BIG QUESTIONS IN TAMPA
by Alex Howells
I can't remember a season for any team, in any sport with more big questions hanging over it than the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So much of what we will witness between September and hopefully February (?) is an unknown, much more so than it has been before.
The Gruden-Allen Era has ended after one of the worst run ins seen in recent NFL memory, lets be honest it had to. Noises from within Tampa were that Gruden had "lost the dressing room" and certain senior pros were not happy with Chucky. In the big office upstairs Allen seemed to be saving cap room for a rainy day that may never have come, especially with the first cap free season looming on the horizon.
The Glazer family listened to the fans, to their playing staff and to the media and made a very calculated decision. They didn't rush and pull the trigger before Gruden was back in his car after the Raiders debacle they weighed up there options and decided that with Raheem Morris coming extremely close to landing the Broncos job now was the time to make a gutsy call. That gutsy call is the first "Big Question".
HOW WILL RAHEEM MORRIS COPE WITH THE TOP JOB?
If sound bites from the Bucs recent training camp is anything to go by Raheem has bought a more likeable figure to the role, and players seem to be responding to his more calm approach. As the man in charge of the Bucs DBs last season he can be proud of the work his group of players got through.
A team with little to no pass rush got a lot of help from the likes of Tanard Jackson, Jermaine Phillips as well as interception machines Talib and Barber. Morris' people skills seem to be his biggest plus, and by not attempting to run either side of the ball directly and bringing in new ideas for both O and D with new coordinators it appears that is where Morris' attentions will lie.
With the seemingly horrendous schedule released last week the Bucs will no doubt have moments of despair this season, be it a 0-3 start or a 3 game losing streak, Morris' people skills and powers of motivation will be key to a Buccaneer recovery and potentially successful season.
Being a "nice guy" or "a fun loving coach" as I've heard him described in various quarters, should not be confused with not being a winner. The one thing that comes across loud and clear from both Morris and new GM Mark Dominik is that they are winners. Nothing said this more than the release of Brooks and co.
Anyone on the Buccaneer roster who steps out of line (Messrs Stevens, Winslow I'm looking at you) will surely be dealt with as is required. Raheem Morris will not be a push over.
In answer to my question I think Raheem will cope admirably with being given the top job. From what I've seen from his work with the DBs and the way he has handled himself throughout his tenure to date Morris no doubt has the temprament to do the job and with experienced coordinators plotting opponents demise I think the Bucs can look forward to a period of success under Raheem Morris.
DOES THE BUCS SCHEDULE MEAN A LOSING SEASON BEFORE THE FIRST SNAP?
Its tough. In fact it is the toughest schedule in the NFL according to several experts but does the 2009 schedule doom the Bucs to a season of heavy defeats and few high points? I don't think it does. I've read a few articles that have said how the Bucs will be 2-5, 1-6 or even 0-7 by the time they're on their way back from London in October but I don't see it.
First up comes a TO-less Dallas at Raymond James. At times last season TO was the Dallas offense, Roy Williams now has to step up to that mantle and I'm not sure he's capable. They are a good team but no better than the Bucs and being the first home game of the season I see the Bucs edging a close one.
Then comes Buffalo on the road for the first time in regular season history. So we've never played them and yet people can predict what'll happen? Buffalo are about as inconsistant as you could wish for and the Bucs are as likely to leave town with a win as they are a loss.
The New York Giants, much like Dallas, have lost their main playmaker (Plaxico Burress) and of course lost our very own Derrick Ward. They haven't really replaced either and although a talented roster I don't see this one being an obvious home defeat either. Games against the Redskins, Eagles and Panthers follow and those are all against teams of a similar standard as the Bucs.
Let's not forget before the wheels fell off last year the Bucs were potentially the number one seed in the NFC. Then our beloved Bucs come to this side of the pond for a game against the Patriots. Will the Pats have Tom Brady back? Will he have gone down again injured? The Pats had a very disappointing season by their own standards last season and Brady was the reason, if he's not around again (or even if he is) who knows what will happen.
I'm not saying that we're going to go 7-0, or probably even 5-2 but by no means are these first seven games an obvious seven defeats. If the Bucs beat Dallas in their opener I can see this season being at least as successful as their overall record last year...and who knows may be even better.
The final big question that I have been thinking about during the offseason is...
WILL THE BUCCANEERS KEY PLAYERS STEP UP IN 2009?
Whatever the coach is doing, however hard the schedule is, it all comes down to how the Buccaneers players execute in 2009. Kellen Winslow, Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham, Antonio Bryant and of course projected starter Luke McCown will all have a massive part to play in the Buccaneers season.
If the schedule turns out to be as tough as it looks then we are going to have to score a lot of points to stay in games and these guys will be the keys behind our ever improving O-Line. If Ward and Graham can be the 1-2 punch that it looks to be on paper then the Bucs could have a wide open passing game and two thousand yard backs.
No doubt the prospect of splitting out the twin towers of Winslow and Stevens to cause mismatches in the secondary is an exciting one and if Antonio Bryant has another stellar season then the Bucs will be hard to outscore, something that was never the case under Gruden. Of course all this hinges on the play of the Bucs QB, whoever that may be.
I see McCown starting but whether its him or Leftwich accuracy is the key. Jeff Garcia's interception rate was unbelievable but that came about by a lot of low risk play calling. If the running game has opened up big shots down field then we have to be able to take advantage. We all watched McCown riding on the crest of a wave in New Orleans a few years back, and we all watched on when Byron Leftwich was setting the world alight in Jacksonville. Both are good solid NFL QBs, but whether they are good enough to start and make use of the Bucs offensive weapons remains to be seen.
On the defensive side of the ball it is the beginning of a new era. No longer will we see the likes of Brooks, June and Buchanon being nailed on starters. This puts a lot of pressure to deliver on the shoulders of Aqib Talib and new Buc Angelo Cromwell. These two along with safety turned undersized linebacker Jermaine Phillips will surely make or break the Bucs defensive performance.
The Bucs' biggest defensive players last season we Jackson, Phillips, Barber and of course Barrett Ruud. But there is only so much that these blue chippers can do without any help from the D-Line. If the Bucs are going to stop teams this season, especially of the standard that their schedule has lined up, then they will need to get some pressure on the QB.
It could have come in the large shape of Albert Haynesworth but when the price gets that silly we're better off staying well away. It would appear that the Bucs are relying on the Draft to replace Jovan Haye, and generally improve the pass rush. Will this policy prove successful? Who knows but it needs to or however good a year the above mentioned stars of the defense have its going to be a hard watch for anyone looking for a return to days of Sapp and Rice.
I personally think that the first season under Raheem Morris will be a rebuilding exercise and prove relatively successful. I don't see us ending with a losing season, but I also don't see us being in Miami come February. If the Bucs D-Line can get an upgrade through the draft then more is possible. One thing is for sure it'll be exciting and we will be taking big shots down the field and running people over. For one I'll just be glad to have football back, its been too long.