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Before I get going into this week’s SR’s Fab Five, I want to let you know that I will address the story in Sunday’s Tampa Tribune about Jon Gruden allegedly putting out “feelers” in a separate column. Look for that later on PewterReport.com.
Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. “We’re not only different from a personnel standpoint, we’re completely different from a philosophical standpoint right now. We’ve made some adjustments, some slight, some major. We’re doing what we feel gives our team the best chance to compete and win. We aren’t perfect, by no stretch of the imagination, but we have done some good things.”
“We have dropped some passes. Not only Joey, we’ve dropped several passes in the last five or six games. I think we’ve had 13 or 14 drops. When you attempt a forward pass, there’s only one good thing that can happen, and that’s a completion. Sacks, incomplete passes and interceptions are negatives. We’ve got to do a much better job as a football team, as an offensive team, catching the ball. I think all of our skill people respect that and understand that.”
“Well, we’ve been in a lot of tight games, you know. We had to hang on against Minnesota, hang on against Green Bay, and obviously, come from behind on four or five other occasions. Like I said, I’m proud of these guys. They’re going to play hard and they’re going to play until the game is over. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to help you win.”
Those are three quotes from Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden from last year … during Tampa Bay’s 11-5 NFC South championship season. The references about Minnesota and Green Bay were the sure giveaways.
The first quote is prior to the Bucs vs. Redskins playoff game last year when the team was 11-5. The second quote was after the 9-5 Bucs lost at New England last year. The third quote was after the Bucs beat the Falcons on Christmas Eve to move to 10-5. But at first glance, some of those quotes – minus the references to Minnesota and Green Bay – almost seem like they are about this season.
While trying to figure out if the Bucs are truly underachieving this season or overachieved last season, I am beginning to operate under the premise that Jon Gruden somehow saw this coming – even after an 11-5 season from a year ago. Why in the world would I think that? I spent this week going back and studying his quotes from post-game press conferences from the 2005 campaign looking for clues and I found some.
Despite getting off to a 5-1 start last year, Gruden kept saying, “We have a long way to go as a team.” He kept repeating similar statements after losses to the woeful New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers. Even when the Bucs had clinched a playoff spot and ultimately the NFC South championship, Gruden was humble and certainly wasn’t full of any swagger like he was in 2002 and the doomed ’03 season. There wasn’t any sense of cockiness or any sense that Gruden’s offense or his team had “arrived.”
Gruden was on record saying that he didn’t think his 2004 team was as bad as its 5-11 record was, and I’m starting to believe that he thought his 2005 team wasn’t as good as its 11-5 record might indicate. Gruden likely knew that the Bucs wouldn’t win 11 games this year, but you would never hear him say it. It’s what he didn’t say in the offseason and the preseason that is registering with me now. I asked him about this premise at One Buc Place at the end of last week and he declined to comment about it on the record, only saying that rebuilding is a process.
That’s really all I needed to hear to validate my point. Rebuilding jobs aren’t done overnight – especially without the salary cap room to make some major moves in free agency by getting some young stars in their prime like New Orleans did with Drew Brees. You don’t think Gruden would have loved to have a shot at Brees? But the salary cap-strapped Bucs couldn’t afford to enter that sweepstakes or the bidding for any other Pro Bowl players in their prime.
In my five years of dealing with Gruden, he can be a real cocky guy, but he’s also a smart son-of-a-gun. He’s a guy that isn’t going to bring a knife to a gunfight. He’ll bring a gun. And if he has more ammo than the other guy, as he did in 2002 and ’03, he will definitely let you know about it.
The 5-11 2004 season humbled him and that’s when I think he realized that this rebuilding project was going to take time from three angles: making the salary cap manageable again, upgrading the offensive talent and preparing to remaking an aging defense that is losing its star power.
With just two wins and only a couple of opportunities to win a few more games, a 4-12 or 5-11 season seems likely this year for a team that has seen its defense age, miss tackles, blow coverages, not rush the passer well and break in a slew of new coaches who aren’t at the level of Rod Marinelli or Mike Tomlin yet.
