entire offseason to start from scratch with Graham at the fullback position instead of doing it in a makeshift fashion on the run at midseason, offensive coordinator Greg Olson can further implement Graham into the offense.
I saw that firsthand on Thursday during the OTAs. Graham was getting some carries from the fullback position and was a weapon in the perimeter passing game in the flats. Graham broke off several big runs on fullback dive plays, one of which came on a misdirection dive play that featured a fake toss outside to Kareem Huggins that helped open up the defense laterally.
Now that Graham knows his role and that he will be on the field virtually all the time, he’s a happy camper.
By using Graham at fullback instead of promising, second-year player Chris Pressley, who saw some situational snaps last year during his rookie season and started the season finale at fullback after Graham was placed on injured reserve, the Bucs offense will be tough for defenses to key on. Pressley is not a threat to run or catch the ball at this stage of his career, so when he is in the game, the Bucs will likely be running the ball and defenses can key on that.
But when Graham is lined up in front of Williams or Ward, it makes it much more difficult for defenses to predict what’s coming because Graham can do so many things.
“Having Earnest Graham at fullback opens up the fullback dive for us,” said Bucs running backs coach Steve Logan. “On any given play Earnest can be the ballcarrier from the fullback position, he can be the lead blocker or he can be the pass catcher. That’s exactly what we want to present to the defense. They have to account for him in so many different ways.”
The plan is for Pressley to get some snaps on offense during the season to help him gain some experience and keep Graham fresh. Pressley may never evolve into the instinctive runner that Graham is during his career because of Graham’s roots as a halfback, but the hope is that Pressley can develop into a good outlet receiver so defenses won’t be keying on the run almost exclusively when he is in the game as a lead blocker.
I don’t think 60 catches from Graham is far-fetched, either. Legendary fullback Mike Alstott snared 65 balls for 557 yards and three touchdowns from the position in 1996, which still stands as the rookie running back reception record in Tampa Bay to this day.
The move of Graham to fullback combined with the inventive formations that the Bucs displayed during Thursday’s OTA is an indication to me that Olson is moving his offense in the right direction.
FAB 4. One of the players that has been getting a lot of buzz behind the scenes at One Buccaneer Place is tight end Ryan Purvis. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Purvis was signed by the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and spent the entire year on the practice squad before being activated to the 53-man roster on December 28 when fullback Earnest Graham was placed on injured reserve.
Purvis caught the Bucs’ eye during his junior year at Boston College in 2007 when Matt Ryan was the Eagles’ signal caller. The Allentown, Pennsylvania native caught 54 passes for 553 yards and four touchdowns as one of Ryan’s main weapons.
When Ryan left, Purvis’ numbers dipped in 2008 as he caught only 24 passes for 176 yards. As a result, his draft stock took a tumble and Purvis went undrafted.
“On a personal note that was difficult because I was coming into my senior year with high expectations,” Purvis said. “I wanted to match everything I had done my previous year. It looked like I took a step back statistically, but as a team we went back to the ACC Championship Game and we got to a bowl game we matched our goals going into the season. I played a different role that year by becoming more of a blocker and doing different things that they didn’t have me do during my junior year. Statistically, it was a setback, but it was good for my overall development. I had more confidence coming into the league by staying in school that extra year.”
Purvis made a big impression on the Bucs last August in the preseason. He caught a pass in every exhibition game and totaled five receptions for 59 yards and one touchdown – a 14-yard TD from Josh Johnson in the fourth quarter of the preseason finale against Houston. That performance earned him a spot on the practice squad where he stayed all season before being promoted to the active roster for the final game of the year.
“The veterans welcomed me into the tight ends room and they immediately made an impact on my game,” Purvis said. “It wasn’t just Coach (Alfredo) Roberts watching my tape – it was all those guys watching my tape with me and critiquing my game. They were my coaches on the field and in the film room. I try to be a smart player and learn from those guys. That’s a great way to get better.”
Purvis was surrounded by veteran tight ends Kellen Winslow, Jerramy Stevens and John Gilmore, but it was Stevens that took Purvis under his wing last year and helped guide him through his rookie season.
“I definitely took an interest in Purv and tried to help him out,” Stevens said. “He’s a great guy. He listens well and he can take what you teach him and apply it to the field. He’s got some great tight ends to learn from in Kellen, Gilly and myself. We’ve all been in the league a long time and we all do different things well. I think he’s soaking up all that stuff and working really hard. He’s become a much better player.”
Becoming a better player has been the product of a lot of hard work. Purvis came to Tampa Bay a little stiff and unathletic compared to the other tight ends on the roster, but over the course of the year he has re-made his body and is more fluid in his movements and quicker off the line and in and out of his breaks.
