SR's Fab Five appears regularly on PewterReport.com

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.

Here are five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. Have you had it with the play of Tampa Bay Buccaneers under tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland yet? I certainly have. After watching him chicken fight with New Orleans’ unheralded interior linemen and post zero tackles, zero pressures, and of course, zero sacks, there is no more overlooking the obvious. This guy stinks … at football. At golf, which appears to be his true passion, he’s probably pretty good.

The offensive linemen McFarland squared off against in New Orleans (surely Pro Bowlers who would keep him off the stats sheet, right?) included center Jeff Faine, a castoff from Cleveland, and guards Jamar Nesbit, an eight-year journeyman, and Jahri Evans, a rookie from Bloomsburg College in Pennsylvania. McFarland didn’t get close enough to Saints quarterback Drew Brees to pick him out of a police lineup.

As an underachiever, McFarland is definitely a Pro Bowler. As an under tackle, he is not even starting-caliber in my opinion. Ask yourself this question – is McFarland any better than his reserve, Ellis Wyms, a former sixth-round pick who is a converted defensive end?

Watch McFarland play. While he does have a great first step and is perhaps the quickest Buc off the ball, he is not a very instinctive football player. I’ve seen him run by countless sack opportunities, and half the time he fills his gap he isn’t even looking for the football. It’s all on the film. His body language tells me, “Hey, I did my job. I filled my gap. My work is done here.”

How about finding the ball? How about making a play? Does this guy have any peripheral vision? Does his facemask have horse-blinders on it?

Remember that 57-yard run by Deuce McAllister? Go back and look at the tape. McAllister ran right by McFarland, and McFarland, who was engaged in a one-on-one block with Evans never even saw him. His football awareness leaves a lot to be desired.

There is just no sense of urgency on this guy’s part. Any sense of urgency he had was killed by the lucrative contract he was offered by former general manager Rich McKay during the 2003 preseason. At the time, I was in favor of McFarland being signed to a long-term deal over Warren Sapp, and I applauded McKay’s tough decision to go with the younger and quicker defensive tackle over the franchise’s cornerstone.

Hey, I had my beef with Sapp’s play. I thought Sapp was mailing it in during the 2003 season when he was unhappy that McFarland landed the big deal prior to free agency instead of him, and his play really declined during the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run in 2002. When he replaced Sapp at under tackle and fared well in 2003 against Houston, I thought McFarland had a bright future at the position. He showed the quickness, power and playmaking ability of a young Sapp. But it seems that McFarland’s playmaking ability was sapped by the comfort zone that his new contract provided.

Since taking over for Sapp in 2004, McFarland has missed nine of 36 games due to injury and has produced just five sacks and two fumble recoveries. That’s pretty disappointing for a guy who is eating up $6.598 million in salary cap room this year.

Sure, it is an awful lot to ask for McFarland to become another Sapp – who was a once-in-a-lifetime player for this franchise – even though he gets paid like him. But can’t McFarland even try to at least imitate Sapp once in a while?

Do you know who McFarland is imitating? Damione Lewis. You know, the 6-foot-2, 301-pound defensive tackle that was a former first-round pick in St. Louis? Lewis was released in the offseason because he underachieved and didn’t live up to his contract and draft billing. Now he’s a backup – a wave pass rusher – in Carolina.

Lewis, who has just 12.5 sacks in his six-year career, actually has two sacks this season – which is two more than McFarland does. But when McFarland, who has only 20 sacks in his eight-year career, gets cut as a salary cap casualty in 2007 – and he will unless he miraculously comes alive and becomes a pass-rushing force for the rest of the season – he will likely suffer the same fate as Lewis.

If McFarland were here to defend himself as I write this, he would probably point to the amount of double teams he receives throughout the course of a game, or the limited amount of opportunities that he has because he faces quarterbacks who use quick, three-step drops some times. Those sound like great excuses.

But you know what? Great players will occasionally beat a double team and still record a sack. Great players are good enough to occasionally penetrate and fast enough to get a sack on a three-step drop. And great players dominate when they get one-on-one opportunities. When was the last time McFarland dominated a game? I can’t remember without consulting my media guide – and I cover this team for a living.

