Buccaneers backups step to the forefront

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rise from 4-12 to a likely division title hasn't just been about Jeff Garcia and Barrett Ruud. This season has also been about unexpected sources of production on both sides of the ball. As the Buccaneers have learned, their success is as reliant on the bottom of their roster as it is on the top.

Line them up by name and they don't strike fear in the heart of anyone.

Luke McCown. Jovan Haye. Greg White. Donald Penn. Earnest Graham.

Today they are premium parts of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers revival. The Buccaneers (8-4) are all but assured of a NFC South division title. They only need one more victory to clinch.

These five players are a prime example of why the Buccaneers, as an organization, care as much about the bottom of its roster as it does the top.

"There are some newcomers that are doing a good job for us," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.

Consider where these five players are now. McCown is coming off a stellar performance against New Orleans in which he replaced an injured Jeff Garcia and threw for 313 yards in a 27-23 victory. Haye is a burgeoning talent at under tackle with five sacks this season. White leads the team in sacks with 5 ½. Penn is anchoring the left side of the offensive line. Graham is closing in on 1,000 yards rushing.

That isn't stunning in the context of this season as it seems anytime a player goes down to injury, someone seems to step up in and fill the void.

Even the players in question have noticed that someone always picks up the slack.

"You definitely do think that way, the way things have happened and the way things have fallen into place at the right time," Graham said.

What is stunning is to take a look at these five players and where they were a year ago at this time, when the Bucs were sinking to 4-12.

— McCown was the third quarterback, having rebounded quickly from a knee injury but not nearly ready to play;

— Haye was a backup tackle learning how to play the all-important under tackle position;

— White worked as a security guard at a Best Buy in Orlando waiting for the Arena Football season to begin;

— Penn was with the Bucs, but you wouldn't have known it. He was inactive the final 13 games last season;

— And Graham was playing his usual role on every special teams unit you could think of, en route to a meager 11 carries.

Now look at them. Haye, who played for Carolina and Cleveland before arriving in Tampa Bay last year, hasn't seen anything like this.

"I was in Carolina and they were well established," Haye said. "Even in Cleveland they never had these problems. Just being here and seeing guys go down and seeing other guys step up, it's a great thing what's happening here. We know when our number is called we have to perform like the guy that was in front of us."

Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak sees what Tampa Bay has done this season and can't help but be a bit envious. His Texans have suffered as many injuries as the Bucs, but are 5-7.

"It comes down to the job that your general manager does in finding these young players to put on your practice squad that you feel can develop into good NFL players," Kubiak said. "That importance is very obvious. I know in Tampa Bay they've done a tremendous job with that."

No one is going to anoint McCown the future. Last Sunday was his fifth NFL start. He said he wasn't out to prove anyone wrong with his performance after sitting on the Bucs bench for nearly three years. His success was the perfect marriage of opportunity and performance. In the context of this team, McCown said, that's the most important thing.

"To have a championship team, you have to have that," McCown said. "You have to be willing to dig in as much as possible mentally and be ready when the time comes."

Each of these five players epitomize that. Sure, rookies like Gaines Adams, Arron Sears and Tanard Jackson have come to Tampa Bay and stepped into key roles, too. But being draft picks last April, there were at least some expectations of what they would contribute. And all three have done so to varying degrees.

But players like Haye, White and Penn were unknowns going into this season. Haye won the starting job at under tackle early in training camp and never let go. White came straight from the AFL to Bucs training camp and impressed coaches with his balance and speed off the edge. Penn won a back-up job in training camp at left tackle, supplanting incumbent Anthony Davis.

Then, when Luke Petitgout suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 30, Penn stepped in.

As a starter, he's only had to fend off defensive ends like Dwight Freeney, Kyle Vanden Bosch, John Abraham and Marcus Washington. He's held is own and improved each week.

Penn said there's a hunger among these younger players, the players that were either forgotten by scouts or simply never had an opportunity.

"I don't want him (offensive line coach Bill Muir) to lighten up on me," Penn said. "I told him a couple of weeks after the game, ‘I want to be great. Do whatever you have to do to make me great.' He said, ‘Don't worry.'"

Penn is one player who's progress impresses Gruden, especially given the fact that Penn wasn't drafted last year.

"What happens when a guy plays pretty good, you expect him to play pretty good," Gruden said. "That shock is passed now. He's playing consistently well now, and if you can do that you have a chance to be a full-time starter in the NFL. If you don't we'll keep looking."

Of these five players, Graham's ascent is the most stunning. Graham had rushed for 215 yards in three regular seasons with the Bucs. Since he took over as the starting running back against Tennessee, he's rushed for 590 yards and four touchdowns over seven games.

He's rushed for 737 yards so far this season when you combine his work as a backup. He's even caught 36 passes for 228 yards. He appears pointed toward his first 1,000-yard season.

Graham — who failed to make the roster twice before finally catching on midway through the 2004 season — understand how opportunity works in the NFL.

"We have a lot of guys stepping up," Graham said. "I think we've responded partly because those of us that came in saw an opportunity and we believe in that."

That belief is a primary reason why the Bucs are 8-4.

Gruden said he tells every practice squad player that if they can't see what hard work will get them in the NFL, there's no chance they'll ever make it, much less be ready when the head coach taps them on the shoulder and says, ‘You're in."

"It's a great teacher to sit there and see a guy come from nowhere, out of obscurity, to the front line and get it done," Gruden said. "But it ain't done yet because we still have a lot of games to go."

THEN AND NOW

A look at where these five Bucs were last year, and their numbers this season compared to their career numbers entering this season:

QB LUKE MCCOWN

This year:: 30-of-41 for 322 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception.

Career (before 2007): 48-of-98 for 608 yards, 4 touchdowns, 7 interceptions.

Last year?: The No. 3 inactive quarterback still working to return from a knee injury.

RB EARNEST GRAHAM

This year:: 176 carries, 737 yards, 7 touchdowns.

Career (before 2007): 52 carries, 215 yards, 0 touchdowns.

Last year?: Worked special teams for the Buccaneers.

DT JOVAN HAYE

This year:: 78 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery.

Career (before 2007): 25 tackles.

Last year?: Backed up Ellis Wyms at under tackle for nine games.

DE GREG WHITE

This year:: 32 tackles, 5 ½ sacks, 4 forced fumbles.

Career (before 2007): Did not play in the NFL before this year.

Last year?: Worked at a Best Buy in Orlando waiting for the AFL's Orlando Predators to begin their 2007 season.

LT DONALD PENN

This year:: Started 8 games in place of Luke Petitgout.

Career (before 2007): Never played an NFL game before this season.

Last year?: Was inactive for 13 games with the Bucs. Started 2006 on the Vikings' practice squad.

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.


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