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Before offering up this edition of SR’s Fab Five, I’d like to inform our Pewter Insiders at the end of August, we published the 207th premium story that we have published on PewterReport.com since last September. Because the independent version of this website launched in September of 2003, the PI “meter” of annual stories runs from September 1st of one year to August 31st of the next. Jim Flynn and myself had a great time cranking out these PI stories that broke news and kept our subscribers one step ahead of other Bucs fans who only read the local newspapers. We look forward to producing another great 200-plus Pewter Insider stories in the coming year. This is the first PI story of the next wave of 200 premium articles.
Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Pewter Report is going to let our Pewter Insiders in on a little secret. Our publication has predicted an 8-8 record for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year in our Season Kickoff Issue, which is due out in early September. While some fans might think a .500 mark for the 2005 version of the Bucs is generous or wishful thinking, others might think that is dead-on. The most optimistic fans (who don pewter-colored glasses) will probably take issue with the fact that Pewter Report does not have their beloved Bucs in the playoffs this year.
We expect a good deal of fans to take umbrage with the fact that Pewter Report predicts the Bucs to open up the 2005 season 0-2, which will undoubtedly have the media vultures circling One Buccaneer Place and fans conjuring up bad feelings from Tampa Bay’s 0-4 start last year. That means the Bucs lose to the Vikings at Minnesota on opening day as well as their home opener against Buffalo the following week.
Why will Tampa Bay lose at Minnesota and at home against Buffalo? Aside from the fact that Jon Gruden is just 1-2 in season openers and 0-3 in home openers, the Bucs will be facing two stingy defenses and two quarterbacks who haven’t thrown interceptions in the preseason. We’ll have more on that in Fabs 2-3.
The good news for the Buccaneers and their fans is the fact that after opening the season with back-to-back losses, Pewter Report has predicted that the team will actually win games back-to-back. We forecast those victories at Green Bay in Week 3 and at Raymond James Stadium in Week 4 against Detroit.
FAB 2. Can the Bucs beat the Vikings in Week 1? I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but I’d like their chances even more if the game was played in Tampa. Minnesota has made a lot of improvements to its team this year, notably on defense, and is poised to win the NFC North. That means the sellout crowd at the Metrodome will be loud and feisty.
Crowd noise affects the offensive line more than any other position, and the prospects of the Bucs having as many as three new starters along the offensive line (left tackle Anthony Davis and guards Sean Mahan and either Dan Buenning or Jeb Terry) is worrisome. With several gifted pass rushers, such as Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams and defensive ends Keneche Udeze, Darrion Scott and first-round pick Erasmus James, the youth and the inexperience along Tampa Bay’s offensive line could be exposed in a noisy, raucous environment.
The offseason acquisitions of 360-pound run-stuffing nose tackle Pat Williams, linebacker Napoleon Harris, safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Fred Smoot represent upgrades for Minnesota’s suddenly dangerous defense, that already included proven studs like Kevin Williams and cornerback Antoine Winfield. Perhaps no position has been improved more than linebacker where middle linebacker Sam Cowart will be flanked by E.J. Henderson and Harris. Second-year stud Dontarrious Thomas is also vying for playing time after a great preseason that has included a team-high 13 tackles and a sack.
With the sizeable Williams duo inside, expect the Bucs to use their perimeter running game a great deal in Week 1, along with a short, controlled passing game that may try to exploit the coverage ability of Minnesota’s linebackers. The guess here is that tight ends Anthony Becht and Alex Smith will see plenty of action against the Vikings.
Minnesota used to be known as an offensive juggernaut coupled with a porous defense. The strides it made on defense has not done much to detract away from its offensive capabilities. Of course, the Vikings are without gifted wide receiver Randy Moss, who was traded away for salary cap and team morale reasons, but the emergence of 1,000-yard receiver Nate Burleson last year helps out a great deal.
