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Copyright 2006 PewterReport.com
Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. What do the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to try to salvage their disappointing 2-6 season (aside from a pass rush, a running game and two new safeties)? An attitude adjustment.
When you walk into the Buccaneers’ losing locker room this year you see surprise and disappointment. You don’t see shock. You don’t see anger. Yes, the Buccaneers want to win, but how badly?
Back in the day, Tampa Bay middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson refused to accept losing. Yes, he played on some bad Buccaneers teams from 1993-96 before Tampa Bay made the playoffs in ’97, and wasn’t surrounded by much talent in the early days, but he never accepted losing. He made that clear to Keith McCants when he picked a fight with the underachieving first-round pick who was loafing at One Buccaneer Place upon his arrival in ’93.
Not only did Nickerson win the fight with McCants, he won over the locker room and became the new sheriff in town. He also got McCants cut shortly thereafter. McCants was a loser. Nickerson didn’t want to be around losers.
From 1996-99, Nickerson helped develop strong leaders in Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber. But when Nickerson left in 2000, the locker room became Sapp’s. Yes, his surly demeanor and loud mouth rubbed some teammates the wrong way, but Sapp was always about winning and set the tempo for the team in the locker room and in practice even when his skills began to decline in 2002.
While Brooks was the consummate pro and the player everyone respected, Sapp was the guy that everybody feared. Some of Sapp’s teammates say he ruled the locker room with an iron fist.
Sapp certainly had his detractors during his eight-year stay in Tampa Bay, but he only had two losing seasons as a Buccaneer starter – in 1996 and in 2003. He simply refused to let the Buccaneers lose and quit. He would call you out in front of your teammates in team meetings, in the locker room, on the practice field and on the field at Raymond James Stadium.
If the Bucs gave up a big run, Sapp was notorious for snarling, “whose gap was that?!” in the defensive huddle. He made the guilty party identify himself in front of the group, then Sapp would usually call that person out for it. If Sapp was the guilty party, he expected his teammates to call him out. Sapp was all about peer pressure.
The nastiest defensive tackle in Bucs history would also pick a fight anytime, anywhere if he thought you were contributing to the team losing. To Sapp, losing was not acceptable. Since he left, the Buccaneers have had two bad losing seasons – a 5-11 campaign in 2004 and what is almost guaranteed to be a similar type of year in 2006.
Brooks and Barber have provided good leadership in Sapp’s absence over the past three years, but they always seem to do their best work steering the Buccaneers’ ship when things are going right to make sure they stay on course. I admire their status as team leaders, but neither one is exactly full of fire and brimstone like Nickerson and Sapp were. Brooks and Barber choose to lead by example, which is great – when people are actually looking at you.
And that seems to be the problem this year. Everyone is looking at themselves and pointing the fingers at themselves. Maybe this team does need some real finger-pointing at each other – albeit behind closed doors. Maybe the Buccaneers need a players-only meeting and succumb to some real peer pressure.
You hate to call this group of players a bunch of front-runners, but do you see this team actually rallying in 2006? Do you see this team actually stringing together some wins out of pride with the hope of finishing 8-8 despite a horrifically difficult schedule in the weeks ahead?
In 2004, Carolina started off 1-7 before winning winning five straight to pull to 6-7 before finishing 7-9. Do you see Tampa Bay doing that this year?
I’m not going to say that when adversity hits, the Bucs quit – but they sure don’t rally. This team does not get ticked off enough after losses.
When this team looks to free agency and the draft to solve its problems on offense and defense, talent and character are always good qualities to look for, but Tampa Bay also needs to look for some nasty. The Bucs need a real ass-kicker on defense. They need a fearsome leader again in the mold of Nickerson and Sapp who will strike fear in the hearts of opponents and make this team afraid of lose.
Tampa Bay could use a little dark side in these dark times at One Buc Place. This team needs to fear losing, get angry when it does lose, hate the thought of losing again and bring a heavy dose of suffering on its next opponent. That’s certainly not happening right now.
FAB 2. If you are a quarterback expected to play the Buccaneers this year, you must be breathing a little easier in seeing how Tampa Bay defenders didn’t come close to pressuring New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. The Bucs tried to blitz linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks last Sunday – all to no avail.
The reason for the blitzing of course is that Tampa Bay can no longer rush its front four and get to the quarterback. Chris Hovan is a rabid run stuffer, but hasn’t had a sack since he’s been in Tampa Bay (that’s 25 games for you playing at home). We’re seeing the reason why Monte Kiffin made him a nose tackle instead of an under tackle.
