Q: From worst to first to worst to first. Nobody does it better than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. How have the Bucs been able to pick themselves up from last-place finishes in 2004 and 2006 to win NFC South titles the next season, and specifically how did they get back on top this year after sinking to the bottom of the division last season? Why the inconsistency, and what is that a reflection of?
A: First, let's address the inconsistency, which I think is a direct result of the team's salary cap woes and lack of draft choices from 2003-06. The cap prevented them from keeping solid veterans like John Lynch and Warren Sapp, while the lack of a full draft until 2005 (thanks to trades for Keyshawn Johnson and Jon Gruden) kept them from restocking their roster. Only now, after three straight drafts where they've taken at least nine players, have they been able to start replenishing the cupboard.
The 2005 division title, as it turned out, was a fluke. There were few injuries, some key breaks and great defensive play that make up for some deficiencies on the team, which were exposed in 2006. The defense got old in a hurry. The quarterback situation went in the toilet even before Chris Simms' spleen injury and the offense was rocked by injuries. The Bucs kept that 2005 team virtually intact and it bit them hard.
Going into this season the Bucs wanted to address two key areas — quarterbacking and pass rush. They addressed the QB issue by signing Jeff Garcia and trading for Jake Plummer (who never showed up for camp). They addressed the pass rush by signing Patrick Chukwurah and Kevin Carter, along with drafting Gaines Adams and signing journeyman Greg White during training camp.
Garcia has played efficiently all season. The defensive line, after a slow start, is putting consistent pressure on the quarterback. The Bucs had a solid draft all around, getting starting performances out of three players — Adams, LG Arron Sears and FS Tanard Jackson. And this team has been able to overcome a myriad of injuries thanks to superior depth I'm not sure anyone thought they had.
This may be a fluke again. There's no way to know until next season. But the Bucs are set up better. They still have a group of capable starters, plus they now have second-string players with a wealth of starting experience, thanks to those injuries. They also have at least $20 million to spend on free agents and in the draft this year so they can stay ahead of the curve on talent. They still need to continue to turn over this aging defense and find a hot young receiver. But there's certainly more optimism long-term than there was after the 2005 season.
Q: Jon Gruden built quite a reputation for himself here in the San Francisco Bay Area during his time with the Oakland Raiders. We've heard differing reports over recent seasons about how Gruden is regarded in Tampa Bay and what his future is there. Is he back in good graces now, and how is he doing as the guiding light of the franchise?
A: Gruden was definitely on the hot seat entering this season. The Glazer family likes to win Super Bowls, but they appreciate consistent winning just as much (that's why Tony Dungy lasted six years). It's important to note that this is Gruden's sixth year and he should receive some sort of contract extension after this season (he's signed through 2008). But next season is a big key to his long-term future in Tampa Bay. The Glazer family, I have to believe, is tired to this worst-to-first yo-yo and want some consistency. Gruden is never going to shake the Dungy debate, but he seems to care little about that. He'll likely never be fully embraced by this community, either, unless the Bucs win another Super Bowl. How is he regarded? Like the team's record, that's changed from year to year. He's a winner right now, but can he make that last? That's the question. The Glazers will want to see progress.
Q: How is it that Tampa Bay can clinch the NFC South title with two weeks remaining in the season, have the NFL's third-ranked defense and still not get one player named to the Pro Bowl ? Did the Bucs get jobbed this year in the voting, or did they not really have anybody stand above others despite some of the big names that still occupy their roster?
A: "Jobbed" is a nice term, but that's really not the case. The Pro Bowl is about two things — statistics and popularity, neither of which the Bucs have in abundance this season. Now, certainly, they've had some great individual performances this year, but the statistics don't stand out. This is an assembly line team — that is, it's the sum of its parts. And it's really picked up steam in the second half of the season, so it's hard to make those numbers up if you're talking about the Pro Bowl. They're a great defense to watch as a unit, but the only player that I really felt deserved a nod this year was LB Barrett Ruud. Most of the players have said they don't care. By the way, the three alternates so far for the Bucs are on offense. Now that seems like being "jobbed" to me. Ruud deserves to at least be an alternate.
Q: Always know for their stingy defense, what went into getting that unit back on track this season and back near the top of the NFL rankings? Is it still guys named Brooks, Barber, et al, leading the way, or are there some new names we should know about?
A: Three things stand out. First, there's the improved pass rush. The Bucs had just 25 sacks a year ago. Through 14 games they have 30. Their inability to put pressure on the quarterback last year led to more blitzing, which left the secondary in single coverage too often. As a result, they were burned. It's surprising that the team's top two sackers are White, who needed five years to catch on to a NFL roster, and Adams, in his rookie season. This is a starless defensive line, to be sure. Second, the secondary has gotten inspired play from safeties Jermaine Phillips and Jackson. Fans were ready to run Phillips on the last train out of town last year. But secondary coach Raheem Morris has gotten Phillips back to the hard-hitting, aggressive style he's known for. Jackson gives the Bucs a hard-hitting safety with cover corner skills, something they haven't had in a long time. Third, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has done a sensational job blending all of the new parts together and learning some new tricks. The Bucs are using Cover 3, Cover 4, 3-4 fronts and other non-Tampa 2 tricks to fool offenses, and many of these coverages are coming out of Tampa-2 formations. That makes it difficult for quarterbacks to pick up on the coverages. The Bucs took a "no-stars" approach in the offseason — witness the releases of LB Shelton Quarles and DE Simeon Rice — and it's working.
Q: Jeff Garcia was the consummate pro and also a pretty darn good quarterback during his days in San Francisco, but that was four years ago and he's now 37 and on his fifth team in five years. But he still appears to have some of the Garcia magic left, and have you seen some of that this year? What has Garcia brought to the team as both a player and leader, and how much has he stabilized the quarterback position?
A: Stabilized is a great word for what Garcia has done for this offense. The Bucs have run through so many young quarterbacks the past few years it's hard to keep track. Young quarterbacks don't do well, traditionally, in Gruden's offense (and I've researched it). It's too complicated for a youngster. Garcia is the perfect mix of mobility, experience and intelligence for Gruden. Surely the pair picked up on that when they had those late-night meals after preseason games when both were in the Bay area. He's tough as nails, too, and he immediately earned the respect of this team once he arrived. The Bucs were grateful for Luke McCown's successful stint as the starter, but they're tickled to have Garcia back for the stretch run. No, he doesn't have a big arm and he is 37. But the things Garcia does well — passer rating (93.6), completion percentage (64.2), limiting interceptions (5 this season) and third-down passer rating (96.1) — are the things Gruden values most. And that makes this the perfect marriage. Garcia believes he has three or four good years left. Gruden better hope he's right.
Q: What's the playoff prognosis for the Bucs this year? With one game at home, could they be a sleeper team this year in the NFC, where no team looks invulnerable? What will it take for Tampa Bay to make some noise in the postseason this year, and what do you see happening once the Bucs get there?
A: The Bucs, I think, are a sleeper team. All the components are there — fine quarterback play, a great running game and solid defense. The key, I think, is their run defense. It looks average on paper (ranked only 14th in the NFL) but since facing Arizona on Nov. 4 the Bucs have allowed 100 yards rushing just twice in the last six games, and no individual player has rushed for more than 73 yards (Jerious Norwood last week). The run defense took some hits earlier this season, but it seems to have turned around. The Packers and Cowboys have great running games, so slowing down the ground game is going to be key if the Bucs are able to get past the Wild Card round. You're right, there is no true dominant team in the NFC. If the Bucs stick to their formula and force a few turnovers, they could execute a second-round upset of either team.