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Here’s five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. In 2002, Buccaneers wide receiver Frank Murphy opened the Jon Gruden era in Tampa Bay with a bang. He took the opening kickoff of the Bucs’ first preseason game back 95 yards for a touchdown. Given the fact that no player had ever returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Buccaneer history, Murphy’s score greatly increased his chances of making the team that year.
Murphy followed that game with another eye-opening preseason effort against the Jaguars, whom the Bucs soundly beat, 20-0 at Jacksonville. On August 16, 2002, Murphy had a pivotal performance in his brief Buccaneer career. Playing in front of several family members and friends who were from his hometown of Callahan, Florida, which is near Jacksonville, Murphy caught the first four passes thrown his way, including a 3-yard touchdown from quarterback Rob Johnson. That play only added to his preseason momentum, and almost secured Murphy a roster spot. Almost.
But after playing most of the first half, Murphy was growing extremely fatigued – mentally and physically – by the time the third quarter rolled around. He dropped two, catchable slant passes before catching another ball – barely – to finish the game with 41 yards on a game-high five catches. The sixth pass thrown his way was picked off in the third quarter.
Instead of leaving Jacksonville triumphant with five catches, including a touchdown, Murphy left his hometown rattled and saw his confidence shaken over those two drops and not making a play on the pass that got picked off. From there, Murphy’s 2002 preseason went into a downward spiral. He went into a funk during the next week’s practice, dropping several easy passes thrown his way. Then a severe hamstring injury he suffered in the third preseason game forced him to miss the preseason finale at Houston and ultimately cost him a job with the Bucs. Murphy was among the team’s final roster cuts in 2002.
Now a more confident Murphy returns to the scene of the crime. After another sizzling debut in a preseason opener – a 36-yard kick return and catching three passes for a game-high 47 yards – Murphy comes home to Jacksonville vowing that history will not repeat itself.
“This is a different Frank Murphy,” the fourth-year wide receiver said. “I can’t tell you that I’m not going to do this or I’m not going to mess up. But this is a different Frank Murphy mentally and spiritually, as far as going into football games and dealing with myself and being the person I am. I’m closer to God. I just feel like I’m a different Frank Murphy from 2002 and you’re going to see a different version of me on the field against Jacksonville. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I always expect good things to happen because I work so hard.”
Bucs head Jon Gruden has always praised Murphy for being one of the team’s hardest workers, but in 2002 in a desperate attempt to curry favor with the Bucs coaches and impress them, he overworked himself to the point of exhaustion during training camp and the preseason.
“I just killed myself,” Murphy said. “That’s what I did wrong in 2002. I overworked and fatigued during camp. I didn’t understand that when they say rest, they mean rest. I would be in the offseason doing track workouts, football workouts, running routes and lifting weights day in and day out. I never stopped. I fatigued and I just peaked out during camp.
“Now, I’m smart and know how to handle it. I’m a veteran and I rest and only work out when I need to. I feel great. That’s how I’m going into this game. I’m going back home and I’m going to prove myself. The reps that they are going to give me, I’m going to take full advantage of them. I feel like this is going to be a blessed year for me – no matter what happens.”
Murphy entered the NFL as a running back from Kansas State in 1999, and has been making the gradual transition to wide receiver ever since. He credits his own hard work and the teachings of Bucs coach Richard Mann for finally creating the needed confidence in his hands, as evidenced by making a tough catch in double coverage against Cincinnati in the Bucs’ 2004 preseason debut.
“Coach Mann is fabulous,” Murphy said. “He’s the one who has made me a better receiver, period. From the time I’ve met him until now, he’s got me doing a lot of different things that get me the separation I need to make the catch. It has also come to a point where mistakes are going to be made and balls are going to be dropped. Things are going to happen. I think it’s all how you jump up and improve on it. Don’t get in a slump because you dropped a ball or missed an assignment. All-Pro guys do that all the time. They maybe don’t get criticized as much, but that’s how it goes. I’m going learn from my mistakes and move on.
“I always had confidence in my ability, I just think that I needed playing time to start feeling comfortable with playing receiver. The more I play, the more relaxed I am. I know I have the athletic ability, but the confidence level is there now with me catching the ball. I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t worry about it anymore. I don’t care if I do something wrong or drop a ball. That’s just how it is. I just think if it is meant for me to be here with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, God will make a way for me to be here. That’s how I look at every game. I want to do good every game, but I’m not going in worried about making mistakes.”
Murphy’s confidence and energy soared from the start of the Cincinnati game when he returned a kickoff 36 yards to the 37-yard line, breaking a few arm tackles along the way. In fact, Murphy was one or two Bengals away from kicking off his 2004 preseason like he did in 2002.
