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2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Season Preview: A Magical Mystery Tour

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIISeptember 10, 2009

So much has changed in Tampa Bay in one off-season it's mind boggling. Gone is future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks. Gone is the maniacal coach Jon Gruden, who led the franchise to a Super Bowl title and three division championships. Gone is shrewd GM Bruce Allen who navigated the Bucs out of salary cap hell and into a surplus that envied around the league. Gone are cagey veterans like Jeff Garcia, Joey Galloway, and Ike Hilliard on offense.

In their places are a multitude of fresh faced youngsters brimming with self confidence and inexperience. From the GM down to the new franchise quarterback, Tampa Bay's youth movement has been a dramatic departure from the previous regime.

The question is will GM Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris' way be better this season or will Tampa Bay have to take a few steps back before they can move forward?

Here's a look at the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers -

Coaching

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Any preview must start here. Outside of the Tampa Bay area, few non-football people know the name of Raheem Morris. Morris came from relative obscurity to take over for Jon Gruden in the shocking purge back in February.

Pundits have written off Morris as an inexperienced 30-something with no head coaching or coordinator experience. Indeed, Morris has made some egregious errors to begin his tenure.

The dismissal of Derrick Brooks was a huge hot button issue here in Tampa. Not necessarily the act, but the execution in how it was done. Brooks had no inkling this was coming and wasn't afforded an opportunity to decide whether to continue his football career or retire as a Buccaneer. He was dumped. You're not supposed to do that to future Hall of Fame players.

Morris has had to deal with off the field issues of the two best players in his secondary (the position he coached last year), in Tanard Jackson and Aquib Talib.

He took an extended period of time to decide who his starting quarterback would be and decided that the guy he drafted as the franchise quarterback would not be that guy.

Then, the big one - he fired his offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski nine days before the season kicks off.

To the outsider, it looks like Barnum and Bailey's Circus has set up the Big Top at One Buccaneer Palace.

Inside the locker room though, there's a difference. These players truly believe in Morris. Guys like Kellen Winslow, Jr have publicly lauded him.

Winslow was asked by one wag during training camp, "What do you think of Coach Morris?"

"I love him. I'd never want to play for another coach." Winslow responded.

"You mean you wouldn't want to play for a coach that wasn't like Coach Morris?" The wag asked again.

"No, I don't want to play for anyone else in my career other than Coach Morris." Winslow corrected.

He's not alone. Certainly, players are going to say good things about their new coach in public - that's only natural. These players have gone out of their way to talk of his impact, his leadership. They believe in him.

In a locker room where previously fifty percent loved the coach and fifty percent hated him, its a drastic change to have the entire football team behind the guy calling the shots.

It remains to be seen how Morris manages game situations and adversity (although he certainly has been tested early on) and if losses mount, belief can erode quickly.

Greg Olsen replaced Bill Muir (more accurately Jon Gruden) and Jeff Jagodzinki as the offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers. Morris has stated repeatedly he seeks a more physical identity for the Bucs offense in the mold of the Pittsburgh Steelers power attack.

Jim Bates takes over for legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. The Bucs are scrapping the TAMPA TWO shell in favor of a more aggressive man-to-man style of defenses. Unlike Kiffin's more conservative approach, the Bucs defense will feature much more blitzing under Bates.

Rich Bisaccia continues to mold one of the best special teams units in the league.

Quarterback

Since Brad Johnson was let go in 2004, the Buccaneers have lacked a definitive answer at quarterback. The Bucs have started six different quarterbacks in the last five years, including two (and nearly three) last year.

Out goes Jeff Garcia, Brian Griese and Luke McCown. In comes Byron Leftwich and the number one pick Josh Freeman.

Leftwich is still serviceable behind a competent offensive line, something the Bucs have, and has the leadership the Bucs are seeking as a mentor for Freeman.

Freeman will play in 2009 - its only a question of when. If Leftwich and the Buccaneers get off to a fast start, he could delay the inevitable until late in the year.

If he goes down with an injury or proves to be ineffective, it could be sooner rather than later.

If pre-season is any indication, Freeman has a ways to go before he can be considered NFL ready. While he definitely has all the physical tools to be a Steve McNair/Ben Rothlisberger type, he still has some growing to do in not staring down receivers and reading defenses.

An encouraging sign is Freeman is certainly passionate about learning and has been working extremely hard with Olsen.

If Leftwich can be accurate downfield, he certainly has weapons to work with.

Running Backs

The Bucs have a trio of quality running backs and like the New York Giants employed last season, the Bucs plan on utilizing all three and even sprinkle in special teams phenom Clifton Smith for a wrinkle or two.

Carnell "Cadillac" Williams continues to defy odds, battling back from his second major knee injury to take the starter's role.

Thousand yard rusher Derrick Ward comes over from the G-men to provide more pop to the offense while Earnest Graham also returns from injury and is expected to be the Buccaneers answer in short yardage and goal line situations.

Raheem Morris has mentioned the Bucs may use all three backs in a 2-2-1 scenario. Two series for Cadillac, two series for Ward, one series for Graham, then see who has the hot hand in the game.

Wide Receivers\Tight Ends

The Buccaneers have a myriad of weapons in the passing game. Former Pro Bowl TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. and WR Antonio Bryant lead the group, while WR Michael Clayton looks to recapture the magic of his rookie season. TE Jerramy Stevens quietly will be an option in the red zone.

