NFC South: Alex Van Pelt

One man could fix the Buccaneers

December, 8, 2011

Tony DungyJamie Squire/AllsportA return by Tony Dungy would reinvigorate a flagging Buccaneers fan base.
There is one man on the planet who could solve everything that is wrong with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

One man who, with the simple nod of his head, would sell out Raymond James Stadium instantly, stop the losing, put an end to just about all the trouble off the field and give the Bucs credibility and respectability with their fans and across the league.

His name is Tony Dungy.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying it will happen. Raheem Morris is still coaching the Bucs, and the team already has picked up his contract option for 2012. But the Bucs are on a six-game losing streak and seem to be in total chaos. Dungy seems happy away from coaching and may not ever want to get back into the business.

I’m not saying the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, has decided to fire Morris. And if that decision does come, I’m not saying the Glazers would pursue Dungy.

I’m simply saying I believe the Glazers should make a run at Dungy, who coached the team from 1996 to 2001.

Go after Dungy with an open checkbook and promise that never again will he be ordered to fire Mike Shula (in Hawaii) or any other assistant.

Maybe Dungy simply shrugs off any overture and stays with his broadcasting career and ministry work. But maybe, just maybe, Dungy would be tempted.

I ran the scenario by three people who worked closely with Dungy at one time or another. None of them knows whether Dungy wants to coach again. But all three agree that if there is one coaching job that might tempt him, it would be Tampa Bay. Dungy lives in the Tampa area.

I used to think that there was no way Dungy would even want to work for the Bucs again. The Glazers fired him and Dungy is a fierce competitor. He can be stubborn and, although he comes across as very humble, Dungy has a deep streak of pride.

Would his principles allow him to go back to work for people who fired him?

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
J. Meric/Getty ImagesTony Dungy would have a talented, franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman.
They just might. If the Glazers came begging, Dungy might feel he has the upper hand, and that’s important to a man with his pride. But Dungy’s not an egomaniac who would want to handle every personnel matter. General manager Mark Dominik appears to be in the good graces of ownership, and he’s got three years remaining on his contract. Dominik is following a plan of building through the draft, which is pretty similar to the route Dungy took the first time he was with the Bucs.

Take some of the money that’s being saved by not signing free agents and wave it in front of Dungy. It could pay huge dividends immediately and down the road.

Hire Dungy and, bad economy or not, there will once again be a waiting list for season tickets. Dungy is a beloved figure in Tampa Bay, and fans who never warmed up to Morris and his young team (and grew tired of Jon Gruden and his failure to put together a consistent winner after winning a Super Bowl with Dungy’s team) would be ecstatic if the best coach in franchise history came back.

Dungy would clean up a locker room that has a lot of guys who have had off-field troubles. Dungy’s not going to walk into One Buccaneer Place and tell Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson to hit the road. He believes in second chances (see his extensive work with Michael Vick). He would lay down the law with Talib, Jackson and everyone else in the locker room. He’d tell them they have to toe his line, which is located in a completely different place than Morris’ line, and instantly would cut them if they ever got in trouble again. Any player who has played for Dungy will tell you the last thing they ever wanted was to let him down.

That would translate into discipline on the field -- something the Bucs have lacked during the Morris years or even in Gruden’s tenure.

Dungy is a defensive guru. He could fix Tampa Bay’s defense, which already has lots of draft picks and money invested in the front four.

In his previous stint with the Bucs, the only two knocks on Dungy were that he couldn’t win “the big one’’ and he never found a franchise quarterback.

But Dungy dispelled all that when he went to Indianapolis. He won a Super Bowl there. Dungy also inherited Peyton Manning, who was a bit more gifted than Trent Dilfer and Shaun King. Dungy didn’t bring his boring offense to Indianapolis. He adjusted and let Manning do what he does best.

That’s another thing that could make a return to the Bucs attractive to Dungy. The Bucs have all sorts of flaws, but the one positive thing they have going for them is they have a franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman. Yeah, I know Freeman’s not having a good season, but he is a big-time talent.

