The Buccaneers won the division in 2005 and fell to last in 2006. In recent years, the NFC South has been a roller coaster ride with the team finishing last one year winning the division the next year. Tampa was last in 2004 and first in 2005, the Saints were last in 2005 and won it in 2006.
The Bucs believe they can keep the history of the full swing alive with a full reversal in 2007. The biggest reason the entire franchise believes it's possible is the arrival of QB Jeff Garcia. There are very interesting parallels between Garcia and when Rich Gannon joined Jon Gruden in Oakland. It was also Gannon who came off the bench in Kansas City when Elvis Grbac was injured and led the team on an inspirational run.
The Chiefs still let Gannon go and he was united with Gruden in Oakland and a Super Bowl run was on. Garcia led the Eagles down the same road as a relief pitcher last season and Philadelphia parted ways with him anyway. Bruce Allen, the Tampa GM, was right there to re-enact the QB scenario and signed a 37-year-old Garcia. Chris Simms is still working through his recovery and getting better every day; throwing the ball and Tampa sits in a pretty good spot at the most important position on the field.
The problems in 2006 went deeper than the QB position. The team went 0-6 in the division, averaged just 13 points per division game while the defense started to breakdown and gave up 22.6 points per game. What happened to a franchise built on defense? The question is whether the Garcia-led offense generate 24 points per game, because that's what it will take to get deep into the NFC playoff picture.
The stingy Tampa defense of recent years gave up 50 points in the two losses to the Panthers, 55 points in two losses to the Saints, and just 31 to the Falcons in those two losses. Bruce Gradkowski started four of those losses, and Simms led the other two games. This year things will be different with the 37-year-old Garcia under center.
The decision to dismiss Simeon Rice for medical/contract issues has effected the Tampa defense, and if there was a game today the truth is rookie No. 1 pick, Gaines Adams, is far from being ready.
1. Simeon Rice. Gone is a great pass rusher and his large salary. Allen is still in contact with Rice. He may sign with Tennessee or another NFL team but not without consideration of returning to the Bucs.
2. The quarterback situation. The arrival of Garcia has energized the Buccaneers defense. I spoke with many of the Tampa defensive players and they are quietly excited that the offense will do a lot better than 13 points a game.
3. A team getting younger or older? There is always a perception that the Bucs are an old team. Derrick Brooks leads the defense and has 13 years under his belt. The offense will be led by a 37-year-old quarterback. But when you get past those two players and veteran WR Joey Galloway, there are outstanding young linemen Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood and Aaron Sears. The young talent also includes wide receivers Maurice Stoval, Michael Clayton, running back Cadillac Williams and defensive backs Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson. The Bucs had 10 draft picks and it looks like seven or eight will make the team.
1. Jeff Garcia -- The arrival of Garcia means an expanded offense. Gruden told me the shotgun package being installed is because of Garcia. The quarterback will have lots of flexibility to work the offense at the line of scrimmage.
2. Kevin Carter -- Carter never misses time due to injury and his presence has already had a positive effect on this team. He's working at the under tackle and left defensive end position.
3. Arron Sears -- He is a rookie, but when I watched him practice he looks like a five-year veteran getting ready for another Pro Bowl season. Bulk, balance, football intelligence jump out at you when you study him.
4. Cato June -- When I sat down with June, he was aware that his reputation as a guy who struggles against the run game right at him had to be resolved before he was accepted by the defensive players. It's only preseason camp, but the defensive players I spoke with believe he answered the liability issue with physical play.
1. Offense -- Gruden's offensive mind is working overtime with Garcia on the field. There will be more passing, more personnel groupings, and it should result in more points. Gruden did say the problems at the left tackle position has restricted what they could do for the past few years, but that Luke Pettigout is the remedy they have been looking for. What Gruden doesn't need to do this season -- that he has been hamstrung by in the past -- is leaving a back or tight end in all the time to help the tackle. The running game will be better with a healthy Williams, who told me he's aiming for 1,500 yards. I really liked the look of the power run game to the Bucs right with 6-foot-3, 235-pound fullback B.J. Askew leading Williams behind Joseph (315 pounds) and Trublood (320 pounds).
2. Defense -- Tampa has always been led by the defense, and last year they took a step backward. Ronde Barber and Brooks both told me they take responsibility for the slip and they don't think it will happen again. Adams, the first-round pick, is a work in progress and after talking with him and watching him work, the team realizes he will take time to get ready. What encouraged me the most was the quality depth on the defensive roster that will push the starters to perform or be replaced. Competition brings out the best in most players and the most recent depth chart suggests there are answers waiting in the wings if this year starts to resemble 2006.
3. Special teams -- The injection of youth from the past two drafts will help the coverage units, but the return game needs improvement. The kicker/punter positions are middle of the road and need to improve to win the close games.
There are weaknesses on every team and the Bucs have their share of question marks. Some observers claim Garcia's arm strength won't get the ball to the speedy Galloway in the deep game. Go back and watch the Philadelphia games Garcia played. He compensates for deep arm strength with a quick release and fast decision making. Some feel Adams will not be able to start this season. It may be midseason before he's ready, but that isn't grounds to call him a bust.
As I leave camp, the vulnerability could be the depth behind Williams, left tackle, and special teams returners.
1. Jon Gruden -- Gruden was excited about this team and ready to grow the offense under Garcia. He mentioned the value Askew brings as a blocker and receiver. He talked about the addition of Pettigout and brought attention to the way wide receiver David Boston is working to make this team.
2. Derrick Brooks -- The heart and soul of the franchise is still running around like a 25-year-old and hasn't lost one bit of the passion he has for the game. He discussed how the young draft picks on defense have to earn the respect of the veterans in the locker room before they are accepted.
3. Cadillac Williams -- Williams told me he went to Arizona in the offseason, leaned his body out and really worked on stretching. He also stated he's ready for a 1,500-yard season and wants to stay on the field in third-down situations.
4. Ronde Barber -- The All-Pro corner knows the defense slipped last year, and said that will not happen again if offseason effort and work has anything to do with it.
5. Ryan Nece -- Once known as "LL" by his teammates (Little Lott), Nece now stands on his own two feet and is preparing to play his third linebacker spot, middle linebacker. Nece is an unsung hero of this team.
Tampa is better than they were last year at a number of spots. Rice could not remain the highest-paid player on the team but they could use his talents to get after the quarterback. They will be playing meaningful games all the way into December and there's a chance they make the playoffs as a wild card if Garcia stays healthy and the aging defense doesn't fade down the stretch. An 8-8 season is a realistic goal, and 9-7 is the high end.