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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. After all of the booing from the fans from the false starts, holding penalties and personal fouls, after all the wars with the local media, and after all the back-and-forth screaming and profanities between he and offensive line coach Bill Muir and head coach Jon Gruden over the last few years, Buccaneers right tackle Kenyatta Walker has a chance to get out of Tampa Bay and get a fresh start with a new team in 2006.
Because he reached certain playing time incentives over the last couple of seasons, the final year in Walker’s contract voids after 2005, making him an unrestricted free agent next spring. Is Walker devising his getaway plan?
Far from it. Despite his trials and tribulations over the past five seasons, Walker wants to return to Tampa Bay in 2006.
“I want to be a Buc,” Walker told PewterReport.com. “I do, but it’s something I have to earn. I’ve earned it – I mean I think I earned it last year and I’m still earning it this year — but I want to be a Buc. I’ve told them that. Let’s see what happens. I want to be here. There’s nothing more important for me than to be here 10-12 years and being one of those guys. To be here five years and want to be here another five and keep fighting like I am, it’s a great feeling. We’ll see.”
Walker, who came to Tampa Bay in the 2001 draft as an immature underclassman with a big ego, struggled to live up to his draft billing during his first three years in the NFL. Former Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay, who was desperate to draft a premier left tackle to replace Paul Gruber, traded the Bucs’ first- and second-round picks to Buffalo for the right to select Walker with the 14th pick in the draft.
Walker became Tampa Bay’s starting left tackle as a rookie, but struggled mightily with the position switch as he played right tackle at the University of Florida. When Muir and Gruden came aboard in 2002, they wisely shifted him back to the right side of the line where he was more comfortable, and although he still had maturity problems, Walker and his underrated linemates saved their best football of the season for a playoff run that resulted in the team’s first-ever Super Bowl championship.
Walker’s relationship with Gruden and Muir was rocky from the beginning in 2002, and he was benched over attitude and work ethic issues in the first three games in favor of backup Cornell Green before re-gaining his job. But after improving as a player in 2003, and finally cutting down on penalties in 2004, a more mature and team-oriented Walker is playing his best football in 2005.
“I talked to Bill and I think with me, Bill and Gruden it’s a respect thing now,” Walker said. “They respect me and we talk – we talk as men now. I think they used to look at me and shake their heads and I used to be like, ‘(expletive) you.’ Now I respect them and talk to them. We’re working as a team right now. I need them and they need me. Let’s work together. It’s a good feeling right now. Bill is my coach and they’re here to help me, and (assistant offensive line coach Aaron) Kromer and the whole offensive staff are here to help me.”
While he has yet to show the signs of being one of the NFL’s elite offensive tackles, Walker has used better technique to cut down on the hands to the face penalties that plagued him earlier in his career. Through 11 games this season, Walker has only had two tough outings – against Carolina and Chicago – but has played remarkably well otherwise.
Although Walker had three false start penalties in the same drive, as well as surrendering a sack to Julius Peppers, in Tampa Bay’s 34-14 loss to Carolina, he rebounded the next week and threw two critical blocks to help the Bucs edge the visiting Washington Redskins, 36-35. On Chris Simms’ 30-yard touchdown pass to Edell Shepherd, Walker picked up a delayed blitz from Redskins linebacker Lemar Marshall. On the ensuing two-point conversion play, Mike Alstott ran right behind Walker to give the Bucs the lead.
“Fourteen Blast – that was the play they were telling me they were going to run behind me all week,” Walker said of the two-point conversion play. “They made the call and we had to do it. It was a great feeling to turn back and see him crossing that goal line. It was a great feeling. Gruden said I kind of owed him one (for the Carolina game). That made us even now.”
“It hurt to have a performance like that (against Carolina) and that was a long week. I’ve grown in this organization, and I think things might work out here. If it doesn’t, I’ve grown. I came here too young and I’ve grown and learned how to accept criticism. I’ve learned that it is football, man. I play on national television every week and if I’m going to be criticized how I walk and what I do – fine. It’s a growing thing for me. I accept that this is my offensive line.”
Gruden acknowledges Walker’s maturity this year and has said that he has noticed a leadership element in 2005 that wasn’t there in previous seasons.
