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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. There have been plenty of theories floating around as to why Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden hasn’t used Mike Alstott as a ballcarrier much over the past three seasons. Now it’s time for the truth.
Aside from the last two weeks, Alstott hasn’t produced a vintage “A-Train” play since the 2002 season. What I mean by that is a tackle-breaking, second-effort play that has been in classic Alstott fashion.
Some would charge that Gruden never used Alstott upon his arrival in Tampa Bay in 2002. That’s simply not the case. Although free agent import Michael Pittman was hand-picked by Gruden to be his starting halfback, it’s not like he didn’t use Alstott as a weapon on offense that year. In 2002, Pittman led the team with 204 carries, but Alstott was only 58 carries behind him with 146. Pittman hauled in 59 receptions that season, but Alstott was still a factor in the passing game with 35 catches of his own.
And when scoring opportunities were on the line that year, Alstott produced five touchdowns to Pittman’s three in the regular season. Don’t forget that despite Pittman’s 124-yard day in Super Bowl XXXVII, Alstott’s number was called to score Tampa Bay’s first touchdown in the championship game.
So where has Alstott been the last three years, you might ask? In 2003, Gruden wanted to build on Pittman’s strong finish to the 2002 season where he showed speed and explosive playmaking ability. That focus diminished Alstott’s opportunities to start that year. When Alstott did get the ball early in the year, he accidentally plowed into the knee of wide receiver Joe Jurevicius. That collision essentially cost both Jurevicius and Alstott the season as the A-Train had season-ending surgery after re-injuring his neck two games later against Indianapolis.
Alstott made a valiant return in 2004, but wasn’t the same player. No player ever is after surgery that corrects herniated disc and vertebrae damage.
Alstott didn’t run the ball with the same power last year, nor did he block with the same force as he did in previous seasons. Earlier this year in training camp, Alstott, who will be 32 in Decemeber, suffered a scare when a neck stinger sidelined him for a couple of practices and a preseason game.
There have been reasons why Alstott hasn’t gotten more involved in the offense as a weapon, and for the past three seasons, one of the bigger reasons has been his neck injury, according to his running backs coach, Art Valero, who told Pewter Report in the summer: “Mike Alstott has regained some of the fluidity that he had before. He’s a (31)-year old man now. His body can’t do some of the things it did, but he’s not as stiff as he was the last three years.”
Of course there is more to it than that. Alstott has always thought he was a running back who is capable of being a full-time feature back. The problem is that he can’t find an offensive coordinator who will agree with him.
Neither Mike Shula nor Les Steckel nor Clyde Christensen nor Gruden has ever thought of Alstott as a feature back. Even general manager Rich McKay, who was always a big Alstott supporter, used a first-round draft pick on halfback Warrick Dunn in 1997, which leads you to believe that he didn’t think Alstott could be Errict Rhett’s eventual successor.
Are there some personal issues and perhaps hard feelings between Gruden and Alstott over the A-Train’s diminished role? I wouldn’t doubt it. But even the most ardent Alstott supporter can’t argue with Gruden’s line of thinking that every carry he gives to Alstott is one less carry he gives to Pittman or his new toy, rookie Carnell “Cadillac” Williams.
Why is this important to understand? Remember Pittman’s 57-yard touchdown run against Miami this year where he juked Dolphins end Jason Taylor in the backfield before barely outrunning Taylor to the end zone after another cut or two? Ask yourself if Williams, who already has a 71-yard touchdown run this year, has the speed and cutting ability to do that. Now ask yourself if Alstott would have made Taylor miss in the backfield on that same run, much less outrun the speedy Taylor to the end zone.
You’d be lying if you said Alstott, who has averaged over four yards per carry only one season out of 10, would be able to do that. We’ve all seen Alstott do some improbable things, but outracing defenders isn’t one of them.
There have been plenty of times where Alstott should have been used and he wasn’t over the past two years, especially given the losses the Bucs have racked up and the times that Pittman put the ball on the ground. Gruden was wise to turn to the A-Train last week against Washington where he produced two rushing touchdowns and a critical 2-point conversion run, and it wasn’t due to fan or media pressure, according to Valero.
“We’ve known over the last three or four weeks that the Mike Alstott that was around in 2002 and before is starting to come back,” Valero said. “I think being a fullback and having to bend his knees and get that explosion back, it’s something that has been coming. Then he starts showing that he can still run guys over.
“The way that things worked out – and Mike will be the first to tell you – with his mentality, he was always a halfback. To come in and start being half halfback and half fullback, he didn’t know how to get his mind geared for each one. This year, going in and doing the things that he has done as a fullback, I think only helped his ability to run.”
