Tampa Bay Bucs, McCown Look to 2010
Two months from the start of training camp, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still a team trying to find an identity and a future.
Since carrying away the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the 2002 season, the Bucs have bounced back and forth like a racquetball on steroids. After missing the playoffs the next two seasons, they made them in 2005, finished last in the NFC Central in 2006, won the division in 2007 and finished last in 2008. Not the model of consistency.
The question for the Bucs now is whether it is time to rebuild or go after one more division title in an odd-numbered year. There are arguments to be made both ways. The Bucs have enough talent to compete in the erratic NFC South but not enough to go deep in the playoffs.
They may have tipped their helmets when they dropped embattled coach Jon Gruden who won the Bucs first and only Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa, but his volatile attitude cost him locker room support and it was clear that the players were drowning him out by the end of the 2008 season when they lost the last three games while holding a comfortable hold on a playoff spot.
The final blow came when the Bucs lost to the lowly Oakland Raiders at home in a win-and-in game.
Instead of opening up the bank account, the Bucs turned to defensive coordinatorRaheem Morris who was the defensive coordinator for all of two weeks after replacing longtime leader Monte Kiffen who left to be coordinator for his son at the University of Tennessee.
Morris is player friendly, the extreme opposite of Gruden, but he'll have to earn some respect quickly.
The Bucs also have made it clear that the past isn't present anymore. In the past several years, Bucs icons John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Keyshawn Johnson and, this spring, Derrick Brooks were let loose. In a city where tickets aren't easy to sell, getting rid of fan favorites clearly shows a team moving in a new direction.
A team looking for a playoff ride would be hesitant to go with Luke McCown at starting quarterback, but he's the Bucs best option. McCown has one NFL start under his belt. His backup is former Jaguars first-round bust Byron Leftwich which isn't a lot to work with.
Again, the Bucs showed their hand, drafting quarterback Josh Freeman out of Kansas State, trading up in the first round of the draft. Freeman has a cannon beneath his shoulder, but he's inconsistent with a lot of upside. Still, he's at least two years from putting down his ball cap and clipboard on the sideline.
McCown doesn't have a lot of targets. Joey Galloway was another caught in the Bucs purge and that leaves the team without a burner.
Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant are possession receivers and the Bucs signed free agent tight end Kellen Winslow in the offseason even thought tight end wasn't a real need. Winslow professed his love for Tampa and proceeded to skip the team's first OTA without notice.
The offensive line is the bright pot of the Bucs offense which might make things interesting since McCown can run and it gives them another option since the running game is nothing sensational.
Longtime backup Earnest Graham and free agent Derrick Ward are the lead back. Ward ran for 1,025 yards for the Giants last year but is not an every down back.
Defense is where things get tricky. The key isn't on the field, it is in the press box. The Bucs rose to prominence behind Kiffen's Tampa Two defense that was all about speed and gang tackling. It is a typical 4-3 with enough quirks that it took the NFL several years to figure it out.
Now about half the teams in the league employ it.Kiffen was loved by his players and the perfect counterpoint to the fiery Gruden. Bill Bates takes over for Kiffen (and Morris) and has to win the respect of a defense that lost all three games after Kiffen announced he was leaving.
This is a strange team to pick while it tries to determine its identity and its future. The Bucs can conceivably win 10 games if everything goes the right way, but that's rare in the NFL. More likely, 7-9 is realistic. That's not such a bad thing.
The Bucs have been on the verge of a shakeup for several years, but those pesky division title kept fans and the front office encouraged enough to try to scotch-tape the holes and go for another run. Each time it failed.
The Bucs biggest problem is their fan base. Tickets are a hard sell in Tampa when they aren't winning. The days of the billboards on Dale Mabry Highway advertising season ticket waiting lists of 90,000 are long gone. There were lots of empty seats last year and it could be worst if the Bucs stumble out of the gate.
Look for the Bucs to miss the playoffs for the second straight season and revamp for the 2010 season with a new quarterback and a new direction.
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