Coach Jon Gruden says Chris Simms has the perfect disposition (locker roomfriend to all) and the arm (as strong as any Gruden has worked with) to get histeam into the playoffs consistently. Tampa Bay will survive a brutal schedulein part because the Bucs will control the clock with a strong running game andan excellent run defense. "Tiger Woods plays his best in the biggesttournaments," says Gruden, "and I think our guys can do the same thingthis year."
Other than the fact that the veteran defense has aged another year, there's nota lot to dislike about this team. Behind Simms, Tampa Bay won six of its lasteight to snatch the NFC South title from Carolina. The fourth-year passershowed signs of quickly developing into one of the top 10 quarterbacks in theleague. "Great personality, gym rat, works his a-- off to get better, andhe's got the arm to make every throw," Gruden says. The knock on Simmscoming out of Texas was that he was off target too often, but in 12 games lastyear, including a wild-card playoff loss, he completed 61.5% of hispasses--plenty good enough in an offense with a lot of deep balls.
Simms creditsquarterbacks coach Paul Hackett ("The best thing to happen to me in my procareer," he says) for tightening his mechanics and making his pass dropsprecise. Says primary receiver Joey Galloway, "It's Chris's show now. He'sa young kid dying to be really good." For most of the off-season Simmsthrew five days a week, even when there were no receivers at the team'straining facility. When pass catchers were scarce in June, he enlisteddefensive tackle Ellis Wyms to play tight end and threw to him for an hour."My best attribute is I can throw all day, every day, and not get a sorearm," Simms says. "I need to be doing that now, so I can get used to myreceivers."
One wideout heworked with was newcomer David Boston, who looked sculpted in camp at 228pounds and who seems to realize his career's on the line. This is his fourthteam in five years, and he caught only four passes total over the last twoseasons. (Knee injuries ruined his time in Miami.) Now he's running pain-free."He could be a monster for us," Simms says.
The youngquarterback and his receivers need to get it together early, to the tune of,say, a 7--1 start. That's because five of the last eight games are on the road,and in November the Bucs face a brutal stretch of three games in 11 days: atCarolina on Monday, home to Washington the following Sunday and at Dallas onThanksgiving. Oh, and both Super Bowl teams, Pittsburgh and Seattle, are on theDecember calendar. "All the NFL people worried about player safetyevidently weren't consulted on our schedule," Gruden says. "Three gamesin 11 days, two on the road? Come on."
Then there's age.Six of the 11 defensive starters are 30 and older: corners Ronde Barber (31)and Brian Kelly (30), linebackers Derrick Brooks (33) and Shelton Quarles (34)and ends Simeon Rice (32) and Greg Spires (32). All avoided injury in 2005, butthe chance of that happening in '06 is slim. Tampa Bay can't count on thedefense, which was tops in the league, to be as good. That's why Simms'sdevelopment is vital.
17 at Atlanta
8 at New Orleans
29 at N.Y. Giants
5 NEW ORLEANS
13 at Carolina (M)
23 at Dallas (T)
3 at Pittsburgh
17 at Chicago
24 at Cleveland
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage
Games against playoff teams
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BUCCANEERS
> I'll betJon Gruden, who has never loved Kenyatta Walker at right tackle, replaces himby midseason with second-round pick Jeremy Trueblood. He's a monster.
> One otherthing about that line: I don't trust the interior of it to keep Chris Simmsclean. He'd better have his running shoes on.
> I like thereceiving corps as a group but don't love a single one of them. Will JoeyGalloway stay healthy and give them 83 catches again? I doubt it. You knowwho's got the best hands of anyone on that team? Michael Pittman, the backuprunning back.
> If SimeonRice can't rush the passer or gets hurt, God help Tampa Bay. You don't wantDewayne White or Greg Spires being your big sack guy.
The best player in the secondary, Ronde Barber, covers well, tackles well andblitzes like Rod Woodson did.
As a precociousrookie from Stanford last season, Smith quickly became the Buccaneers'pass-catching tight end and finished second on the team with 41 receptions.Because he'll face constant pressure this season (seven of Tampa Bay's gamesare against teams that were ranked in the top 10 in defense in 2005),quarterback Chris Simms, like it or not, will be forced to find the lithe6'4", 258-pound Smith on underneath routes. Look for Smith to boost hisreception total to at least 60.
WITH 2005 STATISTICS
JON GRUDEN (73--55 in NFL), fifth season with Tampa Bay
DAVIN JOSEPH(R)--NEW ACQUISITION
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL)
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While the offense matures, the Bucs will expect Rice and the veteran defense tohold foes in check.