I cut McFarland some slack last year with the sudden and unfortunate passing of his mother during training camp. But this year, McFarland actually had a good preseason with two sacks. Once the season started, he vanished – unless you count the eight tackles he has through four games.

Forget the nickname “Booger.” I’ve got a new one for this underachiever. “The Invisible Man.”

The Bucs will have to start over at under tackle next year, arguably the most important position on the Tampa Bay defense. The problem for Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden is that the highly-paid Wyms ($3.25 million) isn’t lighting it up right now and doesn’t appear to be starter material. After Wyms, the cupboard is bare, unless you count fifth-round draft pick Julian Jenkins, whom I am not real high on.

The real disappointing thing with McFarland is that he is such a tease from an athletic standpoint that the Bucs have been waiting for the production to match the athleticism and they haven’t bothered to spend a first-day draft pick on a defensive tackle since they drafted McFarland in 1999. For that, shame on McKay and Allen.

With all of the signs pointing to the fact that McFarland was an injury-prone underachiever over the past few years, something should have been done in free agency or the draft to safeguard the Buccaneers at the all-important under tackle position. Instead, we’re forced to watch “The Invisible Man.”

FAB 2. Booger McFarland is a big part of the problem on Tampa Bay’s defense, but it certainly isn’t all his fault. The play of the Buccaneers safeties, especially Jermaine Phillips, has been atrocious at times. Congrats to defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin for inserting reserve safety Kalvin Pearson into the lineup after Phillips whiffed at Deuce McAllister on his 57-yard run and nailed defensive end Simeon Rice in the abdomen with his helmet.

But Pearson missed a tackle or two and doesn’t appear to be the team’s long-term answer at safety even though he may see more playing time or possibly start against Cincinnati. Who knew that Tampa Bay would miss Dexter Jackson so much?

With $3 million worth of salary cap room remaining, Bucs general manager Bruce Allen rolled the dice with the fact that Phillips and third-year pro Will Allen would be sufficient answers at the safety spots. In hindsight, Tampa Bay’s G.M. should have been more aggressive in signing Dwight Smith or another veteran safety to add to the mix.

It’s safe to say that Tampa Bay will likely spend a first-day draft pick on a safety next year. The 2007 NFL Draft should be a good one for safeties as there are three players that are widely regarded as first-round candidates – LSU’s LaRon Landry, Miami’s Brandon Meriweather and Virginia Tech’s Aaron Rouse. Other senior safeties include Texas’ Michael Griffin, Wyoming’s John Wendling, Utah’s Eric Weddle, Oregon State’s Sabby Piscitelli, Memphis’ Wesley Smith, Arizona’s Michael Johnson, Texas A&M’s Melvin Bullitt and Notre Dame’s Tom Zbikowski. All of these players are profiled in the new issue of Pewter Report, which will be mailed later this week.

The guy I really like is junior Marcus Watts at Kansas State. And no, as a K-State alum, I’m not being a homer. Watts is great player with superb instincts, and has a knack for making timely plays in the secondary that reminds me of John Lynch – although he isn’t the lights out hitter Lynch was. Watts will likely stay in school for his senior year, but keep an eye on him. He’s being groomed by former Tampa Bay assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, who is K-State’s 30-year old defensive coordinator.

In a 31-27 come-from-behind win against Oklahoma State last Saturday, Watts blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown, broke up a potential game-winning pass in the end zone that would have given the Cowboys a win with less than 20 seconds left. Two plays later, Watts makes the game-saving interception with a cast on his hand. He’s a special player in the making under Morris.

I doubt that the Bucs will draft a safety in the first round when defensive linemen appear to be more in need, but Landry is a dynamite prospect. I’ll post the safety story from Pewter Report on PewterReport.com later this week.

FAB 3. This may seem like a crazy idea, but if I were general manager Bruce Allen, I would be putting out trade feelers on quarterback Chris Simms right now. That may seem insensitive given the fact that Simms heroically played in the Carolina game with a ruptured spleen, but football is a results-oriented business – not a feel-good business.

Remember, Tony Dungy, one of the NFL’s classiest coaches of all time and the man who turned the Buccaneers around, was actually fired. That certainly didn’t make anybody feel good, but he wasn’t producing the offensive results the team wanted or needed.