“I didn’t get any playing time last year on the practice squad so I didn’t have any wear and tear on my body,” Purvis said. “When I got back home to Pennsylvania in mid-January I just started getting after it in the weight room. Coming out of college, people try to tell you what to expect when you get to the league, but you never really know for sure. Once I experienced it and I knew what I needed to work on, I could concentrate on that and work on it more easily this offseason. I put a lot of time in the weight room and develop my core strength and my upper body strength so I can become a better blocker and run more fluid routes. I also attribute a lot of that by watching the vets in my room last year. They were good about helping me out and giving me pointers on what I needed to work on to become a better pro. Alfredo has been also working with me a lot this year.”
Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Greg Olson has been impressed with Purvis during the OTAs this year and has noted the physical metamorphosis that the first-year tight end has undergone this offseason, but still has some concerns about his ability to become a blocker at the point of attack.
“He’s developed physically, and that was a big part of it for Ryan,” Olson said. “When he came in here last year that was a big concern of the coaching staff. Could he be physical enough to play? We’ll have to find that out this summer when the pads come on. We like what he’s done in the weight room and he’s shown tremendous progress. He has a real good feel now for what we are doing offensively and what his role is and we’re excited about that. He’s been here all offseason and when he’s had the chance to make plays on the field he’s made plays.”
Even Purvis has some doubt regarding whether or not he has done enough to become the blocker that he’ll need to become in order to win a roster spot this September.
“My biggest concentration this offseason was getting stronger, so my big test will come this summer as I try to become a more effective point-of-attack blocker,” Purvis said. “I’m not going to know how I’ll fare until training camp. As far as running routes, I feel more comfortable with this system mentally, so I can really put in some of the techniques the guys in my room have been telling me about.”
In the two open OTAs that the media has been able to watch, Purvis has made some big plays in the passing game, and had two acrobatic catches during the first OTA of the 2010 offseason. The pair of receptions he snagged back in May were catches he wouldn’t have been able to make a year ago before a complete offseason of re-making his body.
“I’m a well-rounded tight end – someone that can catch the ball and also block in the run game,” Purvis said. “That’s been my mentality coming through all this. I think I came to college as an athlete playing football. Now I feel like I’m more of a football player, finally.”
In the NFL, players typically only get one year on the practice squad to improve to the point where they make the 53-man roster. That means that this September is likely do-or-die time for Purvis in Tampa Bay, which he is aware of.
“I feel acclimated,” Purvis said. “I feel comfortable with the system. I feel comfortable with Tampa. My goal is to come in and try to make this team. I’m going to let the cards fall where they may and I’m going to do everything I can to make this roster.”
One teammate who is cheering him on is Stevens, who at age 30 is not necessarily a lock to make a team that is still in the thralls of a youth movement. Stevens may not want to cheer too hard though as Purvis’ ascension would likely cost him or Gilmore a roster spot as Tampa Bay will likely only keep three tight ends in 2010.
“He’s become more fluid and athletic,” Stevens said. “That’s a credit to Purv. He’s put in a lot of hard work. It’s not easy to be on practice squad. You are running your ass off every day and you have no chance to shine in any game. But he really took advantage of the opportunity. I’m proud of Purv. You watch. He’s going to make the team this year.”
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Before we continue with the Bucs insight and inside scoop, let me take a minute to tell you about one of our sponsors. You have probably seen banner ads for AT&T’s new Backflip phone on PewterReport.com. My wife, Elisa, got a Backflip phone a month ago and she digs the new features that allow her to not only surf the web, but also integrate social media like Facebook, Twitter and e-mail with the new Motoblur technology from Motorola. If you haven’t clicked on the AT&T Backflip banner ad yet, please support our advertisers and do so. It really is a neat phone and they have a couple cool, quick videos that will give you the lowdown on the Backflip. Instead of buying the Backflip, I opted to get an iPhone from AT&T when I went shopping for a new smart phone. I’ve been a lifelong Mac user and the iPhone is absolutely the best phone I’ve ever had. All of my contact data and music from iTunes synced up perfectly from my MacBook Pro to the iPhone. I wish I would have bought an iPhone years ago when they first came out. I didn’t know what I was missing. AT&T’s 3G service is as fast and reliable as AT&T claims it is in Tampa. Whether you are interested in the iPhone or the Backflip, I encourage you to check out AT&T. I was a customer of another cellular carrier for over 10 years, but recently made the switch and am getting more phone and more reliable service for my money now with AT&T.
