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Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. Mark Dominik. Dennis Hickey. Kevin Demoff. If you don’t know who these three young (and important) men are now, you will by the time May rolls around.
By then, Dominik, Tampa Bay’s director of pro personnel, will have found the members of the Buccaneers’ 2007 free agent class. When May rolls around, Hickey, Tampa Bay’s director of college scouting, will have selected the Buccaneers’ 2007 draft class. After free agency and the draft, Demoff, Bruce Allen’s senior assistant, will have signed all of those free agents and gauged how the franchise fared in terms of the salary cap and the team’s offseason strategy.
Although some in the media have cried out for the Bucs to get a personnel man in place for the 2007 offseason, they have one in Dominik, who heads up a pro personnel department that features team executive Doug Williams and assistants Byron Kiefer and Justin Sheridan. The 35-year old Dominik was hired by former Rich McKay in 1995 and has been groomed under the watchful eyes of Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell, Ruston Webster and Allen. Before coming to Tampa Bay, Dominik interned in Kansas City under the likes of Carl Peterson, Terry Bradway and Bill Reis with the Chiefs.
Despite his youth, Dominik’s exposure to a “who’s who” of talent evaluators and head coaches (Marty Schottenheimer, Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden) has made him a seasoned member of Tampa Bay’s front office. Dominik has been personally responsible for finding some of Tampa Bay’s key contributors, including middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, defensive tackle Chartric Darby and defensive end Greg Spires. Quarles was in the Canadian Football League at the time, and Darby was in NFL Europe.
Hickey, who is also in his mid-30s, was Tampa Bay’s top regional scout and handpicked by Allen and Webster to succeed Webster when he was promoted from the director of college scouting to the director of player personnel in 2005. Like Dominik, Hickey has had an enormous amount of exposure to Angelo, Ruskell, McKay, Webster and Allen, and has been in charge of Tampa Bay’s Midwest scouting.
While Hickey and Dominik have had input and influence in personnel decisions over the years, Allen and Gruden are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the final call on player acquisition. It is difficult to determine how many bad personnel moves have been the result of ignoring the advice of Hickey and Dominik, and how many of those questionable acquisitions have been as the result of following the advice of Hickey and Dominik.
With regards to Demoff, who is the son of the powerful and influential super-agent Marvin Demoff, he is one of the youngest salary cap mavens in the NFL. Like Allen, perhaps the premier salary cap expert in the league, Demoff has an uncanny understanding of the cap. He is only 29 years old and just graduated with a master’s degree in administration from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth earlier this year. Demoff earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Dartmouth in 1999.
“Kevin Demoff, he’s not just here to negotiate contracts or budget,” said Dominik. “Kevin goes in to find the potential cap casualty guys and gives us a list of guys who may void their contracts or be cap casualties. We’re prepared for those guys if they do hit free agency.”
As talented as Allen is regarding the salary cap, he was so impressed with Demoff’s work ethic, intelligence and understanding of the cap that he hired him to be his senior assistant after a year’s worth of interning.
“His father, obviously, is a great agent, but his edge is his perspective from being outside the NFL,” Allen said. “Kevin was the [Los Angeles Avengers] vice president of football operations from the Arena League and that gives him a great perspective. The Arena League probably has one or two less zeroes on the salaries of players, but a negotiation is a negotiation. That is really what helped his development a lot. He was an intern last year with the Buccaneers and he worked well with everyone so we hired him full-time.”
While some Buccaneers fans have heard of Dominik and Hickey, although their names may not be as recognizable as the likes of Angelo, Ruskell, Webster and Williams, not too many fans may have heard of Demoff. But this trio of young guns in Tampa Bay’s front office will play a major role – albeit behind the scenes – this offseason in turning the team around from a free agent, draft pick and salary cap perspective. Demoff has been instrumental in helping Allen overcome the salary cap woes that have hindered Tampa Bay’s ability to become a player in free agency over the past couple of years.
“We needed help with the salary cap, okay, because it was tragic,” Gruden said. “I don’t care what anybody said, it was damn tragic. We got Kevin Demoff, who is Ivy League educated and comes from a background that has given him inside information on how this league works from a salary-cap standpoint. He’s helped us, and he and Bruce and the guys in the front office are going to be real force for us in the offseason.”
Given Tampa Bay’s four-win season in 2006, they better be a force.