“It felt great,” Murphy said of the kick return. “I almost thought it was going to be a house call again. It’s a blessing just to be back here. I’m just cherishing each moment of me being back with the Bucs and back playing football again. It means a lot to me.”
The Bucs special teams were abysmal last season, especially the kick return game, which averaged a paltry 18.9 yards per return. Gone are Aaron Stecker, Thomas Jones, Karl Williams and Reggie Barlow, leaving Tampa Bay’s kickoff return position wide open. Bucs sources feel the primary kick return job will ultimately go to Murphy, Brandon Bennett or rookie Mark Jones. While Bennett has returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the regular season with the Bengals, and Jones may be the team’s fastest player, Murphy gives the Bucs the best combination of size, speed and tackle-breaking ability to take a kick return the distance.
“I’m 215 pounds now,” Murphy said. “I used to be 206, so I’m bigger now. I still have my speed. My speed hasn’t gone anywhere. I feel good out there. I just got blessed with speed and the ability to do kick returns, I guess. All I ask for is the opportunity. When they give me the opportunity, I just try to show them that they didn’t make a mistake. I’m really looking forward to being here and making a splash on special teams, and definitely at receiver if they need my help.”
Murphy’s development at wide receiver, combined with his ability to return and cover kickoffs on special teams, could earn him a roster spot this year, especially with Keenan McCardell’s nasty hold out over a contract dispute and the season-ending injury to Edell Shepherd. The Bucs are intrigued by Murphy’s yards-after-catch ability, as evidenced by his 24-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals.
“I’m a running back, no matter how you look at it,” Murphy said. “I’m a running back with speed who has transitioned into being a receiver. If you give me the ball in the open field – just a little crack – I’m going to run like a running back. I’m going to make moves and try to make people miss. I’m going to try to run people over. I’m going to use my speed to outrun them if I can. Once I have the ball in my hands, I feel like I’m a running back. I’ve always been aggressive and a flash-type running back.”
His performance on Monday drew some very important praise from a very important person who will ultimately decide if Murphy makes the team or not.
“You saw him go down there on the opening punt – he and Corey Ivy made an impact tackle tackle on special teams to cause Deltha O’Neal to fumble,” said Gruden. “You saw him on kickoff coverage run right down the middle of the field to make the tackle. You saw him on the kickoff return rip it out there to the 37-yard line. You see him go out there and catch balls in traffic and protect it. He’s fast and he’s playing pretty darn good. There ain’t a better guy than Frank Murphy. I really like him. He brings it every day and he’s right in the mix of things.”
Murphy has gotten several pats on the back and accolades after the Bengals game, but he said that he can’t afford to get caught up in the hoopla.
“One thing I found out about people all around the world, I’m not just talking about in football, is that you can’t put your trust in man,” Murphy said. “Man will let you down every time. If you believe in everything people tell you or believe in what the papers say, you can get your head boosted up. That type of stuff gets you brought down to reality and brings your game down to reality. I listen to what people tell me, and I thank them for their compliments, but in the back of my mind I see nothing. That first game, I don’t see it anymore. I don’t care about it anymore. It’s gone away. I’m back on the battlefield Friday night.
“We just got done playing. We’re all tired. We can lay an egg if we want to. That’s probably what people expect, but that’s not what we’re going to do. That’s not what the Bucs are about. We’re going to go out there and have some fun. It’s hard playing another game so quickly. Your body is beaten down. But this team is really something else.”
The Bucs wouldn’t mind another preseason trip to Jacksonville that results in a 20-0 pasting. Murphy just wants a shot at redemption and a different ending for him personally.
FAB 2. Near the end of my interview with Frank Murphy, he was discussing the Bucs special teams and how this segment of the team, known in-house as “we-fense,” was going to be a real force this season when he mentioned a new “catch phrase” that is going around One Buccaneer Place. After a year of turmoil with the Bucs going 7-9 last season, with complacency setting in, with egos clashing and chemistry running amok, there is no more uttering “pound the rock” or “turn the page.” Instead, it’s finding “peace in the house” – meaning a locker room filled with comaraderie and unity.
“It’s going to be something special here,” Murphy said. “It’s going to be something special here on special teams we call “we-fense.” It’s going to be something special on defense and offense because a lot of people want to prove themselves. If we come together as Coach Gruden and the coaching staff has been preaching, it can be like 2002.
“It was that way in 2002. That’s what we’re doing right now. There is peace in the house. By there being peace in the house, everybody can pull together. If there isn’t peace in the house, it’s kind of separate. You can’t win games like that.”