The Vikings have a balanced offense with a versatile running game featuring Michael Bennett, Mewelde Moore and reserves Moe Williams and Ciatrick Fason, and a diverse passing attack led by quarterback Daunte Culpepper, Burleson and tight end Jermaine Wiggins. Although Bennett will likely miss the Tampa Bay game with a neck sprain, Moore has proven he has what it takes to be a starter in the Vikings offense.
The breakout star for Minnesota is Burleson, who can finally emerge from Randy Moss’ shadow as he has replaced him as Culpepper’s go-to guy. The speedy Burleson has had nine catches for 169 yards and one touchdown through three games in the 2005 preseason. But while those stats are impressive, they pale in comparison to those of Culpepper, who has possessed uncanny accuracy through the first three preseason games, going 28-of-33 (85 percent) for 427 yards with one touchdown.
The bottom line is that Minnesota is beatable, but a more balanced offense, an improved defense and a boisterous Vikings crowd in the Metrodome will make that a tall order for this young Buccaneers team.
FAB 3. After a loss at Minnesota, Tampa Bay will come home to face one of the NFL’s most formidable defenses in Buffalo. The Bills have held all three of its preseason opponents (Indianapolis, Green Bay and Chicago) to no more than 266 yards per game. Because this is the preseason, it’s important to note that second- and third-stringers usually rule the second halves of games, so the first-half yardage totals for the Bills’ opponents have been 111 yards (Colts), 124 yards (Packers) and 89 yards (Bears) – and that has been flat out impressive.
Buffalo’s defense also didn’t allow an opponent to score more than 16 points in any preseason game, either. The Bills eventually lost to the Bears, 16-12, but their starters led at the half, 9-3. Buffalo beat Green Bay 27-7 and led at the half, 17-7. The Bills also beat the Colts, 17-10, and led at the half, 17-3.
As if the Bills’ scoring defense wasn’t scary enough, its rushing defense is also frightening. Although the Bills gave up 143 rushing yards (6.0 avg.) and a touchdown in their loss to Chicago, they still managed to hold the Bears to just 266 total yards. And in games against Green Bay and Indianapolis, Buffalo held those teams to 106 yards rushing (Packers) and an amazing minus-5 yards rushing on 15 carries (Colts).
The Bills defense could be the toughest defense the Bucs face all year. The front four is a high-motor unit featuring active defensive ends Chris Kelsay and Aaron Schobel, along with a pair of mammoth, 330-pound, run-stuffing defensive tackles in Ron Edwards and Sam Adams. The Bills’ backup defensive end, Constantine Ritzmann, has already recorded four sacks in the preseason alone. The linebackers, Jeff Posey, London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes, are swift and aggressive. Buffalo’s secondary is also full of playmakers like safeties Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent, and cornerbacks like Nate Clements and Terrence McGee, who each have a pick in the preseason.
It’s obvious that the Bills will rely on the legs of running back Willis McGahee early on while new starting quarterback J.P. Losman gets his feet wet in the NFL. From the preseason, it is easy to surmise that head coach Mike Mularky wants to make the inexperienced Losman the caretaker – not the playmaker – of his offense. Through three preseason games, Losman has been 27-of-51 (52.9 percent) for 229 yards with one touchdown – but surprisingly no interceptions.
While Bucs fans might think that the defensive wizardry of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin might automatically conjure up a bad day for the young Bills quarterback, it should be noted that Losman has shown considerable poise and confidence in the 2005 preseason. The fact that Tampa Bay’s starting defense hasn’t recorded a sack in the preseason, might mean that Kiffin may have to blitz to get pressure on Losman. That could be dangerous as Losman has some elusive qualities, and if the blitzer misses him it could open up a running lane. Losman has scrambled seven times for 53 yards (7.6 avg.) and one touchdown in three preseason games.
Expect a low-scoring, defensive battle in Week 2 with Tampa Bay coming out on the short end of the stick, likely due to a missed field goal or a late turnover. Although the Bucs start the 2005 season 0-2, they quickly rebound and score wins at Green Bay and at home against Detroit to even their record at 2-2. How does Tampa Bay fare during the rest of the schedule? You’ll have to wait for the Pewter Report Season Kickoff Issue, which will be out in early September.
