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Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds examines some of the positive and negative aspects of Tampa Bay's 2009 training camp, which is held at the team's practice facility for the first time. WHAT’S GONE WRONG AT BUCS TRAINING CAMP • Special teams injuries. The fact that Pro Bowl return man Clifton Smith missed several days with a mild hamstring strain turned out to be the least of Tampa Bay’s concerns. Incumbent kicker Matt Bryant’s hamstring strain has proven to be more severe and punter Josh Bidwell’s hip injury has the team downright scared as he has been ruled out of action indefinitely.
With a team full of youth and inexperience, it’s safe to say the Bucs may be punting a bit more than normal this year and were counting on the steady leg of Bidwell, who is one of the game’s best directional punters to help the defense out with field position. Unless the pain in Bidwell’s hip subsides quickly, Dirk Johnson will have to be counted on in that capacity this year. Johnson will also have to provide the steady hands that Bidwell did as the team’s holder, too.
The 34-year old Bryant was supposed to be locked into a training camp duel with 27-year old Mike Nugent this summer, but Bryant hasn’t been able to make it much of a competition. He’ll miss Saturday’s preseason opener at Tennessee, which will give Nugent the upper hand temporarily.
Bryant is facing an uphill battle because he literally has to out-kick Nugent, who has a more powerful leg and gets better distance on his kickoffs. If all things are equal this August between Bryant and Nugent, the edge might fall to the newcomer as the team is going through a youth movement.
One thing to note about Bryant and Bidwell. Both stayed away and missed virtually the entire offseason while Nugent was at One Buccaneer Place during the organized team activities and look what happened. Nugent is healthy, while Bryant and Bidwell have leg injuries – perhaps caused from not working out at the team’s facility in the strength and conditioning program.
• Neither quarterback has created separation. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of training camp has been the fact that neither Luke McCown nor Byron Leftwich has stepped up and asserted himself as the front-runner for the starting quarterback job. Instead, it’s been a see saw affair with McCown starting off well and Leftwich throwing a multitude of picks at the start of training camp, and then Leftwich getting hot during the latter part of the first week of camp. It looked as if Leftwich was taking the reins at quarterback.
Yet during the second week of training camp, Leftwich cooled off considerably and started throwing interceptions again, while McCown has put together a string of solid practices leading up to the Tennessee game on Saturday, which McCown will start.
With the quarterback competition boiling down to just McCown and Leftwich as Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson have been relegated to backup duty, neither player has proven that he can rise to the occasion and take advantage of a poor practice by the other quarterback. When Leftwich struggles and grades out as C-minus during a practice, McCown can only muster a C-plus or B-minus. When McCown is having a mediocre day, Leftwich will follow suit.
Only once or twice has either quarterback been vastly superior to the other one, and that raises some questions. Shouldn’t a proven quarterback like Leftwich with close to 60 career NFL starts beat out a far less experienced quarterback like McCown? And shouldn’t a young, talented QB with plenty of upside like McCown beat out a journeyman signal caller that is on his fourth team in four years?
Of course the quarterback competition will be decided in the preseason games, as we have suspected all along. But the Bucs were secretly hoping that a front-runner at the quarterback position would emerge in camp and simply back up that notion in the exhibition games. That hasn’t happened.
McCown will have to be the efficient, high completion percentage, mobile quarterback in the preseason games and make plays with his arm and legs while avoiding turnovers. Leftwich will have to be the playmaker in the pocket, throwing touchdown bombs to receivers downfield but avoiding sacks and interceptions with his lack of mobility and slow, wind-up delivery.
The Bucs’ worst nightmare is if both quarterbacks are just mediocre in the preseason. Don’t rule that out, either. Should that happen, Tampa Bay would be forced to pick the lesser of two evils, which would not be ideal.
• Josh Freeman has not developed. Is Tampa Bay’s first-round pick making some strides in practice? Yes. Is he progressing? Yes. Is he ready to put himself into the mix to be the Bucs’ starting quarterback any time in the near future? No way.
