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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. As I mentioned in last week’s SR’s Fab 5, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like what they are seeing from San Diego's former first-round pick, cornerback Sammy Davis. There is a feeling that Davis could develop into a future starter. The same could be said for Phillip Buchanon, who has logged a handful of starts at left cornerback in place of the injured Brian Kelly over the past two seasons.
While Cincinnati’s Mike Mickens, Arizona’s Antoine Cason or USF’s Mike Jenkins might look good in red and pewter, cornerback may not be seen as a pressing need in Tampa Bay in the 2008 NFL Draft.
“Sammy was a first-rounder,” Bucs defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said. “When you talk about talent, it has nothing to do with talent. For Sammy, since he’s been here with me, it’s been all this above the neck stuff and how to take playing the game and make it a science. He’s doing that now and he’s starting to figure out why Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Phillip Buchanon make all of these plays and why they have the knowledge to make these plays and why they don’t just rely on athleticism.
“Sammy has the athleticism. If he can put it all together, he doesn’t really have a ceiling. He came into this league as a first-rounder and was probably forced into a starting role before he was ready and didn’t excel as much as his first team would have liked him to. But for whatever reason, he’s doing it for us. And that’s awesome.”
The reason why the Bucs may turn to drafting a wide receiver, running back or defensive lineman in the first half of the draft instead of addressing the cornerback position is because of the development of players like Davis and Buchanon, who has had his highs and lows in his second year in Tampa Bay. The key to their development, according to Morris, has been the presence of Pro Bowl-caliber players – and two of the game’s most intelligent players – Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly.
“It’s easy to say that their knowledge will rub off on the younger guys, but it’s their leadership in our [DBs] room that matters,” Morris said. “Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber allow it rub off on the young guys, and it’s awesome. They have allowed it with Sammy, they’ve done it with Phillip and they are doing it with young Marcus Hamilton. It’s great that we have veterans like that. A lot of people are scared to tell young guys stuff because they don’t want to lose their job. But these guys are very confident in what they do and they have no problem with it. They just want to win.
“If Sammy Davis was in because Brian Kelly was out, Brian wanted Sammy to have the knowledge he had so he could make a play and try to win a game. It’s unselfish play and it’s contagious around the room, and around the building, really.”
There has been some speculation that the Bucs may release or trade Kelly in the offseason, but his $4.653 cap value is certainly acceptable considering Tampa Bay will be $30 million under the salary cap in 2008. Plus, having Kelly, who will turn 32 on January 14, stick around for the final year of his contract would be invaluable to the continued development of players like Davis, Buchanon and Hamilton, a promising seventh-round pick from the 2007 draft that has been on the Bucs’ practice squad all season.
“If you look at his movement, Marcus reminds me of a young Brian Kelly,” Morris said. “It’s going to be up to him to decide what he wants to be this offseason and from what he wants to do from now until he gets his shot. But you’ve got to love the kid. I can’t say enough positive stuff about him. He comes out here and works his butt off every day. Marcus will make mistakes and I’ll look at him and he’ll give me that little smirk and say, ‘Oops!’ You’ve got to love his ‘want to’ and his willingness to learn. He texted me on his day off about something he wanted to learn. On his day off he wanted to get better, so you have to appreciate that and you try to help him when you can. I look forward to seeing him every week. The whole room looks forward to seeing him. We make him come to stuff he doesn’t even have to come to just because we like having him around. He’s awesome.”
One would think that Hamilton, a former Virginia Cavalier, would naturally be groomed under Barber – another Wahoo cornerback – but that hasn’t been the case, according to Morris.
“Really, it’s been Brian Kelly who has taken him under his wing,” Morris said. “Ronde’s the kind of guy that he doesn’t want you to know that he likes you. Brian doesn’t want to let you know he likes you, either, but Marcus has really been under the tutelage of Brian Kelly. Marcus is not afraid to ask questions, and if he’s on the right side with Ronde and he has a question, Marcus will ask it and Ronde will tell him what he needs to know about the play or the coverage. He’s smart enough to know that he can ask questions of both of them and he’s smart enough to know that he can learn from both of them. It’s a credit to his character.”