FAB 4. As I pointed out in my Buccaneer Blitz column in the July Training Camp Issue of Pewter Report, Tampa Bay defensive tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland needs a big year to remain a Buccaneer in 2006. The Bucs were going to put McFarland under the magnifying glass to see if he could remain healthy and become the dominating force the team needs at under tackle while justifying his $4.7 million cap value, which swells to $6.2 million in 2006.
General manager Bruce Allen will still keep a watchful eye on how McFarland performs this season, but the recent passing of Booger’s mom, Nancey, could complicate how the team evaluates McFarland’s 2005 campaign in the coming offseason. Understandably, grief affects people in different ways. Sources close to McFarland say that he was very, very close to his mother, who died without warning.
If McFarland doesn’t play up to the lofty expectations that come with his first-round draft status and big paycheck, is that because he is an overrated player, or is it because he is understandably distracted by his mother’s death? That could likely be impossible for Allen and the Bucs’ brass to ascertain. Because his mother’s passing happened so close to the start of the 2005 football season, one couldn’t expect McFarland to be 100 percent focused on football.
The hope here is that he dedicates his 2005 season to his mother’s memory, becomes the dominating player the Bucs expect him to be and earns a trip to the Pro Bowl. That will make evaluating him from a journalistic perspective much easier. If McFarland should falter this year, who am I to criticize him in print? I have never lost a parent before, and could certainly understand how grief could take something away from his game.
One thing is for certain, evaluating McFarland’s season will not be easy for the Bucs’ front office. If McFarland can’t rise to the level close to what Warren Sapp established in Tampa Bay, the Bucs need to find a better, cheaper alternative. But they have to be careful with the decision to keep or cut McFarland. What if McFarland is released after a lackluster 2005 season, only to rebound when time has healed his emotional wounds and make the Pro Bowl with another team after the 2006 campaign? That would be a nightmare scenario for Allen and Co.
It will be interesting to see how McFarland overcomes the tragedy of losing his mother. Challenges like this can make a person bitter or better. It will also be interesting to see how McFarland fits into the Bucs’ plans in 2006.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• It must be said that Bucs general manager Bruce Allen’s foray into free agency in 2004 was largely a failure. While he should be commended for acquisition of quarterback Brian Griese, punter Josh Bidwell and the trade for Joey Galloway, among other successful moves, Allen’s “big four” free agents have collectively flopped. Right tackle Todd Steussie was the biggest flop in terms of signing bonus money doled out and the fact that he was benched in Week 5 after giving up a sack that shelved quarterback Chris Simms for the majority of the season. Running back Charlie Garner may be the most expensive running back in team history after collecting a $3.7 million signing bonus and playing in just three games before tearing a patella tendon. Some will gripe about Garner’s age (33) and try to link that to his injury, but it should be noted that former Bucs linebacker Nate Webster, who is 26, tore his patella tendon on the same day last year. Neither Allen nor Garner deserve any blame for the injury, but the net result was shelling out a lot of money for a player who ultimately got cut on Tuesday. Guard Matt Stinchcomb started all 16 games, but was ineffective and unimpressive, while left tackle Derrick Deese fought through a foot injury to play as well as his predecessor, Roman Oben, did. At least that move was a wash for Allen last year, but the fact that Deese signed a six-year deal and is once again not healthy is reflecting poorly on Allen’s decision to sign him, especially given the fact that he wasn’t healthy at the time of his signing. Garner was also not 100 percent healthy when he signed with the Bucs. Hopefully, Allen has learned a lesson and re-reads the physical administered by the team before finalizing any contracts.