Under tackle Ellis Wyms leads the team with four sacks this year but is battling a nasty ankle sprain and was ineffective against New Orleans.
The 32-year old Simeon Rice has an ailing shoulder and abdomen and has only two sacks this year. It seems the Bucs’ right defensive end is losing a step and was embarrassed by being held in check by Zach Strief, a seventh-round draft pick last April who had never started a game before Sunday – much less suit up for an NFL game. By the way, Strief played right tackle at Northwestern – not left tackle.
Left end Greg Spires is also 32 years old and has clearly lost a step. He has just one sack this year and just doesn’t have the quickness he once had to get around right tackles. His backup, Dewayne White, has flashed potential and probably has more playmaking ability at this stage of his career, but the coaches aren’t ready to give up on Spires just yet.
It’s clear that Tampa Bay needs to upgrade its pass rush in the 2007 offseason and behind these five players – one or two of which likely won’t be Buccaneers next year – the cupboard is bare. That means the Bucs’ brass will gaze towards free agency first – and then the draft – looking for linemen who can make life miserable for quarterbacks.
An early look into free agency, suggests there are a handful of proven pass rushers, including Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney, Cincinnati’s Justin Smith, Baltimore’s Adalius Thomas and Kansas City’s Jared Allen, who is a restricted free agent.
Freeney, a fifth-year pro, has four straight seasons of double-digit sacks with 13 in his rookie year, 11 the next year, a career-high 16 in 2004 and 11 last season. However, the 6-foot-1, 268-pound Freeney only has half a sack this year due to a severe hamstring/quadriceps injury he suffered in Week 2. While that may drive down his asking price a bit, he is still a young, dominant pass rusher who could replace Simeon Rice should Tampa Bay elect to cut Rice. Like Rice, Freeney is a master of forcing fumbles, having forced nine as a rookie and at least four in every year in the NFL except for this year. The fact that Freeney plays in a Cover 2 style defense like Tampa Bay’s makes him a natural fit. However, there has been some talk that the Colts might place the franchise tag on him.
The 6-foot-4, 278-pound Smith offers size and a high motor. He’s a consistent producer each year against the run and the pass and may be the most complete defensive end on the market. He provides a steady pass rush with 8.5 sacks as a rookie in 2001, 6.5 the next year, five in 2003, eight in ’04, six in ’05 and 6.5 this year through eight games. Unlike Freeney, who has 23 career forced fumbles, Smith doesn’t create a lot of turnovers, but does have seven forced fumbles and two interceptions in his six-year NFL career. The Bengals might place the franchise tag on him, but if not, Smith will command top dollar as he may become a double-digit sacker this year.
Tampa Bay loves Thomas as a player, but the Ravens use him in unique ways – as a rush and cover linebacker, a defensive end and a roving safety – which is impressive given his size at 6-foot-2, 270 pounds. Thomas is the oldest of the players I’m profiling here at age 29, but he’s still in his prime. Aside from being an impact tackler in the running game, he’s recorded 34.5 sacks over his seven-year career, including 24 sacks in the last three years alone. Thomas is also a ball magnet, recording six interceptions (returning two for touchdowns), forcing 13 fumbles and recovering four loose balls (returning two of those for TDs). Thomas would have to make a transition to become a full-time defensive end for the Buccaneers, but has the size, ability and tenacity to do it. The good thing about Monte Kiffin’s defense is that he routinely drops defensive ends into pass coverage in zone blitzes and Thomas would thrive in that situation. Baltimore has a lot of money tied up in other big names on the team and may not be able to afford to keep Thomas.
Allen is an interesting fellow because he’s a mega-producer with 25 sacks over his three-year NFL career. He debuted with nine sacks as a situational rusher, then recorded 11 last year as a starter, forcing seven fumbles along the way. He’s already at five sacks this year through eight games, has forced three fumbles and picked off a pass. Allen is as high motor as they come – on and off the field. He has already snagged a pair of alleged DUIs this year and has a reputation of being a rowdy barfighter. Tampa Bay actually needs some nasty guys like Allen to bring some sorely needed attitude to its defense, but the Bucs don’t want a guy who is going to get arrested all the time, either. It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs tender him as a restricted free agent. On the field, he’s an asset. Off the field, it’s a different story. The guy is also one heck of a long snapper.
