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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. So why didn’t second-year signal caller Chris Simms start the meaningless game against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, and why isn’t he at least the clear cut starter this Sunday in Arizona, especially due to the fact that starter Brian Griese is so banged up? You have questions, and has the answers.

The answer is two-fold. First, head coach Jon Gruden doesn’t believe in “charity starts” as he put it to the media the other day. The ultra-competitive Gruden wants to win every game he can, which is all you can ask of any coach, and he doesn’t believe that Griese deserves to be benched in favor of Simms.

But the second reason why Simms has not been thrust into the starting lineup for some much-needed game experience is of a political nature stemming from the front office. The Buccaneers have a valid interest in keeping Griese around in 2005, but his salary cap value of $8 million may likely prevent that unless he restructures and takes a pay cut.

Tampa Bay wants Griese in the best frame of mind to restructure his contract. They want him thinking that he is the clear-cut starter heading into 2005, but will that happen if Simms were to start the last two games? What kind of message would that send to Griese? What if Simms went 2-0 as a starter against Carolina and Arizona? A quarterback controversy would erupt and Griese would not be a lock to start in 2005. Would he be in the best mind frame to renegotiate his deal to help the Bucs then?

And what if Simms were to stink up the joint? What if Tampa Bay went 0-2 under the lefty and Simms didn’t progress as much as expected? Griese’s leverage over the team in contract negotiations would be immense.

The Bucs feel that Griese can take his game to the next level in 2005 when he gets the first-team reps with the offense in OTA (offseason team activities) days, mini-camps and training camp next season. Griese supports that notion, too.

The Buccaneers want to take as long of a look as possible with Griese before committing to him for several more years. That’s why they want every snap to go to Griese down the stretch to see if can produce more wins and touchdowns instead of interceptions and losses.

After a sizzling start to the Griese era in Tampa Bay with a 4-2 record from games 4-8 while throwing 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions, Griese has cooled off considerably, leading the Bucs to 1-4 mark over the next five games while tossing 10 TDs, but also throwing eight INTs – two which were returned for touchdowns. This last game at Arizona may help determine if the real Griese is closer to the midseason one, or the one who has made mistakes that have contributed to Tampa Bay’s second-straight absence from the playoffs.

If Griese, who is due a $6 million roster bonus on top of a $2 million base salary, is willing to work with general manager Bruce Allen and help the team out from a salary cap standpoint, the Bucs will bring him back in 2005. If not, they are prepared to start Simms, and if that happens, Jon Gruden and Co. will have wished that they had given Simms more playing time during the regular season.

The Griese-Simms situation heading into the season finale` is a double-edged sword, as I have outlined. From what I’m hearing, there is a 50-50 chance that Griese returns next year. It will be interesting to see which player starts in Arizona.

FAB 2. If some in the local media and some fans want to place head coach Jon Gruden on the hot seat in 2005, they need to save some room for offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir, too. While Gruden develops the passing game gamplan, it is up to Muir to install all of the blocking schemes for the running game and the pass protection sets. Gruden defers almost everything regarding the offensive line – from the starting lineup to who is going to be active and dress on Sundays – to Muir, and he’s not the only one.

Because of the team’s past failures in drafting offensive linemen, director of college scouting Ruston Webster and the college scouts have heavily involved Muir in the scouting process, and he has been behind the drafting of Lance Nimmo, Austin King, Sean Mahan and Jeb Terry.

The same goes for director of pro personnel Mark Dominik and personnel executives Mike Martin and Doug Williams on the pro side of things when it comes to free agency. Muir has signed off on the free agent additions of Roman Oben, Kerry Jenkins, John Wade, Jason Whittle, Matt Stinchcomb, Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie. A few of those players have panned out, but most have been average or sub-par linemen in Tampa Bay.

General manager Bruce Allen’s philosophy is to get the coaches involved as possible in the personnel moves made through the draft and through free agency, so Muir’s fingerprints are all over players like Steussie and Stinchcomb, which isn’t good. In Muir’s defense, he has not had a Pro Bowl free agent such as Seattle’s Walter Jones to work with, nor have the Bucs spent a number one draft pick on an offensive lineman since he has been in Tampa Bay. Muir’s legacy may be tied to the development of young players such as Mahan, tackle Anthony Davis and guard Jeb Terry.