Will the future starting cornerbacks in Tampa Bay become Buchanon, Davis and Hamilton in the nickel defense? It’s too early to tell, and no one is ruling out the possibility of the Bucs adding competition via the draft and free agency. However, with another year of studying under the instruction of Professors Morris, Barber and Kelly in 2008, you can’t rule them out as future starters, either.
FAB 2. Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden deserves the credit – and the contract extension – that comes with producing a team record third NFC South division championship. Gruden’s team has been able to overcome injuries and put together nine wins without a single Pro Bowler. But despite some reports you’ve read about in the local papers that says that Gruden has really changed his coaching style this year, Gruden hasn’t changed as much as it has been reported, according to several veterans Pewter Report has spoken with.
Gruden’s ego has been kept in check thanks to two humbling, 5-11 and 4-12 seasons in 2004 and 2006, respectively. As more than one veteran Bucs player has told me off the record, Gruden is using the word “we” a lot more than the word “I” when addressing the team, which has been seen as a welcome change around One Buc Place.
Linebacker Derrick Brooks even went on record with one of the local papers saying that it’s “not all about Jon” this year. That’s good to hear. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said it’s little things like Gruden easing up on practices that have generated a lot of goodwill and trust this year.
“It seems like he’s related a little more to us and some of the things we’re going through,” Barber said. “These practices, for instance. We haven’t been in pads on Wednesdays in forever. It’s not that he’s sympathizing with us, it’s just that he’s doing what’s best for the team. Circumstances that we work under here with the hot weather, sometimes we work too much. I think he’s realizing that.”
Barber said that Gruden’s changing ways hasn’t happened overnight.
“I think it’s been a process,” Barber said. “For the young guys, it’s nothing. But for the veterans, it’s a big departure from what he was six years ago and I think it’s welcome. For what he has allowed us to become as we prepare, it’s not what you would normally expect from him.”
As I was talking to Barber on the record about all of this, I brought up the fact that Gruden is only in his mid-40’s and has been a head coach for just 10 years, unlike other successful head coaches that have been coaching nearly twice as long, such as Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin and Dick Vermeil, among others. Those older coaches have 10, if not 20, more years worth of head coaching experience than Gruden does. I think he’s still a young coach that has some growing to do.
“For him, yeah, but for us, no,” Barber said while disagreeing. “He’s our head coach. We reflect everything that he puts on us. However he is approaching coaching us, we have to accept that that who he is. If he changes, yeah, you will notice differences. But Jon is what he is. He loves football and he loves what it brings to him and his life. It’s just nice that he’s sharing that with us now.”
Barber had to dash away before I could follow up on that remark, but after reading it again, I need to find out more about what those last two sentences mean in Barber's eyes. Ah, a reporter’s job is never done, especially covering this team.
Has Gruden made wholesale, overnight changes to his coaching style this year? No. But has he made enough subtle changes to help push this team to the NFC South title? Yes.
FAB 3. Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham needs just 123 rushing yards over the last two games to hit 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Graham, who is an unselfish, team player, admits that he is looking forward to reaching the 1,000-yard mark.
“It would be a cool mark to hit, especially since this is my first year getting significant time as an NFL running back and not really playing the whole season,” Graham said. “That’s just like having a 100-yard game or a 1,000-yard season. People hold that [in high regard] and say that’s legit.”
But the more impressive feat in my eyes would be watching Graham top James Wilder’s Buccaneers rushing touchdown record of 13 scores, set in 1984. Graham has 10 rushing touchdowns in 2007 and needs three more TDs to tie Wilder and only four more to own the record outright.
“Is that right?” Graham said with a surprised look on his face. “My hat is off to the offensive line. Over the past six or seven weeks, I’ve had to play in almost every situation and not come off the field. With Jeff [Garcia] playing well, Luke [McCown] playing well and the guys playing well up front, it’s made it easy on me. I’ve been running the ball hard and pounding out yardage – things I’ve always been able to do.”
With a 1-yard TD plunge last week against Atlanta, Graham has scored a touchdown in a franchise-record six straight games. He’s got two games to go in his quest for 1,000 yards and four more scores.
