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 is the second part of our series, What We Learned about the Bucs in 2007.
6. DESPITE MICHEAL SPURLOCK'S HEROICS, THE RETURN GAMES ARE STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS.
Spurlock's return against Atlanta wasn't just the end of a long, dubious streak. It also indicated how one kickoff return can change a game. It was a 7-3 contest and the Falcons had just kicked a field goal when Spurlock made that return. His touchdown made it 14-3 and the Falcons were never heard from again.
Or think about the week before that when Houston's Andre Davis returned the second-half kickoff in a close game. It stole the momentum away from the Bucs.
|Tampa Bay kick returner Micheal Spurlock ended the Bucs' 32-year drought of kick returns without a touchdown. (AP photo/Scott Audette)|
The Bucs have had little of that momentum in the return game, certainly on kickoff returns but also on punt returns. After the season-ending injury to Mark Jones — who was doing fine work at the time — the Bucs had to go to a committee of players they didn't really want to use on punts — Ike Hilliard, Phillip Buchanon and Joey Galloway. None produced much of anything. Between the three their longest return 24 yards, and none of them came close to Jones' 11.1 yards per punt return.
Jones is out until at least the middle of next season. Spurlock may be the guy, but he has to progress quickly. Returners don't have to score to make a difference. They just have to break a long return every once in a while to set up good field position for the offense. That's what the Bucs lacked the second half of the season and what they must find in 2008.
7. THE RUN DEFENSE IS STILL A LITTLE SUSPECT.
Understand this. The run defense improved from the start of the season to the end of the season. But the unit, overall, still finished just 17th in the NFL in total rushing defense. Additionally, the Bucs gave up at least 97 yards in four of their final five games, including the playoffs. The Bucs allowed at least 4.0 yards per game rushing in nine of their 16 games in the regular season.
It's not that the run defense is bad. It's just not as dominant as it was in the heyday of the Bucs defense. Why? Well, part of the problem is up front. This is nothing against Jovan Haye. He's a talented player and did some great things defensively in 2007. But he's no Warren Sapp, a player that could plug the three-technique gap and fill up any running lanes to the left side of the opposing center. Until the Bucs find a dominant run tackle, they will probably remain about where they are ranked in the league in run defense.
Sure, Haye could put on some weight, but that would damage his value as a pass rusher. Don't forget he had six sacks in 2007.
There is a player with Sapp-like ability in free agency and that is Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth. If the Titans allow him to hit the open market, the Bucs should make a serious play to sign him. Putting Haynesworth in the middle would give the Bucs the dominant three-down end they desire and allow them to use Haye in a swing role at tackle and end, putting his pass rushing skills to optimum use. The rushing numbers would get better, and so would the outside pass rush.
8. PHILLIP BUCHANON GOT A BAD RAP.
For the first five years of his NFL career, Phillip Buchanon was considered a bust as a first-round pick. The cornerback never lived up to expectations in Oakland, where he was the first pick of the post-Jon Gruden era. And after the Raiders dealt him to Houston before the 2005 season, Buchanon never fit in with the Texans, either.
|Tampa Bay defensive back Phillip Buchanon ended up being one of the Bucs' best offseason decisions, as he flourished in a starting role in his first full year in Tampa Bay. (AP photo)|
But that didn't stop the Bucs from re-signing Buchanon to a two-year contract, and it turned out to be one of the best signings the Bucs made in the offseason.
With a full offseason of work in Monte Kiffin's Cover 2, Buchanon played, one could argue, the best of any of the team's corners or safeties. He broke up 11 passes, perhaps the biggest coming in the end zone against St. Louis in Week 3 as he kept up with a flying Torry Holt. He picked off three passes and forced a fumble.
He also finished with 63 tackles and dispelled the myth that he couldn't hit.
Is Buchanon a devastating hitter? No. But he tackled well in 2007. He didn't have many mistackles. His speed allowed him to pursue laterally and make plays.
The Bucs gave Buchanon a clean slate and he stepped up. When Brian Kelly went down to his groin injury, Buchanon stepped in and played so well he relegated Kelly to the third cornerback role when he was finally healthy. Whether it was the fresh start or the new Cover 2 scheme (Buchanon was used to playing man to man in Oakland), he'll enter 2007 as the incumbent starter and, more importantly, a player the Bucs know can do the job. That was certainly in question entering this season.
9. THE BUCS ARE COMMITTED TO GROWING AN OFFENSIVE LINE — FINALLY.
When I first started covering the Bucs in 2004, the offensive line was filled with veterans. The Bucs ended up with one of the worst run offenses in the NFL that year.
So most of them were gone by the next season.
Three years later it appears the Bucs have committed to allowing a young, talented offensive line to play and learn together, a risky gamble that appears to be paying off.