While Muir’s job does not appear to be in jeopardy heading into next year, it may be entering 2006 unless Tampa Bay’s offensive line shows a lot of improvement. Make no mistake. Muir is a good coach, who has drawn public praise from both Gruden and his former head coach, Bill Parcells, but he needs to find some success soon and prove it.

FAB 3. For the fourth-straight offseason, the Buccaneers will be re-tooling their offensive line. If Jon Gruden wants to know why he has yet to establish a powerful, consistent running game in Tampa Bay, he can look no further than his offensive line, which has been void of superstars and Pro Bowl candidates.

Unlike last year where the Bucs turned to free agency to sign four new starters in the offseason – tackles Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie and guards Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O’Dwyer – Tampa Bay expects to look in-house for some solutions in 2005. That starts with younger players like Anthony Davis and Jeb Terry emerging as starters next season.

Davis could start at left tackle, or at right tackle if the team cuts Kenyatta Walker for salary cap reasons. Davis has also been seeing some action at guard in practice, too, and that versatility has impressed the coaches.

If Davis starts at left tackle, a position he played in college, expect Deese to move inside to guard. Even though he is a bit undersized at 290 pounds, Deese is agile and has a mean streak to make up for the lack of power he generates.

The Bucs hope Terry, a promising rookie this season, can crack the starting lineup in 2005 either at right guard or right tackle.

“I’ve been working primarily at right guard,” said Terry. “I’ll also play some tackle. I played some right tackle in preseason and recently I’ve been playing some right tackle on scout team. I feel like I’m more comfortable at guard because that’s where I play most, but I’ll play wherever they want me to play. At times I feel more comfortable at right tackle. Physically, I feel like I’m built more as a tackle, but from an experience standpoint I am most comfortable at guard.”

The key for Terry will be to develop his pass protection skills in the offseason. That’s why he didn’t dress for the Carolina contest because the game plan against the Panthers was to pass, pass, and pass some more.

Tampa Bay also hopes to re-sign O’Dwyer this offseason and get him in the lineup. Although he was healthy down the stretch, Tampa Bay didn’t want to disrupt any chemistry along the line by inserting O’Dwyer. The team also wanted to give Stinchcomb and Cosey Coleman every opportunity to play to properly evaluate them.

The 32-year old O’Dwyer, who came to Tampa Bay with a bum ankle, is now completely healthy heading into the offseason. The Bucs were wise to not play him over the last few games, especially since he is coming off a pectoral tear that shelved him for most of the season. The team hopes his attitude and physical, mauling presence can help power the interior running game for the Buccaneers the way he did for Corey Dillon and the Cincinnati Bengals over the past few years.

Due to a lack of quickness, Steussie may be tried at guard next year as the team tries to find something for him to do since he no longer has the quickness to play tackle. Cutting him just one year after he received a $4 million signing bonus would cost the team $1.3 million salary cap hit and they would be without the player. That’s not exactly something this cap-strapped team can afford to do right now.

Stinchcomb, who is not a lock to stay on the roster, Coleman, who will not likely be re-signed in the offseason, and Walker, who may not stick around either around despite his improvement, all lack the ferocity and aggressiveness needed to propel a strong, interior running game this year. The most physical linemen on the Buccaneers are O’Dwyer, Deese, Davis and Terry. And whether it is Mahan or John Wade, who is coming off a knee injury, at center, the offensive line should be tougher next year. But will it be better? That’s the big question.

FAB 4. Despite the need to draft a premier offensive lineman with its first-round pick, expect Tampa Bay to draft a skill position on offense instead. Why? There is currently only one premier offensive line prospect worthy of a top 10 pick, and that’s Florida State left tackle Alex Barron. If Virginia junior left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson decides to leave school early, he may be a top 10 pick as well, but that has yet to be determined.

