1. I've heard reports out of Bucs camp that David Boston and Maurice Stovall are looking very good. Are these reports true, and if they are, where does that leave Michael Clayton?
Boston and Stovall have both had fine camps. Stovall is making at least once terrific catch per day, and his after-practice work ethic can't be matched. Boston has had an exceptional camp and actually started ahead of Stovall at flanker against New England, though I suspect Boston will eventually settle into a backup role behind Joey Galloway. Where this leaves Clayton is hard to figure. I expected Clayton to be a solid No. 3 receiver entering the regular season. But with the improvement of Stovall and Boston, and the under-the-radar professionalism of Ike Hilliard, Clayton may be finding himself in a fight with players like Paris Warren and Mark Jones for playing time. It's all speculation until we see Clayton play Saturday, as he missed the preseason opener.
2. Is Luke McCown as good as recently advertised, and if he is, where does that leave Chris Simms?
McCown is probably the best story out of this camp. Jon Gruden said it best last week: "If Luke McCown had been healthy last year, he would have been our starting quarterback." I assume that he means after Simms' injury. McCown is making all the throws necessary to excel in this offense, emerging as an in-huddle leader and making the battle for No. 2 all but unnecessary. I think one more good game from McCown cinches his role as Jeff Garcia's backup. As for Simms, he really needs to play on Saturday, in my opinion. He's worked out for the past week, but his passing is coming along slowly. He's starting to throw tight spirals again, but his accuracy is still suspect. He's No. 3 on the depth chart, but if he doesn't play again against the Jaguars, and Bruce Gradkowski plays reasonably well, Simms may be looking for work. Gruden said Wednesday he didn't see a scenario in which Simms would be moved to injured reserve. And I don't see the Bucs taking four quarterbacks into the regular season. At this point, it's Simms vs. Gradkowski for No. 3.
3. Cadillac Williams obviously had a down year last year, and many people attributed it to the offensive line playing poorly. Is that the truth, and will the addition of Luke Petitgout firm up that weak spot?
I think two things were at work last year. First was the offensive line, which played so poorly that Gruden lost faith in its ability to run block. Second, Cadillac Williams became a very tentative runner by the season's second half. I don't see the tentativeness in Cadillac so far in workouts, so his success this year will come down to the offensive line. Petitgout, if healthy, firms up their pass protection, certainly. The run blocking will depend on how well he works with second-round pick Arron Sears at left guard. The pair will play together for the first time on Saturday and I'm interested to see if the chemistry is there. That's an important side because Williams likes to run left. If that combination comes together (and Petitgout stays healthy, which is now a concern) I can see Williams returning to a form more resembling his 2005 season. But don't expect to see that on Saturday. Gruden doesn't like to run Williams much in the preseason. He had four carries last year, and just one last week.
4. Jeff Garcia plays his best in a west coast offense, similar to what coach Gruden runs. Does he have enough weapons around him to bring the Bucs back to the playoffs in 2007?
That's the key word, isn't it? Weapons. Garcia's success is dependent on what's around him. He succeeded in San Francisco and Philadelphia because of the supporting cast, just as he failed in Cleveland and Detroit because of the supporting cast (and his own injuries). I think the pieces are there, but I wonder if he's joining this team one year too soon. Six of the offense's 11 projected starters will have three years or fewer of NFL experience on opening day - Williams, Stovall, Sears, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood and TE Alex Smith. If the Bucs make the playoffs (and, if they do, it will be because Garcia had success), it will have to be a karmically perfect season, like 2005, where every break seemed to go Tampa Bay's way. That was also a young team on offense, with, at times, four rookie starters. I don't think that happens twice in three years. Garcia's production will be inconsistent because his supporting cast will be inconsistent.
5. Sabby Piscitelli would have likely been the Jaguars second round pick if they didn't snatch Reggie Nelson up in round one. The entire Jaguars front office was very high on him, how is he looking in camp?
So far, so good. When I talked to secondary coach Raheem Morris the first week of camp, he was highly complimentary of Piscitelli, who was learning both safety positions and impressing Morris with his communication skills. "He's communicating. Sometimes he's communicating the wrong thing, but he's communicating," Morris told me. I've seen hints of his hitting ability. He had a couple of hits early in camp where you knew if he was going full throttle he would have laid the guy out. All that said, Piscitelli missing last week's game due to a minor injury hurt his chances to unseat Will Allen at free safety for the starting job on opening day. But, I think Piscitelli is making enough progress where he could spell Allen, or even take his job, by midseason. The Bucs are high on him, probably for the same reasons the Jaguars were.
6. Do you think Jon Gruden is on the hot seat, or is it just a media fabrication? If he?s not, do you think he should be?
I think the seat is set to simmer for right now. It's been a pretty good camp for Gruden, despite the Simeon Rice, Chris Simms and Jake Plummer flaks. There have been no major injuries and he has great competition going on at positions he wanted to improve in 2007. But, I don't think the hot seat is a media fabrication. This team has been woefully inconsistent since winning Super Bowl XXXVII, and now the salary cap is no longer an excuse. He has the quarterback that he's always wanted in Jeff Garcia. He has several young, talented players on offense. He still has the makings of a Top 10 defense. Plus, the Bucs have one of the weakest schedules in the NFL this year. The ingredients are there for a four- or five-game turnaround, which would allow Gruden to remain in Tampa Bay beyond this season, plus earn him a contract extension. A 7-9 record probably keeps him in the job in 2008, but without an extension. Anything below that and I think both he and general manager Bruce Allen are out of a job. If the Bucs start the way they did last season, that simmer will go to a boil real fast.
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