SR's Fab Five

December 21 - SR's Fab Five is loaded with insight, analysis and inside scoop. Why is the Bucs' goal over the next two weeks securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race -- not worrying about homefield advantage? How has FB Darian Barnes played a big role in the Bucs' recent rushing success? How do the Bucs' 2002 free agents grade out? Why did CBs Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly get snubbed for the Pro Bowl? All the answers are in this week's SR's Fab Five.

SR's Fab Five usually appears weekly on PewterReport.com
Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Insider content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.

Here's five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. There has been too much emphasis placed on the Buccaneers' relying on securing homefield advantage for ultimate postseason success. Tampa Bay only needs to worry about securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC, not necessarily overtaking Philadelphia for the No. 1 seed in the conference. But why, considering that the Buccaneers have never won a playoff game on the road, and have lost the last three games to the Eagles at Veterans Stadium, including Wild Card contests in 2000 and 2001?

Tampa Bay could wind up hosting the NFC Championship Game even if they don't secure homefield advantage by getting the No. 1 seed. Confused?

I don't believe the Eagles could beat a strong playoff team with Koy Detmer or A.J. Feeley at the quarterback position, even in Philadelphia. With the Bucs as the No. 2 seed and Green Bay as the No. 3 seed, Philadelphia would face either San Francisco, New Orleans or Atlanta, depending on the outcome of the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

Sure, they beat San Francisco 38-17 out in California, and they might be able to knock them off again, but that's only if the 49ers get by the Saints, who would be their first-round opponent if the playoffs started today. The Saints, and possibly the Falcons, if they could beat the Packers, could give Philly a run for their money.

If the Eagles were to lose and the Bucs win their Divisional playoff game, the NFC Championship game winds up in Tampa Bay. This may not be a likely outcome, but it is still possible.

Of course the real benefits of maintaining the second seed in the NFC playoff race are getting a first-round bye week and winning the NFC South division. Tampa Bay hasn't had the distinction of winning their division since claiming the NFC Central crown in 1999, which was also the last time the team had a first-round bye in the postseason. The result? A 14-13 win over Washington and a berth in the NFC Championship game. It's a lot easier playing one home game en route to the championship game as opposed to two.

I also happen to like the Bucs' chances of beating a Donovan McNabb-less Eagles team in Philadelphia, too. If McNabb can make a miraculous recovery and somehow play in the playoffs, he won't be nearly effective as he usually is with weeks of rust likely to show. The fact that he'll be less likely to scramble around on a broken ankle would also be a benefit to the Bucs. I'm not saying the Bucs would win a cold weather road playoff game in Philly, but I like their chances.

FAB 2. When the annual Pewter Report awards come out in the upcoming Pro Bowl issue in February, don't be surprised if fullback Darian Barnes is named the Most Valuable Rookie in a tight race with free safety Jermaine Phillips. Granted, there aren't too many rookies who have done much this year in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs' first two picks, wide receiver Marquise Walker and running back Travis Stephens, were placed on injured reserve halfway through the season and only Stephens saw action in one game this year. Undrafted rookie linebacker Ryan Nece was making an impact on special teams coverage units until torn knee ligaments ended his season after eight games.

Phillips has picked up where Nece left off on kick coverage and has 12 special teams tackles, but cornerback Tim Wansley has only been active for one game this year and that was last week at Detroit.

Barnes, who was an undrafted free agent out of Hampton this year, went to training camp with the New York Giants and was claimed off of waivers by Tampa Bay on September 2. The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder is a punishing blocker who is quietly stealing playing time from second-year fullback Jameel Cook, who at 5-foot-10, 235 pounds is four inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Barnes. It's not often that teams activate three fullbacks, but that's what the Bucs have done lately with Barnes, Cook and Mike Alstott.

Barnes has only been active for four games this season, including the last two weeks, but has been an integral factor in the Bucs rushing for over 100 yards in back-to-back games for the first time this season. Against Atlanta, Tampa Bay had 150 yards rushing and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Last week at Detroit, the Pewter Pirates rushed for 123 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

Barnes has also contributed two tackles on kickoff coverage this year and is regarded as a better special teams performer than Cook is. Keep your eye on No. 30 down the Bucs' playoff stretch. You might be seeing more of him next season as the team's lead blocking fullback. The Bucs' brass cannot wait to get him in their offseason program and see him go through mini-camps and a training camp in Tampa Bay.

FAB 3. With the regular season just about over, let's look back at the Bucs' marquee free agent class of 2002 and dish out some grades.

