WHEN WILL thebloom be off the rose for coach Jon Gruden? Since winning the Super Bowl afterthe 2002 season, his first year in Tampa Bay, Gruden has no playoff wins andhis teams are a combined 36--46.
You think of themarquee players on the club now, and you think AARP. Quarterback Jeff Garcia is38, favorite targets Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard are 36 and 32,respectively, and Warrick Dunn, the free-agent former Buc brought back tobreathe life into the running game, is a spry 33. On defense, linebackerDerrick Brooks (35) and corner Ronde Barber (33) continue to be vital to thegame planning of coordinator Monte Kiffin (who, by the way, is 68).
So why is Grudenlooking more smug than usual about his team's future? Consider how Tampa Bay isbuilding a solid core.
• The average ageof the starting offensive line is 25. Guards Arron Sears and Davin Joseph andright tackle Jeremy Trueblood were drafted in the first or second rounds since2006. Plus, the Bucs went after free agent Jeff Faine, 27, and made him thehighest-paid center in football.
August 31, 2008
• Signal-callingmiddle linebacker Barrett Ruud, 25, is the speedy sideline-to-sidelineplaymaker Kiffin's athletic scheme requires.
• The secondaryhas four long-term starters who are 27 or younger, including fast-rising freesafety Tanard Jackson, 23.
• Gruden expectsdefensive end Gaines Adams, 25, to prove himself worthy of the No. 4 pick inthe '07 draft and become an edge-rushing force.
"Why are webetter?" Gruden said during training camp, with thatI-know-something-you-don't-know smile. "Depth, the best we've had. A youngoffensive line that's much better than we've had. A veteran, heady quarterback.A lively Gaines Adams. We've got a lot of players who haven't gone global yet.Barrett Ruud—anybody know who he is? I'll tell you who he is: He's a hell of afootball player and our leading tackler. Two young guards who might be the bestcombination in football."
After the Bucsdidn't land Brett Favre this summer, they scrapped any plans for a quick-strikedownfield offense. Now they'll use Garcia, their version of Fran Tarkenton, tobe a mobile and accurate short-range passer. He completed 64% of his attemptslast year with only four interceptions. Josh Johnson, a rookie fifth-round pickand a Jim Harbaugh disciple from the University of San Diego, could become theheir apparent. He's fast, with a quick release, and Gruden threw bouquets athim throughout camp.
But this yearTampa Bay will again try to beat teams with its defense, a unit that rankedsecond in the NFL in '07, and there's no reason they shouldn't be as good."It's not like it's 2002 around here, but we can definitely be a dominatingdefense," says Barber. "With the exception of me, Derrick and [backupdefensive end] Kevin Carter, we're very young on defense. We've got some youngDBs with tremendous ball skills."
When the Bucs arein some of their nickel packages this year, Kiffin will use three youngguys—2007 draft picks Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli, and this year'sfirst-rounder, Aqib Talib—at corner with Barber moving into the slot. Kiffinsays Barber is the best slot corner he's ever seen, the perfect combination ofspeed and power to break up passes. If Adams becomes a Dwight Freeney--likeforce from right end, Tampa Bay will have completely overhauled its defensewith quality young players in a span of three years.
Next, Gruden hasto similarly develop his offense of tomorrow. With a league-high $54.6 millionin salary-cap room projected to be available in 2009, perhaps he'll startplugging holes by signing a quality young wideout such as Anquan Boldin or RoyWilliams. Until then, the defense will have to keep the score down.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JON GRUDEN (86--74 in NFL), seventhseason with Buccaneers
Jeff FAINE -- NewACQUISITION
SACKS 1 1/2
2007 RECORD 9--7NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 11/16/18 DEFENSE 17/1/2
7 at New Orleans
21 at Chicago
28 GREEN BAY
5 at Denver
26 at Dallas
2 at Kansas City
23 at Detroit
30 NEW ORLEANS
8 at Carolina (M)
14 at Atlanta
21 SAN DIEGO
NFL Rank: 20
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .469
Games against playoff teams: 4
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Buccaneers' units.
Deep and experienced, but long-term solution still has to be found.
Graham has emerged as the best of a talented bunch.
Anyone seen Michael Clayton? Bucs still rely on vet Galloway.
Mixed bag; Jerramy Stevens is skilled but inconsistent.
With Luke Petitgout gone, need to find a permanent left tackle.
Young, talented; Adams and Greg White are rising rush stars.
Ruud has proved to be missing link and sets the defensive tone.
Boosted its safety play, which is the key to the defense.
Roster speed and talent allow them to cover and make plays.
Gaines Adams DEFENSIVE END
The first defensive end picked in the 2007 draftdidn't have a sack in his first six games but rallied for six in his final 11."I was confused a whole lot," says Adams. "I'm a sack man, and Ineed to get more pressure." In the off-season the Bucs taught him to bemore physical by using his hands to free himself from punching, jersey-grabbingleft tackles.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI February 3, 2003 GRUDEN EXHORTED hisplayers not to go "limp" in the wake of their upset of the Eagles inthe NFC title game. That he used a part of the male anatomy to underscore hispoint was the source of much amusement in the team's meeting room. If theGlazers were looking for a departure from the style of the staid Tony Dungy,they could not have picked a lewder dude.
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