Give Freeman a good supporting cast and some stable coaching, and the Bucs are winners. If Dungy were to take the job, he might be wise to keep offensive coordinator Greg Olson or quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt or both. Freeman likes them both, and some continuity would help his development.

But Dungy wouldn’t have much trouble putting together a strong staff. In all likelihood, Indianapolis is going to have a coaching change. That means a bunch of coaches who once worked for Dungy would be available. Heck, Dungy might even be able to pry Monte Kiffin away from his son, Lane, and the University of Southern California. Kiffin decided to leave the Bucs near the end of Gruden’s time. Kiffin and Gruden got along fine, but I don’t think they ever had the strong bond Dungy shared with Kiffin.

As the Bucs have struggled to sell tickets and try to get their fans to understand why they’re building almost exclusively through the draft, team officials have said they want to give fans a team they can love again.

They haven’t made any progress in that area this season. There’s one easy way to get fans to love the Bucs again: Go out and hire the coach who made them lovable in the first place -- if he'll take the job.

Josh Freeman's problems are fixable

October, 26, 2011

It’s the bye week for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but that doesn’t mean all is quiet. In fact, the Bucs have made what might be the biggest discovery of the NFL season.

Check out this story by Eric Horchy. The Bucs think they’ve figured out why quarterback Josh Freeman has struggled to be consistent this season.

In short, they believe Freeman has been throwing off his back foot too often and not scrambling enough. Throwing off his back foot has come at times when Freeman has been backpedaling from pressure. That’s prevented him from stepping into throws.

“That’s human nature,’’ quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “That’s just the body protecting itself. When you get rattled early as a quarterback sometimes your feet get a little bit off. So it is just constantly reminding him during the course of the game to plant that back foot.’’

That reminder can prevent the first problem. The second one also is fixable.

“[Opposing defenses are] running some stunts and different things underneath that really take away the rush lanes for the quarterback,” Freeman said. “Also they’ve spied me a little bit and it’s by design and that’s how the league is. You do something successfully and the defense is going to start to do stuff to take it away.”

Freeman’s big, strong and has decent speed. The Bucs don’t discourage him from running when the lanes are there. But the Bucs aren’t asking Freeman to suddenly turn into Cam Newton or Michael Vick and be a big part of their running game. They simply want him to use his scrambling ability to keep plays going a little longer and create more opportunities for good things to happen.

There has been one other troubling trend with Freeman. He’s already thrown 10 interceptions after throwing only six last year. The Bucs also think they’ve got a read on why that’s happening. Freeman’s talked before about how he might have too much confidence at times and coach Raheem Morris echoed that thought Wednesday.

“Last year he simply did a better job of going through his progressions throughout the whole process,” Morris said. “Right now he’s probably playing his number in fantasy football because he’s trying to throw touchdowns. Sometimes it’s OK to throw to checkdowns; sometimes it’s OK to go through your progressions. Right now he has a little too much confidence in what he’s doing with his arm and forcing some things in there.’’

The Bucs and Freeman have identified the problems and none of them appear to be anything dramatic. Now, it’s simply a matter of fixing the issues and getting Freeman -- and the offense -- back on track.

Several times this offseason, new Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has implied pretty strongly that he wants to add a veteran quarterback to help mentor Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen.

I get the idea. Clausen and Newton are both very young and raw. If the lockout shortens training camp, the Panthers could even open the season with someone like Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme as the starting quarterback. Someone like Delhomme or Bulger could come in and run the offense efficiently until Newton and/or Clausen gets up to speed.

But let’s say the lockout gets resolved quickly and training camp starts on time. In that scenario, I’m not so sure it’s necessary the Panthers go out and sign a veteran to work as a mentor. In fact, I think the idea of having a player mentor another player at the same position is overrated. First off, there are competitive juices flowing through every professional athlete and that doesn’t always lead to dedicated mentoring.