While Murphy didn’t mention Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson by name, the fact that these two boisterous, egotistical, flamboyant personalities that once dominated the Bucs locker room have left has gone a long way to helping bring harmony to the work environment at One Buccaneer Place.
Sapp ruled the Tampa Bay locker room with an iron fist, and while his work ethic and play were admired by his teammates, his character was reviled. Johnson was rarely happy and because he wasn’t the focal point of Gruden’s offense, he openly voiced his displeasure about the head coach and was scheming to get out of Tampa Bay last year.
With prima donnas like Sapp and Johnson gone, the coaches and the team’s leaders are stepping up and trying to create a better team chemistry in 2004.
“What’s making peace in the house so much is that the coaching staff is stressing it,” Murphy said. “The leaders of our team such as Derrick Brooks, Brad Johnson and other players – our veterans – are stressing it so much. They’re saying that there is going to be peace in this house and we’re going to pull together as a team – like every football team is supposed to do. We’re going to feed off each other. Out there on special teams, go out there and make a tackle that gets your teammates excited. Rally around your teammates. That gets the defense hyped. It gets the offense hyped when you run a big kick return back. That gets the crowd into it. Now the motivation seeps into everybody. You’re not going to have a big return every time or a big tackle every time, but when you do, let people know about it. It rubs off.”
Peace in the house. You heard it here first .
FAB 3. Our Pewter Insider subscribers have known that Bucs rookie guard Jeb Terry has had a good training camp. We have discussed his successes from our rookie mini-camp coverage to the mandatory mini-camp coverage to our training camp coverage, highlighting Terry’s ability to pull effectively on perimeter run plays and to get down field quickly and block on screen passes. Those skills were on display for all to see on Monday night in Terry’s first NFL preseason game.
“It was awesome,” Terry said of his first NFL experience. “It’s kind of hard to explain. It was different not starting anymore. I went in in the second quarter and just tried to concentrate on the man in front of me and not making any mistakes. I just tried to play relaxed and tried to stay calm, and I did. It’s football. That’s what I’ve got to keep in my mind.”
Due to injuries to guards Matt Stinchcomb and Kerry Jenkins, Terry got to play most of the second quarter against Cincinnati in relief of starting right guard Jason Whittle, and played the entire third quarter and also part of the fourth quarter.
“The more reps I get, the more comfortable I get,” Terry said. “The more comfortable I am, the more confident I am. Being able to go in early in the game and play a lot of it gives me that much more confidence going into the next game – heck, going into practice. I’ve got a game under my belt, even though it is an NFL preseason game. It’s just feels great to have accomplished this so far. I’ve just got to keep the train rolling.”
Terry fared well in pass protection for Chris Simms and Brian Griese and was part of an offensive line that did not surrender a single sack to Cincinnati. But while he is an able blocker on passing plays, Terry’s favorite plays are running plays, especially on the outside where he can pull and get out in front of the ballcarrier as a lead blocker.
“Without a doubt,” Terry said. “They had me doing that all the time at North Carolina, getting out and running and getting my hands on people and trying to clear the path. I really enjoy doing that because I get to try to show what athletic ability I have. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to do it some more here.
On running back Earnest Graham’s first touchdown run, Terry pulled down the line to the left and helped pave the way for the 2-yard rushing score.
“That was great,” Terry said. “We scored twice on the ground in the game. We came back from the adversity of the penalties and was able to punch it in the ground both times. That always feels great.”
On his Tuesday afternoon conference call with reporters, he singled out Terry’s name as one of the positive performers from Monday’s night win over Cincinnati.
“I’m really upbeat about Jeb Terry,” Gruden said.
Bucs fans should be, too. This guy is a keeper and will likely steal a roster spot from either guard Sean Mahan or center Austin King.
FAB 4. The only real negative from the Bucs’ preseason opener was the surprising number of penalties that was called on Tampa Bay. The Pewter Pirates were flagged 14 times for 129 yards, which was a major disappointment for a team who has stressed cutting down on penalties after recording a whopping 117 infractions for a dubious franchise-record 1,104 yards last season.
The Bucs went so far as to hire full-time refs to officiate every team practice in the offseason, in training camp and during the regular season, as PewterReport.com first reported this past spring. But it seems the Cincinnati game served as a wake up call that the team’s penalty problem hasn’t gone away.
There are typically a lot of flags thrown in preseason games due to the play of so many rookies and the shuffling of players in and out of the huddle, but guard Cosey Coleman was whistled for three infractions (two were accepted) and he’s a veteran.
“We had officials all offseason,” said Bucs center John Wade. “We had officials at training camp. We’ve been working hard at it, but we didn’t show it [on Monday]. We need to clean it up because that will cost you a game quicker than anything.”