Unless Freeman comes out and lights it up against Tennessee, he’ll be relegated to start the season as the team’s third-string quarterback or perhaps the backup if either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich fall apart at the seams in August. While taking the slow approach with Freeman is going according to general manager Mark Dominik’s script, the team would have loved nothing more than to be surprised by the fact that it has another Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco on its hands.
Instead, Freeman has been inaccurate in practice while going against the Bucs’ second-team defensive backs, which are nothing to write home about. Freeman has a tendency to lock on to his primary receiver too often, and throw passes late when the receivers are well covered. That type of behavior has been the perfect recipe for interceptions.
Don’t fret too much about Freeman right now. He’s a rookie quarterback who is making rookie mistakes. That’s to be expected and is part of a natural learning curve. Given the fact that he has not been counted on to start in 2009, both he and the team are under less pressure to have him be the savior right away.
Yet given the success of Ryan and Flacco during their rookie seasons, which culminated in playoff berths for both Atlanta and Baltimore, respectively, it would have been nice to see Freeman surprise everyone and be the steal at the quarterback position in the draft.
Long-suffering Tampa Bay fans that have witnessed a lot of putrid play from first-round draft picks like Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer back in the 1980s and 1990s and want nothing more than to see this year’s first-round quarterabck pan out and are anxious for that moment to happen. If it comes, it’s going to probably be later rather than sooner.
• Aqib Talib has not been the best cornerback in camp. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates’ scheme is built around the cornerback position. This is a cornerback-driven defense predicated on bump-and-run man coverage, and Talib, who was Tampa Bay’s first-round pick last year, simply has to be the star of this unit.
However, through the first two weeks of training camp, Talib has been a step too late much more often than he has been a step early or right on time. He’s given up far more catches than he has recorded passes defensed or interceptions. Talib has made some progress, but he needs to be a stud from Week 1 at Dallas and has a long way to go to become not only a playmaker, but avoid being a liability on defense.
The best cornerback in training camp has easily been Elbert Mack, an undrafted free agent from a year ago. Mack leads the Bucs with five interceptions and has only had one or two bad practices, which pales in comparison to four or five downright dominant practices he’s had.
Talib will be a very good player in time, but Mack has made the quicker adjustment to the new scheme by far. If the regular season were to start today and Tampa Bay was in a base defense, Mack deserves to be out there ahead of either Talib or veteran cornerback Ronde Barber. The Bucs cannot afford to let politics get in the way in a critical Week 1 contest against Dallas.
If Tampa Bay needs to make last year’s number one pick the nickel back behind Mack, so be it. If the Bucs need to make Barber, the best defensive back in team history and a future Hall of Famer, the guy who comes in as a nickel corner instead then that’s the right thing to do if Mack continues to play this well.
While Mack has been a very pleasant surprise, the Bucs need Talib to be the stud cornerback – not the former undrafted free agent – due to his salary and draft status. Talib needs to raise his level of play to match that of Mack’s in a hurry.
• The Bucs pass defense appears to be shaky. It’s fair to say that the Buccaneers offense has been ahead of the defense for most of training camp when it comes to playmaking. The bad news for Tampa Bay is that it is usually the other way around. Defenses are generally further ahead than offenses right now in camp.
Tampa Bay’s goal line defense has been the lone, consistent bright spot for the defense. Rookie defensive tackle Roy Miller looks like an absolute stud inside and Dre Moore, last year’s fourth-round pick, is finally playing up to his potential and might stick as a reserve. Being tough up front is the key to stopping the running game, and with Barrett Ruud in the middle of the defense, Tampa Bay should be a decent run-stuffing team.
The problem for the Bucs is in the passing game where the team’s pass rush is very hit-and-miss and the coverage by the defensive backs and linebackers has been spotty. Jermaine Phillips has been a step behind most running backs and tight ends in coverage in his transition from safety to linebacker. Linebackers Geno Hayes, Quincy Black and Adam Hayward are much more fluid and aware in underneath coverage than Phillips is.
