Matthew Postins: First, Adam, give me your assessment of the Buccaneers after nine games? Are they where you expected them to be when you evaluated them during the preseason?
Adam Caplan: I had them at 7-9 so they may be a little ahead of where I thought they would be. The defense has been the biggest surprise so far — especially the secondary which, as you know, was terrible in 2006.?The improved play from SS Jermaine Phillips has been a surprise. And rookie FS Tanard Jackson has been much better than expected.?But the play of DT Jovan Haye has been one of the biggest surprises and one of the reasons why the defense has taken a big step this season.
Matthew Postins: What did you think Jeff Garcia would be able to do for this team entering the season and has he fallen short, met or exceeded those expectations so far this season?
Adam Caplan: He's done what I thought he would do. He rarely makes mistakes because he's not willing to take any gambles like other quarterbacks are willing to make. He'll make a few big plays a game and when he does that and the running game does well behind him, they have a chance to win.
Matthew Postins: Right now the Buccaneers have a dozen players on injured reserve, and only the Houston Texans can rival that number. Yet the Bucs are above .500. What's the difference?
Adam Caplan: It's kind of strange but when you look at the injuries, many of them were serious. Nothing could have prevented them.
Matthew Postins: Talking about injuries, can you talk about the coaching job Jon Gruden and his staff has done this season, given all the injuries? Do you hear anything from other coaches, sources, etc…, about the job they're doing holding this team together?
Adam Caplan: Gruden and his staff has done a good job of keeping the team competitive, as has his staff on both sides of the ball.??Last season, some thought defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin might be losing it a little but apparently not after seeing the resurgence of his defense.
Matthew Postins: Talk about the NFC South for a moment. The Buccaneers have four divisional games left — two against Atlanta and one each against New Orleans and Carolina. If you had to pick one, which game is the most pivotal to Tampa Bay's chances for a division title and why?
Adam Caplan: The game against New Orleans will tell us where this team is at, as the Saints have really turned their season around. And with the way QB Drew Brees is playing, the Buccaneer defense will be tested for sure.
Matthew Postins: Most people talk about this division being tough year-in and year-out. But I can't get past the thought that this division is pretty mediocre this year. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
Adam Caplan: It's very average to say the least. The Panthers, once again, are disappointing and the Saints have dropped off from last year. Atlanta's problems are well documented and they may be down for a while longer.
Matthew Postins: In NFL circles, whose plays is causing the most surprise — running back Earnest Graham, who has taken up the slack for Carnell Williams and Michael Pittman, or linebacker Barrett Ruud, who leads the NFL in tackles?
Adam Caplan: Ruud we knew would be good based on his preseason performance and how they team felt about him, but Graham has been a pleasant surprise. The fact that Gruden got him over 32 touches in two of his starts tells us how he feels about Graham. That's shows a lot of confidence in a player who hasn't really gotten much playing time in the past. And they are able to sustain drives with him, which can't be underestimated.
Matthew Postins: Some in Tampa Bay are disappointed that it took Gaines Adams eight games to crack the starting lineup, and even then he started only because of an injury to Greg Spires. Do you hear anything around the league about Adams, in terms of where his development is right now and if he'll eventually be the player the Buccaneers thought they drafted?
Adam Caplan: Adams is behind although he's working hard. He's getting too far up field and not getting in the play as much according to those who have watched the coaches tape that I have talked to about him. He's a work in progress.
Matthew Postins: The Jake Plummer situation has died down. But he's still on Tampa Bay's reserve/did not report roster. First, does his salary count against the cap? And whether it does or not, is there a resolution in sight to this fiasco??
Adam Caplan: No, his salary does not count against the cap. As for trading for him, for some reason Gruden thought he could convince him to play. But Plummer is content in not playing again. I was surprised as anyone when that deal went down. But we know Gruden likes collecting quarterbacks and likes to see how things shake out.
Matthew Postins: Let's look ahead for a moment, because no matter what happens this season the Bucs are likely to be about $25 million under the salary cap, at least. To me, this team needs help at cornerback, running back, defensive tackle and defensive end. Name five players scheduled to be free agents after this season that could help the Bucs the most.
Adam Caplan: I'm not sold on Carnell Williams so RB Michael Turner (Chargers) would be an interesting fit.
As for the quarterback situation, Cleveland's Derek Anderson is a RFA and it would take at least a first-round pick to get him. But he would solve their quarterback issue.
Also, Chicago's Rex Grossman has some upside and Gruden likes to turn disappointing quarterbacks careers around.
Cincinnati DE Justin Smith is playing under the franchise tag so he'll be a free agent unless they tag him again. He's always been a solid pass rusher.
Oakland CB/KR/PR Chris Carr is a solid returner who can play in nickel and would be a good fit for what they need in the return game.
For more on the Buccaneers from Scout.com, visit Bucsblitz.com Click here.
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.