On offense, the dreaded sophomore slump that hit wide receiver Michael Clayton last year has hit running back Cadillac Williams this year. That, coupled with an injury to and poor play from Chris Simms, an offensive line that still can’t block consistently, receivers who can’t catch the ball, and a rookie starting at quarterback in Bruce Gradkowski, is the recipe for an underachieving season.
And the front office and coaching haven’t delivered enough to make up for the players’ poor play this season. I thought the Bucs were going to be deeper in talent this year, but that’s not the case, and general manager Bruce Allen didn’t do enough to address the quarterback, defensive tackle and safety positions in the offseason, although I do realize the salary cap played a role in that. That has hindered Gruden and Monte Kiffin’s ability to replace players in the starting lineup due to poor performance.
But the offensive line under Bill Muir did not take the step forward that was expected in 2007, defensive backs coach Greg Burns and defensive line coach Jethro Franklin have not connected well enough with their players to get them to buy into their coaching methods and produce desired results. Wide receivers coach Richard Mann can’t get the drops out of the systems of Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton among others. And Jon Gruden’s play-calling has been helter-skelter this year and through nine games, the Bucs offense doesn’t have anything it can hang its hat on.
Some prideful members of the Bucs’ brass are beginning to concede that the team actually overachieved last year. “Look at how we won some of those games last year,” said a Bucs official, who didn’t want to talk on the record. “We got some breaks. This year, we aren’t catching those breaks and this schedule is just brutal.”
The schedule is brutal for a team with the talent that over the past three years is probably closer to an 8-8 squad overall than it was 5-11 (2004), 11-5 (2005) or 4-12 (maybe, in 2006). Last year, the Bucs beat plenty of teams with losing records (Minnesota, Buffalo, Green Bay, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans twice) and played with enough confidence and a favorable turnover margin that allowed them to collect two more wins against Atlanta and a win over Washington and Carolina.
But there weren’t any blowout wins unless you count a 16-point win over Buffalo and 14-point wins over Miami and New Orleans. There were narrow victories over bad teams like the Packers and Lions that were filled with controversial calls that favored the Bucs, a couple of fortunate plays helped fell Atlanta twice by last-minute field goals. Ronde Barber’s four interceptions were needed to help Tampa Bay beat the lowly Saints 10-3, and a gutsy, questionable two-point conversion play by Mike Alstott allowed the Bucs to beat the Redskins.
Don’t forget that the Bucs got crushed 28-0 at New England and 34-14 by Carolina at home, in addition to two embarrassing losses to bad teams at New York and at San Francisco. In hindsight, a closer look at those games, plus the Bucs’ home playoff loss to Washington, might have offered more insight into what the future held for Tampa Bay in 2006.
Tampa Bay’s number one-ranked defense from a year ago was fueled by takeaways. The Bucs recovered 13 fumbles and had 17 interceptions in 2005. This year, Tampa Bay only has six fumble recoveries and five interceptions.
With the Bucs getting half as many turnovers in 2006 than they did a year ago, opposing offenses are staying on the field longer and piling up the yardage and points. The flip side of that is that Tampa Bay’s young offense isn’t getting as many opportunities to score as it did a year ago and isn’t getting the favorable field position that sometimes comes with turnovers.
So looking back to preseason expectations, how could this 3-7 season happen in Tampa Bay? With the Buccaneers fresh off an 11-5 season with a young and improving offense and a number one-ranked defense, most observers, including yours truly, thought the Bucs played a little over their heads last year and predicted a finish anywhere between 10-6 and 8-8. Pewter Report predicted a 10-6 record, but ignored some of the telling signs that could have forecasted what has transpired this year.
In his heart, I think Gruden saw this coming too, although he would never admit it publicly. That’s why his enthusiasm was tempered heading into this season and there wasn’t much talk about playoffs or the Super Bowl from a guy who is eager to talk about them when he has the horses to win the race.
Rebuilding is a process that rarely happens overnight. If Gruden didn’t know it then, he knows it now, especially with a team coming out of years of salary cap hell, going through a youthful overhaul on offense and seeing a once-dominant and aging defense needing a talent transfusion while breaking in some new coaches. All of these factors hit Tampa Bay like a perfect storm in 2006.