Don’t be surprised if there are receivers running absolutely wide open downfield scoring cheap, easy touchdowns at the beginning of the season until the defensive backs finally wrap their heads around the proper execution of the bump-and-run man coverage scheme. Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib and Elbert Mack should be solid in time as they become more comfortable in this scheme, but the Bucs have been very disappointed in the fact that they have not found a fourth cornerback yet.
Torrie Cox and Kyle Arrington, who showed some promise in the spring, have disappointed and been beaten way too much. Rookie E.J. Biggers has been beaten too often on slants, but has at least made some progress and has battled back with a few interceptions in training camp. An injury to Barber, Talib or Mack could prove to be catastrophic as the next cornerback on the field will be relentlessly targeted.
Aiding the dismay at the cornerback position is the pass rush – or lack thereof. Gaines Adams has only shown modest improvement this offseason, but is at least developing a nice inside rip move to counter his speed rush. Jimmy Wilkerson has shined at times rushing from left end and may be the best pass rusher right now. Stylez G. White and Kyle Moore have just been adequate with Moore being better off inside at defensive tackle in the nickel rush package. Black has actually been quite effective at left end and may see significant playing time there this year.
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Jim Bates will need to blitz linebackers and safeties more often to get to the quarterback if the defensive ends can’t get the job done. That could result in more sacks, but it also will put more pressure on an already troubling cornerback unit to check the hot reads and make the proper plays on the ball or risk giving up a quick, cheap touchdown. Keeping opponents under 21 points per game this year may be a challenge due to Tampa Bay’s shaky pass defense.
• The Bucs second-string offensive line is pretty bad. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some talent along the second-string offense line, but most of it is raw and inexperienced – as in the Bucs should hope that none of these guys get to see the field on offense in 2009.
One of the more intriguing and promising players is rookie Demar Dotson, who not only is playing offensive tackle for the first time ever, but he’s also in just the second year of his football career … in his entire life. The 6-foot-9, 315-pound right tackle played only one year of college football at Southern Miss after his basketball career concluded and that was at defensive tackle. Dotson is facing a steep learning curve and has a long way to go before he is even close to being ready to start – if he ever gets there.
The bad news for the Bucs is that Dotson is neck-and-neck with journeyman right tackle Anthony Alabi, which doesn’t bode well for Alabi’s chances. Backup left tackle James Lee has not lived up to the offseason hype, especially in pass protection. Although he will likely make the roster as the team’s swing tackle because he can play both left and right tackle, Lee has not been particularly solid. While there was not much drop off from Luke Petitgout to Donald Penn two years ago, there is now a significant drop off from Penn to Lee.
Sean Mahan is a solid backup center and guard, but is not a long-term answer at either position. Rookies Marc Dile and Rob Bruggeman have shown the most promise inside, but are undersized and need a year in the weight room, especially Dile, who is listed at just 275 pounds. Two weeks into camp, Dile and Bruggeman appear to be more suited for the practice squad than the 53-man roster.
Xavier Fulton, the team’s fifth-round draft pick, is helping his cause by playing both left tackle and guard, but needs to add some size and muscle before he’s ready to play left tackle on game day. Fulton has some promise, but is hindered by the fact that he only played offensive tackle two years at Illinois. Despite his draft status, Fulton is not much further ahead than Dotson, Bruggeman and Dile.
The Bucs may be able to weather the storm if center Jeff Faine or guards Jeremy Zuttah and Davin Joseph went down with an injury due to Mahan’s presence, but if Penn or right tackle Jeremy Trueblood get injured, Tampa Bay’s offensive line play will suffer due to the rawness and inexperience of the backups.