Besides, I think the Panthers already have some pretty good mentors for Newton and Clausen. They are offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula. They’ve been around and are good at what they do. They can do more as mentors than some veteran backup.

Look at how Tampa Bay handled Josh Freeman. They had Byron Leftwich there as a (very short) bridge in Freeman’s rookie year. But Leftwich wasn’t a mentor. Freeman’s development came because he worked hard and because he got some very good coaching from offensive coordinator Greg Olson and Alex Van Pelt joined the Bucs as quarterbacks coach last season. Freeman frequently credits Olson and Van Pelt for his progress. It was kind of the same thing with Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Chris Redman might be an extra set of eyes and ears for Ryan, but offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and former quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave were the ones who developed him.

It probably wouldn’t hurt the Panthers if they add a veteran mentor for Newton and Clausen. But will it really help them? They’ve got another quarterback, Tony Pike, who they drafted last year. Some in the organization thinks Pike has potential. If the Panthers bring in a veteran, Pike will be gone, unless the Panthers find some way to carry four quarterbacks. Putting Pike on the practice squad is possible, but not likely. If he’s released, some other team will sign him before Carolina can get him on the practice squad.

The idea of bringing in a mentor sounds nice. But the fact is the Panthers might already have all the mentors they need in Chudzinski and Shula.

He has not been able to speak to head coach Raheem Morris, offensive coordinator Greg Olson or quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt during the lockout, but Josh Freeman still is getting some coaching.

The Tampa Bay quarterback has acted as a coach while organizing and running workouts for his teammates. But, behind the scenes, he’s been getting help from the outside. Freeman has continued a tradition that started after his first season at Kansas State. He’s been working with private quarterbacks coach Anton Clarkson. Here's the link the to Clarkson's website.

[+] EnlargeFreeman
Chuck Cook/US PresswireAnton Clarkson believes Josh Freeman has what it takes to be an elite NFL quarterback.
“We’ve still worked some on the on-field stuff, but this year has been different because of the lockout,’’ said Clarkson, who played quarterback at Oregon State and Hofstra and is based in Southern California. “This year, we’ve focused more on defenses, understanding the coverages and the blitz protections. We’ve spent more time looking at film.’’

Clarkson, whose client list also includes rookie Jake Locker and several college and high school quarterbacks, including Joe Montana’s sons, has traveled to Florida several times to work with Freeman and the quarterback has gone out to California on multiple occasions.

“The other thing we’ve worked on and talked a lot about is working on leadership,’’ Clarkson said. “That comes pretty easily and naturally to Josh. He might only be 23, but he’s a wise-old soul. When the lockout was coming down, I was about to talk to him about the idea of setting up some workouts for his teammates, but he already beat me to the punch.’’

Although most of Freeman’s workouts so far have been for offensive skill-position players, he has said the Bucs will hold more of a minicamp session the last week of June, with offensive linemen and defensive players expected to take part.

As soon as that’s over, there’s another step in place to get ready for the start of training camp. Clarkson said Freeman will come to California as soon as the workouts end and, this time, he’s bringing guests. According to Clarkson, receivers Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter are expected to join Freeman in California for a series of on-field workouts and time in the film room. Clarkson has a strong knowledge of Tampa Bay's playbook and knows Morris, another Hofstra product, very well.

Freeman and Clarkson first began working together at the urging of the Kansas State staff and have continued each offseason since. They also talk during the season and Clarkson said Freeman is one of the best pupils he’s ever worked with.

“First off, Josh has a great deal of natural talent,’’ Clarkson said. “He’s gigantic and he’s naturally athletic. But, more than that, he’s one of the most competitive and driven people I’ve ever been around. When I’m working with him and talking to him, he’s almost trying to steal the words out of my mouth. He’s so desperate to add information and make himself a better player and he’s never satisfied. As good as his numbers were last season, if you talk to him, they weren’t good enough. The fact the Bucs went 10-6, but didn’t make the playoffs has given him another chip on his shoulder.’’

