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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. The 2006 offseason may be the most important offseason in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Pro Bowl players and Super Bowl champions have come and gone throughout the past few years, but one thing that has virtually remained the same since 2002 has been the Bucs’ superb coaching staff. But that’s about to change.

Although Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen was wise to secretly extend the contract of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin this past summer, Allen is facing the monumental task of trying to extend the contracts of close to a dozen other valuable assistant coaches. Pewter Report was first to report that the contracts of defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris and offensive line coach Bill Muir would expire at the end of the 2005 season, but we have a few more names to divulge.

Pewter Report has confirmed that the contracts of running backs coach Art Valero, wide receivers coach Richard Mann, tight ends coach Ron Middleton, special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, and defensive assistant Joe Woods are up at the end of the 2005 campaign. It is also believed that the contract of offensive quality control coach Kyle Shanahan is also up at the end of the year, but Pewter Report has yet to confirm it.

It is believed that Marinelli and Tomlin will generate a lot of interest for any vacant defensive coordinator positions that may surface. Valero could get some consideration for an offensive coordinator job, too. Re-signing a few of these assistants could prove problematic for Allen, and expensive for the Buccaneers.

The real dire situation could be with the role of Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach, which is currently held by Tomlin. Tomlin drew interest from Denver and Miami last January when his contract expired, but re-signed with the Bucs for one year after all of the defensive coordinator openings had been filled.

If Tomlin were to leave Tampa Bay and find a defensive coordinator position elsewhere, it was widely believed that the 29-year old Morris would be re-signed by Allen as Tomlin’s replacement. With PewterReport.com reporting that Morris will depart at season’s end to become the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Kansas State University, it appears as if Allen’s backup plan for the secondary coach is gone.

While Woods, a long-time Tampa Bay defensive assistant, could be re-signed as the Bucs’ defensive backs coach, he could also depart with either Tomlin or Marinelli should either or both get hired as defensive coordinators. That means Allen’s possible Plan C could be gone, too. That would force the Bucs to have to look outside the organization to find a new defensive backs coach.

As if re-signing close to a dozen assistant coaches was bad enough this offseason, Allen has to deal with NFL free agency, the NFL Draft and then trying to lock up valuable front office members – director of player personnel Ruston Webster and director of pro personnel Mark Dominik – to extensions, too. Webster and Dominik are long-time Bucs employees who have pledged their allegiance to Allen and head coach Jon Gruden after being hired by former Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay. Both are worthy of keeping around after the 2006 draft when their contracts are set to expire.

Given the to-do list for Allen is much longer than usual this offseason, please allow Pewter Report to temporarily change his nickname of “Bruce Almighty” to “Bruce Mighty Busy.”

FAB 2. The Pro Bowl selection process can be a quite maddening one to follow. Each year there are a handful of players who don’t deserve to go, yet earn Pro Bowl berths based on their reputation. And there is also a handful of players who really deserve the trip to Hawaii but are snubbed – usually by the overrated players with the reputations.

While the dastardly snub of Tampa Bay wide receiver Joey Galloway, who is arguably the 9-5 Buccaneers’ most valuable player this season, is a Pro Bowl notable this week, it is not the biggest gaffe surrounding the NFL’s all-star game. The fact that Buccaneers under tackle Anthony McFarland was actually named as a Pro Bowl alternate is a joke.

McFarland is a shoo-in for the most overrated player in Tampa Bay this season – largely due to his salary cap hit of $4.7 million. While McFarland has played the run very well this year and leads the team with six tackles for loss, his ability to rush the passer has been lackluster, and his paltry two sacks is the same amount of QB takedowns recorded by reserve defensive linemen Dewayne White and Ellis Wyms, who serves as McFarland’s backup at under tackle.