As Steve Duemig and I have been stating for weeks on the PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz show on WDAE 620 AM, Simms isn’t a great fit for Jon Gruden’s offense. He’s not very mobile, doesn’t have the instincts to tuck the ball and run, and is much more comfortable in five- and seven-step drops like he ran at Texas, rather than the three-step drops that are prevalent in Gruden’s version of the West Coast offense.

Simms will be a good quarterback in the NFL. I just don’t think it will be in Tampa Bay. Is it too early to anoint Bruce Gradkowski the quarterback of the future? Probably, but his first NFL start was just as impressive – if not more so – as any of Simms’ 16 career starts. You just have the feeling that Gradkowski will be the guy under center on opening day in 2007 – not Simms.

In Tampa Bay’s eyes, Luke McCown may be just as good as Simms for all we know. And if Gradkowski is the guy in 2007, is there much difference between having Simms or a guy like McCown, whose game more closely resembles Gradkowski’s, as the backup?

So if Simms likely won’t be playing another down in Tampa Bay this year or possibly next year, and if Gradkowski is the new Bucs starter, why not try to deal Simms now when Allen can? At 0-4, the Buccaneers aren’t going to the postseason this year unless they defy historical odds. With the NFL trade deadline approaching next week, Allen should be looking for ways to stockpile draft picks to help rebuild this franchise.

Because Simms will be an unrestricted free agent in 2007, the Bucs won’t have any way to trade him next spring as he won’t be under contract. But if Allen does want to trade Simms next week (and there is no indication that he does – this is just analysis and banter on my behalf) the problem is that his trade value has plummeted due to his seven interceptions, seven batted balls and 0-3 record as a starter in 2007.

One team that could be real interested in Simms is a team in need of a young, talented quarterback – the Detroit Lions. General manager Matt Millen is on thin ice and knows that his franchise needs a new signal caller. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz would love a pocket passer with a big arm who could push the ball downfield the way Kurt Warner did when the two were together in St. Louis.

Lions head coach Rod Marinelli has first-hand exposure to Simms and knows he would be a good fit as the leader of the Lions. And of course Simms would love to be reunited with former Texas teammate Roy Williams, a wide receiver with Pro Bowl ability.

It might not be the most popular move, especially due to the sympathy Simms generated from his emergency splenectomy, but when has that stopped Allen from making unpopular – but sometimes necessary – moves before? Just something to think about … Bruce.

FAB 4. Despite a 0-4 start, don’t expect to see head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen get fired at the end of the season unless the Bucs go 0-16. What is the magic number for Gruden and Allen to survive? Probably just a couple of games.

The reason? No one saw the cataclysmic fall of Tampa Bay’s defense coming. Not this year, anyway. Having the defense fall from number one to number 10 in one year is understandable given the collective age of the unit that is near 30 years old. But having it fall from number one to number 20 and being ranked 30th against the run is quite shocking.

Yes, the defense was getting older by the year, and players naturally slow down as they age. But it seems like this Bucs defense went from being older to suddenly being elderly while bypassing the mid-life crisis stage, and the young players are having Alzheimer’s set in already because they forgot how to tackle.

You see, firing Gruden and Allen also means firing beloved defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, too. If the Glazers were going to fire Gruden, Allen would also go. And because Kiffin’s unit has declined so rapidly and underperformed in 2006, he wouldn’t be spared, either. This would be a total house cleaning. Is that what you want?

Are you ready to see the architect of the Tampa 2 defense and the stabilizing force of this franchise since 1996 depart? After all, this is the guy who has produced Pro Bowlers such as Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Donnie Abraham and a Super Bowl MVP in Dexter Jackson. Kiffin has also produced several head coaches in Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli and Herman Edwards, as well as defensive coordinators in the pro ranks (Mike Tomlin) and at the college level (Raheem Morris).

I am of the opinion that Gruden, Allen and Kiffin will survive this season, but must produce a winning record, and perhaps a playoff berth, in 2007 in order to remain the leaders of the Buccaneers franchise. Sure, there will be pressure from the media and angry fans for the Glazers to do something if this 2006 Buccaneers season that began with high expectations ends in disappointing fashion, as it appears it might. But the Glazers have invested millions in the salaries of Gruden, Allen and Kiffin and this trio produced an unexpected NFC South championship just a year ago. Five years ago, Kiffin and Gruden teamed up to deliver the franchise its first and only Super Bowl championship.