• While asking veteran Bucs tight end Jerramy Stevens about the behind-the-scenes development of Ryan Purvis, I also asked him for his opinion of rookie Jeron Mastrud, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas State. “I’ve only seen him for a couple of days, but what he does have is a good base,” Stevens said. “He comes off the line strong. I think the speed of this game is really putting some glare on him. He has to catch up to it with the quickness of his own movements. But if he works hard and takes to coaching, he can make the practice squad. That’s the best place for some rookies. Look what it did for Purv. He’s going to be okay if he can make some plays. I think it’s going to be a good thing for him once we get pads on because I think he’s more of a banger than he is a finesse guy. Hopefully when we get pads on he can show us a little more and he’ll have an opportunity to get on the practice squad and get better. Purvis is a great example of what the practice squad is supposed to do for a guy. He took that opportunity to learn and get better at his craft.” Unless he totally bombs in training camp and the preseason, I think Mastrud is destined to follow Purvis’ footsteps and make Tampa Bay’s practice squad this year.
• Bucs rookie Mike Williams may be the fastest and most explosive wide receiver on Tampa Bay’s roster, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s dominating every snap in practice yet. In fact, Williams is still in the “flashes” stage and he’s not at the point yet where he even flashes when matched up against star cornerback Aqib Talib. In fact Williams is still getting shut down by Talib, who appears poised to become one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks in 2010. “Oh yeah. His reads are crazy,” Williams said. “On one route I ran – Aqib basically ran the route for me. I said, ‘I’m not going to do that again. I’ve got to do something else.’ I came back and ran a better route the next time. He’s a great corner. I’ve got a lot to learn.”
• I stated my case against running backs Derrick Ward getting more carries in 2010 because he’s not earning them by missing the team’s organized team activities (again) in my last edition of SR’s Fab 5. But I wanted to hear from his position coach how he felt about Ward’s absence last week where he missed all three OTAs due to a supposed dental issue. So I asked Bucs running backs coach Steve Logan to comment on Ward missing the OTAs and here is what he had to say. “You always want them here, but at the same time I think the media makes a bigger deal than that,” Logan said. “These are grown men. They’ve got lives that need to be tended to. I’ve got issues that I’ve got to handle off the field, too. He’s got family out in California and he’s spread from coast to coast. For crying out loud, we’re going to come back here in late July or early August – or whenever it is – and spend what will seem like 700 hundred years preparing for the first football game of the season. We’ll get him straightened out. He’ll be fine. I can assure you of that.”
• The world lost a great actor last week, and no, I’m not talking about Gary Coleman (although I must confess I was a fan of Diff’rent Strokes when I was a kid). I’m talking about Dennis Hopper, who died of prostate cancer and starred in everything from Easy Rider to Rebel Without A Cause to Apocalypse Now to hundreds of other films, including Speed, which is one of my favorite action flicks. But Bucs fans may remember Hopper for playing a nervous referee in a series of Nike Football ads back in the mid-1990s. One of those ads featured Pro Bowl middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, which is believed to be one of the first national commercials to feature a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nike nicknamed Nickerson “The Dragon,” which was better than Chris Berman’s nickname, which was “Hardy Har-Har,” but the truth is Bucs fans never called Nickerson “The Dragon.” Nickerson never really had a nickname that stuck like Mike Alstott did with “The A-Train,” but the closest moniker that did was “Hardware.” He was called that by some of his teammates and Bucs radio play-by-play announcer Gene Deckerhoff – if my memory serves me correctly. R.I.P. Dennis Hopper, and thanks for playing your small part in helping the Buccaneers get a little national recognition in the mid-1990’s.
