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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. If you thought that Tampa Bay’s drafting of Auburn running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams with the fifth pick overall meant the end of Michael Pittman’s days as a primary ballcarrier, think again. Despite the fact that head coach and offensive guru Jon Gruden has added a new toy to his backfield, don’t expect Williams to carry the load while Pittman is relegated to backup status this year.
In fact, the plan is to have Pittman and Williams share the load in the backfield – perhaps even in the same backfield in Gruden’s “Rocket” personnel package. According to coaches, Pittman clearly has the best hands of all the running backs on the team, and that means he is ticketed to see plenty of action next year.
Pittman is coming off a career-year in which he rushed for 926 yards on 219 carries (4.2 avg.) and scored 10 touchdowns, including seven on the ground. One of those scores was a 78-yard TD scamper against the Chiefs that was the longest run of his career and the longest in Bucs history.
“You always dream about making big plays,” Pittman said. “Everybody chipped in. Michael Clayton had a big block, as well as our tight ends. That’s how you draw it up. That was perfect. The lane was there. I was so surprised. I just took it and ran as fast as I could to the end zone. I was tired. I have never broken a 78-yarder in my life. I broke a 75-yarder at Fresno State and a 59-yarder in Arizona.”
Pittman was tired a lot in 2004. After returning from a three-game NFL suspension for off-field conduct, he had to shoulder the entire load for the running game due to Charlie Garner’s season-ending injury at Oakland in which he tore his patella tendon. Pittman has always shared carries in Arizona and in Tampa Bay throughout his career, and he believes the increased work load contributed to his six fumbles, the majority of which happened in the second half of games.
“It was very frustrating,” Pittman said of his fumbling problems in 2004. “I was madder than the fans, the coaches or my teammates. I take it personally. I got very emotional at the New Orleans game in the last minutes of the game. Even though I thought I was down, the fumble still stuck with me because we lost the game. At the same time, I averaged over 100 yards per game in 13 games in total offense. For a running back in the NFL, that’s good. I just tried my hardest and I think Coach Gruden saw that. I scored 10 touchdowns in 13 games, and that’s a big accomplishment.
“At the same time, there were times when I put the ball on the turf when I shouldn’t have, especially late in the games when we were trying to ice the game and win it. I let my teammates down and I let the fans of Tampa Bay down. That’s one of the biggest reasons why they went out and drafted a running back so high – to take the burden off of me a little bit. At the same time, if we didn’t draft Cadillac – and I’m glad he’s here – I think I would go out there and perform the exact same way. I would just work on the ball security issue and I know for a fact that I can get over 1,000 yards. In 13 games I almost got 1,000 yards, and this was my first year where I didn’t share time in the backfield. I have never been a primary back. I was back in there for about 90 percent of the plays last year and I never came out of the game. I could never stay fresh. It’s always good to have two or three good backs on your team that the coach believes in so you can stay fresh and come off to the sideline so that you can give it your all on the next play. I was running just about every single play and then you are probably only giving 70-80 percent because your body is so tired. Of course, I was tired in the fourth quarter, but I have to hold on to the football. That’s on me and I’ve never made any excuses for that. It was unfortunate. I am working on that.”
Despite Pittman’s production, those six lost fumbles came at crucial junctures in several games, and played a big role in losses at St. Louis, at Carolina and versus New Orleans.
“A lot of people want to talk about the fumbles, and they have a good reason to. But at the same time, keep in perspective what I did accomplish with the 100-yard games and the 1,300 yards in 13 games and 10 touchdowns. That’s not easy in the NFL. When things are going wrong, people like to bring up particular stuff. If we had a winning season, (the fumbles) wouldn’t be as bad as people make it out to be. You see other guys fumble six times like I did, but I lost all six of mine. So mine look worse than other people’s.
“Losing all the fumbles was frustrating. There was the one time at Carolina where I got hit in the back and fumbled. I don’t think anybody could hold on to that ball. I felt like I got hit by a car. Archeluta made a great play on me in St. Louis and did this crazy move that stripped the ball from me. Things like that you can’t help. Great players are paid to make great plays, too.”