As much as the Bucs need offensive line help, they need help at the skill positions even more. Tampa Bay has just two wide receivers under contract in 2005, Michael Clayton and Joe Jurevicius, and Jurevicius will have to greatly reduce his $2.9 million cap value this offseason to remain a Buccaneer. Tim Brown, Joey Galloway and Charles Lee are all free agents and Galloway might be the only one that Tampa Bay expresses interest in re-signing this offseason.

USC’s Mike Williams, Michigan’s Braylon Edwards and Oklahoma’s Mark Clayton are all first round-caliber receivers. Oakland’s Jerry Porter has rumored to have some interest in becoming a Buccaneer, but the Bucs likely can’t afford to keep Galloway and sign Porter.

Tampa Bay’s tight end situation is even more precarious. Ken Dilger, Rickey Dudley and Dave Moore are all 33 years of age or older, and none is under contract next season. That leaves just Will Heller and Nate Lawrie as the only options at tight end under contract in 2005.

If Virginia’s Heath Miller enters the NFL Draft after his junior season, he could be a target for Tampa Bay in the first round. The Bucs will also hit free agency looking for tight ends and may target Green Bay’s Bubba Franks.

The Bucs aren’t sure if Michael Pittman or Charlie Garner could handle the load by themselves, as was the case this year when Pittman was suspended for the first three games and Garner missed the last 12 contests after tearing his patella tendon. Even though both players will be back in 2005, the team was without a capable backup halfback when Pittman was suspended and Garner was hurt. Ian Smart remains an option to keep around in 2005, but will need an impressive training camp and preseason to make the team.

It is unlikely that the Bucs will be able to afford Indianapolis’ Edgerrin James or Seattle’s Shaun Alexander. Instead, they could draft a halfback in the first round, such as Auburn’s Ronnie Brown or Cadillac Williams, or even Texas’ Cedric Benson.

FAB 5 Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:

• Although other Tampa Bay defensive linemen, such as Steve White, Marcus Jones and Warren Sapp, have left the Bucs in recent years via free agency and not had the same type of success they had in Tampa Bay, free agent-to-be Greg Spires said he’s just looking for another opportunity to play. “I can’t really think about those guys. I mean, this is my third team,” said Spires. “All I wanted was the opportunity and when I got here I received that. And if I’m playing somewhere else next year, all I want is the opportunity. If I can go somewhere and get the opportunity, that’s all I can ask for.”

• At the beginning of the season, there was some crying in the local media and in the Buccaneers fan base over losing running back Thomas Jones to Chicago in free agency. So how has Jones fared this season, compared to Tampa Bay’s lead back, Michael Pittman? Jones has been injured a bit and has played in 13 out of 15 games in 2004, rushing for 840 yards on 214 carries (3.9 avg.) with two runs over 20 yards and five rushing scores. Pittman, who has played in 12 games this season, has rushed for 876 yards on 203 carries (4.3 avg.) with two runs over 20 yards and seven touchdowns. In the passing game, Jones has 53 catches for 423 yards (8.0 avg.) with four receptions over 20 yards and no scores. Pittman has 38 catches for 361 yards (9.5 avg.) with five grabs over 20 yards with three touchdowns. Give Pittman the edge due to the fact he has five more touchdowns and better averages and virtually the same amount of yardage despite Jones playing in one more game.

• Pewter Report asked Bucs head coach Jon Gruden if anyone on Tampa Bay’s current practice squad stood out in his mind. “We’ve activated Nate Lawrie. We’ve activated Ian Smart. We’ve activated some defensive linemen. Our practice squad has basically supplied us with a lot of players this year. In some ways, that’s unfortunate. The guys that are here, some of them haven’t been here real long. We’ve made multiple moves here. We’ve got a couple of receivers who have some promise, some athleticism and some size (Derrick McCoy and Kevin Youngblood), but not enough to really gleam right now. DeAndrew Rubin has some speed. I would like to see him get a little bigger. He knows that. I’d like for him to be a return man. He’s got to really work at that trade to stick, I think. Special teams has to be a real edge for him.”

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at:
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