In an effort to colonize the eastern half of central Florida, the Buccaneers hold training camp in Orlando, at Disney's Wide World of Sports, a sprawling complex of playing fields and gymnasiums that is the site of innumerable youth tournaments. That would explain the presence of busloads of kids behind the restraining ropes, shrieking youngsters who make it sound as if practices were being held on an elementary school playground at recess. However maddening the distraction, coach Jon Gruden could be forgiven for scanning the youthful throngs decked out in Tampa Bay unis--many with pads--and thinking, Let's see what those youngsters can do.
A new day has dawned in Tampa, where the Bucs' roster bears little resemblance to the one that won the Super Bowl two years ago. After last season's 7--9 bust, the team's brain trust--which is to say, Gruden--flipped the roster like a short-order cook, signing 21 free agents to take the place of Buccaneers who were already gone or on their way out. Off to Oakland went catalytic defensive tackle Warren Sapp, and to Denver stalwart strong safety John Lynch. Wideout Keyshawn Johnson, who was deactivated in midseason, is in Dallas. Indeed, the faces most remembered from the franchise's greatest moment have dwindled to one: the sneering, freckled visage of Gruden, who consolidated his power last January when he handpicked general manager Bruce Allen (his old pal from Oakland) to replace Rich McKay. For better or worse this is Gruden's team. "Look, Warren and John will be missed," Gruden says. "I miss 'em, my kids miss 'em. But we're not thinking about it too much. We've moved on."
Says defensive end Simeon Rice, "Even if we have a big drop-off in personality, our productivity will be fine. We'll be younger on D, but that's O.K.; there are lots of lessons being taught in that huddle. The onus is on guys like Derrick Brooks and myself to do the teaching--and on the young guys to continue this legacy."
He's talking about young guys such as third-year safety Jermaine Phillips, who started eight games a year ago. While Lynch's leadership and fierce on-field demeanor will be missed, Phillips is the superior athlete: faster and stronger, and a hard hitter in his own right. Phillips enjoyed a close relationship with Lynch, whose magnanimity included inviting Phillips to his house at midseason for a fitting, then surprising him with a free suit. "That's the way it is around here," Phillips says. "We thrive because the guys care about each other. I'll miss John--he's irreplaceable--but all I can do is be ready."
Taking over for Sapp will be Anthony (Booger) McFarland, whose impressive play was often overshadowed by Sapp's expansive persona. "People thought Warren was a big, outspoken a--, but he was great to me," McFarland says. Rice and left end Greg Spires will provide the upfield push, but someone--likely fourth-year nosetackle Chartric Darby--will have to overachieve to improve the pass rush. "It's not like we're just taking guesses with these guys," a defiant Gruden says. "Jermaine Phillips is a great player. McFarland was a first-round pick. We know how good they can be."
A far bigger concern is the creaky offense, on which at least eight of the 11 projected starters will be 30 or older. In fact, the unit looks suspiciously like those of Gruden's former Oakland squads: aged, injury-prone and--as with new halfback Charlie Garner and late signee Tim Brown--former Raiders. Most problematic is the patchwork line featuring four new faces (only one younger than 29) who must keep 35-year-old quarterback Brad Johnson upright. The wide receiver position is unsettled; last year's No. 1 pass catcher, 34year-old Keenan McCardell, was a holdout as of Monday (a factor in the signing of the 38-year-old Brown), and 32-year-old newcomer Joey Galloway and first-round pick Michael Clayton had to learn a new offense. The Bucs will depend heavily on Garner, 32, who when healthy is still among the NFL's more dangerous running-receiving threats.
All of which means that even if the defense is better than it has been in recent years, it may not make much difference to Tampa Bay's playoff hopes. The youth that abounded on the other side of the ropes in Orlando was a reminder of what Gruden's team needs most. --J.E.
> After a rookie season that was noteworthy only because he never took a snap, former University of Texas quarterback CHRIS SIMMS was a revelation in camp this year. The rangy southpaw showed improved accuracy and command of coach Jon Gruden's short-pass scheme, and he may have snatched the No. 2 job from Brian Griese.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
I guess they want to be the oldest team in the league. The problem is, old players can quickly fall off the face of the earth. The offensive line is too old to count on; any injuries, and they'll get killed. Charlie Garner could be good--but he could also be finished. Same with Mike Alstott.... Brad Johnson gets savvier every year. He won't take sacks and won't hurt the team.... Wide receiver could be a big headache. Joey Galloway has been in decline; Michael Clayton was a good prospect, but he's not fast enough to be drafted where they took him [at No. 15].... Depth is a concern, especially at quarterback. Brian Griese has shown he can't play, and Chris Simms isn't that tough or quick.... On defense they'll miss Warren Sapp more than they'll miss John Lynch. Sapp is still a disruptive force, but Lynch was declining.... Simeon Rice was a dog in Arizona, but he's been a surprise in Tampa, and Derrick Brooks is great.... New Orleans and Carolina should be better than the Bucs, and if Michael Vick stays healthy, Atlanta's probably better too.... The Bucs will miss the playoffs, and I don't see much reason for hope on the horizon.
Charlie Garner could be good--but he could also be finished. Same with Mike Alstott.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 7--9
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL):
COACH: JON GRUDEN; THIRD SEASON WITH TAMPA BAY (57--39 IN NFL)
12 at Washington
26 at Oakland
10 at New Orleans
18 at St. Louis (M)
31 Open date
7 KANSAS CITY
14 at Atlanta
21 SAN FRANCISCO
28 at Carolina
12 at San Diego
19 NEW ORLEANS
2 at Arizona
NFL rank: T-26 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .484 Games against playoff teams: 8