FAB 3. Bucs Young CBs Pounded By “The Rock”
I begin my discussion with Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross with a statement. There are a combined two career interceptions among the seven cornerbacks on the Bucs’ 90-man training camp roster.
“That won’t happen again,” Ross said. “I don’t think that will ever happen again on this team. They’ll get their hands on plenty of balls. They have a lot to work and they are learning how to work together. They’ll be okay.”
Okay, I’m sold. I believe Ross.
Do you know why? Because the guy can coach.
And man, could Ross play.
Growing up in Kansas City I was a huge fan of Ross when I followed the Chiefs. So much so that my old PIN number for my Capitol Federal debit card was 5831 for my two favorite Chiefs players back in the 1990s – Derrick Thomas, who wore 58, and Ross, who wore 31.
Despite standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 185 pounds, the compactly built Ross was tough as nails and one of the most physical cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL. Growing up on the mean streets of Camden, New Jersey before going to Temple University where he played for Bruce Arians, Ross earned the nickname “The Rock” a decade before wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson did.
Kansas City drafted Ross in the seventh round of the 1984 draft and he became an immediate starter, recording six interceptions and a pick-six as a rookie. He would go on post 38 career interceptions, including 30 in Kansas City, including pick-sixes of 99 and 71 yards, to go along 15 fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown, six forced fumbles and five sacks. Ross, a two-time Pro Bowler, was credited with 1,099 tackles in his 14-year NFL career, including 827 during his 11 years with the Chiefs.
If you watched his Chiefs highlight tape that I embedded into this section of the SR’s Fab 5, Ross might remind you of Ronde Barber – but not as many sacks or touchdowns. He was that caliber of cornerback with the Chiefs, and was coached by two of the greatest defensive backs coaches of all-time – Tony Dungy from 1989-91 and then Herman Edwards from 1992-95 – in Kansas City.
“Teachers,” Ross said of Dungy and Edwards, both of whom went on to coach in Tampa Bay together in 1996. “They were real good teachers. That’s what I’m trying to convey to these young guys – I’m teaching them. I like where they’re at right now, but we’ve got a long way to go.
“Coach Dungy was a great anticipator in terms of what teams would try to do to you. He would make you learn yourself – your weaknesses first and then go from there. Herm Edwards was a technician. He just wanted you to be fundamentally sound and let your fundamentals take over the game.”
Do you know who else was in Kansas City when Dungy was on Marty Schottenheimer’s staff serving under defensive coordinator Bill Cowher?
He was the Chiefs running backs coach from 1989-92 and coached 1989 NFL leader rusher Christian Okoye, Barry Word and third-down back Todd McNair, who is now Tampa Bay’s running backs coach. McNair also played for Arians at Temple and was drafted by the Chiefs in the eighth round in 1989.
Small world, huh?
“Kevin is one of the most ferocious, competitive people I know,” Arians said. “That was his locker room in Kansas City and everybody knew it. He was a tough as they come. He was a linebacker playing cornerback. He’s outstanding as a coach and he was coached by some really great people. He just continues to grow and grow as a teacher. He’s doing an outstanding job with these young guys.”
Young is an understatement. Tampa Bay will field the NFL’s youngest secondary with the league’s youngest group of cornerbacks – by a mile – this year.
The confident Ross isn’t fazed by that all.
“No, I love it,” Ross said. “I get to teach football to young people. I’m watching as they are learning and experiencing things and grasping the concepts. They’re doing pretty good so far. It’s good that way. You would like one veteran in there to show them to how work, but we’re learning how to work and how to practice so you can play in a game and it carries over.”
At age 24, Vernon Hargreaves III is the elder statesman of the cornerbacks room. He’s the most veteran cornerback despite playing just 26 games, including only nine starts over the last two injury-plagued years. Hargreaves will start opposite Carlton Davis, a second-round pick from a year ago.
Sean Murphy-Bunting, this year’s second-round pick, is a rookie, as is third-rounder Jamel Dean. Those four young cornerbacks hold the top four spots on the depth chart.
“You actually saw him play in Kansas City?” Hargreaves said when I disclosed that I’m 47 and used to go to Chiefs games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Man, I’m jealous! He coaches us how he played, and for you that makes sense because you watched him in Kansas City. He’s been there and he’s done that in the league. He gets guys going and he’s not telling you anything he hasn’t done himself. As young guys we can relate to that and we love that.”
Murphy-Bunting said that one of the first things Ross told he and Dean upon being drafted in April was to be ready to play as rookies.
“Coach Ross is definitely a critical guy and he holds you to the highest standard possible,” Murphy-Bunting said. “He doesn’t want anything less than perfection, honestly. He’s big on technique and reading your keys, but also having fun and playing fast. We’re learning the game step by step and not throwing everything at us at once. He’s a great mentor because he’s played in the league for 14 years.
“I saw some of his old film when I first got here,” Murphy-Bunting said. “Our running backs coach played with him and showed me. He was knocking guys heads off. He was knocking guys’ heads off and getting interceptions. He was a playmaker. He was known as ‘The Rock.’ Now he’s ‘Uncle Rock’ to us.”
Davis couldn’t agree more about Ross.
“We do call him ‘Uncle Rock,’” Davis said. “It’s awesome to know that you have a coach that has played the game and played it at a high level. It makes you really trust even more what he’s saying. He’s leveled me up in all ways from the physical standpoint to a mental standpoint. He’s the ideal cornerbacks coach. I feel like any cornerback could learn and benefit from him.”
Arians, who hired Ross in Arizona in 2013, believes he has the best cornerbacks coach in the league on his Tampa Bay staff.
“When I learned he was available he was the guy,” Arians said. “There was nobody else I wanted. Our young guys may not have had a lot of interceptions before, but they have a bunch now [in training camp] and they’re going to have a bunch this year. They all have great ball skills. When you are in Kevin’s room you are going to play hard and you are going to attack.”
Now 57 years old, Ross coaches like he played – with toughness, aggressiveness and emphasizing great technique.
“’Uncle Rock,’ huh? I don’t care what they call me as long as they play well,” Ross said.
And they will.
There will be some growing pains for this young group of Bucs cornerbacks, but thanks to Ross there will plenty of interceptions and big plays along the way, too.
There is nobody better for the job.