Freeman threw 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions last year.

“Every year since I’ve worked with him I’ve asked him what his goals for the team are and what his personal goals are,’’ Clarkson said. “He’s given the same answer every year. His team goal is to win the championship. Individually, he always says he wants a season without an interception and I always tell him, 'Josh, that’s not really possible,’ but he darn near proved me wrong on that one last year.’’

Clarkson said Freeman’s nature is to never be satisfied. That’s why Clarkson believes Freeman soon will be among the league’s elite quarterbacks.

“Just a Pro Bowl alternate wasn’t good enough for him last year,’’ Clarkson said. “He looks up to guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He wants to get to a point where he can put his name up there with those guys.’’

Can he do it?

“Absolutely, there is no doubt in my mind,’’ Clarkson said. “Physically, he’s more talented than those guys in terms of size and strength. He’s a remarkable athlete. Those guys have set themselves apart by putting in an enormous amount of work on the field and in the film rooms and meeting rooms. Josh obviously is younger than them, but he’s working to catch up to them by really focusing in on all the things they did to set themselves apart.’’

As I visited with Josh Freeman the other day, the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought up a very significant point that I don’t think has been talked about enough during the lockout.

Freeman started talking about how, in addition to leading group workouts for the team, he’s been spending a lot of time studying film. Sometimes he does it with teammates, but, mostly, it’s been on his own.

“Usually, that’s something that you do with your coach,’’ Freeman said.

In the lockout, Freeman hasn’t been able to break down film with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt the way he did last offseason. That’s a plight facing quarterbacks all around the league.

Wonder how they all deal with it?

Well, I’m sure it varies, but I asked Freeman how he is handling that issue and he provided a very interesting answer.

“I have all of our (2011) opponents’ games from last season on my computer and I can put them on my projector,’’ Freeman said. “Obviously, I’m familiar with the teams in the division, but I’ve been studying the other teams that we’ll be playing. The Colts, the Bears and the Packers, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching them and trying to figure out their tendencies and nuances.’’

Freeman got the film from Tampa Bay’s coaching staff before the lockout began. Backups Rudy Carpenter and Josh Johnson got the same package. I’m not certain, but I’m guessing the Bucs are not unique in this area.

I’m pretty sure Sean Payton and his staff made sure Drew Brees got something similar. I’d also guess Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey made sure Matt Ryan had some tape to watch during and after his honeymoon. If that somehow didn’t happen, Brees and Ryan are very resourceful guys and I’m sure they could find a way to get video of their upcoming opponents.

I’m not sure if the Panthers, who have an entirely new coaching staff were able to slip rookie Cam Newton any video while he was in their building during the brief period the lockout was lifted in April.

But new coach Ron Rivera and his staff seem to be pretty sharp guys and I’m guessing they also set up some sort of video package for Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike before the lockout.

Josh FreemanKim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay teammates have rallied around the leadership of Josh Freeman this offseason.

SOMEWHERE IN THE TAMPA BAY AREA -- It was late May, and you literally could see the heat waves rising from the football field. Among them and above them, you could see something much larger.

The big man had a football in one hand and his cellphone in the other. He was throwing a pass to one teammate while making plans with another for a future workout.

Through it all, you could see a young quarterback further entrenching himself as the leader of his team. You could see Josh Freeman literally rising up and running the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from all (football) angles.

Very quietly, Freeman has been doing this off and on since late March. While guys such as New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan have been leading some very public workouts for their teammates during the lockout, Freeman has been keeping things quiet. He asked that the location of Monday’s workout not be mentioned because he doesn’t want distractions.

“We have a lot of good character guys that are willing to put in the time and effort,’’ Freeman said. “It’s kind of a cultural thing around here. It means a lot to everybody. We take a lot of pride. Lockout or no lockout, we’re going to be ready to play.’’