Rookie sensation Sammie Stroughter opened eyes in pre-season and likely is the 3rd wide receiver. Brian Clark and Maurice Stovall provide some depth at Wide Receiver.

Offensive Line

The strongest group of the team may also have the least depth. The Buccaneers offensive line is expected to be one of the best in the league if they can stay healthy.

Another element of change for Tampa Bay is the zone blocking scheme, a staple in the running attacks of Denver and the Atlanta Falcons.

Athletic tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood should excel in the scheme while Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, Center Jeff Faine, and Guared Jeremy Zuttah should be able to create gaping holes in the running attack.

The Bucs, however are very thin on the offensive line. With former starter Aaron Sears still dealing with personal issues and not expected to return this season, the Bucs have been forced to feature several undrafted free agents and players who were released from other teams to make up the remainder of their core.

Defensive Line

One of the biggest concerns this off-season was the Buccaneers defensive line. In the past, the Bucs featured smaller defensive tackles that needed to push the middle and apply pressure to the quarterback. This left the underbelly of the Bucs cover two shell vulnerable to power running attacks.

Under new coordinator Jim Bates, he likes bigger three hundred plus pound space eaters. If pre-season is any indication, Tampa Bay is going to be dramatically better against the run. The Bucs 2nd in the league this pre-season in run defense, giving up just 83.8 yds a game on the ground.

The Bucs defensive line also sacked the quarterback in pre-season. Tampa Bay was among the league leaders in sack during the exhibition campaign.

Gaines Adams and Jimmy Wilkerson are your bookends while Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims man the interior.

You can expect to see a lot of rotation with Stylez White and Kyle Moore getting some snaps outside. Rookie Roy Miller was very impressive in camp and pre-season and is pushing both defensive tackles for playing time.

Linebackers

One thing has definitely changed about the Bucs linebacking core and that's speed. Gone are veterans Derrick Brooks and Cato June. In their place are lightning quick youngsters Geno Hayes and Quincy Black.

Barrett Ruud still is a tackling machine in the middle and could have his best shot at a Pro Bowl berth he richly deserves.

Matt McCoy, Niko Koutouvides, and Adam Hayward give the Bucs young speedy depth.

Tampa Bay signed former Bills standout Angelo Crowell during their relatively inactive free agency campaign but Crowell could not get beyond injuries and eventually was released.

Jermaine Phillips moved from Strong Safety to Linebacker in the off-season but necessity (and perhaps sanity) forced him back to the secondary.

Secondary

Even if the Bucs weren't losing Tanard Jackson and Aquib Talib due to off the field incidents, the secondary is without a doubt the biggest concern for the Buccaneers.

With Jackson suspended for the first four games, Jermaine Phillips moves back to safety to fill his slot.

Sabby Piscitelli has had the potential to be a great strong safety and it was that potential that forced Phillips to linebacker. Piscitelli unfortunately had a very rough pre-season blowing several coverages that turned into ugly touchdowns.

As of this writing, no decision on Talib's availability has been made. If he's available, he'll tandem with Elbert Mack and Ronde Barber to make up the top three corners.

Torrie Cox, who had a horrible Pre-season, free agent William Middleton, and safety Will Allen provide depth.

The Bucs were torched for 226 yds per game and six touchdowns during the pre-season.

Special Teams

Injuries have robbed the Buccaneers of their punter and kicker from 2008. Punter Josh Bidwell was lost for the season with a hip injury while kicker Matt Bryant lost out on his competition due to a leg injury.

Dirk Johnson steps in as the Buccaneers punter and has performed well in pre-season. Mike Nugent won the kicking job by default.

Nugent provides depth on kickoffs and a little more leg strength for longer field goals. There are some concerns on his consistency but his youth and powerful leg offset that.

Clifton Smith, a pro bowl kick/punt returner last season, returns to provide a dangerous element to the Bucs return game.

The Bucs have always been a solid coverage team and appeared geared toward that again under special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.

The Schedule

Much has been made about the formidable schedule the Buccaneers face in 2009. Not only does the NFC South face the AFC East and NFC East, the Bucs also lost a home game against one of the best teams in football, the New England Patriots due to the NFL's international game. The Bucs will be the "home team" when Tampa Bay takes on New England in London.

The Bucs will face all four NFC East teams within the first five weeks of the season. Four of their last six games are on the road.

Outlook for 2009

There has been much written about how the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have little chance to contend in the NFC South this season. Too much change, the wags say. Too much inexperience all over the field.

There's definite concerns in experience and there are certainly mysteries in regards to how these young players will perform when the lights come on for real on Sunday.

9-7 could potentially win the NFC South this season and with that in mind, the young Bucs might have a chance. A lot will have to come together quickly under new head coach Raheem Morris and there's bound to be some obstacles to overcome.

I can see a Bucs upset of Dallas. I can see wins in Buffalo and Miami. I can see home wins against the Jets and Green Bay. I can see the Bucs splitting their division games.

That gets you to 8-8 and that's where my prediction for 2009 will lie.

It may be a step back from the previous regime's last output but for the first time in a long time, the Buccaneers under Raheem Morris will not be recycling mediocrity but building a foundation for a perennial contender, as Tony Dungy did before him.