It’s never a good thing in the NFL when a backup is performing just as well as the starter and makes a lot less money. In addition to his two sacks and two fumble recoveries, McFarland has racked up 38 tackles, which ranks last among the Bucs’ four starting defensive linemen, and was on Tampa Bay’s books for a $4.7 million cap charge this season prior to restructuring his deal in October. Wyms, who has 16 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this year, is on the Bucs’ books for a 2005 cap value of just $790,000.

There are plenty of other defensive tackles in the NFC who are more worthy than McFarland of replacing Atlanta’s Rod Coleman, Detroit’s Shaun Rodgers or Chicago’s Tommie Harris should one of these players have to bow out of the Pro Bowl due to injury. Carolina’s Jordan Carstens, Chicago’s Ian Scott, and Seattle’s Rocky Bernard, who has 8.5 sacks this season, are far more deserving of a trip to Hawaii.

Another name you could throw in the mix is Tampa Bay nose tackle Chris Hovan, who despite notching zero sacks this season, has been far more disruptive and productive than McFarland has been – and he’s been drawing more double teams, too. Hovan leads the Bucs defensive linemen in tackles with 57.

The oft-injured McFarland is sidelined once again – this time with a hamstring strain. His gimpy hamstring caused McFarland to miss most of the Carolina game and sit out last week’s New England contest. McFarland is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game against Atlanta.

But the Bucs haven’t really missed him. Wyms did a fine job filling in against the Panthers, and notched a sack and a forced fumble while shutting down Carolina’s ground game. Wyms also did a credible job against the Patriots. One can’t argue that McFarland would have made a difference up in New England because he’s had too many games this season in which he’s simply disappeared.

Although Pewter Report has McFarland listed as a potential salary cap casualty next offseason, even though the Bucs would take a $500,000 cap hit and take on approximately $6.6 million worth of dead cap money in 2006, Tampa Bay may keep him around because of his $8.1 million salary cap charge next year. Because McFarland restructured his contract in October to help the team trade for quarterback Tim Rattay, the rules of the NFL CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) prohibit the team from restructuring his deal for one full year. That means McFarland can’t restructure his contract again until October of 2006. Although the reasoning may seem elementary, that lack of contract flexibility either means he’ll be a lock to get cut or a lock to be kept. At this point, only general manager Bruce Allen knows for sure.

And forget the reasoning of cutting McFarland and re-signing Hovan, who played the three-technique at Boston College and with the Minnesota Vikings, as Tampa Bay’s under tackle. Hovan has had a great deal of success at the nose tackle position, so why change a good thing? Hovan will be re-signed as a nose tackle – end of story. He has the strength and necessary quickness for the nose tackle rather than the under tackle spot. Remember that Hovan has yet to record a sack in 2005, and the under tackle spot is typically a position that showcases a good, quick pass rusher.

FAB 3. Despite winning three of its last five games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense is starting to become quite offensive. Here are some disturbing numbers for you that illustrate that Tampa Bay’s offense is actually regressing under the helm of young Chris Simms rather than improving.

Over the last five games, Tampa Bay has yet to generate 300 yards of total offense. Since its 340-yard outburst against Washington six weeks ago, the Bucs have racked up 258 yards at Atlanta, 275 yards versus Chicago, 248 yards against New Orleans, 247 yards at Carolina and a puny 138 yards at New England. Tampa Bay’s five-game average is just 232.2 yards per game, and has been on a downward trend over the past three contests. Ouch.

If reviewing the total yardage generated by the Bucs offense wasn’t frightening enough, the point production from the offense has been downright scary over the past five games. Taking away the defensive touchdown scored at Atlanta brings Tampa Bay’s offensive point total to 23 points against the Falcons. The Bucs managed just 10 points per game in contests against the Bears and the Saints, while scoring 20 points against the Panthers before putting up a goose egg against the Patriots. Tampa Bay’s five-game average is just 12.6 points per game.