“The last couple of weeks I’ve been getting out to the linebackers and doing some stuff," Graham said. "I go back and look at the tape and say, ‘I could have probably done this.’ Then after a while of thinking about it, it starts registering with you and you get into the game and it becomes a habit.”
Graham labels himself as a north-south runner, but has shown a propensity for bouncing some of his touchdown runs outside, as he has against St. Louis, Houston and New Orleans this season.
“I just try to use what I have and try to go north-south, but I’ve got plenty of wiggle, too.” Graham said. “I think I kind of surprise guys when I get to the outside. They don’t expect me to have that. I’m just trying to be a complete back. I’ve been getting better as far as my vision and seeing the holes. I just want to be able to do better once I get to the secondary to get even bigger runs. I’m working on that.
“I’m short and built low to the ground. I’ve got pretty good lower body strength. I just try to go north-south and find a gash, then bounce it outside if I need to. I get up in the hole and just try to push as hard as I can to find daylight.”
While Graham has surprised Tampa Bay’s fan base and even some of his teammates this year by being so effective replacing injured starter Cadillac Williams, one player he hasn’t surprised is reserve offensive lineman Anthony Davis.
“Earnest and I, we came here together,” Davis said. “Actually, we were roommates together in our first year when we were undrafted free agents. We had our one-on-one talks and we still have those talks. I think with E.G., he’s hungry. He’s hungry and he’s running hard. He’s trying to get his name out there and gain 1,000 yards – no matter what. Cadillac and [Michael] Pittman, they are both great backs and they are known in this league. But you look at a guy like Earnest and he’s just coming on the scene. He’s running with an attitude right now – with an aggression. That is what makes him good.”
With 123 yards and four touchdowns over the final two games of the season, Graham would go from “good” to “legendary” in this franchise’s 32-year history.
FAB 4. The X’s and O’s breakdown is back this week, focusing primarily on Micheal Spurlock’s 90-yard kickoff return into the record books. Here’s what my film study and homework revealed from the Bucs-Falcons game:
• On Spurlock’s history-making 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the two key blocks were thrown by free safety Will Allen and tight end Alex Smith, who paved the way for Spurlock to hit the right side of the field. Smith had a difficult time getting into position to block Falcons wide receiver Adam Jennings, but lunged and was able to cut block him at the last second and take out cornerback David Irons at the Bucs’ 25-yard line, too. Not only were Jennings and Irons blocked, they were on the ground, which prevented Spurlock from getting pursued and perhaps run down from behind.
• You do know that Bucs tight end Keith Heinrich literally tackled Falcons linebacker Tony Taylor at the Tampa Bay 26-yard on Spurlock’s kick return, but wasn’t called for holding, don’t you? Could you imagine Spurlock returning that kickoff for a touchdown and then a flag getting thrown on the play? I would have hated to be Heinrich had that penalty been called.
• Special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, whom I have defended over the past couple of years, has done a great with the Bucs’ special teams this year. The kicking game is sound. The coverage units – with the exception of a kick return TD at Houston – have been quite good. Thanks to his hand-picked guy, Micheal Spurlock, Bisaccia has the kick return unit humming down the stretch. The only weakness on the special teams right now is punt returns where the Bucs are averaging just 7.1 yards per return despite the likes of Phillip Buchanon, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard fielding them. Aside from punt returns, Bisaccia’s only fault was fading down the stretch as he was running down the sidelines cheering on Spurlock’s return. The fastest coach on the sidelines during Spurlock’s return? Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, who actually violated NFL sidelines rules by running down to the 15-yard line. Of course, Morris is 31 years old where Bisaccia is likely 15 years his elder, so it was only natural that the young-legged DBs coach would win the sideline race. It’s a good thing Morris didn’t get flagged for a sideline violation.