As it turns out, the Bucs played over their heads in 2005, and it is a tribute to Gruden and the coaches and the players for overachieving last year and winning the games they should have over teams with losing records. It’s also safe to say that this team is underachieving this year, and that reflects some poor coaching by Gruden and his staff in certain games and situations, and real disappointing play from the players who have lost some games they should have won. Looking back, Tampa Bay would have been 8-8 last year if not for some fortunate breaks, but it should have been about 8-8 this year, too, if it had played up to its coaching and playing ability.
If the Bucs overdosed on karma last season, they are clearly going through withdrawls in 2006.
FAB 2. While things may look gloomy for the 2006 season in Tampa Bay, the Bucs could be in position to boomerang next season and turn in a winning record, much like the team did from 2004’s 5-11 season to 2005’s 11-5 season. The reason is twofold.
First, an easier schedule that consists of playing other last place teams in the NFC along with the NFC West and AFC South should help a Tampa Bay team that is still rebuilding. But secondly, and most importantly, the Bucs will be one of the most in-demand teams for free agents to be interested in. In fact, some are already expressing an interest.
Have you noticed after a game that players from opposing teams will shake hands and even opposing players and coaches will chat in the post-game atmosphere? It’s not just losers congratulating winners and former college and pro teammates catching up before heading to the locker room. Free agency doesn’t start at the Pro Bowl anymore in terms of recruiting. No, free agency has already begun.
Pewter Report has talked to multiple sources that say that several potential 2007 free agents have already talked to some Buccaneers coaches and some high-profile Bucs players after the games this year and expressed an interest in playing in Tampa Bay. Every 2007 free agent knows the salary cap numbers of every team from his agent, and with an excess of $25 million worth of cap room next year, Tampa Bay will be one of the most attractive places to play for a myriad of reasons (no state income tax, new training facility, great weather, the opportunity to play for Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin, etc.), but the biggest reason will be money for great, young free agents who are in the prime of their careers.
In this day and age, players are taking it upon themselves to show interest in prospective teams shortly after games with a quick introductory handshake, a wink and a “by the way, coach, I’m a free agent next year.” It’s good that it’s happening this way because if the coaches were to pursue players after games that could be construed as tampering.
I can’t reveal any of the names of these players, but look for those players to headline our offseason coverage on PewterReport.com and in the Pewter Report Free Agency Preview in February. Just expect the Bucs to strike it rich in free agency next year.
FAB 3. Have you wondered why rookie cornerback Alan Zemaitis, the team’s fourth-round draft pick, has not seen the field yet despite problems in Tampa Bay’s secondary? Zemaitis, who was forecast to be picked by the Bucs by PewterReport.com, was thought to be a natural fit in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense because he played Cover 2 defense at Penn State and thrived in zone coverage.
So why has it taken Zemaitis so long to absorb a defense that was thought to be so similar to what he played at Penn State? As it turns out, all Cover 2 defenses aren’t created equal.
“The fundamentals and techniques that we play with here are totally different from Penn State,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “He’s never really been in a pure backpedal before, but I think he’s doing better. He’s more of a shuffler than a backpedaler. They played the Hero scheme there (at Penn State). They’ve got the Fritz and the Hero. It was kind of an eight-man front, 3-deep system. We’re a team that thrives in a Cover 2 shell. He didn’t play a lot of that stuff.
“This Tampa defense is like a religion. The run fits involve the cornerback. Sometimes if they’re in a slot formation and you are the corner to the short side, you’ve got a critical run fit. And if you don’t know what your fit is … you aren’t going to get any more reps during that practice period. Do you know what I mean? He’s had his ears burned off a few times and I think he’s responded to it pretty good.”
Gruden said that despite a steep learning curve due to different techniques, schemes and checks, Zemaitis is making progress behind the scenes.
“I think his size is a real positive for him,” Gruden said of Zemaitis. “He’s playing more instinctively and quicker in the system. I think his recognition is faster. He’s starting to understand the pro hashes and the pro numbers and how the field is a little different from college football. He’s also gained a healthy respect for what some of these quarterbacks can do. He’s probably thinking, ‘Maybe I should play deep to short because they’ll throw it over my head if I’m not on it.’ You can’t evaluate his physicalness until you get him in a game, and we’d like to get him active at some point, but he is alive and doing well.”