Gruden and Alstott sat down during the offseason and discussed his role in the offense. Alstott knows that he is a fullback first and a halfback when called upon. Thankfully for the Bucs, Gruden has called his number with greater frequency and Alstott has rounded back into his classic form enough to capitalize on those opportunities.
Although Gruden will try to get Williams back on track on the fast artificial surface at the Georgia Dome this week, don’t be surprised if Alstott is still in the mix for at least 10-12 touches against the Atlanta Falcons. After last Sunday’s heroics, he deserves it.
FAB 2. How much was Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden planning on using Mike Alstott as a ballcarrier in last Sunday’s win against Washington? According to Tampa Bay running backs coach Art Valero, Alstott had a dominant practice on Wednesday that set the tone for Sunday’s game in which he received 11 touches, including nine carries for 21 yards, two touchdowns and a game-winning 2-point conversion.
“On Wednesday we came in, and Mike’s been taking some runs all season long – but on Wednesday, he was phenomenal in 9-on-7 (drills),” Valero said. “He had some cuts and he had some reads. It was just natural.
“One thing about Mike is that he is such a team guy that all he wants to do is win. Whether he plays 10 more years or 10 more games, all he wants to do is win. After Wednesday’s 9-on-7 period, which was just phenomenal, we said, ‘He’s back.'”
Given how well Alstott practiced last week, Sunday’s sensational game from the A-Train wasn’t a surprise.
“The great thing is to have three or four guys carry the ball,” Valero said. “Mike was hot (on Sunday). He did a good job early and had some classic, Mike Alstott runs. If you look at it on the 2-point conversion, we did a good job blocking it, but they knew we were coming at them and they knew that we were coming at them with 40. The last surge was all him. If you had to define somebody – that was Mike Alstott. The way he got it in and kept his feet moving – he’s a phenomenal person.
“The fans just love Mike. He is bigger than life. He did a great job. He gets excited. The fans get him excited. I put him in a couple of times when he shouldn’t have been in as a halfback and he had some great plays. The fans got into it and they like hearing that train whistle. It gets the rest of the team going because a lot of those older guys on defense remember when he controlled the game.”
Even some of the younger players like five-year veteran Kenyatta Walker, have a real appreciation for Alstott’s vintage running style, which was on display again versus Washington.
“I can’t say enough about 40,” Walker said. “He hasn’t played this whole year. You haven’t heard much from him. It’s just his leadership on the field and just hearing that A-Train whistle gets you going. When I saw that he crossed the line behind me, it was a great feeling. You’ve got to give him the ball. He’s still hard to tackle. Nobody wants to tackle him. I think it’s going to help the rookie out and help Pitt out. You’ve got to bang him.”
The Atlanta Falcons, this week’s opponent, don’t want to hear that, especially when watching tape of Alstott’s power near the goal line. Everyone – including the Redskins – knew that Alstott was going to get the ball on the 2-point conversion play, but they simply couldn’t stop him. That’s why Gruden called his number.
Knowing he would get crucified by the fans, the media and talk radio if he rolled the dice and the Bucs didn’t convert the 2-point conversion, Gruden wisely decided that if he was going to go down, he would go down swinging with his best goal-line option. Valero recalls the frantic minute on the Tampa Bay sidelines when Washington jumped offsides and blocked Matt Bryant’s extra point attempt. The result of the penalty was that the ball was then placed on the 1-yard line.
“The great thing about it is when they jumped, (Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach) Paul Hackett talks to us from downstairs and he said, ‘Hey, we’re moving closer. Think about it,'” Valero said. “Jon was thinking down the road and he was thinking overtime. I don’t even know if he was even watching what had happened. Paul indicated – and it was great having a veteran guy like him in the box upstairs – that we may want to call “14 Blast” down here. Paul was the one who brought it to everyone’s attention. When we got it closer it was a ballsy call. It was Jon’s call because this is Jon’s football team. When you get it tight down in there, you just give it to the big guy. We all knew that. The problem was that I had to look all over for Mike because he had already gone to the bench. He didn’t know that we were going to go for it.”
The rest went down in Buccaneers history as one of the franchise’s greatest games of all time. For Mike Alstott it was his second greatest experience aside from winning Super Bowl XXXVII. Could there be more great experiences to come?
FAB 3. The beauty of a signing players to a one-year deal in the NFL is that if they don’t pan out, there is no dreaded salary cap hit or dead cap money the next season. The player – and his salary – are gone from the roster and the books the following year.