• In the last edition of SR’s Fab 5, I reflected on just a couple of things that I have experienced in my tenure at Pewter Report (formerly Buccaneer Magazine) as I celebrated my 15 years as a Bucs beat writer on May 19. I asked you, the Pewter Insider subscriber, if you wanted a few more anecdotes sprinkled in to future SR’s Fab 5 columns and the overwhelming majority favored that, so I will oblige. I’ll talk about my experience of getting absolutely chewed out, reamed out and screamed out by former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin back in 2001. It started when I had written a passage in Pewter Report magazine’s Buccaneer Buzz section about how Kiffin had missed the sage sideline advice of linebackers coach Lovie Smith, who had left Tampa Bay to become St. Louis’ defensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach Herman Edwards, who had gone on to become the New York Jets head coach. My information was based on the input from two defensive players. If you recall, Tampa Bay’s defense had slipped outside the top 10 in 2001, which was the first year that coaches Joe Barry (linebackers) and Mike Tomlin (secondary) were on the job. Kiffin had read what I wrote about that and was livid. So much so that the Bucs’ public relations staff called me up on Friday afternoon and said that Kiffin demanded to see me that afternoon in his office. Although I preferred to meet with Kiffin on Monday, the P.R. staff insisted I head to One Buc Place on Friday to get it over with, so I obliged. Most of you don’t know the real Kiffin – only the personable, funny caricature you’ve seen in interviews. Legendary Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp was right in saying that despite Kiffin’s supposedly humble “aw shucks” personality, he had a massive ego. I got to see it in person as I walked into his office. Kiffin demanded that the P.R. guy leave the room and shut the door behind him. Keep in mind this was at the old One Buc Place, so it was a very small office and quite an intimate setting. Kiffin proceeded to read what I had written about him and about how he missed veteran coaches like Smith and Edwards. Then he laid into me. Kiffin was personally offended that I had written that he relied on the help of the assistant coaches and the supposed implication that he couldn’t run the defense without Smith and Edwards’ help. I tried to tell him that it was only natural that the staff would go through some growing pains, especially with young, inexperienced coaches like Tomlin and Barry on the staff. Then Kiffin took offense to that, and perceived that to be another slap in his face by saying that I somehow implied that Tomlin and Barry were incompetent, bad hires. That wasn’t true and I tried to make that point, but Kiffin kept getting angrier and then demanded to know who my sources were. Before heading over to the meeting, I had called my mentor, former Tampa Tribune Bucs beat writer Pat Yasinskas, to ask for some advice in how to handle Kiffin. He firmly said, “Whatever you do, don’t give up your source. You are absolutely under no obligation to do so.” I followed Yasinskas’ advice and told Kiffin I would not be revealing my sources. That enraged Kiffin, who got right in my face and said something to the affect of “How about I take your Pewter Report into our defensive meeting room and I ask the players themselves then?” I said, “That’s fine, Monte. Go ahead. That’s the only way you’ll get the information.” Kiffin was surprised to see that I was standing up to him. Then he proceeded to tell me how he had been good to me when it came to interviews and that his attitude about that would certainly change. With the ultimatum thrown down, I quickly deduced that it is much better to have one assistant coach ticked off at me than the entire Bucs locker room, which would have happened if I had given up my sources. The players would have talked to each other and my career would have been doomed. Plus, keeping off-the-record sources secret is the ethical thing to do. So the frustrated Kiffin kicked me out of his office after an animated, 15-minute butt-chewing. He tried several ways to convince me to give up the names of the players, but I held firm. Inside my skin, I was a quivering mess because I certainly didn’t want the popular Kiffin angry with me, and the 6-foot-4 defensive coordinator can be pretty intimidating when he gets in your face and screams. I left the room saying that no matter what he thought of me, I wouldn’t hold a grudge against Kiffin. I also told him I thought his anger was misplaced and that I thought he was one hell of a defensive coordinator and that his rant wouldn’t change my mind. I think that sunk in and he respected me for saying that because after a few rocky months, we put the matter behind us and had a great relationship going forward. That experience did not change my perception of Kiffin at all. I completely understood where he was coming from, and the reality is that what I had written had only bruised Kiffin’s ego. I still believe today that Kiffin was a better defensive coordinator when given complete autonomy to run Tampa Bay’s defense under Jon Gruden than when he was coaching under Tony Dungy from 1996-2001. I also never believed it was Dungy’s defense in Tampa Bay. The scheme was Dungy’s, but Dungy never called the plays and never assumed the defensive coordinator role in Tampa Bay. That was Kiffin’s job, although under Dungy’s influence he would direct Kiffin to either blitz more or less during certain junctures of certain games. Under Gruden, Kiffin called all the shots and his track record of top NFL defenses in 2002, 2005 and 2007 speaks for itself. However, I also have gone on record in suggesting that Kiffin wrongly abandoned the Bucs at the end of the 2008 season by accepting the Tennessee job in-season and have heard from more than one source that he was doing some recruiting for his son, Lane, while still employed by the Buccaneers. I also believe there was no coincidence that the downfall of the defense in Tampa Bay’s 0-4 December stretch occurred after Kiffin made his announcement that he would be leaving the Bucs after the conclusion of the 2008 season. Still, that does little to tarnish his image as the greatest coordinator in Tampa Bay history and one of the best, trend-setting defensive minds in the NFL. And no other coach – head coach or assistant – has won more games than Kiffin did with the Buccaneers, as his personal record was 111-97 spanning from 1996-2008.