You probably got the sense Freeman was emerging as a leader as the Bucs went a surprising 10-6 with the league’s youngest roster last season. You should have gotten the sense he was getting pretty powerful when he called a players-only meeting last season after a series of off-field incidents and told his teammates the trouble needed to stop.

He might be only 23 with only one full season as a starter, but there’s no longer any question about who’s running the Buccaneers.

“As the quarterback, you’re the leader of the team,’’ Freeman said.

It was more than obvious Freeman was the leader as the Bucs went through Monday’s workout. He’s the quarterback, but he’s so much more than that in the world of lockout limbo. He’s the coach, offensive coordinator, navigation system and travel planner for the Bucs.

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Arrelious Benn
Scott A. Miller/US PRESSWIREArrelious Benn has been "looking great" during offseason workouts according to quarterback Josh Freeman.
As he threw a pass to receiver Arrelious Benn (more on him in a bit), he was talking to a teammate who was having trouble finding the undisclosed location and, a few minutes later, was talking with another teammate about travel plans and the schedule for an upcoming workout.

“Where’s [receiver] Mike [Williams]?’’ Freeman said into his cellphone. “Have you talked to Mike? We need to find out when he’s coming in.’’

Soon after that, Freeman put down the phone and started talking his teammates through a play that got messed up in one of the games against New Orleans last season.

“It’s hard to get everybody free and their schedules lined up,’’ Freeman said. "But, at the same time, we want to provide options for guys to get down here and work out. Everybody knows we’re a young team and we had a lot of momentum coming off last season. We want to build on that and keep that going.’’

Freeman was quick to point out that backup quarterbacks Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter have been helping run the workouts and coordinate plans. But Johnson and Carpenter are backups, and Freeman is the franchise quarterback, even though he can’t talk to anyone with the franchise. He’s relying mostly on the experience of going through the offseason between his rookie year and second season, when the team raved about Freeman showing up at One Buccaneer Place to work with offensive coordinator Greg Olson, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and head coach Raheem Morris.

“Basically, they taught me how to think like a coach,’’ Freeman said. “I was in there every day. We’d watch film, go out and do field work, and talk about different concepts. We did a lot of protection calls. We would just meet for hours, and I think that helped me get more comfortable with the offense, take more charge, and go out there and play more confident football.’’

That showed on the field last season as Freeman carried Tampa Bay’s offense, and it showed even more Monday. At a time when players aren’t even allowed to talk to coaches, Freeman is the closest thing the Bucs have to a coach.

“Luckily, we kind of prepared for it before the lockout and the coaches said, 'If this thing keeps going, here’s what you need to do in the offseason,'" Freeman said. “We went through the installs and all that, and they let the quarterbacks know what they wanted installed.’’

Freeman has been doing installations and more. He’s focused mostly on the offense so far, but some defensive players have shown up. Freeman said he’s been in touch with veteran cornerback Ronde Barber about getting more defensive players involved and possibly doing seven-on-seven drills if the lockout lingers.

“For a young team, the offseason is especially valuable,’’ Freeman said. “Get the guys together, get the time together and get the work in. You miss getting that time in at the facility, but we’re making do with what we’ve got.’’

Freeman said it’s been challenging at times to get large group practices organized because players are scattered across the country, and a young team such as the Bucs features a lot of players who make low salaries and can’t afford to travel constantly. But Freeman is doing his best to keep the Bucs together.

“Coming down here, there’s a peer pressure aspect to get into the weight room, get out on the field and get your work done,’’ Freeman said.

Speaking of peers, who has caught Freeman’s eye in the workouts?

“I will say [receiver] Sammie Stroughter is having an incredible offseason,’’ Freeman said. “So is [tight end] Kellen Winslow. Arrelious is obviously coming off his [torn ACL] injury, but he’s looking great as well. We have a number of guys playing great football right now. Kellen Winslow is just a guy that’s so impressive. He’s a guy that comes in and works out in the morning, then comes and gets the throwing part in, and then he goes and works out some more.’’