WHAT’S GONE RIGHT AT BUCS TRAINING CAMP • Interesting options at wide receiver. Mario Urrutia and Sammie Stroughter are interesting newcomers and generating a lot of headlines at One Buccaneer Place this summer. With Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton entrenched as the starters, and Brian Clark and Maurice Stovall appearing to be the front-runners for the next two spots on the receiver depth chart due to their improvement on offense and their special teams prowess, the team still needs to find another receiver or two to round out the roster.
Dexter Jackson, last year’s second-round pick, lit it up on the first day of training camp, but his play has tailed off since. Jackson has shown the willingness to be more physical and dive for balls this year, but has had too many drops and missed opportunities to build any real momentum during camp.
Stroughter, one of Tampa Bay’s seventh-round picks, has made a favorable impression since the rookie mini-camp. Coming off a pair of 1,000-yard seasons at Oregon State in 2006 and '08, Stroughter is a tough, shifty receiver cut from the same cloth as Carolina’s Steve Smith. Time will tell if he ever becomes that good of a player, but unless he completely bombs in the preseason game, the 5-foot-9, 189-pound Stroughter will likely make the roster because he can contribute immediately on special teams by covering and returning kicks and punts.
Urrutia was signed a couple days into camp when one third of the team’s receivers became injured. The 6-foot-6, 228-pound receiver actually makes Stovall look a bit small. Urrutia made quite an impression in his first practice, taking a slant from Josh Johnson 70 yards for a touchdown. He is also deadly in the end zone on jump balls, and has made some amazing, acrobatic catches in his short stint in Tampa Bay.
Urrutia put on a clinic during Thursday night’s practice at the stadium. If he can carry that kind of play over to the stadium on Saturday nights this August, he’ll be a Buccaneer this year.
What was once a scary thought is now an intriguing depth chart of talented receivers that only lack game experience.
• Morris seems credible and has the players’ support. Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay’s 33-year old head coach, looks the part. He looks and acts like a head coach, and that's important to note. His practice schedule is well thought out and planned, but it also features some of Morris’ impulsiveness, which is rooted in the fact that he follows his gut instinct.
Sometimes the Bucs aren’t supposed to go live with a full-tackling period, but he’ll decide in practice to do just that if Morris feels it's needed. Thursday’s morning practice was supposed to be a 70-minute special teams session before it was changed to a two-hour and 10 minute regular practice. However, halfway through the practice, the media was alerted to the fact that it would be cut short by an hour.
Although he’s young, and doesn’t shy away from that publicly, Morris looks credible as a head coach, which is important because his players are watching closely.
So is the media. After Jon Gruden’s standoffish ways with the local media in recent years, the media is certainly willing to give Morris a long leash and the initial benefit of the doubt. Morris goes out of his way to engage the local beat writers by taking some playful shots and some friendly jabs, including the one yours truly took on Thursday – check out the 2:00 mark of Thursday's press conference.
But more importantly than a friendly, no-nonsense relationship with the media, Morris has his players wrapped around his finger, too. They love his openness because they know where they stand with Morris at all times. That always hasn’t been the case in recent years.
Morris has even shown a willingness to call out some players in the media as he has done with them in team meetings. Thus far, he’s handled the public side of head coaching the right way and he’s gotten much better in front of the media with his press conferences. His real test will come when he suffers some adversity in the win-loss column, which could come early this year due to Tampa Bay’s brutal schedule. It will be interesting to see how his players – and the media – responds.
• The presence of shoulder pads. When Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said he wanted a more physical football team, he wasn’t kidding. The Bucs have practiced in pads for all but three of the team’s workouts this summer. Morris is following the formula that his close friend and mentor Mike Tomlin has used in Pittsburgh, which made the Steelers a tough, strong and violent team that wound up as world champions in 2008.
While Tampa Bay has had a slew of injuries this training camp, most of them have been muscle pulls, such as hamstring strains, groin pulls and quad and calf injuries. Those injuries have nothing to do with practices in full pads.
