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|The Buccaneers remain a contender with crafty veteran QB Jeff Garcia under center.|
The Buccaneers are a case study of how fast things change in the NFL. They followed a Super Bowl title in 2002 with two losing seasons, rebounded in 2005 and then saw their once-great defense struggle in 2006, causing many people to believe the Bucs' window of opportunity had closed because the defense had gotten too old and needed to be re-made.
Just as quickly, however, coordinator Monte Kiffin managed to infuse youth into his unit and Tampa Bay, which fell to 17th on defense in 2006 -- its only failure to crack the top nine in more than a decade -- rebounded to second in 2007.
While so many of the familiar names are gone, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber remain in place, and defensive ends like Gaines Adams and Greg White are starting to make names for themselves.
Adams, the Bucs' first-round pick in 2007, played well late in the season after becoming a starter, and could be ready for a breakout year. White, meanwhile, was a happy meeting of luck and opportunity for Tampa Bay. Coach Jon Gruden's brother, Jay, found him in the Arena League and recommended him. Although White started only two games last season, he led the Bucs in sacks with eight.
Tampa Bay has been remaking itself in other ways, too.
Never known for their offense, the Bucs have invested heavily in linemen over the last three years. Despite a problem at left tackle, where last year's signing of Luke Pettigout did not pan out, Tampa Bay expects the line to be a strength. The Bucs spent big to sign free agent center Jeff Faine, giving them some experience between young guards Aaron Sears and Davin Joseph. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood rounds out the line.
Gruden, armed with a three-year contract extension, upset incumbent QB Jeff Garcia by toying with a Brett Favre deal, but a bigger issue on offense is health. The 38-year-old Garcia and 37-year-old receiver Joey Galloway missed a lot of training camp due to injuries.
On the hot seat
Offensive line coach Bill Muir. The Bucs have put a lot of money into the line the last couple of years and they need results; last year their offense ranked 18th overall, and they were 26th in scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
Antonio Bryant. The troublemaking wide receiver who failed in Dallas, Cleveland and San Francisco and was out of the league last year, had a very good camp. Bryant is only 27 and should be in the prime of his career, if he has finally realized he's running out of chances. Then again, he's also a ticking time bomb. Either way, he's worth watching.
Hard road to hoe
If the Bucs can win their opener at New Orleans, considered by many the division favorite, they have a chance for a really good start. Four of their next six games are at home, including visits from Green Bay and Seattle, which traditionally struggles coming East.
Buccaneers will be better than you think if ...
Gruden trusts the running game, which could depend heavily on speedy back Michael Bennett. Bennett is a potential difference-maker who seems to have done a better job learning the playbook than he did last year, his first with the team. A strong running game would also help keep the defense fresh.
Buccaneers will be worse than you think if ...
Garcia begins to show his age or Galloway, the team's only decent speed threat, is out for an extended period.