Despite the fumbles, Gruden chose to stick with Pittman, given the alternative of the unproven Earnest Graham and Ian Smart, who were still learning the offense. That move paid off at times, given Pittman’s production in the running game and the passing game, but also backfired when it came to the fumbles. Pittman’s fumbling problems were one of the main reasons why the Bucs spent their first-round draft choice -the fifth overall pick – on Williams, who was one of the most accomplished runners in SEC history.
“If you look at some of my action shots from last year, my fingertips weren’t covering the ball,” Pittman said. “I got away from doing that. It’s little things like that I used to do in the past, but I wasn’t doing it for some reason. Every time in practice I tell my teammates to try to strip me of the ball all day. During practice I held on to the ball great. During the games, I would tell myself, ‘Hold on to the ball, Mike.’ I ended up fumbling. I think it almost became like a mental funk that I was in. Instead of going out there and playing, it was on my mind.
“This year, I just have to get the ball up higher on the pressure points – rib cage, biceps, forearm and fingertips – and hope for a better year.”
Although there was some rumors that the Bucs were trying to gauge Pittman’s trade value on draft weekend, they decided to keep him around in 2005 despite the fumbles. While Pittman may not be as physically talented as Williams, nor entered the NFL with the high-draft pick status that Williams has, he has one thing that the rookie doesn’t have -NFL experience. Despite the fact that he has ball security issues, has proven himself to be very productive in Gruden’s system and his play has improved each year he’s been in Tampa Bay.
“My first year out here I had that ankle injury and it was my worst year in football,” Pittman said, referencing a severely sprained ankle that he suffered on the first day of training camp in 2002. “I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. My ankle was so messed up I couldn’t perform. There were cutback lanes I wanted to take, but I couldn’t take because of my ankle. I had no strength or confidence in the ankle. I’ve heard people say that I can’t read lanes. I saw the lanes and the backside, but I didn’t have the confidence in the ankle to take that cut. It was a frustrating year for me. My ankle injury was so bad I had to shoot it up before the game to numb it, and after the game, I had to shoot it up with anti-inflammatories. A lot of people didn’t know that. I was just out there trying to play. My trainer said it was worse than a broken ankle – that it was that severe. My Achilles tendon was frozen up and it was a difficult year for me. I wasn’t making excuses. I played. I just tried to do the best I could.”
“My second year, everybody knew what was going on with me. I was mentally frustrated by things, and I didn’t know what my future was going to be. Last year was the first year that I was able to focus on playing football and having a good time. All of the guys were blocking for me and the holes were coming easier. I’m more confident in this offense. I’m free. Free from frustrations and my injuries. I’m almost 30 years old, but I think my best is yet to come for me. My balance got a lot better because I have strength in my ankle. Right now my ankle is still sore from that year, but it’s a lot stronger than what it was. I’m getting better every year. I hardly look at my playbook anymore because I know it. I’m that confident in myself. I think my best years are ahead of me.”
Pittman, who has muscled up to 232 pounds from his playing weight of 218 pounds a year ago, knows that he will go back to sharing carries with the arrival of Williams, and that seems to be okay with him. The coaching staff thinks Pittman will be even more productive because Williams can spell him at times and allow him to be fresher in the second half of games, particularly in the fourth quarter. But Pittman must severely limit his fumbles in 2005 or Williams may not be splitting carries with anyone in 2006.
FAB 2. One Bucs newcomer who is drawing rave reviews from coaches and teammates is new running back Derek Watson. Watson, who was signed to the active roster after signing a try-out contract with the team for the May rookie mini-camp, spent the 2003 season with the New England Patriots and was out of football last year.
Coaches and players have had a hard time describing what has made Watson so special on the practice field at the team’s OTA days. They just say that the 6-foot, 223-pounder “does special things with the football in his hands.” It is said that he possesses a nice mix of size, speed and power. Pewter Report will get its first extended look at Watson at the team’s mandatory mini-camp next week. Truth be told, our staff focused a great deal of its attention on the Bucs’ draft picks at the rookie mini-camp back in May, and didn’t study Watson too closely.
Watson was one of the most decorated recruits Lou Holtz landed at the University of South Carolina in 1999. He rushed for 2,078 yards on 437 carries (4.8 avg.) and 16 touchdowns for the Gamecocks, including a personal-best 1,066 yards (5.7 avg.) and 11 scores as a sophomore in 2000, before off-field issues derailed his college career.
