So Byron Leftwich is the starter. I occasionally guess wrong. Sue me.
I feel bad for Luke McCown. This is a guy that I've followed since the late 1990s, when he was in high school in Jacksonville, Texas. He's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet in your life. Of the three quarterbacking McCown brothers, I think everyone back in East Texas felt Luke had the best makeup to succeed in college and the NFL. That's why I've been such a proponent of his since he arrived in Tampa Bay in 2005. It was like having a piece of home for me.
But nice doesn't win you anything in the NFL. This was Luke's best shot at becoming a full-time starter and he just didn't get it done. I certainly hope head coach Raheem Morris recognized that McCown has something to offer as a backup and doesn't cut or trade him. As I've reasoned before, the Bucs have enough options, between the active roster and the practice squad, to keep all four quarterbacks.
How many second-round picks can you remember getting released after just one full season in the NFL? You can rack your brain, but you won't find many that can match what happened to Dexter Jackson earlier this week. The experiment is over. The former SI cover boy is a free agent.
How did this happen? Well, first former Bucs management (mainly Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden) completely reached on draft day last year to take this guy. Jackson was talented, certainly, but he wasn't a second-rounder. Second, the Bucs tried to sell him as a kickoff returner, punt returner and wide receiver. That's fine, but he didn't have much in the way of receiving skills. There's a big difference between Jackson and the other combo receiver the Bucs were looking at last year, DeSean Jackson. DeSean can catch, run routes and play tough. Dexter couldn't make the adjustment. I mean, Dexter couldn't even hang on to the return jobs the Bucs handed him last year.
Third, and finally, he was flat outplayed, first by an undrafted free agent in Clifton Smith, who took his return jobs and went to the Pro Bowl, then by seventh-round pick Sammie Stroughter, who stole the No. 3 receiving job the Bucs surely had Dexter pegged for when they drafted him.
Dexter Jackson is a case of what happens when a team looks at speed and doesn't look at the overall player. When the Bucs drafted him last year, everyone in the media room said, "reach." How do we see that and not the guy who get paid the big bucks to evaluate these guys?
Speaking of Stroughter, I don't think this is going to be another case of Marques Colston. Colston, as you may remember, was also a seventh-round pick from a small school. Colston, of course, exploded as a rookie. That won't happen to Stroughter. There's a big drop from Drew Brees to Leftwich, in terms of throwing the football. As anemic as I expect this offense to be this season, Stroughter will be lucky to catch 30 passes. But just the fact that the Bucs were able to find a talented player that fits their system in the seventh round may bode well down the line. Here's why: Not a single seventh-round pick from the Allen-Gruden regime made a tangible contribution to the team. In fact, I don't think a single one is left on the roster. So the fact that Morris and GM Mark Dominik identified one player deep in the draft that can contribute is something to feel good about. The Bucs haven't hit those kinds of talent often.
I'm not sure about this 2-2-1 RB committee I've been hearing about. The idea is that one back will start the game, play two possessions, then give way to the next back, who will play two possessions, who will give way to the third back, who will play one possession. The order, at least at this moment, sounds like it will be Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham and Carnell Williams.
Here's the issue. Is this an arbitrary rotation? If so, then I think it will likely be a failure. Running backs have told me for years they need a steady diet of carries to get into the rhythm of the game. Williams himself says he's not ready to really tear it up until carry 12. So if you're just rotating these guys in and out, how are they going to get into the flow of the game? Sounds impossible to me.
But, in Morris' defense, how else are you going to get these three guys on the field? My hunch is that he'll start feeding the back that is the most successful and scrap the rotation idea by October. I think he's just waiting to see which back takes control of the job.
Josh Freeman will start on Friday night. Everyone says this is his big chance to put McCown out of a job. I think the Bucs just want to see Freeman play reasonably well, that he's made some progress thus far. He hasn't been particularly ho-hum this preseason, and I don't think the Bucs want this guy to be a heartbeat away from being a starter just yet. The smart play is to keep McCown, make Freeman No. 3 and put Josh Johnson on the practice squad again. But there's no accounting for the foolishness of some teams when they pick a QB in the first round. Very few teams get it right when they toss a rookie into that fire. You can count them on one hand: Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger. If you think of anyone else, let me know. But that's my point. Rookie QBs need to sit, not play and not feel as if they're a heartbeat away from playing every week. If this kid is the future, ease this boy in. There's no reason to sacrifice him to the wolves right now.
Matt Bryant is probably done if he doesn't show the Bucs anything against Houston. Mike Nugent hasn't been a world-beater, but at least he's been healthy. Bryant hasn't been healthy the entire preseason. You have to wonder what signing Nugent to a long-term contract (in terms of kickers) did for Bryant's psyche. This is a guy who hasn't had competition for three years. Maybe he got used to being the starter. Either way, I think his days are numbered. Despite Bryant's 62-yard monster a couple of years ago, he doesn't have great range and Nugent can really boot it, especially on kickoffs.
Sean Mahan must feel like he can't get a break. He's been with Tampa Bay for more than five years, he's been one of their most versatile offensive linemen during that span and they even traded a pick to get him back from Pittsburgh last year. So, what does he get? Released so they can sign G Marcus Johnson, a Raiders castoff. Because that's exactly what the Bucs need – a former Raider.
Should we draw any correlation to the fact that Mahan was a Gruden-Allen guy? Or am I just jumping to conclusions? He still has something to offer. He won't be unemployed long, I assure you.
WR Michael Clayton told the media on Aug. 31 that he's excited to be hitting the field this week. That's great, Michael, and I'm excited to see you usual stat line this season: 30 catches, three games missed to injury and plenty of talk about why he's still a Buc. But exhale, people, because it appears as if WR Antonio Bryant is on course to start the opener.
Friday's game only matters to second- and third-stringers. The only thing worth watching is Freeman's start at quarterback, which will likely determine whether McCown is still a Buc next week. Stay tuned. Next week I plan to talk about how much this roster has turned over from last year to this year.