FAB 2. In a year that has gone wrong for a lot of reasons, Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden finally is right on something. It was clear to Gruden and just about everybody else that rookie Bruce Gradkowski has hit a wall in his development and needed to be replaced by veteran Tim Rattay for the last two games of the season. But don’t get all caught up in the talk radio and columnist fervor of looking back and saying “What if Jon Gruden had gone with Rattay from the start after Chris Simms’ season-ending injury?”
Let’s look back in time at the situation and find out exactly when Rattay should have been inserted – remember Gradkowski was coming off a preseason in which he completed 73.8 percent of his passes, had five TD throws and three INTS and a QB rating of 105.3. Rattay completed 56 percent of his throws with zero TDs (and led no touchdown drives), two INTs and had a 38.9 QB rating in the preseason.
Hindsight is always 20-20, but can you imagine the uproar from fans and the media if Rattay had been named as Simms’ replacement heading into the Saints game? Gradkowski had a marvelous training camp and preseason and easily beat out Rattay. If you don’t believe me, ask Gruden, quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett or anyone who attended training camp practices or watched the Bucs preseason games.
So Gruden sticks Gradkowski into the lineup after a 0-3 start at New Orleans and the rookie plays well enough to win, completing 64.5 percent of his passes with two TDs and no INTs in a narrow loss. Did you want Rattay after that game?
The next week, Gradkowski throws two more TDs and has one INT in a come-from-behind win over Cincinnati. Gradkowski just won his first NFL game and the Bucs’ first victory of the season. Should Rattay start for the 1-4 Bucs?
Gradkowski doesn’t throw any picks or TDs against Philadelphia, but still gets the Bucs in position for an improbable, game-winning, 62-yard field goal. Gradkowski is 2-1 as a starter for the 2-4 Bucs. Should he be replaced now?
The swirling conditions and Giants defense makes a trip to New York miserable as Gradkowski throws no picks and has no INTs (despite several dropped downfield passes – one or two of which could have been touchdowns). Gradkowski is now 2-2 as a starter and the Bucs are 2-5. Should Rattay come in now?
Gradkowski rebounds the next week against the Saints by completing 58.1 percent of his passes and throws two TDs and no INTs. The Bucs defense got scorched by the Saints and let this game get away, but Gradkowski played well and is now 2-3 as a starter as Tampa Bay is now 2-6. Should Gradkowski be pulled after a good, but not great, outing?
Gradkowski’s game got at Carolina on Monday Night Football got some mixed reviews. He got Tampa Bay out to an early lead, but finished the game completing 53.1 percent of his passes with one TD and two picks. Perhaps now is the time Rattay should replace Gradkowski, who is 2-4 as a starter with the Bucs being 2-7. But the reality is that the Bucs don’t have the horses to win five straight to get to 7-7 on the season. What is more beneficial for Tampa Bay, to get the rookie quarterback some meaningful game experience and perhaps finish 3-13 or 4-12, or go with Rattay for the chance to finish 5-11, 6-10? If Gruden was going to go to Rattay as his starter, it should have been after the Carolina game.
Yet Gradkowski rebounds at home the next week against Washington, completing 66.7 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and one interception in Tampa Bay’s third win of the season. The rookie is now 3-4 as a starter and the Bucs improve to 3-7. If he wasn’t pulled by now, Gradkowski’s game against the Redskins would suggest that he remain the starter heading into Dallas.
Gradkowski led Tampa Bay to an opening possession touchdown at Dallas, but finished the game completing 50 percent of his throws with no touchdowns and two INTs as he falls to 3-5 as a starter. The Bucs are 3-8 and all but out of the mix in the NFC given the opponents remaining on Tampa Bay’s schedule. Again, in hindsight, the probability of yanking Gradkowski in favor of Rattay surfaces during and after this game. However, the way Dallas was playing this day, there was no guarantee that Rattay would have fared better and produced the win.
With the season essentially over, the thinking was to play Gradkowski down the stretch – good or bad – and get him some experience for next year. Gradkowski went to Pittsburgh for an unwelcome home trip, completing 58.5 percent of his passes, throwing a career-high three interceptions and having two touchdown passes dropped by Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard. Gradkowski is now 3-6 as a starter as Tampa Bay slumps to 3-9. In hindsight, Rattay should have been inserted into this game and been the starter throughout the rest of the year. With the Rattay in the lineup, the Bucs may have beaten the Steelers.