“I really tip my hat to him and this offensive line,” Gruden said. “They’ve taken their fair share of criticism. It’s been as much fun being around these guys as I’ve had. They’ve played their asses off. Kenyatta had a real poor outing against North Carolina and he admitted that and he took responsibility for it and he has played real well ever since. He’s a pro football player now, I think. He prepares hard. He practices hard. He’s playing with a sore knee half the time and he’s working through it. In some ways, he’s become a leader here. Good for Kenyatta.”
Walker’s teammates, such as center John Wade, have seen his play evolve, too.
“I think Kenyatta has been playing well over the last two years,” Wade said. “I know things have happened in the past with him, but he’s been playing well. He’s always had the physical part, but I think he’s really done an outstanding job mentally over the last two years and it shows when you watch the film. I don’t know what caused this to happen, but I like it. The guy plays hard. Even when things weren’t going great for him, it wasn’t like he wasn’t fighting. I never lost confidence in Kenyatta.”
Wade noted that a couple of Walker’s biggest plays this year came in an unconventional fashion for offensive linemen.
“He’s easily won two games for us single-handedly by chasing down interceptions,” Wade said, referring to his touchdown-saving tackles against Green Bay and Detroit in consecutive weeks. “His effort has been outstanding all year.”
Walker’s heroics were present once again in the strangest of ways last week in Tampa Bay’s 10-3 win versus New Orleans. In the second half with the Bucs leading 7-3, one of Simms’ passes was tipped at the line of scrimmage from a blitzing Saints defender. New Orleans defensive end Darren Howard intercepted the deflected ball and raced untouched into the end zone for an apparent touchdown. Luckily for Tampa Bay, Walker had moved just prior to the start of the play and his false start penalty resulted in negating the play.
Walker’s play against Peppers, his personal nemesis, will go a long way to determining his worth not only to the Buccaneers in 2006, but also his value on the free agent market.
Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen, who does not comment on the status of player contracts, will have to determine if Walker’s recently improved play is the result of him being in a contract year or whether it is the sign of things to come from a more mature player. One interesting twist is that Walker’s role has changed a bit now that Simms has become the team’s starter due to Brian Griese’s season-ending knee injury. With a left-handed quarterback at the helm, Walker is now responsible for protecting Simms’ blind side from his right tackle position.
“It is more responsibility, but if I’m the best lineman on the team, that’s the way it should be. I accept that role,” Walker said.
He’ll also likely accept a fair offer to stay in Tampa Bay if it comes next March. But don’t be surprised if he never receives that fair offer from the Buccaneers, who will likely move on without him in 2006.
FAB 2. On the surface, the 2005 NFL Draft looks like it will go down in history as a very good draft for running backs, especially if Tampa Bay’s Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Miami’s Ronnie Brown continue to play well throughout their careers and Chicago’s Cedric Benson and Arizona’s J.J. Arrington pick up the pace.
But over time, the 2005 draft may be even better known as a great middle linebacker draft. There are currently four rookie middle linebackers who are making an impact in the NFL this year, and that’s not even including the first Mike ‘backer taken last April – Tampa Bay’s Barrett Ruud.
Ruud, who was drafted with the 36th overall pick, had a dynamic preseason for the Bucs, and according to the coaching staff, could be a future star in the making. Ruud has seen spot duty on defense – registering just five tackles – while he has been a mainstay on special teams and has racked up 14 stops and a fumble recovery on punt coverage.
Although he has been stuck behind Shelton Quarles, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season this year, some of Ruud’s draft-mates are making a splash during their rookie campaigns. Faithful readers of SR’s Fab Five will remember how much I bragged about USC middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu’s instincts. The Bucs absolutely loved Tatupu heading into his pro day workout, but when he turned in a 4.8 in the 40-yard dash, that sent up a red flag in Tampa Bay. The Bucs just about demand that their linebackers run in the 4.6’s or below because their defense is predicated on speed.
When Ruud ran a 4.6 for Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry, who attended his pro day workout at Nebraska, he passed Tatupu and shot to the top of the list along with Georgia’s Odell Thurman, who was actually rated a bit higher at first during the evaluation process due to his hard-hitting style and his athleticism. But questions about Thurman’s character (he had been suspended a couple of times at Georgia) sent up some red flags that allowed Ruud to become the Bucs’ top-rated middle linebacker and carry a first-round grade heading into the 2005 draft.
