by Jeff Berlinicke
TAMPA—The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never been a franchise that relied too much on offense. From Day ONe, way back in 1976, it’s been all about defense.
This year, though, that has to change. No longer do the Bucs have the savage defense that shut down opposing offenses and relied on a horizontal passing game and straight-ahead running to win. The perennial Pro Bowlers on defense are all gone now, except for fading veteran Ronde Barber. For the Bucs to make a run at the NFC South title, they will have to rely on at least a little offense.
The trouble with that is that there aren’t a lot of answers. Only a lot of questions. It’s been a long time since the Bucs have been so vulnerable on defense, so it’s up to new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski to come up with some answers. New head coach Raheem Morris, at 33, is the youngest coach in the NFL and has little experience with coaching an offense.
Jagodzinski has experience with talented offenses. He coached Brett Favre in Green Bay for four years, then after two years in Atlanta, he got more of the Favre experience. At Boston College he coached Matt Ryan who moved on to single-handedly turn around the Atlanta Falcons as a rookie last season.
This year he doesn’t have Favre or Ryan. He has Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich. He also inherits a lot of question marks and, if he doesn’t find some answers, this could be a long season on Florida’s west coast.
1. What if McCown and Leftwich aren’t the answers?
That’s a good question. McCown is 1-6 as a starter in his career and didn’t complete a pass all of last season. He has had chances as a starter in Cleveland and was so impressive that the Browns traded to draft Brady Quinn in 2007. Leftwich has all the mobility of a doorstop and has physical problems to add.
Leftwich, after an unsteady experience in Jacksonville, had lost all confidence by the end of the 2007 season when he was replaced by untested David Garrard and unceremoniously dumped by the Jaguars.
So do the Bucs look to first-round pick Josh Freeman? Freeman has enough tools that the Bucs traded up two spots to pick him in the first round and he’s expected to be the quarterback of the future, but how about 2009? If the Bucs lose early and often—not a longshot—Freeman may get a shot. Someone has to play quarterback.
2. No matter who is throwing the ball, who is going to catch it?
Another good question. The Bucs have no burners and waited until the seventh-round of the draft to take Sammie Stroughter out of Oregon State. Stroughter will make a decent kick returner, especially if Morris lets Pro Bowl returner Clifton Smith concentrate on running back.
The top of the depth chart includes Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant. Clayton is a possession receiver, who finally showed the promise he expressed during his rookie season towards the end of the 2008 season, but his work habits have been questioned and he fell into former coach Jon Gruden’s always no-vacancy doghouse and never escaped.
Clayton was on the cut line last year during summer training camp and barely held onto his roster spot. He’ll need to show more of a work ethic. Bryant looked good at times but also is questionable with is work ethic. He’s also been prone to trouble off the field. He was a model citizen last year with the Bucs who have never stepped away from taking chances on former problem children.
Morris and Jagodzinski have expressed an interest in going to a vertical passing game rather than the dump-and-run that Gruden used. Somebody has to get open or it will be more of the same.
3. Is Kellen Winslow any kind of an answer?
Winslow has talent, no doubt about it. He also has two bad knees and didn’t even bother to show up at Tampa Bay’s first OTA after saying he would. He’s high-maintenance and there has to be a reason the Cleveland Browns dumped him for a second-round pick while Winslow should be entering the prime of his career.
He’ll be a big part of the new offensive package, creating mismatches. He isn’t one to be double-teamed and that should free Clayton and Bryant, Winslow offers lots of options, but if either of his knees gives out, that leaves Jerramy Stevens as the only other viable tight end.
Another factor involving Winslow is that former Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel, one of the most docile men in sports, wasn’t crazy about Winslow and his blocking or his attitude. That Tampa Bay offense hasn’t had a stud tight end since Jimmie Giles who has been retired from the NFL for 20 years. In Tampa, tight ends block first and catch passes later. It will be interesting to see if Winslow and the Bucs make a good fit.
4. OK, the Bucs offensive line is the best unit on the team. What is someone goes down?
The starting five of Donald Penn, Aaron Sears, Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph, and Jeremy Trueblood is the best the Bucs have had maybe in franchise history. But the only backup with any experience at all is Sean Mahan, a center who can back up Faine. The rest of the line depth is almost barren. Penn may be expendable, but his backup on the depth chart is untested Anthony Alabi and fifth-round pick Xavier Fulton who will get a lot of chances during pre-season to win the job.
It’s not a deep line and Joseph and Trueblood both play on the right side of the line. In the perfect world they would be on the left side, guarding McCown's and Leftwich’s backs.
5. Who is going to be the Bucs workhorse running back? Will it be by committee? And is Cadillac ready to run?
First, let’s talk about Williams. He has suffered serious injuries to both knees since his shoes went to Canton after the third week of his rookie season. He says he is fine and ready to run. Morris has said that it would be a stretch to see Anderson make any kind of impact this year.
Anderson has heart, but he runs side to side on a small frame. In the perfect world, he’s a small version of Barry Sanders, but this isn’t the perfect world and Anderson’s running style combined with his size makes him an ACL waiting to happen.
Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward will get most of the carries with Ward starting at the top of the depth chart. Ward rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the New York Giants last season, but 1,000 yards doesn’t mean what it used to. He and Graham are pretty much the same back.
Both can catch the ball out of the backfield, both are slashers, but neither is a franchise running back and the Bucs seem content to rely on them to take the bulk of the carries while hoping Anderson can be ready by early September.
Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs checking the list of players who get cut halfway through the pre-season to pick up another running back. Smith may be an answer, but he’s untested.
LAST SECOND SHOT: Have you noticed that, for the second straight season, every Bucs home game starts at 1 p.m.? They were 9-7 last season and that should at least merit one nationally televised night game, shouldn’t it? The New Orleans Saints, also in the NFC South, won one less game last year and have three prime-time games, including two Monday Nighters.