With the last three drafts producing young, talented players such as wide receivers Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall, offensive linemen Dan Buenning, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood, tight end Alex Smith, running back Cadillac Williams, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, linebacker Barrett Ruud and cornerback Alan Zemaitis, the future of the Bucs indeed looks bright.

Tampa Bay has also weathered its salary cap storm thanks to some tough decision and some tough negotiating by Allen. Pewter Report is reporting that the Buccaneers are $21 million under the $109 million salary cap in 2007. Next spring, Tampa Bay will finally be a real player in free agency and can afford good, young talent rather than good, old talent (see Todd Steussie, Derrick Deese and Charlie Garner).

Tampa Bay’s defense will likely be blown up next spring. Expect several familiar, and perhaps beloved faces, to be gone in 2007. The Bucs offense, which has already undergone its makeover, will have to continue to show some signs of life with Gradkowski under center, but the guess here is that it will. If that’s the case, and the Bucs can win a handful of games and finish 2006 strong, Gruden, Allen and Kiffin will likely be spared.

If not, the Charlie Weis watch begins.

FAB. 5 Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:

• With the Buccaneers game on at 1:00 p.m. ET, I got the chance to watch the Cowboys vs. Eagles game at 4:00 p.m. ET and the Chargers vs. Steelers game at 8:15 p.m. ET. Did you see the ferocity with which San Diego and Philadelphia rushed the passer? Philly had seven sacks against Drew Bledsoe, with Darwin Walker (three sacks, one forced fumble) and Darren Howard (two sacks, one forced fumble) leading the way. The Chargers had five sacks, with madmen Luis Castillo (1.5 sacks), Jamal Williams (one sack) and defensive end Shawn Merriman (half sack) applying the most pressure. The defensive lines of the Eagles and Chargers were on fire and it appeared as if each team’s linemen were racing each other to get to the quarterback. I haven’t seen Tampa Bay’s defensive line play like that collectively since Warren Sapp was a Buccaneer. The Bucs need to draft a defensive tackle with a chip on his shoulder and a nasty attitude. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay’s defensive line is no longer intimidating and dangerous. Chris Hovan is the feistiest of the bunch, but this unit needs an ass-kicker.

• One of the more popular ideas in the minds is for the Buccaneers to fire special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia after his unit surrendered a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown by New Orleans’ first-round draft pick, Reggie Bush. Bisaccia is not a fan favorite, but don’t fault him for losing the game to the Saints. His special teams unit played outstanding football at New Orleans with the exception of Bush’s return. The problem was that Pro Bowl punter Josh Bidwell hit the ball too much down the middle instead of to the right. That helped New Orleans set up a wall return that was tough for Tampa Bay to defend with half of its players on the right side of the field. Credit the Saints and Bush for simply making a play. They get paid, too. The only player that really had a shot at getting Bush was special teams ace Antoine Cash, who has been a dynamite tackler this year. Expecting an undrafted free agent like Cash to tackle the Heisman Trophy winner and second-overall pick in the draft every time is a tall order. Bisaccia has played a role in getting Bidwell to the Pro Bowl, and finding and developing special teams demons, such as Cash, Torrie Cox, Earnest Graham, Wesly Mallard and others.

• I love Ronde Barber, who is the best cornerback in franchise history, but I don’t love his stats sheet right now – zero sacks, zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero recovered fumbles. Yes, Barber is producing a lot of tackles, which is expected of him. But so are splash plays – turnovers and momentum-changing plays. His track record of 20 sacks, 28 interceptions, seven forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries over his career is why he got a lucrative contract extension during training camp from general manager Bruce Allen, who typically waits until players play through their existing contract prior to extending their deals. I’m not ready to say that giving Barber a contract extension was a mistake. I’m just saying that he hasn’t earned it yet. More is expected out of this Pro Bowler, specifically, splash plays.

• Quote of the week from one of Pewter Report’s sources from inside One Buc Place: “We’re truly turning in a team effort. Every week it’s a different unit [messing] up, costing us a game."


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: sr@pewterreport.com
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