In case you are wondering, the defensive tackle market is simply putrid in 2007, especially regarding disruptive players who fit Tampa Bay’s scheme. There are young guys that have done very little in the NFL, including San Francisco’s Anthony Adams (six career sacks), Indianapolis’ Dan Klecko (two career sacks), Tennessee’s Rien Long (9.5 career sacks) and Chicago’s Ian Scott (two career sacks); and much older vets who may not have much left in the tank, including Dan Wilkerson (Miami), Hollis Thomas (Philadelphia) and Bryant Young (San Francisco).
Tampa Bay’s best bet would be to re-sign White and hope he continues to develop, try to sign one of the good defensive ends who will be in free agency, and then cross their fingers when it comes to signing a tackle in free agency and hope they find another Hovan – except a Hovan that actually records sacks.
FAB 3. You have to give the New York Giants credit. With two stud pass-rushing ends in Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora the team spent its first-round pick this year on defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who terrorized quarterbacks in the Big East and the ACC for years. This coming on the heels of drafting Auburn defensive end Reggie Torbor, who is now a blitzing strongside linebacker, three years ago, and drafting defensive end Jason Tuck, who was a strong, quick pass rusher at Notre Dame two years ago.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin is a big believer in generating a strong pass rush and has drafted pass rusher after pass rusher to bolster the defensive end position.
Of course the Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven’t had that luxury to stockpile premium pass rushers on defense due to a lack of premium draft picks over the years (see Fab 5. below). It must be mentioned that the Bucs passed over Alabama’s Senior Bowl standout, Mark Anderson, who has 7.5 sacks for Chicago as a rookie, and drafted a 3-4 defensive end out of Stanford, Julian Jenkins, who didn’t show much promise in the preseason and hasn’t played a snap on defense yet. But that horse has been beaten too many times by yours truly and others.
With the Bucs missing out on Anderson, who could be a future starter in Chicago with continued success, Tampa Bay will once again look to the draft to pick up another pass rusher. With the Bucs having what looks to be a top 10 pick in the 2007 draft, this franchise may spend it on a defensive end that can get to the quarterback. While defensive tackle may be just as big a need, this is a down year at the position and there aren’t any premier pass-rushing tackles that carry a first-round grade.
So who are the top senior pass rushers in the college ranks that figure to go in the first round? It starts at Clemson with versatile defensive end Gaines Adams. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound athlete can play either left or right end, but will likely be a right end in the pros. He’s a big-time sack producer with 10.5 sacks this year and 8.5 last year. He’s also forced five fumbles over the last two years. Adams figures to be a top 10 pick in the draft due to his combination of quickness and athleticism. He’s also good versus the run, and is quite adept at dropping into coverage in zone blitzes as well. He would be an ideal fit in Tampa Bay.
Michigan’s LaMarr Woodley is one of the reasons why the Wolverines are undefeated and vying for the national championship. Woodley has 11 sacks this year after posting five a year ago. At 6-1, 271 pounds, he’s built like Dwight Freeney, but doesn’t have Freeney’s elite quickness. Woodley has forced seven fumbles in his Wolverines career and has worked his way into the first round of the draft.
Georgia’s Quentin Moses is having a disappointing senior season, but still carries a first-round grade based on his overall body of work. After posting 11.5 sacks as a junior, Moses has recorded just 3.5 sacks this year and has been outplayed at times by fellow end, Charles Johnson. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Moses was thought to be a top 10 pick coming into 2006, but will now find himself drafted in the middle of round one.
Another probable first-round pick is Notre Dame’s Victor Abiamiri, who has 10 sacks in 2006 after coming off an 8.5-sack season a year ago. Abiamiri gets to the quarterback, but doesn’t create turnovers. He has only two forced fumbles in his college career. Other potential first-day picks include Purdue’s Anthony Spencer (16.5 sacks and six forced fumbles over the last two years), Central Michigan’s Daniel Bazuin (21 sacks and seven forced fumbles from 2005-06) and Texas’ Tim Crowder (8.5 sacks in 2006 and three last year). Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker has the size (6-foot-6, 285) to be a 3-4 defensive end and wouldn’t fit in well with Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2, and Florida’s Ray McDonald has had a host of knee injuries and will carry a red flag heading into the draft due to his medical reports. The unfortunate death of Miami defensive end Bryan Pata also robs the 2007 draft of another pass rushing defensive end.
The good news is that help could be on the way for Tampa Bay’s woeful pass rush. The bad news is that it won’t be coming this year. The Bucs need to take a page out of the Giants' playbook and stockpile pass rushers – starting next year.
FAB 4. The most maddening aspect of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers professionally for 11 years is that this team rarely lives up to expectations. I’ve written about this disturbing trend before, but as it continues into the 2006 season, it is worth repeating.