Atlanta was a winnable game for Tampa Bay, but even inserting Rattay in the fourth quarter didn’t produce any points. Still, Rattay drove down the field and had the Bucs in position to score, although they couldn’t punch the touchdown in. Gradkowski completed 54.2 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and no interceptions. Gradkowski’s only major error against Atlanta was fumbling from a blindside sack.
Rattay was handed the reins of the offense for good during the Chicago game, but couldn’t get Tampa Bay the win despite getting the ball at the 50-yard line with less than two minutes left in regulation, in addition to three possessions in overtime. He had his chances, and didn’t produce.
Rattay did produce the Bucs’ fourth win of the season last week in Cleveland, but threw one interception and had a fumble returned for a touchdown without throwing any touchdown passes. He led Tampa Bay to one touchdown drive and three field goal drives. He has been more decisive in his decision-making and more accurate than Gradkowski, but sorry, I can’t see the Bucs doing anything better than a 7-9 record with Rattay at quarterback.
In the end, all that would mean is not making the playoffs and having a first-round draft pick outside of the top 10. If some writers or talking heads on sports radio want to second guess Gruden’s decision to start Gradkowski over Rattay, they better read this column and go through the games like I did to try to justify sticking Rattay in the lineup earlier than he appeared. And unless they have a crystal ball (or a Magic 8 ball that really works) and know for a fact that Rattay would have led this team to the playoffs, this discussion is basically a moot point.
FAB 3. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag regarding one of Pewter Report’s season-ending awards, which will be one of the features in the January 2007 issue. The Bucs' assistant coach of the year award will go to special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.
Yes, the same Rich Bisaccia, who is vilified (and perhaps misunderstood) by some Bucs fans and some in the local media. There is a misconception out there that Bisaccia is not a good special teams coach, and that is partly due to the fact that the Buccaneers have now gone 31 seasons without having that mystical and elusive kickoff return for a touchdown.
Granted, Tampa Bay’s return game is lackluster to say the least. The Bucs' punt return unit ranks 30th in the league with a feeble 6.5-yard average. Tampa Bay’s kick return unit ranks 27th in the NFL with a paltry 20.8-yard average.
But the flip side is that the Bucs’ coverage teams are quite good, with Tampa Bay owning the top ranking on kickoff returns (18.2 avg.) and the 22nd ranking on punts (9.4 avg.) that was skewed due to a 65-yard touchdown by Reggie Bush in the fourth game of the year. Bush’s game-winning touchdown may have been a big downer for Tampa Bay, but aside from that play, Tampa Bay’s special teams were enjoying a banner day against the Saints prior to that fateful punt.
Yet, the real tour de force was on display a few weeks back in Chicago when Tampa Bay shut down Pro Bowl kick returner and rookie sensation, Devin Hester. Hester was held to a shocking 15.2-yard average on five kick returns, while fumbling three times,
A week earlier in St. Louis, Hester returned two kickoffs for touchdowns on Monday Night Football to set an NFL record with six return TDs. Hester’s heroics prompted the Bears to introduce their special teams to the crowd at Soldier Field rather than the more traditional offense or defense. That didn’t sit well with Bisaccia’s troops.
“Our game was the same game plan that was every week,” Bucs linebacker Jamie Winborn said. “We’re well coached and we love each other and we feed off each other. He had returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, but not against us. That was against a completely different team. We consider ourselves to be the best. That’s how we’re coached to play the game. At the beginning of the game, they introduced their special teams. We were kind of shocked by that. We really couldn’t believe it. They were trying to call us out in a sense. We had a job to do and we did it.
“We definitely got in his head. He’s definitely a good player, but the teams he’s played against, he hasn’t seen the type of speed we have on our special teams. He’s one guy with that speed and ability. We’re 11 guys with that speed. That should tell you our numbers should win. Coach Bisaccia, the way he coaches football like high school. He makes it fun and he puts speed on the field. He puts that pressure on you as a player to where you don’t feel like it’s a job. It’s a great thing and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Special teams captain Ryan Nece was also miffed that Hester was doing some pre-kickoff showboating, and he, Bisaccia and the rest of the Buccaneers kick coverage team took issue with that.
“We were really surprised they introduced him,” Nece said. “Yeah, he was coming off a big game, but it stirred a lot of emotions inside of us. They were trying to recognize this guy in front of their home crowd. We felt that it was a slap in our face for him to think that he was going to do that to us in front of his home crowd. He was playing to the crowd and waving his hands up over his head. He was putting the spotlight on him. It’s our job to go down there and dim that light as quickly as possible.