• So who gets credit for brining Spurlock to the Bucs? Is it Bisaccia, who helped recruit him at Ole Miss? Is it pro personnel director Mark Dominik? How about pro personnel executive Doug Williams? All three played a role in signing Spurlock, and Williams recalls meeting Spurlock as a high school athlete. “I recruited Micheal Spurlock out of high school to come to Grambling as a quarterback,” Williams said. “The first time I went to visit him he was playing basketball in high school and I could see that he was a tremendous athlete. We were fortunate enough to pick him up and put him on the practice squad. Once you saw him in practice making catches while on the practice squad, you saw his body control. Watch Ike Hilliard play. They are almost identical as far as their body movements and how loose their bodies are. For what he did for the franchise and the city on that kickoff return is what you call a high value pick-up. We’ve got to let him continue to develop and we think he can be a big part of this football team. He’s fast and he’s strong. He can break tackles and he can make people miss. He has the qualities we’ve been missing. He can make things happen. When you saw the opening and him bounce it outside he was determined he was going to put this issue to bed. It’s about time.”
• While we are on a special teams “kick,” I ran into Torrie Cox this week in the Bucs’ locker room. Cox was lost for the season against Jacksonville with a torn ACL on October 28, but was walking around the locker room just fine without crutches or a brace. Cox, who has over 70 kickoff returns as a Buccaneer with his longest return being 59 yards, was ecstatic over Spurlock’s record-setting return for a touchdown. “That was big,” Cox said. “I’m glad he got it done. For a guy like that who nobody knew who he was, and now everybody is going to know who he is the rest of his life. I was at home watching it and I felt it, man. This guy is hungry. And to win the division – what better place to do it? It’s really big to the organization that we got that out of the way and now we can go on to other things. I think there will be plenty more to come. That one was the one we needed to go. I’m really proud of the young man.” Cox, who has always been a favorite of Bisaccia’s, was thrilled for his position coach. “Hats off to Rich, man,” Cox said. “He’s done a great job of finding a way to put guys in the right position to make plays. That’s one thing about that guy. He always finds a way. His job is on the line just like our jobs are on the line. I love the way he coaches. He was going to get it done. He’s been doing a hell of a job since I’ve known him.” As for Cox, who now has the anterior cruciate ligament of a cadaver in his left knee, he said he is looking forward to getting back into action this spring. “Everything went good man,” Cox said. “I’m just getting myself back together. I’m just getting ready for next season going through all the rehab. Everything is going according to plan and I’m probably a month ahead of schedule. I’m not rushing it. Just as long as I’m ready by camp. I’ll probably come back even faster than I was due to all of the rehab.” Imagine how good this special teams unit will be next year with a healthy Cox, a healthy Antoine Cash and a healthy Sabby Piscitelli in the fold.
• And finally, the trivia question regarding Spurlock’s historic return isn’t how long it was – every Bucs fan will remember it was 90 yards. Instead, the real trivia question will be how long was his second return? The answer is eight yards, but when I posed that question to Spurlock this week in the locker room, he didn’t even have the correct answer. “My next return was like two or three yards. It wasn’t far at all,” Spurlock said before I told him the answer. “It was eight yards? We probably knew they were going to try to squib it. It was pretty funny, it was Mo [Maurice Stovall], myself and Mike [Clayton] out there. I told them to be ready and then they [squibbed it]. I was like, ‘Mike, Mike, Mike – get it!’ He didn’t get it, so I got it.”
• Rookie guard Arron Sears has done a masterful job of pulling to the right this year in Tampa Bay's running game. When Sears pulls and ends up blocking next to right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, that’s 952 pounds of beef on running plays at the point of attack. I haven’t praised Sears enough this year for his run blocking. He’s dynamite. But he does not to work on his pass protection in the offseason and must do a better job of getting into his pass sets faster. For a big, strong man, Sears gets driven back into the quarterback’s lap a couple of times per game – and that’s a couple of times too many for a talented player like him. When it’s all said and done, it will be interesting to see which player becomes the better NFL guard – Joseph or Sears?
• The reason why Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams is starting to pile up the sacks is because he is making better use of his hands and shedding the blocks of offensive tackles. He is really synchronizing his hand movement in conjunction with his steps and his body lean. As I had predicted months ago, Adams is a better pass rusher from the left side of the line than he is from the right side, and his sack against Atlanta confirmed that. It is not out of the realm to imagine Adams being a double-digit sacker for Tampa Bay in 2008. In fact, it should be expected, especially with him taking down the quarterback six times as a rookie with two games left in his initial NFL season.
