This is going to sound crazy, but there will come a time this season when Bucs fans will miss Jeff Garcia. Let that sink in for a minute.
That moment might not come at home against the Cowboys in Week One, because let’s be honest, anyone can look good against that secondary. There are children at your family reunions that could put up a good quarterback rating against Dallas.
And a cock-eyed, eye-patched Buccaneer optimist might even say Tampa Bay’s projected starter, Luke McCown, can handle a road game in Buffalo in Week Two because it won’t be cold yet.
But some time during the second quarter of Week 3; with the Bucs unable to move the chains against a physical Giants defense, with McCown taking sacks and forcing passes, the boos will come. And each one of those boos will be followed by the realization that maybe the Bucs shouldn’t have been so quick to let Garcia go.
Because even the most casual football fans know the NFL is a quarterback league. You can make all the off-season moves you want; if you don’t have a smart head and a solid arm under center, your season is over before it starts.
This isn’t an indictment of McCown’s ability by any means. He’s said and done all the right things this off-season. When the Bucs used their first pick in the draft on Josh Freeman, McCown showed the appropriate competitive fire by saying someone would have to take the starting job from him over his dead body.
The problem is, McCown’s game experience has primarily come against second and third string squads in the pre-season. He’s played in exactly 12 more NFL games than you have.
And it’s a real shame because, at least offensively, the pieces are there. Derrick Ward finally has a shot to prove he can be a number one back, and should stay fresh as he splits carries with a healthy Earnest Graham. Kellen Winslow was a fantastic addition to a team that played tight end roulette for the entire Gruden administration.
Antonio Bryant turned a corner in a big way last season and gives the Bucs a legitimate home run threat, and Michael Clayton could bring his game out of witness protection thanks to the solid relationship he already has with McCown.
But Tampa Bay’s most important offensive acquisition won’t even put on a uniform. At Boston College, new Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski helped make Falcons QB Matt Ryan into what he is today. Is it crazy to think lightning could strike twice?
In a word: probably. There’s no telling how Jagodzinksi’s offense will translate from the college game into the NFL, and keep in mind, he had four years with Ryan at Boston College. He’s had less than nine months to work with McCown. Also (and this is meant as respectfully as possible), we know Matt Ryan. Matt Ryan is a friend of ours. McCown is no Matt Ryan. At least not yet.
It might not even be fair to judge McCown on this season. He has to deal with a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator and a killer schedule. As a matter of fact, Tampa Bay’s schedule is the fifth-hardest in the league next season (opposing teams have a .580 winning percentage).
Part of that is because they play in the NFL’s toughest division. Part of it is because they’re lined up to play the NFC East out of conference. But here’s the kicker: the Bucs have to play a “home” game in London. Against the Patriots. With a healthy Tom Brady looking to make up for lost time. Ouch.
But the Bucs have more issues than their schedule and their quarterback. One of the biggest reasons for Tampa Bay’s collapse last season (you’re probably trying to forget, but the Bucs started 9-3 last season and went on to finish 9-7) was the defense. Specifically, the defensive line.
Remember the Monday night game against the Panthers in December? The Bucs gave up 3,478 rushing yards in that game (rough estimate) because the defensive line got pushed out of position and had trouble tackling.
That defensive “effort” continued through the rest of the season and the Bucs lost their last four games and missed the playoffs. Can new Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates stop the bleeding?
He didn’t get much help in the offseason. You might have thought the Bucs would address the defensive line with their first pick in the draft, but they didn’t. You might have also thought new General Manager Mark Dominik would have made a move in free agency to shore up what the league knows is Tampa Bay’s most glaring weakness. They didn’t.
The secondary is another year older, which is both good and bad news. Cornerback Ronde Barber is another year older and has already shown signs he’s lost a step.
But the Bucs young safeties have another year under their belts and that’s good news for guys like Jermaine Phillips, Tanard Jackson, and Sabby Piscitelli who have already demonstrated a penchant for the big hit and a nose for the football.
New Head Coach Raheem Morris is a defensive guy and early signs from mini camp are his guys will play hard for him. Very hard. It could be because he’s young enough to play himself, but Morris looks like one of the best motivating head coaches the Bucs have ever had.
The question is, can Morris keep control of the locker room if the Bucs get out to a slow start? Because realistically, this is a 4-12 team.
Here’s the good news: it might not come to that. In a Jim Carrey-in-Dumb-and-Dumber kind of way, the Bucs have a chance to surprise some people. It’s not out of the question for the Bucs to win their first two games.
The Cowboys are a different team without Terrell Owens and Buffalo isn’t BUFFALO in September. Let’s be realistic and say the Bucs drop one to the Giants in Week Three and then get a road win over an underachieving Redskins team in Washington in Week Four.
That’s a 3-1 start to the season and even if the Bucs lose their next three (at Philadelphia, Carolina at home and the Patriots in London), they head into the bye week one game under .500. You’d take that right now, right?
The point is this: the Bucs play five of their six division games in the second half of the season. That’s after their bye week and after a couple of resume-building games against the Packers at home and against the Dolphins over in Miami.
Maybe Jagodzinski’s system is getting its legs. Maybe Luke McCown has started to assert himself and has shown command of the offense. Maybe the defense has kept the Bucs in more games than it hasn’t. Admit it; you’re nodding your head as you read this.
Maybe Bucs fans won’t miss Jeff Garcia after all.