The ugliness of signing players to a one-year deal in the NFL is that if a player has a breakout year, he’ll catch every general manager’s eye and will be heavily sought after in free agency in the offseason. That means the price of re-signing that player goes through the roof for the host team.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have such a player in nose tackle Chris Hovan, a former first-round draft pick out of Boston College who was available on the free agent discard pile during the offseason. Hovan fell out of favor over the last two years in Minnesota after a favorable start to his pro career at the three-technique, under tackle position. The Bucs signed this Vikings cast off to a one-year, $540,000 contract to replace Chartric Darby at nose tackle and given him the chance to rehabilitate his floundering career. Hovan has had a banner year through nine games, leading the defensive line with 30 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Hovan hasn’t been much of a force rushing the passer, but he has anchored extremely well against the run this year and has helped deny opponents the chance to attack the middle of Tampa Bay’s defense with a ground assault. After being in a place where he wasn’t wanted over the past couple of seasons, Hovan has found that type of appreciation in Tampa Bay and was quickly embraced by his teammates and coaches during the offseason due to his humble demeanor and great work ethic.
“It’s a great opportunity to me and I thank the organization for giving me the chance to come out here and prove myself,” Hovan said. “I’m with a bunch of great guys and great coaches fighting for one cause – winning a Super Bowl. These guys really are hungry. We have a great chemistry together.”
But with free agency looming just over four months away, does Hovan want to continue the success he’s had in Tampa Bay or capitalize on it by entering the free agent market in March?
“Of course I want to stay,” Hovan said on the record. “I’m with a bunch of guys where the chemistry is great, and this is the defense that you have been wanting to play in for your whole career. Would I like the opportunity to stay here? Of course, but I still have to prove myself game in and game out. I’m not done yet. I’m just being humble and trying to show my traits out on the field.”
A position change is never easy in the NFL, but Hovan’s transition from under tackle to nose tackle has been remarkably seamless, thanks of course to defensive line guru Rod Marinelli. Hovan was used to working one-on-one match-ups by lining up over the outside shoulder of opposing guards. Now he is lining up between the center and the guard and attempting to draw double teams on virtually every play.
“It’s great playing the nose,” Hovan said. “It was a little awkward at first, but with the coaching I’ve gotten and getting on the field and practicing my technique, it has really paid off.”
The good news for the Buccaneers is that Hovan has told Pewter Report that he definitely wants to return to Tampa Bay in 2006 and forego the free agent market. However, his agent, Tom Condon, will likely have a different opinion and will want his client to have the opportunity to maximize his value.
Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen would be wise to lock up Hovan to a contract extension right as the season ends and before free agency begins. Hovan will be 28 next May and is still in the prime of his NFL career from a physical standpoint. The fact that he has already mastered the nose tackle position and can also play under tackle speaks to the value of having such a versatile, high motor lineman around.
Aside from the ability to cash-in during free agency, which doesn’t seem to appeal that much to Hovan in my conversation with him this week at One Buccaneer Place, the one real factor that could influence Hovan’s decision to return to Tampa Bay would be Marinelli’s status with the team. Hovan has said that Marinelli is the best defensive line coach he’s ever played for. With Marinelli’s contract up at the end of the year, and the prospects of him becoming a defensive coordinator or even a head coach in 2006, there is a chance Hovan could decide to follow his mentor instead of returning to the Buccaneers. All the more reason for Allen to lock up a player like Hovan, who fits his “teammate” philosophy, before the bidding war for his talents begins.
FAB 4. He completed 16-of-23 passes for 267 yards and four touchdowns.
No, I’m not predicting how young Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms will fare against Atlanta, nor am I erring in recalling Simms’ stats in his breakthrough game against Washington last Sunday.
That 16-of-23, 267-yard passing day, that included four scoring strikes, belonged to Shaun King, who single-handedly defeated the Minnesota Vikings on October 29 in 2000. You remember King, right? The Bucs’ quarterback of the future? The second-round pick who would be the superstar passer the team has been itching for since the days of Doug Williams?
I bring King’s name up because that one day gave Bucs fans a look at “what could be” with King at the helm. Of course, six years later King is out of the league and his NFL career is likely over at the ripe old age of 28.
King’s first NFL start came at Raymond James Stadium on December 6, 1999 on Monday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings. King, then a rookie, was 11-of-19 for 93 yards and two touchdowns with just one interception in that 24-17 win. The feelings Bucs fans had about him after the game that night were probably the same as they had for Simms last Sunday night after he led Tampa Bay to a thrilling, come-from-behind, 36-35 victory over Washington.