Bucs safety John Howell concurred with Wade.
“We’ve stressed that in the preseason,” Howell said. “We have to play penalty-free football. You’re going to have a few here and there, but you don’t want to come out and have 10 or 12 penalties in a preseason game. That’s something we have to look at hard. We have to eliminate that.”
FAB 5 Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• Tampa Bay safety John Howell suited up in his first game on Monday night since November when he was placed on injured reserve with a severe hamstring tear. He had a solid outing, recording three tackles and making a tackle on special teams, but dropped an easy interception in the second quarter. “It was good to get out there,” Howell said. “It was the first time I had been back on the field since Week 8 of last season. It was exciting to get back out there and play defense and get back on special teams. I had a couple of good tackles and a nice dropped pick. I saw the ‘six’ before I caught the ball. There was nobody on the sidelines and that’s exactly what I was thinking. That just goes to the old rule, you’ve got to catch the ball first.” Howell played free safety against Cincinnati with the second-team defense while Scott Frost played strong safety. They’ll switch roles this week against Jacksonville and Howell will play strong safety while Frost will be the free safety.
• Count Bucs safety Dwight Smith as a big fan of second-year quarterback Chris Simms. “I love the guy,” Smith said of Simms. “He’s got a competitive spirit and he wants to win. Has a great arm and a great mind. You can’t ask for anything more. The bad thing about it is you have Brad [Johnson] in front of him. Hopefully he can be patient enough learning the offense, and when they turn it over to him, he’ll be ready.” Smith said that the Bucs’ quarterback depth from the starter to the No. 3 quarterback is bar none in the NFL this year. “I believe anyone of them can start anywhere else in the NFL,” Smith said. “[Brian] Griese has already been to a Pro Bowl. Simms has got a live arm and a great mind. We already know what Brad can do. Any of them wouldn’t have a hard time starting elsewhere.”
• Tampa Bay center John Wade is excited by the speed the Bucs have on kick returns with Frank Murphy, Mark Jones and Brandon Bennett. On Tampa Bay’s first kick return against Cincinnati, Murphy raced out to the 37-yard line with a 36-yard return that helped the Bucs average 24.7 yards per kick return on the night, which is a major improvement over the team’s pitiful average of 18.9 yards per kick return last year. “It was awesome to see that,” Wade said of Murphy’s return, which he almost broke for a score. “I thought he was running a 40-yard dash coming out of there. It was unbelievable. The speed and the power he was coming through there with. It was nice. As an offensive lineman, anytime you have good field position to start it gives you a little more juice just running out there on to the field. We need that this year.” A good portion of the Bucs’ drives started well within their own 20-yard line last year either due to poor kick returns or penalties on kick returns. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden knows that better kick returns to start the game or the second half will pay dividends for his offense. The Bucs scored just 34 points combined in the first quarter of all 16 games last year, and only 60 in the third quarter. By contrast, Tampa Bay scored 105 combined points in the second quarter and 102 yards in the fourth quarter. The ticket to better scoring opportunities to start the game and to start the second half? Better kickoff returns.
• It’s never a good sign when a healthy, young player who is trying to make an NFL roster doesn’t play in the first preseason game. It’s one thing for a veteran like running back Charlie Garner who is a little dinged up, or offensive tackle like Derrick Deese, who is recovering from ankle surgery, to miss a preseason game. But for players like fullback Deon Dyer, wide receiver D’Wayne Bates, linebacker Edward Thomas, left tackle Scott Jackson, fullback Casey Cramer, long snapper John Garrison, cornerback Lynaris Elpheage, and centers Ben Claxton and Austin King who did not play in the game, according to the official NFL statistics, it’s the first sign that they will likely not make the team. Perhaps the biggest name on this list is King, who was the Bucs’ backup center last year. King, a fourth-round draft pick out of Northwestern in 2003, has lost his spot to Jason Whittle, who is currently backing up starting center John Wade. To make matters worse, guard Sean Mahan, who has been taking quite a few reps at center during training camp, entered the game as the third-team center in the fourth quarter – not King.
• Want a reason to feel good about being a Pewter Insider subscriber? In Monday’s edition of SR’s Fab Five we stressed how uncomfortable the Bucs are with their lack of proven depth and talent at the nose tackle position. So what happens on Monday night? Cincinnati running back Rudi Johnson plows through the interior of Tampa Bay’s defensive line for gains of nine and eight yards on his first two carries. So what happens on Wednesday? PewterReport.com reports that the Bucs auditioned free agent nose tackle Oliver Gibson, who is a big, 320-pound run stuffer. Our Pewter Insider subscribers get Bucs news before it happens.
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