The Buccaneers had won a flurry of games at the end of the 1996 campaign, but still finished 6-10 in Tony Dungy’s first season as head coach. Expectations were higher at the start of the ’97 season with most fans and pundits expecting the Bucs to finish 8-8 in Year Two of the Dungy era. No one expected Tampa Bay to destroy NFC powerhouse San Francisco in the 1997 season opener (there were over 14,000 empty seats), but that win keyed a 5-0 start and an 11-7 record with a playoff win against Detroit and a playoff loss at Green Bay.
Tampa Bay was the national media’s darling in 1998 when most experts expected the Bucs to contend for the NFC title with Green Bay. A young Buccaneers team couldn’t handle success and wilted to an 8-8 record. With talk that Tampa Bay was a one-year wonder during the 1997 season, expectations were lowered in 1999. Of course, the Bucs defense carried this surprising team all the way to the NFC Championship Game, only to lose to St. Louis.
In 2000, high expectations of Tampa Bay taking the next step and reaching the Super Bowl were in place, but the Bucs failed to even win their division. A humiliating, first-round playoff loss at Philadelphia was thought to fuel a rebound season in 2001, especially with the offseason addition of quarterback Brad Johnson and defensive end Simeon Rice. But another round of high expectations resulted in a 9-7 record, an even worse playoff loss in Philly from the previous year and the firing of Dungy.
After two straight Wild Card road losses due to a pathetic offense, Jon Gruden, an offensive-minded head coach, was welcomed with open arms. However, expectations were lowered because of the fact that Gruden was acquired from Oakland so late in the offseason (in mid-February), he had to assemble a new coaching staff, install a brand new offense, and assimilate seven new starters in that offense. Fans and the media were hoping for the playoffs, but realizing that coaching changes typically set a team back until the right players for the new system are acquired and integrated. We all know what happened on January 27, 2003.
With Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team virtually intact in 2003, expectations were sky high for a repeat championship. Egos running amuck in the front office, a Super Bowl hangover, key injuries to shutdown cornerback Brian Kelly, fullback Mike Alstott and wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, and the Keyshawn Johnson debacle derailed plans to repeat and Tampa Bay, armed with a tougher schedule, couldn’t fare better than 7-9.
Most folks figured the Buccaneers would rebound in 2004 after the 7-9 wake-up call they had received in ’03. With some new offensive linemen, a new running back in Charlie Garner and a new wide receiver in Joey Galloway, expectations of the Bucs turning that 7-9 into 9-7 were running rampant. After all, this was a team that was Super Bowl champions just two years earlier. But a nasty holdout by Keenan McCardell, a slew of injuries to Galloway, Garner and Jurevicius and a lack of good chemistry in the locker room led to a surprising and dismal 5-11 record.
Expectations were justifiably lowered in 2005 with most fans hoping for at least a three-win turnaround that would result in an 8-8 record. Instead, Tampa Bay shocked everyone in going from 5-11 to 11-5 and winning its second NFC South title in three years, which marked the biggest turnaround in team history. But even though the team had secured a home playoff game, it lost to Washington in a shocker.
With a young quarterback who showed a ton of promise and potential in Chris Simms, the number one defense in the NFL returning virtually intact and a revamped offensive line, most fans and some in the media (including Pewter Report) predicted Tampa Bay would build on last year’s success and once again return to the playoffs, thus expectations were raised once again. But some in the media wisely suggested that one of the league’s toughest schedules could derail the Buccaneers’ hopes at retaining its NFC South crown and making the postseason again. With Tampa Bay sitting at 2-6 right now, they guessed right.
The most puzzling aspect of the Buccaneers not living up to high expectations or surpassing people’s expectations when they are lowered is that this is a trend that has dated back to the Dungy era in 1997 and continued through the Gruden era in the modern day. This trend has transcended the full gambit of the roster too, with only cornerback Ronde Barber, linebacker Derrick Brooks and tight end Dave Moore still on the team from the 1997 season. Thus it is impossible to simply lay it at the feet of a particular coach or particular or group of players.
The fact that Tampa Bay can’t seem to deal with success is downright bizarre, but since 1997, this team has never been pegged right by the majority of media or the fans. They have either been a pleasant surprise, or surprisingly disappointing. It looks like the latter is certainly the case this year.
