Hope springs eternal in the NFC South, where yesterday's cellar-dweller is today's conference champion.
A 4-12 record in 2006 signaled a fall from penthouse to outhouse for the Bucs. While their bomb of a season would seem to portend big things in a division where every team to ever finish last has gone on to place first the next year...it won't.
The Bucs just aren't that good.
The teams who've pulled off the overnight turnaround had plenty going for them. The Panthers
boasted the league's second-best defense the year before they won the division. The Falcons
' rise coincided with Michael Vick
's return from injury. The Bucs' own title had a lot to do with Cadillac Williams and a collapsing Carolina
squad. And the Saints
won last year on the strength of supernatural support from their home crowd and supernatural play from Drew Brees
The 2007 Buccaneers
, I'm afraid, don't measure up.
The problems are myriad, but none is more pressing than quarterback. When starter Chris Simms went down last year, the Bucs flamed out. The team brought in Jeff Garcia to compete with Simms and provide depth—but he's neither a long-term answer nor a quick fix.
The aging Garcia succeeded in Philadelphia
thanks largely to a capable veteran offense. In Tampa, he'll have no such help, and he's too old to do it on his own.
Sorry Jeff—try again in 2001.
Receiver is another dicey area for the Bucs. Joey Galloway is the team's only consistent threat. The Bucs staff would like to see Maurice Stovall take over as the number-two receiver for the rampantly disappointing Michael Clayton. The team also signed David Boston...just for fun.
Running back Cadillac Williams fell off the map last year, but many observers blamed his struggles on the Bucs' lack of a passing game. Williams will have a chance to redeem himself this season behind a new-look offensive line that should be bigger and stronger than the 2006 version.
Ex-Giant LT Luke Petitgout and rookie G Aaron Sears will make an immediate impact, but the line as a whole still has a lot to prove.
Defensively, the formerly formidable Tampa Two looked downright frail last season, dropping to 17th overall in the league. Much of the problem is age: Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, and Ronde Barber are all well into their 30s, and injuries are always a threat (just ask Rice's left shoulder).
To get younger, the Bucs drafted DE Gaines Adams in the first round. The hope is that Gaines will be a dynamic presence opposite Rice—and though he lacks ideal size, the former Clemson star is adequate against the run and athletic enough to make an impact in pass coverage.
While Adams is a step in the right direction, though, the Bucs defense still has too many question marks to be much more than mediocre.
The hole next to DT Chris Hovan will be filled by the ageless (or is it aging?) Kevin Carter. The linebacking corps is far from what it used to be; Brooks will be flanked by Barrett Ruud and free agent signee Cato June. Safeties Will Allen and Jermaine Phillips have their moments...but too many of those moments involve receivers getting open behind them.
Jon Gruden's tenure with the Bucs has gradually become a disappointing one. Starting with a Super Bowl win didn't leave the coach much margin for error, and the fact that he won the title with Tony Dungy's team only makes his recent failures that much more glaring.
Gruden and GM Bruce Allen never found a franchise quarterback, ignored a defense that was crumbling before their very eyes, and managed to make everyone forget that it has only been five years since that Lombardi Trophy.
To keep their jobs, the pair must hope that the yo-yo of NFC South supremacy continues for one more year.
Destiny and history augur a move to the top of the division.
But this Bucs team will be lucky to move out of the cellar.
Projected finish: 4-12, 4th NFC South
Keep your eyes on: CB Brian Kelly—Deserves more credit for his play opposite Barber.
Take your eyes off: LB Cato June—Plays the pass like a pro; plays the run like a girl.