If the myth that Bucs general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden only wanted thugs and “Raider-type” players was true, Thurman would have been the pick in the second round instead of Ruud, who is as solid a character as they come. To Thurman’s credit, he has stayed straight in Cincinnati where he was selected 12 spots after Ruud with pick number 48. Seattle drafted Tatupu nine spots after Ruud at number 45.
Given the hot starts that Tatupu and Thurman have gotten off to, Ruud will have some catching up to do once he cracks the starting lineup to prove to the Bucs that he was worth the team passing up the other two linebackers. Through 12 games this year, Thurman, who has started every game at middle linebacker, has racked up 112 tackles (67 solo), one sack, four forced fumbles, eight pass breakups and five interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. Tatupu, who has also started all 12 games at Mike linebacker, has 90 tackles (73 solo), 3.5 sacks, six pass breakups and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
The fourth middle linebacker to be drafted in 2005, Miami’s Channing Crowder, has seen most of his playing time at outside linebacker during his rookie campaign, but is expected to start for the injured Zach Thomas at the Mike spot this Sunday. Crowder is the Dolphins’ second-leading tackler with 65 stops and two fumble recoveries.
The fifth middle ‘backer to be selected this past April, Oakland’s Kirk Morrison, is also starting his NFL career playing on the outside, but is leading the Raiders in tackles with 93 takedowns and two fumble recoveries.
Arizona’s Lance Mitchell, who was a fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma, also has starter potential and is currently biding his time – just like Ruud is.
If Mitchell and Ruud eventually have the same amount of success as Tatupu, Thurman, Crowder and Morrison are experiencing as rookies, the 2005 draft could indeed go down as one of the best drafts of all-time for middle linebackers. If Ruud doesn’t live up to his pre-draft billing and preseason hype, the Buccaneers will kick themselves for passing over the likes of Tatupu and Thurman.
FAB 3. So how is Bucs rookie middle linebacker Barrett Ruud faring this season behind the scenes? Ruud, Tampa Bay’s second-round draft pick in April, has only seen spot duty on defense against Miami and New Orleans while filling in for Shelton Quarles, who got dinged up. After a promising preseason in which he led the Buccaneers in tackles with 14, Ruud has been relegated to special teams duty during his rookie campaign while Quarles has turned in a Pro Bowl-caliber season and leads Tampa Bay in tackles with 143.
Ruud, who left Nebraska as the school’s all-time leading tackler, has tackled the challenge of covering kicks and punts quite well, notching 14 special teams stops, which is the third-highest total this year for the Buccaneers. However, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden expects a little more out of Ruud, whom he became quite fond of at the Senior Bowl in January.
“We’d like him to be more dominant on special teams, but he did play better last week,” Gruden said. “He’s been a fill-in guy for Quarles on defense, and he hasn’t played a lot, but he’s on the details, he’s learning our defense and he’s got the command that we’re looking for. I think at some point he’s going to be a good player.”
Ruud said special teams have been a demanding at the NFL than he anticipated.
“I knew going into the NFL from the preseason how much tougher it was on special teams,” Ruud said. “I think that is the biggest difference between college and pro ¬- the level of play on special teams. In college, you could coast through it a little bit if you had to, but here, even if you are going as hard as you can and you don’t do some technique right you can get absolutely manhandled.”
After being a four-year starter for the Cornhuskers, Ruud admits it has been difficult standing on the sidelines during his first season in the NFL, especially after playing so much in the preseason.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Ruud said. “You always want to be the guy that is out there making plays, but all you can do is prepare to be the starter and wait your turn. The worst thing you can do is not be prepared and then go in and screw it up. I was pretty comfortable out there in the preseason. One thing that’s good is that our linebackers coach basically lets us play. Obviously you have to know what your responsibilities are, but he said the most important thing for linebackers is to go find the ball. I did make some mental mistakes out there. I didn’t have any busts, but I did have some alignment errors in the preseason. But overall, once the ball is snapped, it’s just ‘go get the ball.’ The one thing I really like about our defense is that it is very linebacker friendly.”
While the Buccaneers were also high on USC middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and Georgia’s Odell Thurman, who were both selected in the second round after the Nebraska star, Ruud won the Bucs over with a great pro day workout that confirmed the athleticism that Tampa Bay’s scouts and coaches saw on tape. The Bucs actually had a first-round grade on Ruud, who suspects a little prejudice may have played a role in him not being drafted or rated higher than he was.