Two things I have found disturbing over the last three games in particular has been the lack of original play-calling and the fact that the offensive playbook doesn’t appear to be opening much. Think about it. Have you seen an original, signature play over the last three games? There was a screen pass to Michael Pittman against New Orleans that picked up a first down, but other than that, the play-calling seems to have lacked some imagination. I think Tampa Bay is being too predictable, and thus easier to defend, which could explain the reduction in total yards and points recently.

While I fully understood the need for head coach and playcaller Jon Gruden to shrink the playbook when Simms took over for the injured Brian Griese during the sixth game of the season, shouldn’t the playbook be opening up and growing a bit right now? Although Simms has only started eight games thus far in 2005, shouldn’t he be at a point where Gruden can attempt to open things up a little bit on occasion? After last week’s 28-0 loss in which Simms was sacked seven times, I suppose the obvious answer is no.

But ask yourself this question. How far will the Buccaneers go in the playoffs if they played as close to the vest as they did at New Orleans and at New England? I understand the need for maximum protection schemes and for sticking with what has worked to win games, but Gruden has to open up the playbook a little more occasionally to beat the likes of Atlanta, New Orleans and future playoff opponents.

Don’t think that Gruden doesn’t trust Simms. Simms is earning Gruden’s trust. It’s the offensive tackle tandem of Kenyatta Walker and Anthony Davis whom Gruden apparently doesn’t trust. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be the need to keep tight ends in and use running backs to chip defensive ends and blitzing outside linebackers and safeties.

It will be interesting to see how conservative Gruden is in his playcalling at home against the Falcons, a team the Bucs have beaten twice in a row dating back to last year. Even in this year’s 30-27 win at Atlanta, the Bucs weren’t aggressive enough with their play-calling when they had momentum. Tampa Bay dominated the first quarter at Atlanta, yet only led 10-0 and that was due to Anthony McFarland’s fumble recovery in the end zone. Despite its early domination, the Bucs only led 13-10 at halftime.

How the Bucs offense does against Atlanta could be a precursor of things to come in the season finale versus New Orleans and in the playoffs, should Tampa Bay qualify.

FAB 4. In the Pewter Report 2005 training camp issue, we forecasted that Paul Hackett would have a big impact on the Tampa Bay coaching staff this year – and in more ways than just as a quarterbacks coach. After having two lackluster quarterbacks coaches in Stan Parrish and John Shoop over the last three years, head coach Jon Gruden was wise to snatch up Hackett, his old friend and West Coast offense guru, just moments after he was forced out of his role as offensive coordinator with the New York Jets.

While Hackett has played an instrumental role in readying Chris Simms for his impromptu role as starting quarterback following the season-ending knee injury to Brian Griese, he has also made a profound impact with virtually every player on offense who touches the football. As Pewter Report has previously stated, Hackett has had success reducing the amount of turnovers wherever he goes over the last decade – whether it be as head coach at the University of Southern California or as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City or New York. Call it the Hackett Factor.

The numbers indicate that Hackett’s constant message of ball security has permeated the minds of the Buccaneers players in his first season in Tampa Bay. In last year’s turnover-filled, 5-11 season, the Bucs fumbled the ball 32 times, losing 18 fumbles, and threw 18 interceptions as a team. That’s a total of 36 turnovers.

With two games left in the 2005 campaign, Tampa Bay has only fumbled 13 times, losing eight of those fumbles. Between Griese and Simms, Bucs quarterbacks have only thrown 13 interceptions this season. In fact, Simms hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 117 pass attempts, dating back to the first Atlanta game. The combined number of turnovers this year totals only 21.

Unless the last two Tampa Bay games get out of hand, the Bucs’ turnovers will have been greatly reduced this year. Currently, there is a 15-turnover differential from 2004 to ’05. That’s quite a turnaround, and Hackett deserves some credit due to his constant emphasis on it during practices dating back to the OTA (organized team activity) period last spring. In fact, if the Bucs are turnover-free in their last two games of the year, Tampa Bay will tie its mark of 21 turnovers during the 2002 regular season, which is the lowest turnover mark during Gruden’s tenure with the team.

FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:

• In case you missed my PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz radio show this past Wednesday, I’ll gave you an instant replay on one of the more interesting points I made on the show. While there has been some talk on various Internet message boards, including PewterReport.com, and on talk radio about quickly re-signing quarterback Chris Simms to a long-term contract, I suggest the Bucs don’t pursue that option and tender Simms, who will be a restricted free agent in 2006, a one-year contract that would come with first-round draft pick compensation to keep other teams from trying to pilfer him away. Before you think I don’t like Simms or am an anti-Simms kind of guy, let me state that is simply not true. I’ve got a great relationship with him, and I am actually hoping that he can be Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback for years to come. However, I’ve seen some dazzling performances from Trent Dilfer and Shaun King throughout my 10 years of covering the Buccaneers that make you believe that either one of those guys could have been the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay has desperately searching for. Bucs fans have been dying for a franchise quarterback along the likes of Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. And because of that desperation, they are quick to latch on to anyone who appears to show the signs of becoming that franchise stud. That appears to be what is going on with Simms. Think about it. Has Simms really proven himself worthy of a big, multi-year contract? He’s 4-4 as a starter, has completed just 61 percent of his passes, has a QB rating of only 79.8 and has thrown only one more touchdown (six) than he has thrown interceptions (five). He’s shown promise, which would be enough to get him a big, fat contract under former general manager Rich McKay (see Marcus Jones, Martin Gramatica, Chidi Ahanotu, etc.), but that’s not enough under new G.M. Bruce Allen – and it shouldn’t be. By inking Simms to a one-year deal, it will prompt him to deliver better stats and more wins over a full, 16-game schedule. By the spring of 2007, Allen and all of us will have a better understanding of what Simms can do and what type of quarterback he’ll become. Patience must prevail when it comes to Simms’ contract status next year.

• One practice squad player who has been receiving some tremendous buzz among the Bucs players and coaches is cornerback James Patrick. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Patrick was signed as an undrafted free agent on May 2 after recording an astonishing 27 career interceptions at tiny Stillman College. Patrick tied an NCAA single-game record with five picks against Edward Waters College as a sophomore in 2002. While Patrick was beaten deep a couple of times in the preseason games, he showed enough promise for Tampa Bay to keep around this year. With Torrie Cox failing to show much improvement this season and not being able to unseat Juran Bolden for the nickel cornerback position, Patrick has a real shot at being on the active roster next year and competing with Blue Adams – if he can be re-signed in the offseason. With defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin likely set to leave Tampa Bay if he can find a defensive coordinator position in 2006, Tomlin may just try to take Patrick with him.

• Give the Tampa Bay players and coaches a lot of credit for greatly reducing the amount of penalties in the second half of the season. After averaging 9.7 penalties for 76.8 yards per game through the first eight contests of the 2005 season, the Bucs are averaging only 5.8 infractions for 42.6 yards over the last six games. Tampa Bay had racked up an astonishing 78 penalties for 615 yards during the first half of the season. Those numbers have fallen to just 35 penalties for 256 yards over the last six games. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Bucs have still accumulated 113 penalties for 871 yards during the 2005 campaign. The team record for penalties in a season is 117, which was set in 2003 and matched last year. If the Bucs get flagged five times over the last two games, they’ll establish a dubious new franchise single-season record. If the Bucs play up to their season averages over the final two games, Tampa Bay will finish with 129 penalties for 995 yards. But based on the more recent averages, the Bucs will likely finish closer to 124 penalties for 956 yards.

• The early indication Pewter Report is hearing is that the Buccaneers won’t offer right tackle Kenyatta Walker a contract extension prior to free agency. Walker will be a free agent at the end of 2005 and will be allowed to test the free agent waters. The Bucs will also look long and hard at other right tackle options in free agency before thinking of brining back Walker. Don’t take this as the gospel just yet, though. This is just a rumor at this stage.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com 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: sr@pewterreport.com
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