Kiffin is encouraged by what he’s seen from Zemaitis and expected there to be some some rough spots in his transition to Tampa Bay’s Cover 2 scheme.
“It’s a different kind of Cover 2,” Kiffin said. “Everybody plays it different. We coach it a lot differently here. Some people look inside when they re-route and they might watch the offensive tackle and tight ends in run reads. Some people don’t get up on the receivers and play off in a soft Cover 2. Some people play the 7 routes and fade routes differently. Maybe at Penn State he had a different responsibility because the safeties played differently. It’s very complex and all Cover 2 defenses aren’t the same.”
With Tampa Bay struggling mighty at the safety position, is there a chance that Zemaitis could play safety for the Bucs? After all, the team has always liked to have a versatile defensive back who can crosstrain between safety and cornerback (see Dwight Smith and Dexter Jackson).
“We’re trying to teach him his natural position first,” Gruden said. “It’s obvious that he has the traits to be a safety, and that may be the final destination for him, but not this year. He’s gotten better every day in practice, although he hasn’t gotten the opportunity to play yet. He’s buying into everything that we’re doing and he’s getting better.”
Kiffin agreed that Tampa Bay is focusing on Zemaitis solely as a cornerback this year.
“He’s strictly working at corner right now,” Kiffin said. “He has the size to play at safety some day, but as a rookie, you don’t want him to learn two positions. He’s been focused on playing corner this year.”
With Juran Bolden bruising his fibula in Sunday’s win over Washington, Zemaitis will likely be active for his first NFL game on Thursday in Dallas.
FAB 4. Despite what some of you may be hearing on sports talk radio, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden is not losing the locker room – at least not yet. The reason why the locker room has not splintered despite a disappointing, losing season is because the players really don’t blame the coaches for their poor performance.
There have been some grumblings that some players aren’t really too fond of defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, but Pewter Report can’t find anyone who is not believing in Gruden at this time.
The fact that players on offense, defense and special teams have contributed to Tampa Bay’s losing season has prevented any finger-pointing in the locker room. Several players Pewter Report has spoken with has also stated that linebacker Derrick Brooks, fullback Mike Alstott and cornerback Ronde Barber have provided good leadership that has kept the team together. It’s not the rah-rah type of leadership that is going to necessarily will this team to victory, but more of a subtle type of leadership that has kept everyone in line and in unity.
As the losses mount – and the Bucs would be lucky to win six games this year – if there are any cracks in the locker room, it will likely come from older players, perhaps on the defensive side of the ball. Any player who does speak out against Gruden, as defensive end Simeon Rice did at the end of the 2004 season, will likely not be around in 2007 anyway.
Gruden will likely get the 2007 season to turn Tampa Bay around, but may need to produce a winning record or a playoff berth to see 2008. However, the Glazers will undoubtedly see if Gruden still has the backing of his players before assuring that he will coach the Buccaneers next year. Gruden needs to do his part to keep the team together and appears to be taking a big step by giving his players a three-day weekend after the Bucs play at Dallas on Thanksgiving.
A couple of years ago, a ticked off Gruden may have played the role of task master and demanded that the team practice on Saturday or Sunday. But Gruden, knowing that an extra day’s worth of practice is not going to magically get his team into the playoffs, is wisely giving his tired and sore team a couple of days off with the hope that the team will feel a little rejuvenation for the final five games of the season. In a year when his coaching hasn’t been top-notch, that may be the best and smartest bit of coaching Gruden has done all year.
FAB. 5 Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• In the last SR’s Fab Five, I mistakenly omitted the name of New Orleans’ Charles Grant from the list of defensive ends. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Grant, who is in his fifth NFL season, has amassed 34 sacks in his young NFL career and has yet to miss a start. Grant had seven sacks as a rookie, followed by campaigns of 10 sacks and 10.5 sacks over the next two years. Last year, Grant produced only 2.5 sacks, but he’s rebounded four QB captures this year through nine games. Grant is also a turnover producer with 15 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and one interception. Grant will join Cincinnati’s Justin Smith and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney as free agency’s marquee defensive ends. Going after Grant in free agency would help upgrade Tampa Bay’s defensive line and steal a stud pass rusher away from a division rival.