I am not suggesting that Simms’ career will mimic King’s at all. I think Simms has a much higher upside than King due to his superior physical talents and his accuracy. King had 12 games in Tampa Bay in which he completed 50 percent of his passes or less. Simms has yet to have a game where his completion percentage has dipped below 50 percent.
Buccaneers fans have painfully witnessed the likes of Williams and Steve Young leave Tampa Bay to become great quarterbacks elsewhere and win Super Bowl trophies. The same could be said of Trent Dilfer, too. There is a strong desire for Bucs fans to latch on to a promising young passer with the hope that the franchise who turned 30 years old this season will finally have a long-awaited franchise quarterback.
Some thought King could be the guy. After Sunday, some think Simms can be the guy.
None of us know what the future holds for Simms and the Buccaneers. Fans have been down this road before, each time hoping that a Brett Favre or Peyton Manning would emerge. (Ryan Leaf was here briefly, but he doesn’t count.)
Brad Johnson was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but was never really embraced by the fans because he lacked the pizzazz in his personality and his play. The same can be said of Brian Griese, whose interceptions were as maddening as Dilfer’s or Vinny Testaverde’s, and his lack of charm left fans wanting more. Current Bucs backups Tim Rattay and Luke McCown just don’t have the star quality that Simms possesses.
If Simms can string together some more performances like he had against the Redskins and pile up more wins, he will be Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback next season. He has the charisma, the charm and the big arm that fans want in their franchise quarterback – but it’s early.
There’s a good chance that Simms will have another game or two like he had at San Francisco and another game or two like he had against Washington. I don’t care that he’s in his third NFL season. He’s played in just eight pro games and started only five. Until a player sees significant action in 16 games in the NFL – and I don’t care how many years it takes to accomplish that feat – they are still a rookie in my book.
Be happy for Simms. Be giddy about the prospects of having that potential franchise quarterback in place for the next 10 years, but be careful. Remember Shaun King.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• For the X’s and O’s junkies among our Pewter Insider subscribers, here’s what Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms saw before and during his game-winning throw to wide receiver Edell Shepherd in last Sunday’s 36-35 win over Washington: “They had one safety in the middle of the field. You guys have seen us run slant-go with a seam (pattern) on the other side. It’s a signature play in Coach (Jon) Gruden’s offense. I got up to the line and I saw the corner over Edell Shepherd. His back was kind of turned to me to a degree like he was not going to let Edell come inside. Then he was going to give up something outside. I just saw him flat-footed and Edell has great speed, so I just put it up and gave him a chance to go get. I felt like I put it in a good spot. I wanted to throw it a little more outside, but that’s where his speed kicked in.”
• Among Chris Simms’ biggest supporters last Sunday were middle linebacker Shelton Quarles and nose tackle Chris Hovan. Quarles and Hovan were among the first players to always greet Simms after he made his way to the bench to offer up support for the young quarterback. “You have to be confident in the guy who is directing the offense,” Hovan said. “Give the kid all the support. I believe the kid can do it. I’ve seen him do it here and even before I got here I’ve seen him do great things. All he needs is confidence. He showed you what confidence can do – he went out there, slung it, and had a great game. He needed that type of game in that type of atmosphere, and it showed.”
• Tampa Bay rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams told reporters at One Buccaneer Place this week that he may go to Canton, Ohio and may take back the gloves and shoes that were enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame after the record-setting start to his NFL career. “I know man, maybe they jinxed me,” said Williams, noting that he hasn’t been very productive since the third game of the season. However, Williams, who is recovering from a foot sprain, can’t wait to play on the speedy, artificial surface at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. “I like it – fast turf,” Williams said. “It’s real good turf to run on. You can make some sharp cuts. You can really get some speed going on that turf. But it being a fast turf, the other guys will move a little faster, too.”
Although it has been used sparingly this season, Jon Gruden’s “Rocket” backfield hasn’t made that big of an impact this season. The reasons are two-fold. First, Williams is still learning the intricacies of the offense and hasn’t been fully involved in the passing game yet. The second reason is that Williams injured his foot and missed two games and several practices, which has limited the opportunities, and Pittman has also suffered a shoulder injury, which has reduced his amount of practice time. Because several of the plays in the “Rocket” backfield call for Pittman to lead block for Williams, the Bucs don’t feel comfortable asking Pittman to block with a wounded wing.
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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: [email protected]