FAB. 5 Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• With the 2006 season shaping up to be a losing one, what is in store for next year? It is early – very early – to make any meaningful prediction. We haven’t seen how this year will play out and what roster moves the team will make in the offseason. But one thing appears to be certain – the Bucs’ 2007 schedule appears to be less daunting as this year’s brutal one. Did you realize that in nearly every game the Buccaneers have played in this year they have faced a division winner at that time? Baltimore was tied for the division lead on opening day. Atlanta was atop the NFC South in Game 2. New Orleans led the NFC South in Game 4. Cincinnati was tied for the AFC East division lead in Game 5. At the time, Philadelphia was on top of the NFC East in Game 6. The New York Giants were leaders in the NFC East in Game 7. The Saints remain on top of the NFC South heading into Game 8. The only team that was not atop their division when Tampa Bay played them was Carolina in Game 3. Despite the disappointment this year, the fact that the Bucs have had the toughest schedule of any team in the NFL this year is a big reason why Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen will stick around in 2007. An easier schedule, being approximately $23 million under the cap, four selections in the top 96 and lowered expectations (See Fab 4.) could (and should) be the recipe for a winning season.
• Call it the curse of One Buccaneer Palace – maybe. While there is absolutely no direct evidence to suggest that the team’s new, posh facilities are to blame for Tampa Bay’s disappointing season that saw the Bucs lose their first four games, there are a few individuals at the team’s headquarters that believe that the players may be getting a bit too comfortable in their new digs. With an extravagant player’s lounge and all the amenities one could ask for, is the new facility making this Buccaneers team soft? I doubt it, but the thought has crossed the minds of some at the new One Buccaneer Palace. The buzzword at the new One Buc Place is complacency.
• A curious stat was put on display in a column in the St. Petersburg Times this week, stating how the Buccaneers have only used one pick on a defensive player – linebacker Barrett Ruud in 2005 – within the top 50 players in the draft since 2000. Kinda makes the Bucs look negligent for not drafting impact players on defense that would have prevented this year’s slide on that side of the ball, doesn’t it? But what the column fails to point out is that on draft days since 2000, the Bucs have only had five opportunities to draft a player in the top 50. General manager Rich McKay traded away two first-rounders for Keyshawn Johnson in 2000. He then picked Kenyatta Walker in the first round and used the team’s second-round pick to move up in the round to get him in 2001. The Glazers traded away the Bucs’ first- and second-round picks in 2002 and its first-rounder in 2003. The first pick in the 2003 draft was actually on defense – end Dewayne White with the 64th pick overall – but that is out of the Top 50 realm as stated in the column. In 2004, the Bucs did grab Michael Clayton with their first-round pick, but had to give its second-round pick to Oakland to finish off the Gruden trade. In 2005, Cadillac Williams was the first-round pick and Ruud was Tampa Bay’s second-round selection. Of course, guard Davin Joseph, a first-rounder, was the team’s lone top 50 pick in 2006. The Bucs certainly shouldn’t be guilty of neglecting the defense in the top 50 picks over the last seven years. According to my calculations, they’ve only had five top 50 picks, including the selection used to land Ruud. McKay and the Glazers actually traded away seven top 50 picks from 2000-2004. I don’t see near as much neglect there on draft day in Tampa Bay that the St. Petersburg Times is trying to suggest or imply.
• I’m taking advantage of the fact that the Buccaneers aren’t playing football on Sunday to take my wife to my alma mater, Kansas State, for the first time. I haven’t seen the K-State Wildcats play live since 1994 and I haven’t been back to my college since I graduated in ’95 so this Saturday will be a special treat as we not only get to watch the K-State vs. Texas football game, but we also get to see the Bob Huggins-led Wildcats basketball team tip off the 2006-07 season earlier in the day. I also get a chance to spend some time with someone I really enjoyed covering at One Buccaneer Place, former Bucs assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. At age 29, Morris declined the opportunity to become Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach to replace Mike Tomlin, and became new Kansas State head coach Ron Prince’s defensive coordinator in January instead. Morris stays in touch on a regular basis with Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, linebackers coach Joe Barry, cornerback Ronde Barber and former Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, who is now Minnesota’s defensive coordinator. K-State’s total defense is ranked in middle of the pack in NCAA rankings, and Morris has the Wildcats in the top 25 in turnovers and the top 10 in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss implementing the Tampa 2 defense. In addition to Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense recently infiltrating to Kansas City (Herman Edwards), Chicago (Lovie Smith), Detroit (Rod Marinelli) and Minnesota (Tomlin), another original member of Kiffin’s staff is spreading to the college ranks at K-State. It should be a fun weekend. The Bucs don't play on Sunday, so I suggest spending some time away from football for an afternoon for a change.
Copyright 2006 PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.
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