“It was a great day of coverage for us. The punt team, the kick team, we did a really good job and took a lot of pride in that. We tried to do a number on him. That first hit – he fumbled and that kind of set the tone for us. We knew he was a fumbler and we got into his head.”
Nece has heard the criticism surrounding Bisaccia, whose special teams have blocked three field goals this year, and feels it is unwarranted.
“We have been real solid on special teams here,” Nece said. “We’ve had punters go to the Pro Bowl. We’ve had kickers break records and be in the top 10 in field goals. We’ve had guys win games and block kicks. We’ve done a lot of things on special teams, but some of those things get overlooked. If you look at how Coach Bisaccia coaches, he coaches technique and fundamentals. If you get outside of that … then it’s on you and you’re going to hurt the whole unit. If you watch special teams across the NFL, you see a lot of bad football being played. Coach Bisaccia doesn’t allow that to happen. There are other guys that do. Bisaccia gets the most out of his players.
“It’s fun, but there’s also a military-like discipline. There’s a time to have fun and there’s a time to go to work. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s got that little man’s complex where he’s got a chip on his shoulder and it rubs off on his players. I think it really works to his advantage.”
The players credit Bisaccia for being a players’ coach and for getting the well prepared and motivated each week. Winborn, a former starting linebacker in the NFL, had a rough mental adjustment when he was relegated to special teams duty this year. But he credits Bisaccia’s coaching style for helping him become one of Tampa Bay’s special teams tacklers. Winborn has 13 stops this year on kick and punt coverage.
“When I was traded from San Francisco to Jacksonville, I wasn’t happy about playing special teams,” Winborn said. “I was just traded during my contract year. I sat down for four or five games where I could have gotten some film. I was out of it. I had to make up my mind and I decided that they weren’t going to get the best of me. I’m still the same player I was as a starter. I just decided to get out there on special teams here in Tampa and have fun. Coach Bisaccia just makes it fun. Football here is fun in Tampa.”
Aside from Tampa Bay’s strong coverage teams, led by Earnest Graham (20 tackles), NFC Pro Bowl alternate Torrie Cox (19 stops), Blue Adams (19 tackles), Antoine Cash (17 tackles), Wesly Mallard (14 stops) and Winborn, Bisaccia has also turned around the Bucs’ kicking game. Tampa Bay punter Josh Bidwell, who just came off his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2006, owns a 43.2-yard gross punt average and a 36.7-yard net average. Not quite as good as last year’s numbers, but still a very solid season.
FAB 4. One more note on Bucs special teams coach Rich Bisaccia. Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant is a year removed from a franchise-record 84 percent field goal percentage, and is connecting on over 80 percent of his kicks again this year. After a career year, Bryant was set on testing free agency just like Tampa Bay was briefly sniffing around Ryan Longwell. But the man who kept Bryant, who may be the Bucs' MVP this year, off the open market was Bisaccia.
“He was one of the main reasons why I wanted to come back,” Bryant said. “I was about to sign somewhere else. I was a couple of hours away from being on another team and he called me at 4:00 a.m. in the morning on the first day of free agency and asked me, ‘What do we have to do to re-sign you?’ Once he called me, I was back on a plane coming back here. He’s what you want in a coach. He’s good, really good.
“I think what makes him special is that you can talk to the guy and he’ll tell it to you like it is. There’s no B.S. with him. I’ve been in situations where I was miserable and hated coming to work every day – and I was on a winning team.”
Bryant says that people get too hung up on a long-awaited kick return that hasn’t happened yet in Tampa Bay.
“The deal about the 31 years and not having a return – it sucks, but it’s not on Bisaccia,” Bryant said. “It’s on the players who haven’t gotten the job done. We’ve had plenty of opportunities since I’ve been here. It’s been just one block here or one missed read here and then there wouldn’t be a 31-year jinx. He’s a really good coach.”
Aside from nailing a franchise-record 62-yard field goal to beat Philadelphia earlier in the year, Bryant shook off a 2-of-5 start this year to convert 17-of-21 (80.9 percent) field goals heading into the season-ending contest against Seattle. Since his 62-yarder, Bryant has been an uncanny 13-of-14, with his lone a miss a forgivable 51-yarder against Atlanta.