• There was a funny exchange that took place at the 4:28 mark of the second quarter after a run by Bucs running back Earnest Graham run got the ball down to the Atlanta 2-yard line. Falcons thuggish cornerback DeAngelo Hall slammed a shoulder into Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood late, prompting the official on scene to throw a flag. The hot-tempered Trueblood (I just love this guy’s attitude) shoved Hall back into the official, who caught Hall and then slammed him to the ground in the end zone. Like a squadron of bees that just had its beehive rattled, Trueblood crawled over to Hall in the end zone and dogpiled him, which prompted a mass of Buccaneers and Falcons to converge on top of Hall and Trueblood. One of the Falcons, 2007 first-round draft pick Jamaal Anderson, a 280-pound defensive end, started throwing elbows into the back of Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton, who shoved Anderson off and then shoved him to the ground. To see Hall and Anderson get their butts kicked by a referee and a wide receiver was rather comical. Usually in these types of situations when you retaliate, the second player always gets caught and flagged with a penalty. That didn’t happen on this play, adding insult to injury for woeful Atlanta.
• It’s a good thing that Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia returned to action against Atlanta after missing games at New Orleans and at Houston. The reason? Backup QB Luke McCown couldn’t talk. McCown suffered laryngitis after the Houston game, and that’s why it was emergency quarterback Bruce Gradkowski who replaced Garcia – not McCown – in the fourth quarter of the Atlanta game last week. McCown said that after months of not getting many reps in practice and then having to practice for two straight weeks with artificial noise pumped in and having to play in two straight loud, domed stadiums, he screamed too much during that span and lost his voice. “I have to realize that my voice uses muscles in my throat and I have to prepare those just like any other part of my body,” the soft-spoken McCown said. “I can’t let this happen again.”
FAB 5. Here are some things that will hold you over until the next SR’s Fab Five:
• It was a small miracle that John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times wrote a column praising Bucs general manager Bruce Allen last week. I say that because there is so much disdain among the local media towards Allen because he’s been heavy-handed with some of the reporters over their criticisms and – as some would say – ignorance of this Buccaneers football team. The timing was a bit ironic considering I had just written in last week’s SR’s Fab 5 about the fact that no one in the mainstream media had written anything about giving Allen credit for his work in 2007, which helped to build an NFC South champion team for the second time in three years. So hat’s off to Romano for showing a sense of fairness. As most SR’s Fab 5 readers know, Pewter Report was the first to recognize and support Allen’s plan for rebuilding this team and unifying the front office. The first such support came in Pewter Report’s rather infamous “Teamwork” article in June 2005, which was such a stark contrast to what had been written elsewhere by the local Tampa Bay media because the article featured criticisms of former general manager Rich McKay (gasp!). Those criticisms were swimming upstream from what the local media was saying about McKay. But four years later, those criticisms are holding up well as McKay is about to be stripped of his personnel and general manager duties following Atlanta’s soon-to-be 3-13 season. To say that publishing that article in 2005 and our stance of actually praising Allen while criticizing McKay alienated us from some of the other members of the media and some fans is an understatement. However, when you believe in your reporting and your convictions – as long as you don’t have an absolutist attitude and maintain objectivity – that’s all that really matters. Four years later, the general manager the local media was still worshipping has fallen from grace, while the general manager we stuck our necks out for to support – coming off a disastrous 5-11 season in 2004 and going through another one with last year’s 4-12 mark – has won two NFC South titles in the last three years. That’s vindication for Pewter Report. But don’t think we support Allen’s with a blind eye. We’ve criticized him for his free agency blunders in 2004, failing to prevent the contracts of defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin and his assistant, Raheem Morris, from coming up at the same time as they did in January of 2006 and for not having enough talented depth on the 2006 roster. But it’s certainly hard to find anything to criticize Allen about in 2007. Apparently, Romano feels the same way. It’s a shame that others don’t.
