1. Luke McCown is the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback.
For the third time this season McCown was given a week to prepare for a start and for the third time this season he delivered a solid performance, which is exactly what you want out of a backup. We went 21-of-28 for 236 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. What McCown gives the Bucs is a talented quarterback with a big arm, solid pocket presence and above-average athleticism when he gets out of the pocket. Head coach Jon Gruden liked McCown's mobility when he arrived in Tampa Bay, but McCown had not had a chance to show it off until this year.
Now, McCown still has things to work on. For instance, he still struggles with when to get rid of the football. He's taken too many sacks (he's taken 15 this year to Jeff Garcia's 19). And he has a tendency to be less protective of the football than Gruden would like. The good news is those are all issues that can be ironed out.
But an objective look at the quarterback situation for the Bucs reveals that Bruce Gradkowski has made little to no progress since his rookie season and Chris Simms, I firmly believe, will never play another down for this organization unless something catastrophic happens in the final year of his contract in 2008. McCown has the skills Gruden values in a quarterback and has put enough on tape to be Garcia's backup. I'm not totally convinced they still won't go after a veteran backup in the offseason. But if they don't they should feel comfortable with McCown.
2. The offensive line is still a young group.
I suppose it's now clear why Gruden doesn't like to praise his offensive line too much. It seems to lead to sub-par play.
Before the San Francisco game everyone wrote an offensive line story praising the unit's progress. Since then the group, statistically speaking, has taken a step back. Blame it on the group's youth. Four of the five starters have two years or less of experience.
The Bucs failed to rush for 100 yards against San Francisco, a middling run defense. The Bucs barely rushed for 100 yards against Carolina, and McCown was the leading rusher with 47 yards. Plus, the offensive line has given up eight sacks in the last two games.
Those aren't numbers that keep a team in the playoffs longer than a game.
What's the problem? Perhaps without RB Earnest Graham, who has missed the last six quarters of football, the offensive line's timing is off. McCown has piloted the offense the same amount of time and is more prone to take a sack, which could explain the growing sack total.
Or it could just be the growing pains of a unit the Bucs hope will be their starting group for a long time to come. When the Bucs committed to this offensive line plan after their disastrous foray into free agency in 2004, they had no know there would be ups and downs. Perhaps this two-week period is nothing more than one of those downs, an ebb in the ebb and flow of a unique season. If the line picks up its performance against the Giants, everyone will forget the past two weeks.
But if they don't the Bucs won't be a playoff team for long. They'll be spectators.
3. No matter who's in the game on offense, these Bucs struggle on third down.
When Tampa Bay finished off its 98-yard scoring drive — the longest in club history — they did so needing to convert just one third down in 10 plays.
Perhaps that's the best way for the Bucs to drive the football.
The team's third-down offense has been average all season, and it seems to have a direct tie to their win-loss record. The Bucs converted 38 percent of their third downs this season, ranking 17th in the NFL. Against Carolina the Buccaneers — playing with second-stringers at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and left guard — converted just 4-of-12 third downs. The Bucs lost by eight. At times this season, the Bucs have become a two-down football team. If they don't get it by third down, they seem to be unable to get anywhere.
There is only one playoff team worse on third down than Tampa Bay — Seattle. The Seahawks converted just 35 percent of their third downs in the regular season, and that could be a key reason some are predicting the Washington Redskins will beat the Seahawks in Seattle on Saturday.
But the Bucs' third-down conversion issue has been a season-long problem. Ultimately it's difficult to pinpoint why. But until the Bucs are able to figure out how to be more successful on third down, they will likely be nothing more than what they are perceived to be — a weak division winner.
4. Chad Lucas may have a place on this football team.
The Alabama State wide receiver is described as a "first-year" player. It's the NFL's designation for a player who is a rookie by experience, but no longer a true rookie in name. Lucas has been in the NFL since 2004, but had never received a lick of playing time until Sunday.
In his first NFL start he caught five passes for 82 yards, including a 52-yard bomb that set up the Bucs' first touchdown.
Lucas made his first start five days after being promoted from the practice squad. Impressive.
Truth is, Lucas had a pretty good training camp and preseason, but there was no room for the 6-foot-1, 201-pound receiver on the opening-day roster. But thanks to a season's worth of attrition at wide receiver — the Bucs have lost so many receivers I've lost count — Lucas finally has something on tape to show to coaches around the NFL.
He's not particularly tall and physical, but he's fast, as he proved by quickly getting behind the Panthers on that bomb. Both defensive backs lost track of him on the play. He also showed pretty good hands on Sunday, too. And he appeared to have a solid grasp of the offense, always a plus with Gruden.
Those are the sorts of pluses that catch Gruden's eye. Judging by Gruden's reaction to a question about Lucas on Monday, he at least liked what he saw.
The Bucs would be smart to keep Lucas around in 2008. Most teams like to have at six wide receivers. Aside from Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, no one else on the roster — active or injured — is a lock for 2008, in my opinion. Lucas could take advantage of a full offseason with the Bucs and make a play for a full-time job in 2008.
5. Jeremiah Trotter can still play at a high level.
The Stephen F. Austin product and 10-year NFL veteran had six first-half tackles against the Panthers and seemed to be just about everywhere he could be. He delivered a big hit at one point in the first quarter that reminded me of his days in Philadelphia. Few players on the field had more on the line personally than Trotter, who is a free agent after this season.
There was a perception that the 6-foot-1, 262-pound Trotter was on the downhill slide of his career after Philadelphia released him in August. I think that's absurd after watching his performance against Carolina. He still brings a heavy load to the point of attack. He's still an above-average run stopper and on Sunday he proved he still has lateral quickness. A year of relative inactivity as a backup in Tampa Bay has preserved his body and a year working under Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has certainly made him a smarter player.
Unfortunately, there's no place for Trotter in Tampa Bay, unless he's content to be a backup. He's not. He'll sign with a new team for 2008, one with a defense more suited to his talents than Tampa Bay's and likely reclaim his statistics and reputation from his Philadelphia days. Here's a candidate for next year's Comeback Player of the Year award.
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.