We look at the up and coming Tamp Bay Bucs chances at making a Super Bowl run this year.
Considering their young franchise quarterback, the brash head coach who speaks in salsa sound bites and a shrewd general manager, you would expect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to jump at an invitation to be the subject of the HBO reality series Hard Knocks. After all, every game played at Raymond James Stadium was blacked out last season, so no team should crave camera time like the Bucs.
But quarterback Josh Freeman did not want his teammates to have any more distractions in preparation for 2011. Acting like a playoff contender worthy of the biggest stage is more important than acting up in training camp.
âObviously, it was going to be a distraction having HBO cameras,â Freeman says. âYou have guys who are trying to show (off) and going out of character a little bit.â
After going 10â6 and narrowly missing the final wild card spot in a tie-breaker to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, the Bucs and Freeman believe they have the character to make a run in the postseason.
The youngest team in the NFL a year ago can only hope to grow as quickly as their 23-year-old quarterback, who threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions in his first full season as a starter. In fact, coach Raheem Morris learned the hard way to trust Freeman more after losing a critical game against the Detroit Lions in overtime by settling for a game-tying field goal rather than giving his strong-armed QB a shot at throwing into the end zone.
At 6'6", 248 pounds with a Ben Roethlisberger-like ability to keep plays alive, Freeman has all the physical attributes. But his leadership qualities are off the charts, and that calm under pressure has allowed him to engineer seven fourth quarter comebacks in his young career.
During the lockout, it was Freeman who organized a three-day minicamp at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., helping to pick up the tab for food, facilities and training staff. Out of respect for Freeman as much as anything else, 52 players attended the three-day workouts.
âFor sure, itâs the quarterbackâs job on the team and they voted me captain last year,â Freeman says. âI take a lot of pride in being a leader on this team, and getting together is something you have to do.â
Freeman was in synch with several rookies last season, including receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, who is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in the next-to-last game of the season. Williams, a fourth-rounder from Syracuse, led all rookies with 65 catches for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. Running back LeGarrette Blount, the Oregon star who went undrafted and was claimed off waivers from the Tennessee Titans, led all first-year rushers with 1,007 yards in 13 games.
Tight end Kellen Winslow (66 receptions for 730 yards) may be Freemanâs favorite target and has shown few signs of the knee trouble that plagued his career in Cleveland. Another offseason of playing pitch-and-catch should only strengthen the weapons around Freeman.
Perhaps the key to taking the next step will be the improvement of the Bucsâ offensive line and the health of center Jeff Faine, who has missed 12 games the past two seasons with triceps and quad problems.
A long offseason with offensive coordinator Greg Olson wouldâve benefited their young stars, but thereâs no substitute for the experience many of them gained as rookies.
GM Mark Dominik has gone back to the Bucsâ old blueprint, putting an enormous amount of resources into rebuilding the defensive line. That started a year ago with the selection of Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with the third overall pick and UCLAâs Brian Price in the second round. This year, Dominik doubled down at the defensive end position, selecting Iowaâs Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Clemsonâs DaâQuan Bowers in the second.
At 23, McCoy is the de facto leader of the defensive line. But after recording only three sacks in 13 games before landing on injured reserve with a torn left biceps, he still has a lot of developing to do.
âThey were moving me around,â McCoy says. âMy first snap as an NFL player against Cleveland, I didnât even play the 3-technique. I was an end. I was moving around all at the beginning of the year. I asked coach straight up, âPlease let me play one position so I can learn it.â He said, âLook, I want you to get off the ball. Do what got you drafted.â I said, âAll right.â I started doing that, and things started working.â
Morrisâ defense still is under construction. In addition to the newbie defensive linemen, the Bucs need more big contributions from safety Cody Grimm and cornerback Myron Lewis. Grimm missed the final five games with a broken leg.
Still, the secondary may still be the strength of the defense. Cornerback Ronde Barber is entering his 15th season, and Aqib Talib led the club with six interceptions despite missing the final month with a hip injury.
