Jimmy Morris, Titansinsiders.net: What does Jeff Garcia bring to this offense that has made it work? How much longer can he play in this league?
Matthew Postins, Bucsblitz.com: Garcia gives the Buccaneers two major things they haven't had at quarterback in the past couple of years — accuracy and efficiency. He's completed more than 60 percent of his passes and hasn't committed a turnover in five starts. Those two things mean the world to Jon Gruden. Plus, Garcia has brought tremendous leadership to the entire team. His mobility has given the offensive line a little leeway in pass protection. And he's made plays that no quarterback has made in this offense since Gruden arrived. Like Rich Gannon in Oakland, I think Gruden has finally found his muse. Garcia is signed through 2008, but he admitted earlier this week that he hoped to play beyond that. Injuries haven't been a major problem for him during his career, but he's also 37. If he stays healthy he can play through 2009.
JM: The Buccaneers have had some devastating injuries at the running back position. Can Earnest Graham carry the load for this team or do they need to get more help?
MP: The last time Earnest Graham started a game at running back he was a senior at the University of Florida — Jan. 1, 2003, at the Outback Bowl. You have to understand this first. Between losing Mike Alstott, Carnell Williams and Michael Pittman, the Bucs have lost nearly 90 percent of their rushing offense since the start of the 2005 season. These are uncharted waters for Graham, backup Kenneth Darby — a rookie — and fullbacks B.J. Askew and Zack Crockett. I think you'll see plenty of rotating on Sunday, with Graham getting about 12-15 carries. Graham is built like a bowling ball and has live legs. He hits the hole well and keeps moving forward. But there's really no way to know for sure whether he can do it until we see it. My inclination is that he'll struggle at least a game or two while he figures it out.
JM: The Bucs defense seems to be playing close to the level of years past. What has changed from last year that has brought them back to this level of play?
MP: First, they're healthy. By this time last year they had lost cornerback Brian Kelly and end Simeon Rice was struggling with a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery. Second, players like middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, new strong side linebacker Cato June and rookie safety Tanard Jackson have injected some life into an aging unit. Ruud's progress was especially comforting for the coaching staff, since he took over for Shelton Quarles, a savvy vet who understood the position. And I think you credit the coaching staff, too, which is completely new. Line coach Larry Coyer has taken a unit with just one All-Pro — Kevin Carter — and made it solid. The line makes progress each week and has gotten contributions from unexpected sources. Linebackers coach Gus Bradley took up where Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry left off. And secondary coach Raheem Morris, who learned from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin when the pair was in Tampa, has turned around safety Jermaine Phillips' play and injected the unit with energy. They'll still struggle at times, but overall the consistency and intensity is much improved for those reasons.
JM: Do the Buccaneers have enough to hold on and win the NFC South? Who do you see as their biggest competitor?
MP: Usually, this division is very tough. This year it's an absolute mess. New Orleans is horrible on defense and Drew Brees is making mistakes he made as a rookie. Atlanta is about to wade into a quarterback controversy between Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich, the cherry on top of what has been a season from hell for the entire organization. And Carolina was off to a great start until Jake Delhomme got hurt. Now Vinny Testaverde is a heartbeat away from being the starter, if David Carr can't go this weekend. Pick your poison. Oh, and Kris Jenkins questioned the entire team's heart after the loss to the Buccaneers. I don't think any of these teams are together enough to contend. Of course, the Bucs aren't world-beaters either at this point. Tampa Bay could win this division with a 9-7 record pretty easily unless someone really improves in the next month or so.
JM: Is Jon Gruden on the hot seat this season? If so, how many games does he need to win to keep his job? How do you feel about him as a coach?
MP I thought he was at the start of the season, but the team's play is quickly turning the temperature down. I think if they win a division title or finish about .500 I don't see how the Glazer family can fire him. If he finishes under .500 after this start, I think he may be done. As for what I think of him as a coach, he's a tremendous game planner and one of the most creative offensive minds in the game. That, however, has never translated into a tremendous amount of points in Tampa Bay. I think he's a rather inflexible coach when it comes to his scheme and doesn't always adjust his game plan to suit his players' best talents. My biggest complaint is that he doesn't develop young talent. You can easily make a case that he hasn't developed a single Pro Bowl-level talent since he arrived in Tampa Bay. He's at his best when all the cogs are in place, but his talent as a play-caller suffers when he's saddled with young or inexperienced players.