According to the Yahoo Sports web page, Watson was suspended from the South Carolina team in May of 2001 for allegedly hitting a woman in the arm. Watson pleaded no contest to traffic charges in 2000 that landed him in jail for 15 days and produced a fine of $100. He also wrecked the vehicle of teammate Teddy Crawford during 2000, but was unhurt. He was ticketed with driving too fast and driving with a suspended license. In February of 2001, Watson allegedly threatened a referee who had ejected him from an intramural basketball game. In 2002, Watson was kicked off the team after being charged with possession of marijuana.
Obviously, the Bucs are hoping he has changed his ways, but if he hasn’t rid himself of all of his character issues he likely won’t last long in Tampa Bay and could face the same fate that Darrell Russell faced a year ago. But for the moment, Watson seems to making the most of his second chance with an NFL team and his skills fit in nicely in Tampa Bay’s offense, which calls for halfbacks to be accomplished runners, blockers and receivers.
Watson was a good receiver in college and posted 58 catches for 466 yards and two scores at South Carolina and six grabs for 79 yards and a TD at South Carolina State. He also brings some return ability to the Bucs as well, returning three punts for 38 yards and scoring a touchdown at South Carolina, in addition to returning 42 kicks for 996 yards (23.7 avg.). As a junior at South Carolina, he ran back 13 kicks for 384 yards (29.5 avg.)
Watson will have to excel on special teams to win a roster spot as a backup, especially considering that Michael Pittman and Carnell Williams will see the majority of carries this season.
FAB 3. One phrase that has been preached more than ever at One Buccaneer Place with the arrival of new quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett is ball security. One trait that has followed Hackett from Kansas City to New York (and hopefully to Tampa Bay) is the fact that the offenses he has been associated with have been among the fewest in the league in turnovers.
Last year, starting quarterback Brian Griese and starting halfback Michael Pittman committed too many costly turnovers at critical junctures in several losses. Although the Bucs offense has the chance to improve with the addition of running back Carnell Williams, tight ends Anthony Becht and Alex Smith, and a host of new wide receivers and offensive linemen, the Bucs are probably another year away from fielding a real explosive unit due to the needed maturity of young players in Jon Gruden’s offense.
Knowing that the Bucs will likely be in for another season of some close contests, a lower number of turnovers (and improved field goal accuracy) could make the Bucs victorious in some of the narrow games they lost last year. Cutting down on turnovers will be critical. The NFL average was 11.9 fumbles and 16.4 interceptions in 2005. Tampa Bay exceeded those averages with 18 interceptions and 18 fumbles last year. The Bucs also had one of those fumbles returned for a touchdown, and had four interceptions returned for scores.
The gregarious Hackett has juiced up the Bucs’ coaching staff this offseason, too. Hackett comes to Tampa Bay with more gravitas than former quarterbacks coaches like Stan Parrish and John Shoop, and has been well received by other coaches such as head coach Jon Gruden, running backs coach Art Valero, and offensive line coach Bill Muir among others.
“He’s a very detailed person,” Valero said. “No one in this game is ever going to be perfect, but you can get pretty damn close, and that’s what Paul Hackett brings to us.”
Because Hackett has the fewest number of players to work with on a daily basis in quarterbacks Brian Griese, Chris Simms, Luke McCown and Jared Allen, he has been very helpful by offering advice and suggestions to the staff to help improve line play, the running game, the passing game and ball security.
“With 18 to 20 years in this league, he’s got a great feel for this game and a great feel for this league,” Valero said. “He knows what people do because he’s seen it before. He knows this offense because he was there at its inception.
“As the coach of the quarterbacks in any system, you have the keys to the car sitting in your room every day. Not only do you have the keys to the car you are driving, you have the future keys to that upgrade you are going to go with. It is a position that has to be on top of O-line play, wide receiver play, running back play and tight end play. It has to be an all-encompassing position. He has his own set of problems at his position and he’s coaching those guys every single play. He has the mind of a quarterback where we don’t.”
FAB 4. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams isn’t the only Auburn product who is making noise at One Buccaneer Place these days. First-year tight end Robert Johnson is emerging as one of the big “sleepers” for Tampa Bay’s upcoming training camp.