Center John Wade is the only member of that 2004 starting offensive line still with the team, and he'll likely have to withstand a challenge from Dan Buenning next year. Buenning, drafted in 2005, started at left guard as a rookie in 2005 and lost his job in 2006 due to injuries.
|Tampa Bay right guard Davin Joseph could be one of the cornerstones of the Buccaneers offensive line for the next several years. (AP photo)|
Last April the Bucs selected Tennessee's Arron Sears in the second round. Sears started all 16 games as a rookie and progressed faster than most probably expected. Gruden believes Joseph and Sears can be the Bucs' interior linemen for the next 10 years.
Then Donald Penn stepped in and played 12 games for the injured Luke Petitgout. Penn stepped into the job with little NFL pedigree (he was an undrafted free agent in 2006 who signed with Minnesota) and performed capably. At the least, Penn grew up enough to give Petitgout a run for his job when training camp begins in 2008.
Imagine if Penn were to beat out Petitgout and Buenning were to beat out Wade. The Bucs would have a starting offensive line that was either drafted or signed since the 2005 Draft. That's amazing given Cosey Coleman, Kenyatta Walker and Matt Stinchcomb were starting at key positions when I arrived.
Even if Wade and Petitgout aren't unseated, the Bucs have procured enough young cogs to build their future offensive line around for the next five years. Even better, they're a talented group and could eventually become some of the best linemen the franchise has ever had.
And, for once, the Bucs appear committed to making that happen.
10. MICHAEL CLAYTON DOES NOT APPEAR AS IF HE WILL EVER FULFILL HIS POTENTIAL.
As a rookie Michael Clayton looked as if he had the potential to rewrite the Tampa Bay record book as far as receiving was concerned.
Three years later he looks like a bust.
|Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton, healthy for most of 2007, still wasn't able to live up to the reputation he created as a rookie in 2004. (AP photo/Chris O'Meara)|
But it never happened and it's a mystery why. Clayton has all the physical tools to succeed at the professional level. He has the size, strength and speed to match up with most cornerbacks. He is one of the blocking wide receivers around and he's deceptively quick.
This year he had it all laid out in front of him. He had a competition with a second-year wide receiver in Maurice Stovall, a receiver with less experience than him. He appeared to lose that battle.
Then when Stovall faded, in came Ike Hilliard, the 31-year old receiver that had been reliable during his two years in Tampa, but never a game breaker. But he won the No. 2 job and Clayton finished the season with 22 receptions.
Gruden is the type of coach who values reliability and plays those players he has faith in. It's obvious in the way Gruden uses Clayton that he has little faith in him. Clayton's numbers the past few years, his injuries and his inability to assert himself as the unquestioned No. 2 receiver has forced Gruden to look in other directions at the position. If Clayton were playing anywhere close to his 2004 level, wide receiver would not be as pressing a need this offseason as it is.
Is it on Gruden? Is it on Clayton? It's probably on both of them. But if Gruden has such little faith in him, maybe it's time to let him go.
He will certainly never be the receiver he was in 2004.
LB Derrick Brooks still has something left in the tank. He has two years left on his contract and he may just fulfill it playing at a level that will continue to allow him to be effective. He's not an impact player anymore but he makes few mistakes.
LB Barrett Ruud is a future Pro Bowler. All he needs now is another year to cement his reputation as a hard-hitting middle linebacker.
This coaching staff is pretty salty. Secondary coach Raheem Morris, linebackers coach Gus Bradley, defensive line coach Larry Coyer, running backs coach Art Valero, special teams coach Richard Bisaccia, offensive line coach Bill Muir and quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett should all get new contracts for their work this year. Morris will be a head coach one day and Valero should become an offensive coordinator one day. It now appears, however, that Valero is on his way to St. Louis to be the Rams' offensive line coach, if the rumors are true. And that would be a shame. And given how the staff was treated after the season — they had a five-minute meeting with Gruden and he told them to make an appointment with GM Bruce Allen about staying in Tampa — a shakeup seems imminent.
Simeon Rice is done. That's an amazing statement, considering the ruckus myself and many other writers caused when Rice was released in July.
Chris Simms will not finish his career as a Buc. I simply cannot imagine the Bucs wanting Simms anymore, given Jeff Garcia's performance and the emergence of Luke McCown. The Bucs will probably try and shop Simms. He finally appears to be back to his old self (at least that's what he tells us). If so, there could be some takers, especially in Miami, where Bill Parcells is now the head honcho. Bill coached Phil Simms, Chris' father, and perhaps he sees the same things in Chris that he saw in Phil.
Even if it's not Miami, if you saw some of the quarterback play in the NFL in 2007, the market for a player of Simms' ability and experience is crystal clear.
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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.