WR Keenan McCardell - Has been everything the Bucs expected when they signed him. He's a true professional who does all of the little things to help the Bucs' passing game. Always seems to deliver the big catch when needed and is a real threat in the end zone. Clearly the best No. 2 wide receiver in Tampa Bay history. GRADE B+

TE Ken Dilger - Dilger has been an upgrade over Dave Moore in terms of athleticism and speed. He's been a complete tight who has adept at blocking and receiving. He's also stayed healthy, which has been an added bonus. GRADE B+

WR Joe Jurevicius - Jurevicius has brought a physical presence to the Bucs' receiving corps. He's made the tough catches and gotten the team fired up by stiff-arming defensive backs. The only question about Jurevicius is why hasn't he gotten the ball more? GRADE B

DE Greg Spires - Marcus Jones who? Steve White who? Spires has played very well as the team's starting left defensive end. They expected him to be a little bit more explosive pass rusher, but he has been extremely productive at containing mobile quarterbacks. GRADE B

LT Roman Oben - Oben has been the offensive line's most consistent player this year. He's not flashy and he's about as good as he's going to get, but Oben has been an upgrade over Kenyatta Walker at left tackle this season. GRADE B-

RB Michael Pittman - He reminds some of Errict Rhett the way he slams himself into the backs of his blockers, although Rhett had better vision and would occasionally bounce a play outside for a big gain. Pittman's longest run this year was a 21-yarder on opening day against New Orleans and he's had 235 touches with just one touchdown. He's been productive, just not as productive as the team envisioned. GRADE C

TE Rickey Dudley - Dudley has been a productive receiver and a suspect blocker. He's the half the tight end he could become and the Bucs will have to seriously look for another tight end who will be a willing blocker next year. GRADE C

LG Kerry Jenkins - Jenkins got off to a good start this season, especially run blocking. He added toughness and tenacity. But injuries have robbed him of some of his ability this year. He gets a "B" for the first quarter of the season and a "C-" for the rest of the year. GRADE C-

QB Rob Johnson - Johnson has been sacked nine times and thrown two interceptions in roughly five quarters of playing time this year. He has also not engineered a touchdown drive and was at the helm of the team's most narrow victory this year, a 12-9 squeaker at Carolina. He doesn't have good pocket presence and is slow in processing information. Johnson has a QB rating of 59.8. GRADE C-

FAB 4. I expect Brad Johnson to start at quarterback against Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football, but would warn head coach Jon Gruden to pull him in favor of Shaun King if Pittsburgh's defense starts getting big shots on Johnson. Johnson, who has a severely bruised lower back, is listed as questionable for the Steelers game.

King got his first start on Monday Night Football in 1999 and helped Tampa Bay beat Minnesota 24-17 by throwing two touchdowns. Although he has very little playing time in Gruden's version of the West Coast offense, King has responded well to pressure in the past, which has earned him the nickname, "Smoothie King." I think King would do fine against Pittsburgh. I'm not saying he would play better than Johnson, or even guide the Bucs to a win, but I think King would play well with so much at stake for Tampa Bay.

The key would be get King in a rhythm early with some screen passes or dump offs to Michael Pittman, Mike Alstott or Ken Dilger over the short middle or in the flat near the sidelines. If the Bucs could establish a running game and churn out between 100-120 yards that would help, but given Tampa Bay's inconsistent offensive line and the Bucs' past ineffectiveness in the running game, especially against Pittsburgh, I'm not holding my breath.

But Gruden needs to definitely attempt to run the ball, because the chances of your quarterback getting sacked or hit on a handoff are zero. If the Bucs can have success with a balanced offense and a nice 50-50 mix of runs and passes, they have a real shot at beating Pittsburgh.

FAB 5. Here's a couple of quick hits to hold you over until next week:

- Pro Bowl injustice for several Bucs? You bet. Quarterback Brad Johnson and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles head the list. I can actually make a case for neither Ronde Barber nor Brian Kelly going to Hawaii. Let me preface my remarks by saying that both Barber and Kelly are Pro Bowl-caliber players. But Kelly led the Bucs in interceptions and wasn't the best corner on his team. Barber is the best corner but teams are going away from him this year and throwing at Kelly. So how can you pick Barber when he doesn't even lead his team in picks? How can you pick Kelly when Barber is the better corner? I'm not saying this logic is correct, but it's the logic that kept both Bucs corners out of the Pro Bowl.

- With Simeon Rice's sack streak coming to a sudden halt with no quarterback takedowns in the last two games, I think LB Derrick Brooks will surge ahead and win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award ... unless Rice has a two- or three-sack performance on Monday Night Football against Pittsburgh. Then it becomes too close to call again.

- It's been a painfully long work in progress, but our new PewterReport.com site is going to kick butt. We're finishing it up and hope to have it done by playoff time. Our new Pewter Insider will still offer over 200 exclusive premium stories per year, but will also include the on-line version of the Pewter Report magazine in its entirety (front cover, pictures, graphics, ads, etc.) in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. We think you'll love the new version of PewterReport.com, which will be off the Insiders.com network. Our Pewter Insider will only be $49.99 for over 200 exclusive stories and one-year of Pewter Report's on-line edition. That's a much better deal than what the Insiders.com is currently offering, which is $80 for their Total Access Pass -- a price we have vehemently opposed, but to no avail. Stay tuned.

- Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family! Go Bucs!


Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Club Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Club content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.

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