Talib, who was suspended one game last season for assaulting a cab driver in 2009, could face more sanctions from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in a shooting in Garland, Texas, last March.
After nine seasons, special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia left the Bucs for a similar job with the Chargers. Dwayne Stukes takes over and he has some good pieces to worth with.
Placekicker Connor Barth connected on 23-of-28 field goal attempts (82. percent) last season. Perhaps more impressive, he was perfect in all 10 tries from 30-39 yards and 6-of-10 from 40-49 yards. The Bucs signed Michael Koenen to a six-year deal to punt and handle kickoff duties. They had only one touchback a year ago.
Receiver Micheal Spurlock will serve as the Bucsâ primary kickoff and punt returner.
The Bucs are fortunate, because they have a developing franchise quarterback in Freeman, continuity on their coaching staff and a core of young players who gained plenty of experience as rookies. But instead of flying under the radar, the Bucs will have a target on their backs and several primetime, national television games. There also are only seven games at Raymond James Stadium, since the Bucs will play the Chicago Bears in London. Defensively, Tampa Bay is extremely young and needs their high draft picks like McCoy to develop quickly. But even in the quarterback-rich NFC South, the Bucs should contend for an NFC wild card.
Outside the Huddle
Josh Freeman organized a three-day minicamp in June at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., which was attended by 52 players. The players did not wear helmets or shoulder pads â in fact, some practiced without shirts â and the morning session consisted of mostly fundamental work by position. Freeman was pleased by the turnout. âIt just says we have a hungry team and going out and winning football games next year is important to all our guys,â Freeman says. âI know there were a couple guys, their contract situation they donât really know, so their agents advised them to sit it.â
Tight end Kellen Winslow, who has had six knee operations in his young career, survived an offseason without having to go under the knife. âLast year I was hurting, but I know how to rehab my knee better,â Winslow says. âI feel good. I feel as ready as I can be right now.â Winslow now admits that has rarely been the case. He recalls his earliest days with the Bucs, after his offseason trade to Tampa Bay in 2009, when he took criticism from fans for not being present at the teamâs voluntary OTA practice sessions. But Winslow says he had a very valid reason for his absence. âThe reason I wasnât back, honestly, is I didnât feel like my knee was where it should be, so I needed to rehab back in San Diego, do my own workouts,â he says. âThatâs kind of why I wasnât there. And when I was in Cleveland, well, it was just Cleveland. I would rather not be there and be at home training in the offseason.â
The Bucs have been attempting to add some punch to their running game, and they feel they know just how to do it â with big backs punishing defenders. You know about LeGarrette Blount. Now they have USCâs Allen Bradford, a 6'0", 242-pound tailback. âWhen you have to tackle (Carolinaâs) Jonathan Stewart every week and you have (New Orleansâ) Mark Ingram coming into our division, when you have to tackle all those big guys and you watch (LeGarrette) Blount run for 1,000 yards being a bigger guy, a structurally fit guy â itâs a big manâs league,â says Bucs coach Raheem Morris.
The NFL lockout will have an effect on players from every team, but few will suffer more than the rookie class, Freeman says. âItâs going to be tough on them, obviously, the drafted rookies,â Freeman says. âThey donât get the OTAs or the rookie minicamps, which is very valuable time. Free agents, man, itâs going to be tough on those guys because they donât have a lot of time to make a big statement to these coaches.ââ
To the rescueâ
Bucs offensive lineman Ted Larsen became a hero during the offseason. Larsen and his girlfriend were fishing on his 24-foot boat this summer when he heard the Coast Guard signal at 3 p.m. that a boater was in distress. After checking the coordinates, he realized he was near the scene. As he approached Honeymoon Island, he saw two people in the water holding on to their kayak, another still in another kayak. Larsen pulled up the teens and their kayaks and shuttled them ashore. âIt could have been a big deal. You always read about overturned kayaks,â Larsen says. âIt was good to help them. I just felt it was a good thing to do.â
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