“It’s funny because I read Sporting News once and they had a scouting report on each player and every white guy ‘diagnoses well’ or something like that, while every black guy ‘uses athletic ability to make plays,'” said Ruud, who is white. “If you look at two guys in here – Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles – they make plays because they are so smart and they are ahead of everybody. Derrick is a pretty good athlete. I don’t think he’s probably as good as he used to be, but he’s two steps ahead of everybody before anybody else moves because he sees things so fast. Stuff like that makes me laugh because it is typical stereotypes.”
Ruud isn’t a “slow white guy” – evidenced by his 4.6 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day workout at Nebraska.
“I have ran a 4.5 before, but I didn’t run it at the Combine,” Ruud said. “I like to consider myself a 4.5 guy. I ran it once, so that’s all that matters (laughs). But I think quickness is the most important attribute for a linebacker than straight-ahead speed. If you could run backwards for a long ways that’s even better. As a linebacker, you’re never running 40 yards forward at any time.”
Because Tampa Bay plays a fair amount of Cover 2 defense which calls for its middle linebacker to drop in coverage down the deep middle of the field while the two safeties occupy the deep halves of the field, it was important to find a Mike ‘backer who had the speed and skills to cover downfield. During Ruud’s first three years at Nebraska, he was routinely asked to cover the deep middle in the Cornhuskers’ Cover 2 schemes.
“Cover 2 doesn’t work unless you have a Mike linebacker who can take away that deep middle of the field,” Ruud said. “The safeties are trained to not worry about that part of the field. You have to be able to play the run well one play and drop (in pass coverage) the next.”
Ruud showcased his coverage ability in the preseason finale against Houston when he and safety Kalvin Pearson broke up a pass intended for Texans’ star wide receiver Andre Johnson about 30 yards downfield.
“I peeked out there before I dropped in coverage to see who was out there,” Ruud said. “I made sure I was going to get back there and get deeper than he was. You don’t want to get in a foot race with that guy, so I had to take the right angle. I may be a little slow on my reaction at times, but I make up for it because I am a decent athlete.
“There are sterotypes. It’s kind of funny and you laugh it at, but you kind of want to break it, too. You really don’t want to be known as the slow white guy.”
While some of Ruud’s draft-mates like running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, tight end Alex Smith and left guard Dan Buenning have enjoyed a lot of success during their rookie years, Ruud has had to wait his turn to play. Gruden said that the work he has put in during practice will eventually pay off.
“We think he’s done alright,” Gruden said. “It’s hard to say until you put a guy out there and he plays. Like Chris Simms, I’ve said for a couple of years he’s been doing okay, but you’ve really got to put them out in the game to find out. He’s got a chance to be great.”
FAB 4. This past week, I had the chance to ask Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden about his last experience playing the Patriots up in New England in the cold of winter. When he immediately flashed a “Chucky” face my way, I almost wished I hadn’t. The reason? That game was Gruden’s worst defeat in the NFL thanks to the controversial “tuck rule.”
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady initially fumbled when sacked from behind by blitzing Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson late in the fourth quarter of a game dubbed the “Snow Bowl” due to his heavy snowfall during the playoff contest. Oakland recovered and seemed on its way to winning the AFC divisional playoff contest until instant replay reviewed the play and overturned the call based on the quirky and confusing “tuck rule.” After further review, it was said that Brady did not have the ball completely “tucked” into his body and that the result of the play was actually an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. New England went on to continue their drive, which tied the game and forced overtime. An Adam Vinatieri field goal won the game for the Patriots in the extra quarter and New England would wind up winning its first Super Bowl.
“I really don’t want to get into it,” Gruden groused. “I’m still trying to forget that whole experience. It was the last game in their stadium, it was a playoff game, it was snowing like hell and we lost the game on a very controversial play. It was my last game (in Oakland) and I said goodbye to a lot of friends. It was Steve Wisniewski’s last game, and Eric Allen’s last game. It had a very controversial ending. I’ll try not to even compare this trip with the last one.”
That’s right. Gruden gets to return to the scene of the crime on December 17 when his Buccaneers, who ironically are the only other team to win the Super Bowl in the last four years, face the Patriots. The outcome of that game was probably more bitter for Bucs general manager Bruce Allen, who was the Raiders’ senior assistant, than it was for Gruden. Gruden was traded to the Buccaneers a month later in February and went on to beat Allen and the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII during the 2002 season.