• For those of you playing along at home, former Bucs defensive tackle Anthony McFarland finally got a sack. Including last year’s playoff game against Washington, McFarland broke a 15-game span without recording a sack by dropping Buffalo’s J.P. Losman two weeks ago. The fact that McFarland’s replacement, Ellis Wyms, has a team-leading four sacks despite missing the last two games, is proof that the Bucs were wise to deal the underachieving tackle. Want more proof? McFarland was widely regarded as a run stuffer, but the Bucs allowed an average of 141 yards rushing in the first five games of the season. Over the last five games without McFarland, Tampa Bay has only given up an average of 101 yards per game.
• Why do some in the local media and on local talk radio want to review Jon Gruden’s record over the last four years rather than the last five? I mean, Gruden has been in Tampa for only five years, right? So why not include all five years when looking at his record and accomplishments? The reason? It skews the numbers the media and talk radio want to present. It’s much more fun for them to say that Gruden has produced one winning record in the last four years as opposed to two winning records in the last five, and that his record over the last four years is 26-33 (including the postseason) rather than 41-37 (including the postseason). Of course, Gruden’s 3-1 playoff record and Super Bowl championship are routinely omitted as well.
• It’s looking more and more like the Buccaneers will extend a contract offer to quarterback Chris Simms and have him battle Bruce Gradkowski for the starting job next year. With Jon Gruden likely on the hot seat in 2007, he will want to go with a player that has some familiarity and experience in his offense. That will give Tampa Bay the best chance to win and salvage Gruden’s job. It’s doubtful that a great, experienced player like Drew Brees will hit the free agent market, so Simms might be Tampa Bay’s best option. Simms has told Pewter Report that he definitely wants to return to Tampa Bay. What he didn’t say – and this will undoubtedly play a huge role in any decision to re-sign with the Bucs – was how much money he wanted and if he had to be guaranteed the starting QB job. If there is a starting job and a more lucrative offer out there in free agency, Simms could spurn the Buccaneers.
• Over a week ago, my wife Elisa and I had a great time on our trip to my alma mater, Kansas State, to see the Wildcats play – no, make that beat – the Texas Longhorns. We got to spend some quality time with former Bucs assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, who is K-State’s 30-year old defensive coordinator. I’ve known Raheem for years and he gave Elisa and I the V.I.P. treatment with some great seats for the game, a tour of the new football complex and some inside scoop on K-State (which I won’t bore you with) and the Bucs. I’m not allowed to go into detail, but suffice it to say that the Bucs tried really, really hard to prevent Morris from going to K-State. In the end, general manager Bruce Allen made a big mistake by allowing Morris, who is completely turning around K-State’s defense, and former Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin to have their contracts up in the same year. Tampa Bay’s secondary, which is blowing coverages and not getting interceptions (only four this year), is paying for that mistake. As always, I was doing some draft scouting while watching the game and I can tell you that K-State has very few NFL draft prospects this year. But keep an eye on Wildcats middle linebacker Zach Diles (6-foot-1, 240), who has 92 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, six pass breakups, one interception and one fumble recovery for a 43-yard touchdown. Morris loves him. Morris is high on safety Marcus Watts and wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who will be seniors next year, and a couple of down-the-road guys – sophomore defensive end Ian Campbell (11.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss this year) and true freshman quarterback Josh Freeman (6-foot-6, 238 pounds). The guy who really caught my attention during K-State’s big, 45-42 win was Texas safety Michael Griffin, who had an interception and a blocked punt in the contest. He had a great game for the Longhorns. Texas cornerback Aaron Ross, who has really been hyped up during his senior year, got beat by speedy K-State receiver Yamon Figurs for two long touchdowns. And yes, his name is Yamon – pronounced just like Bob Marley would say it. All in all, it was a great weekend in Manhattan, Kansas, a place I haven’t been since I graduated in 1995. My wife and I saw the first Bob Huggins-coached basketball game (a 70-60 Wildcat win), got to shake hands with legendary coach Bill Snyder again at halftime of the basketball game, and then got to rush the field (like old times) after one of the best K-State football games in the school’s history.
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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