• So what did Bucs head coach Jon Gruden tell his team after last week’s NFC South-clinching win over Atlanta? “He was happy for us that we won the South because everybody was telling us how bad we were last year,” said Bucs return man Micheal Spurlock. “Now to be the South champions, that’s a big thing, but we’re looking for bigger and better things. Everything starts over once you get into the playoffs. It doesn’t matter what your record is. Once you get there, it’s a new ball game. He just wants us to look forward and win some more games.”
• Veteran defensive end Greg Spires is expected to return to the field this week against San Francisco. He figures to replace the oft-injured Patrick Chukwurah, who has been a disappointment in Tampa Bay this season with the amount of time he has missed due to being hurt. But Spires has been just as disappointing with only 36 tackles, one sack and no forced fumbles or fumble recoveries on the season. Rookie Gaines Adams (six sacks and two forced fumbles) and first-year player Greg White (45 tackles, eight sacks, seven forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries) have played much better this year and made a lot more splash plays than the aging Spires has. I don’t mind Spires getting some reps in defensive line coach Larry Coyer’s whirling D-line rotation, but it better amount to the few reps that Chukwurah would have received. Spires should not go back to his starting role and take reps away from playmakers like White and Adams. They have the hot hands right now and should be featured. Besides, I think this will be Spires’ last season in Tampa. He isn’t the future at defensive end. Adams and White are.
• As I mentioned last week, the Pewter Report store is open on PewterReport.com. You can show your support for your favorite magazine and website by buying some PR gear. Our selection is limited to a hat, a couple of t-shirts and coffee mugs and some framed covers right now, but will grow to collared shirts, windbreakers, jackets, cups – whatever you want with the Pewter Report logo on it. But we need your input to make that happen. We had a much larger congregation of PR fans want PR merchandise than we have taken orders for during the first few weeks of the store’s existence. Go ahead and place your order today and then let us know what other types of Pewter Report merchandise you would want. Post a message on the message board, drop me an e-mail at [email protected] or call our office with your suggestions (or orders) at 1-800-881-BUCS(2827). We want your feedback on the merchandise – good or bad.
• And finally, as another great year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers closes, Pewter Report is about to embark on its 20th year. As of 2008, Pewter Report (formerly Buccaneer Magazine) will have been around for 20 years due to the support of dedicated Buccaneers fans like yourself. I’ll go into more depth in the January issue of Pewter Report, but as the longest tenured member of Pewter Report (I’m entering my 14th year with the multi-media outlet), I would like to say a heartfelt “thank you” for subscribing and for being great ambassadors of Pewter Report and PewterReport.com by spreading the word about our coverage. And I would also like to thank you for the overwhelming amount of gift subscriptions we have received in the month of December. Keep them coming in January as our playoff, Senior Bowl and offseason coverage swings into full gear. Increasing the number of subscribers with gift subscriptions from the PR faithful allows us to make improvements to our coverage on PewterReport.com, such as video, increase the size of our Pewter Report magazines, plan PR subscriber events like our annual training camp get-together (and yes, it will be at Macaroni Grill in Kissimmee once again) and our annual charity golf tournament and fund trips to training camp and Senior Bowl where we deliver the inside scoop on the Bucs found nowhere else. Pewter Report is more than just a business to me. It’s a cause. It’s a grass roots movement. It is dedication to providing Bucs fans the complete, insider coverage of their favorite team they deserve without any agendas or bias. I want to thank our dedicated team of Hugh MacArthur, Jim Flynn, Kim Roper, Mike and Paula Custer, Cliff Welch, Reinhold Matay, Paul Dalton, Chip Whalen, Jenna Laine, Charles Gonzalez, Shawn Atkins, Bill Salvo and the folks at Hunt and Gather for their hard work in 2007 and through years past. I would also like to thank Steve Duemig and WDAE 620 AM, and Al Keck, Tom Korun and Dan Eassa and ABC Action News in Tampa for our treasured media partnerships. But most of all I want to thank you, the loyal Pewter Report – Pewter Insider subscriber, once again for your support. This will be the last SR’s Fab 5 in 2007, but the great Bucs coverage will continue in 2008 as Pewter Report begins its 20th year. Have a Merry Christmas, a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year! See you in 2008!
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