“I’m fortunate to be here and I’m excited about where we’re heading and I’m proud of what we’ve done,” Gruden said, acknowledging that the “tuck rule” ultimately played a big part of him winding up in Tampa Bay to lead the Bucs to its first ever Super Bowl championship. “Life is what it is. You do the best you can because you’ll always have plenty of people critiquing you.”
Aside from the outcome, Gruden said it was great to play in a game with such an amazing, rare amount of snowfall.
“I remember that it really wasn’t that cold,” Gruden said. “It was a unique experience in the snow. It was a great experience, really. Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Rich Gannon and our guys had played well. We felt we played well and had the game won. We felt we were going to win the Super Bowl that year. I remember that it wasn’t cold, but it was just beautiful with all of the snow falling. It was like a Christmas kind of deal.”
Temperatures for next Saturday’s game between Tampa Bay and New England in Foxboro, Massachusetts are expected to be just above freezing with a good chance for rain or snow, depending on far the mercury actually falls. Gruden discussed the preparations for playing in the cold – and more importantly – snowy conditions.
“Being from Florida, you just have to get yourself acclimated to the weather,” Gruden said. “Let’s be honest. This (Florida climate) does have a tendency to change your feeling about cold weather. You don’t like it as much, being around here. You’ve got to get used to the cold where you can still function and be comfortable. Your footwear is obviously an issue. Cold fingers throwing the ball, cold hands catching the ball – are you going to wear gloves? Those are things you have to consider as a professional football player.
“If it snows it does make it harder. It’s tough playing in the snow. You have to account for falling down. It’s harder to throw and catch. It’s difficult to change directions. You don’t have the true feeling in your heart to really open it up and throw a lot of crossing routes and double moves, you know? It’s hard to do that. You tend to be more straight ahead in your game plan I think, and so do they.”
The Buccaneers will be looking for yet another road win that will help them get back to the playoffs when the team heads north to New England. Gruden will also be looking for a little personal pay back.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• Have you noticed how many Tampa Bay Buccaneers have slipped on the field lately – especially rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams? Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has. “We’ve had problems in our stadium with the usage – people are using our stadium. It’s probably not as pristine as it used to be. We’ve had some slipping in there and it’s not as fast a surface as it used to be for the pass rushers or for the guys who make the jagged, change of direction cuts. Last week (at LSU) was probably the most difficult field I’ve seen. It was bad, man. You know when George Toma is out there laying grass seed before the game that you’ve got problems!”
• Do you believe in miracles? Struggling Buccaneers wide receiver Michael Clayton, who is mired in an unexpected sophomore slump, probably does. Last year, Clayton was probably thinking he would give away his 1,000-yard season, all those catches and all those touchdowns just for a winning season instead of a 5-11 record. Wish granted, Mike.
• A lot has been made on sports talk radio and various Bucs fan message boards about the success this year of former Buccaneers offensive stars like quarterback Brad Johnson (Minnesota) and wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson (Dallas), Keenan McCardell (San Diego) and Joe Jurevicius (Seattle). Some fans have been impressed with Johnson’s downfield throwing while leading Minnesota to a 5-0 record with him at the helm. Just remember that Johnson was gun shy as the Bucs starter at the start of 2004 and that there is a deep option on virtually every play in Tampa Bay’s playbook. He simply didn’t pull the trigger and opted for dump offs. It was that type of play that led to his benching as head coach and playcaller Jon Gruden wanted more big plays downfield. And while Keyshawn, McCardell and Jurevicius have had great seasons, Johnson and Jurevicius are about 500 yards behind Joey Galloway in terms of receiving yardage this season, while McCardell is about 400 yards behind. Don’t miss what you don’t have, Bucs fans. Be thankful for what you do have. Galloway has revived his career in Tampa Bay and is a better receiver than any of those three players. Would you trade Galloway for Johnson, McCardell or Jurevicius? Of course you wouldn’t.
• Speaking of wide receiver Joey Galloway, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said that not only has Galloway played his usual split end position this season, but that he has taken over at flanker for Michael Clayton in the Bucs’ “U” personnel package, which features two tight ends, two running backs and one wide receiver. “We move Galloway all over the place. We’re going to move around guys, especially guys like him, so you can’t find them. Is he going to be on the strongside? Is he going to be on the weakside? Is he going to be in the slot? Are we going to put him in motion? He’s earned that. He’s our best receiver – it’s clear cut, slam dunk, end of story.”
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