Time will tell if all of the padded practices, which will continue into the regular season, will pay off, but football is a game played with pads on. Why shouldn’t teams practice in pads all the time?
• Touchdown passes into the end zone. Former head coach Jon Gruden usually had a pretty good offensive attack in Tampa Bay during his tenure, but where his offense typically faltered was in the red zone. The Bucs were among the bottom five teams in NFL rankings last year for red zone efficiency.
Jeff Garcia, the team’s starting quarterback over the last two years, seemed to be allergic to the end zone, rarely taking shots that would produce touchdowns and often times settling for the field goal. The problem is that Gruden didn’t seem to mind that approach too often and wasn’t aggressive enough with his play-calling inside opponents’ 20-yard line.
The risk of throwing into the end zone is interceptions, which not only prevent a team from generating seven points, but also take away chip shot field goals when teams get into the red zone. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski seems to be willing to roll the dice and gamble with throwing into the end zone a lot more this season. The reason? Touchdowns – not field goals – ultimately win games.
Both Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown have shown the willingness and ability to take more touchdown-producing shots into the red zone than Garcia ever did. And with a stable of receivers like Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall, Mario Urrutia and Brian Clark, and tight ends Kellen Winslow and Jerramy Stevens all being 6-foot-2 or taller, the Bucs have plenty of towering red zone weapons that can come down with the ball.
Look for more fade passes and jump balls in the red zone during the regular season. That’s what the team has been practicing all offseason.
• All the right moves … so far. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik has done a good job making the right personnel moves thus far in camp. However, planning ahead for free agency and signing players like running back Derrick Ward and trading for tight end Kellen Winslow is one thing. Having to react quickly to training camp injuries and having to make snap decisions on which players are signed to fill roster spots is another.
Signing wide receiver Mario Urrutia and veteran punter Dirk Johnson, while being cautious and holding out hope with Josh Bidwell and not rushing to put him on injured reserve appear to be the right calls. Dominik wisely gave up on defensive tackle Greg Peterson, who couldn’t get his injured knee right in training camp.
The young Dominik proved he had some veteran savvy in him by waiving Peterson injured because it will keep other teams away from him in the time being. Tampa Bay can re-sign him at a later date if he’s healthy and in need of a defensive tackle during the season.
• Training camp in Tampa has been pretty much flawless. The Bucs abandoned training camp in Orlando at Disney’s Wide World of Sports for the first time in eight years in what was believed to be a cost-cutting measure. The Bucs’ return to Tampa Bay has gone smoothly and the team has a fine set up at One Buccaneer Place with seating for 4,000 fans, concessions and regular, walk-around appearances by the team’s mascot, Captain Fear, and the cheerleaders.
The bleachers have been put less than 10 yards away from the fields, giving fans an incredible view of the action. Everything has gone fantastic in terms of the layout and schematics of offering a great training camp experience for the fans, who can receive autographs before and after practice from the overly accommodating players.
With less than a month to go before the regular season, the Bucs have yet to sell out a regular season game and the economy and lackluster interest in the team have put a huge dent in season ticket sales this year. The timing was right to move training camp back to Tampa to re-connect with the team’s fans and generate more interest, which the team hopes will create more ticket sales.
However, sources tell Pewter Report that the Buccaneers are still maintaining contact with Disney and have not ruled out a return to Orlando for training camp. The same type of contact has continued with the Celebration Hotel, which was the team’s headquarters in the Orlando. Celebration Hotel has a new general manager and he would love nothing more than to lure the Bucs back down I-4 next summer.
The reality is that to rival the training camp experience at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, the Bucs have had to spend a quite a bit of money on security guards, bleachers, concessions and portable restrooms and the cost savings have not been nearly as big as expected.
Don’t be surprised if Disney and Celebration Hotel come back in 2010 and make the Bucs a low-ball offer to recapture their business. And don’t be surprised if the Bucs seriously consider taking it.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com