With the Buccaneers anticipating running two-tight end sets more often this season, look for the Bucs to keep four tight ends on their 2005 roster. Free agent import Anthony Becht and third-round draft pick Alex Smith are locks to make the 53-man roster. Long snapper Dave Moore, who also moonlights as a tight end in emergency situations, is another player who is virtually assured of a roster spot. That leaves one more roster spot available for Will Heller, Nate Lawrie and Johnson to fight for.
The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Johnson was added to the Bucs’ roster on December 15 last year after Heller was put on injured reserve for a hip injury. Johnson originally signed with Atlanta after going undrafted in 2003, but wound up on a reserve list with Chicago throughout most of the 2003 campaign. He was released after the Bears’ 2004 preseason.
After leaving Auburn after his junior season, in which he started 12 games and caught 30 passes for 365 yards and four TDs, Johnson watched 13 tight ends get drafted in 2003, including Dallas Clark (round 1, Indianapolis), Bennie Joppru (round 2, Houston), L.J. Smith (round 2, Philadelphia), Teyo Johnson (round 2, Oakland), Jason Whitten (round 3, Dallas), Mike Seidman (round 3, Carolina), Visanthe Shiancoe (round 3, New York Giants).
Johnson, who caught 59 passes for 758 yards and 10 touchdowns while starting 19 of 36 games at Auburn, was regarded as a great blocking tight end for Williams and Ronnie Brown at Auburn, but there were some questions about his speed as he timed at 4.90 in the 40-yard dash prior to the 2003 NFL Draft. His slow 40-time, plus the fact that he didn’t stay for his junior season, likely kept him from being drafted.
Bucs tight ends coach Ron Middleton says that the Bucs got a real find when the signed Johnson to Tampa Bay’s practice squad last year.
“The biggest question everybody has is, ‘How did we steal this guy?” Middleton said. “Why was this guy available for our practice squad last year? You can see him move around and he’s got great quicks. He’s big and strong and he catches the ball well. He probably has the best hands of all the tight ends. He’s a phenom. I call him ‘Big Pretty.’ He’s big and pretty athletic. ‘Big Pretty’ – that’s him.
“But he’s the big mystery. I don’t know if it was injuries or attitude (with other teams). I don’t know. I do not make my impressions on what he did somewhere else. Down here, the kid is hungry. He’s got a legitimate chance to make this team. He’s the X factor (at the Bucs’ tight end position). I can’t begin to tell you everything he’s done as far as learning the offense this offseason. He’s come to my office and just sat in there with me for hours and hours. That’s not me telling him to come in. That’s him doing it on his own. He’s doing all the right things. I just hope he stays healthy and has a great camp. He’s what you are hunting for as a tight end.”
Johnson can’t be considered just a mini-camp tease because he spent a couple of weeks in pads last December. But he’ll have to play catch-up to Heller and Lawrie in terms of learning the playbook, and he’ll have to outperform those two on special teams to live up to that “sleeper” label and ultimately win a roster spot.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• Who is the most improved player from last year? According to the Buccaneers coaches, it’s tight end Nate Lawrie. Lawrie, the Bucs’ sixth-round pick in 2004, has totally re-shaped his body and has become a better route-runner. Does it mean that Lawrie will make the team? No. He has to have a great training camp and preseason, but he has caught the eye of the coaching staff with his improvement.
• The Buccaneers are counting on Todd France to battle Matt Bryant this season, which is a scary proposition. We have been told that the team will be scouring the waiver wire for another veteran kicker to bring in when roster cutdowns occur in August and September. A significant increase in field goal percentage is a must for this team to even dream about the playoffs.
• This final note is on a personal nature (because news coming out of One Buc Place is pretty darn slow right now). I’m certainly dating myself, but if you enjoyed the music of Def Leppard while growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, you need to show your support and catch their North American tour this summer. Jim Flynn and I and our wives saw Def Leppard this past week in a packed St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa and they absolutely rocked, squeezing in 19 high-energy songs in just over two hours. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. If you are in your 30’s or 40’s, you have likely played the song “Love Bites” after a bitter high school or college breakup, or broke the speed limit while cruising to the likes of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” or “Let’s Get Rocked.” Bucs fans have also heard Def Leppard’s classic, “Photograph,” at Raymond James Stadium each time a play is reviewed with instant replay. Def Leppard’s opening band, Tesla, also put on a killer show. Don’t miss this concert this summer.
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