• While taking Allen to task for a group of free agent signings that didn’t pan out, it is important to note that he did the right thing for releasing Garner, especially when Earnest Graham and possibly Derek Watson proved worthy of keeping on the 53-man roster. Had Allen and the Bucs decided that Garner should be given a roster spot due to his experience if it came at the expense of Graham and Watson, that would be a clear sign that this Buccaneers team was heading in the wrong direction. Instead, Allen should be applauded for cutting Steussie in July and Garner in August. Every general manager makes personnel mistakes. It’s the ones who compound the mistakes by not cutting their losses that should be scolded. For a franchise that held on to too many mistakes in the past for far too long by not releasing the likes of defensive end Eric Curry and wide receiver Reidel Anthony among others, Allen should be noted for cutting his losses. He should also be applauded for not making the same mistakes in free agency this year by spending what little cap room the team had very wisely in the spring.
• For all the warranted criticism Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has taken for a lack of team discipline when it comes to penalties, here’s to hoping he editorialized the team’s dismissal of cornerback Ronyell Whitaker on Tuesday by telling his players that it was a couple of special teams penalties that ultimately cost him a shot at a roster spot. Granted, Whitaker has been outplayed by Blue Adams on defense and likely special teams, too, and was likely to be cut regardless. Still, Gruden could have and should have used this opportunity to drive a point home with his players that 15-yard personal fouls would not be tolerated anymore and that for players like Whitaker who didn’t have much room for error, mistakes like that can be costly to the point of losing your job.
• Based on what I’ve seen from training camp practices and the Bucs three preseason games, I would start Dan Buenning at left guard, Sean Mahan at right guard, Todd France at kicker and Dexter Jackson at free safety – as long as his Achilles tendon is healthy. I would rotate Will Allen in with Jackson to ween him into a starting position. I would also do the same with Barrett Ruud at middle linebacker, rotating him in to spell Shelton Quarles and prep him for a starting role in 2006.
• Why do I have a feeling that Ryan Nece is going to take hold of the starting strongside linebacker position and not let go? Why do I have a feeling that once again, Jeff Gooch will be relegated to special teams duty?
• The loss of Gooch and the ineffectiveness of the Bucs kick and punt return game should convince Tampa Bay to re-sign special teams ace and return man Frank Murphy. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Murphy has the size on special teams that reserve receivers like Edell Shepherd, DeAndrew Rubin and J.R. Russell don’t have – not to mention the tenacity. For whatever reason, Torrie Cox has not gotten the job done in the kick return department this preseason. That’s not to say that he isn’t a good return man. He proved that last year. But the Bucs should safeguard themselves in the return game by re-signing Murphy, who can also cover kicks and punts.
• I don’t like how the Bucs have handled their place kicker rotation this preseason. With the team being able to keep both Matt Bryant and Todd France on its August roster because of France’s NFL Europe roster exemption, I would have favored going with one kicker for an entire game. There could be games where the Bucs’ field goal kicker will be called upon three or four times on a single Sunday and I would like to see how a kicker reacts over an entire game after kicking off several times, making a couple of field goals and converting a couple of extra points. How tired is his leg on kickoffs in the fourth quarter? After taking all of the kicking opportunities in the game, does he have the leg left to nail a 53-yarder in the last two minutes of a contest? By rotating kickers, as Jon Gruden has done this preseason, I don’t think a proper evaluation can take place. Gruden said he wanted to put pressure on a kicker by not letting them know who was going to kick before he sent them out there. That’s fine to do in the minutes leading up until game time, but the real pressure comes from knowing that this is your game to show off what you can do on kickoffs and field goals, and you only have two preseason games to do that.
• Before I get hate mail for predicting an 0-2 start for the Bucs from some of you, as I did when I predicted Tampa Bay would lose at Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, I’ll have you note that Pewter Report predicted the Bucs would go 10-6 last season, which came on the heels of us predicting the Bucs would repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2003. (And we also predicted the Bucs would win the Super Bowl against the Oakland Raiders, too.) Iit’s funny how some folks think Pewter Report is a homer paper full of optimism looking out of pewter-colored glasses, while others will think we are too negative with an 0-2 start and any criticism of Jon Gruden, Bruce Allen or any fan-favorite players. That tells me that our coverage is fair and somewhere in the middle, which is exactly where Pewter Report wants to be.
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