Bryant credits Bisaccia for helping him get out of his early season funk by slowing down his approach and not rushing his kicks. So far, so good.
“Most special teams coaches have probably never kicked a football in their life,” Bryant said. “They learn from kickers and watch what we do when we have success and then try to make sure we keep doing it. That works for me.”
If Bryant goes 4-of-4 on field goals against the Seahawks, he’ll match last year’s record production and will finish with an 84 percent field goal percentage once again.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until next time:
• Don’t fret over Tampa Bay’s “meaningless” win over Cleveland, Bucs fans. The Bucs will likely still have a top 5 pick (unless they beat Seattle). In fact, if the season ended today, they’d still be picking third even with the win over the Browns, according to a team official. There are still five players who could really help the Bucs. With the signing of Chris Simms, the Bucs won’t be drafting a quarterback, and Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn will likely be drafted by either Detroit or Oakland. There is also a chance that Louisville junior QB Brian Brohm could enter the draft and be a top 5 pick. Cleveland or Detroit may wish to draft Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson in the top 5. Regardless of what happens, at least one of three players the Bucs are targeting – Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas and Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams – will be there, even if the Bucs fell to No. 4.
• Don’t buy any of the “sign and trade” nonsense regarding Chris Simms out there. Simms doesn’t have much trade value, so why trade him? With a $3 million signing bonus, it would cost the Bucs $3 million in cap room to acquire a draft pick for him. Simms was a third-round pick in 2003 and the Bucs would be lucky to get that for him again. Why? He’s 0-4 in his last four games (including the playoff loss to Washington in 2005) with one touchdown pass, nine interceptions, 14 passes batted down, and the Bucs have only scored 37 points in those four losses – less than 10 points per game. Simms is 7-9 as a starter and has thrown 11 TDs and 19 INTs. I like Simms, think he has a lot of potential (which is the deadliest word in the NFL), and think he’ll be a good quarterback in time. He knew with the aforementioned stats I’ve laid out that there wouldn’t be that much interest in him, especially since his coming off a season-ending injury, in free agency. He did the wise thing by taking the money and sticking with a system that he already knows – even if it is not the best fit for him. For the Bucs, it was a wise move to sign an experienced QB who knows the system. Jon Gruden will be on the hot seat in 2007 and will be wanting to keep the QBs who will give him the best chance of winning – not trading them away. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Expect the Bucs’ depth chart to read Jeff Garcia, Simms and Bruce Gradkowski next year at the quarterback position.
• Speaking of trades, Bucs general manager Bruce Allen is good when it comes to wheeling and dealing. How good? So good he should be arrested for robbery. Stealing a second-round pick from Indianapolis for trading underachiever Booger McFarland to them should be a crime. I think McFarland is actually hurting the Colts the way he was hurting the Bucs in run defense at the earlier part of the season. Indy has given up more yardage rushing with McFarland than prior to his arrival in Indy. Let’s just hope the Bucs don’t blow the draft pick come April.
• Last but not least, I’m here to remind all of our Pewter Insider subscribers to renew or extend their subscriptions right now. Why? Pewter Report is slightly increasing our prices across the board to help offset increase costs in the printing business. However, they will still be a great deal lower than they were under previous ownership, which charged $49.99 for a combo subscription. For example, the price of an annual combo will increase from $36.99 to $39.99 on January 1. The prices for two- and three-year subs will also see slight price increases. And no, we won’t be raising our rates for at least the next 12 months. I encourage you to lock in 2006 rates NOW and save some cash. Plus, our FREE $5 Sports Fan-Attic gift card promo is still going on and will continue through the end of the December. For a one-year combo, you’ll save $3 on your subscription AND get a FREE $5 Sports Fan-Attic gift card. You’ll save even more and be rewarded with a $15 gift card by locking in 2006 prices for three years with a three-year subscription for $83.99. The most critical offseason in Bucs history starts next week, and you know that’s when a subscription to the Pewter Insider becomes even more valuable – especially with big offseason issues such as the Free Agency Preview, Free Agency Review and Bucs Draft Preview coming up in the next few months. Don’t wait until January. Save some cash and renew or extend your subscription now by calling 1-800-881-BUCS(2827) or visiting www.PewterReport.com/subscribe. And if you didn’t get what you wanted for the holidays, give yourself the gift of inside information with a Pewter Insider subscription. Besides, the Senior Bowl is less than 30 days away.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org