Tampa Bay entered the 2007 season with a lot of questions marks, not only on the field but in the front office. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were both on the hot seat. Now, it appears both are on their way to contract extensions.
What about the rest of the team? What did we learn about this team in 2007 and how can that affect the team in 2008? Here are 10 things we learned about the Bucs in 2007.
1. THE FRONT OFFICE MAY ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT IT'S DOING.
That was debatable a couple of years ago, especially after all the free-agent signings that blew up in their face in 2004.
But after this season the Bucs' scouting and pro personnel departments look pretty smart. First they did a solid job identifying key free agents that fit the Bucs' overall scheme. Most of them panned out. Jeff Garcia, Kevin Carter and Cato June were chief among them. The only free agent that really didn't work out as hoped was Patrick Chukwurah, who was dogged by injuries all season.
Second, they knew when to cut bait. They released Shelton Quarles, gambling that Barrett Ruud was ready to take over at middle linebacker. He was. They released Simeon Rice after he failed a camp physical. The Bucs could have kept him on PUP, but they chose to let him go. Smart move. Rice barely played in 2007 and they avoided a potential distraction by keeping him.
Third, the work they had done in previous seasons to improve the team's depth panned out. Jovan Haye, Luke McCown, Earnest Graham and Donald Penn played little before this season, but all four were big contributors to a division championship. Some of these were players the Bucs have tracked for years with other teams and took a chance on after their release.
The media has hammered away at general manager Bruce Allen the past couple of years. But praise is in order for Allen and his top lieutenants, college scouting director Dennis Hickey and pro personnel director Mark Dominik. Their hard work in 2007 and before that laid the groundwork for this football team's success. Another year or two like this and the Bucs will be back among the top echelon of teams in the NFL.
2. JON GRUDEN LIKES VETERAN QUARTERBACKS.
|Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia proved that veteran quarterbacks work best for head coach Jon Gruden. (Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt)|
Look at what Garcia did in 2007 and that's all the explanation you need. He completed 63 percent of his passes, threw 13 touchdowns against 4 interceptions and was sacked 19 times. Beyond the numbers, he stabilized a position that had been in flux since Gruden benched Johnson four games into the 2004 season. The position was treated like a hot potato for various reasons.
But not anymore. Garcia brought stability to the position and will likely do so for the next two or three years, barring he remains healthy. That could be why Gruden has reportedly approached his old offensive coordinator in Oakland, Bill Callahan, to join him in Tampa Bay. He must sense that he has an opportunity that will quickly shut due to Garcia's age (37).
Finally, Gruden must resist the temptation to select another young quarterback in this draft. Young quarterbacks don't work in his offense on a regular basis. They never have. The offense is too complicated and Gruden is too hard on his quarterbacks for a younger player not to crack. Gruden's best strategy after Garcia's inevitable departure in the coming years is to find another veteran like Garcia, Gannon or Johnson and meld their talents to his offense.
3. EARNEST GRAHAM CAN BE A FULL-TIME NFL STARTER.
The numbers don't tell me that, though he did have a fine season for someone that only started nine games (898 rushing yards, 324 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns). The way he ran and performed did.
Graham is not a game-breaking back and he never will be. He is at his best when he can wear down an opponent using a big offensive line and his own natural ability to take the first cut and turn it into positive yardage. Graham almost never loses yardage. It's not spectacular, but it works.
Questions were many when Graham took over as the starter (and he had to. The Bucs had no other options). Chief among them was whether Graham could catch passes out of the backfield and pick up the blitz. He answered both questions as the season went on. He finished as the team's third leading receiver and had a huge receiving game in Detroit. Meanwhile, he became a reliable protector for Garcia in the shotgun. After a few games the Bucs stopped subbing FB B.J. Askew for Graham as a blocker and used Graham just about all the time.
But most notably, Graham shouldered the load and didn't seem to wear down. Whether he hit 100 yards or not, he found a way to be effective. He gained more than 1,200 yards total in 2007 and touched the ball 271 times. He gained 4 yards per carry and 6 yards per catch.
While he'll never be a game-breaker, he proved the Bucs' offensive can be effective without the home run hitter. Graham can hit plenty of singles and doubles and still find a way to beat you to home.
4. GAINES ADAMS MAY BECOME THE TEAM'S NEXT GREAT PASS RUSHER (OR WILL IT BE GREG WHITE?)
|Tampa Bay defensive end Gaines Adams made great strides during the second half of the 2007 season. (AP photo/Chris Graythen)|
Then after the bye week Adams' technique improved. He not only used his hands better he also achieved solid leverage on those speed rushes. He also showed that he has good timing in forcing two fumbles from rushing behind quarterbacks. He also appeared to become more powerful. By the end of the season, he had six sacks, right on the average output for a defensive end selected in the Top 10 of the last 15 drafts — and exactly what I said he would have in 2007. It took him half a season, but he finally showed the potential that could make him the type of player that sacks the QB 10 times or more each season.
But Greg White's emergence makes the role of Tampa Bay's top pass rusher a cloudy one. While Adams had to work on his hands and leverage, both seemed to come more naturally to White, who needed five years to break into the NFL. He's as gifted in forcing fumbles as Adams, perhaps more so, and he's bigger in the upper body and is better able to break off from offensive tackles.
White also had eight sacks to Adams' 6. Adams had the pedigree, but White had better numbers. The hope is that one will challenge the other and both will grow into more dangerous ends in 2008.
5. MONTE KIFFIN STILL KNOWS HOW TO GET IT DONE ON DEFENSE.
|Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin proved that an old dog can use some new tricks. (Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt)|
The Cover 2 is still the base. But Kiffin employed the Cover 3 and Cover 4 (both out of the Bucs' base scheme) and even used 3-4 alignments to create mismatches at the line of scrimmage. He wasn't afraid to listen to his players or his new defensive assistants (his entire staff turned over from 2006). He wasn't afraid to try new players in new places or move his linemen into different spots. It seemed Kevin Carter moved around nearly every play.
The Bucs also gave Kiffin some new tools, starting with Adams and White. Along with Tanard Jackson, Cato June, Carter, Patrick Chukwurah and more, the Bucs showed Kiffin they were committed to giving him the players he needed to turn the unit around.
And it worked. The Bucs finished second in total defense and tied for first in scoring defense.
The old Bucs defense we knew was back. Credit the players, for sure. But also credit Kiffin for showing flexibility when he easily could have chosen to cling to the past.
COMING THURSDAY: The other five things we learned in 2007.
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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.