Funny, but it’s easy to see that’s the same routine Freeman is following. The lockout is not an ideal situation for anyone. But with Freeman running things, the Bucs are in good hands.

“We’re just trying to stay together as a team and keep working on things,’’ Freeman said. “We watch some film and talk over plays and stuff like that -- just do the stuff a football team should be doing.”

Morris: Brees + Payton = poetry

March, 25, 2011

Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris knows he has a good young quarterback in Josh Freeman. But the coach said during the NFL owners meeting earlier this week that there still is room for improvement.

Morris pointed to another NFC South quarterback Freeman can use as an example and then heaped praise on that quarterback and his coach.

“Josh is one of those guys who is hungry and he has a great example in his own division in Drew Brees,’’ Morris said. “He’ll continue to strive to be the best. The more control you put in his hands, the better player he’ll become. You watch Drew Brees and Sean Payton communicate and it’s poetry. You watch the freedom Brees has to make calls and it’s masterful.’’

Unlike Payton, Morris is a defensive coach and doesn’t call the offensive plays. That’s up to coordinator Greg Olson. Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt also is heavily involved with Freeman.

Freeman had some authority to change calls last season, but it wasn’t anything like what the Saints let Brees do. But it sounds like Morris is ready to give his quarterback some more control in the offense. NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 30

TAMPA, Fla. -- New construction in these parts largely has halted due to the economic situation over the past couple of years. So what’s that structure going up on the practice fields right behind One Buccaneer Place?

It’s the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There still is a lot of work to be done. But, unlike last year, you can see a foundation. Just look at the quarterback, Josh Freeman. When it comes right down to it, he really is all the Buccaneers are looking at. Yeah, guys like Gerald McCoy, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib might also be viewed as possible cornerstones in the blueprints. But Freeman is the 6-foot-6 beam the Bucs are counting on to support this entire franchise.

Count last year as a redshirt season for Freeman and the Bucs. The team went 3-13 and Freeman really didn’t get to play until the second half of the season. Now, he’s been through an entire offseason. Now, the offense is his. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to grow and make some sense out of the youth movement the franchise decided to begin last year.

“The most obvious thing that I hope people are noticing is we are giving Josh Freeman tools around him that he can grow with,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “We have Kellen Winslow and the tight end is important whether you have a young quarterback or an experienced one. And we wanted to put in a receiving corps that can grow together so their timing can be consistent. When you look back through NFL history, you see that consistently with the successful teams. You put two or three receivers together with the same quarterback for five, six or seven years and they become a timing machine and that’s what we wanted to do.’’

To that end, the Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the first four rounds. They also traded for receiver Reggie Brown and they still have Sammie Stroughter, who might have been the steal of last year’s draft class.

Yeah, the Bucs also did some work on the defense. They used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price in an attempt to stop getting abused by running games. Their linebackers aren’t bad and the secondary has some potential. This defense isn’t anything close to the defense of Tampa Bay’s glory days, but it has possibilities.

The offense isn’t anything like in the glory days and that’s the way the Bucs want it. With Freeman, the Bucs believe the offense can be better than it ever has been. The belief is Freeman can be the first true franchise quarterback this team has had since Doug Williams.

The potential is there and the Bucs have put some parts around Freeman. Now it’s time for him to put this franchise on his back.

“Nothing can replace game time,’’ Dominik said. "But I will say, for an offseason, for a young quarterback, I could not have asked for more. He did everything we expected and more. I don’t remember him missing an offseason day and he was a sponge in the meeting rooms. His leadership has come through in that way. He’s got a natural charisma that you see guys want to bond with him and follow him.’’


Mike Williams
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMIRookie Mike Williams appears to be on track to earn a starting job.
1. What’s the receiving corps going to look like? That still is being sorted out, but Williams, the fourth-round draft pick, appears to be on his way to a starting job. He’s shown a knack for big plays ever since his arrival and seems to have developed a quick chemistry with Freeman. Benn started a little slower, but has come on of late. But Brown might open the season as the other starter.

Pair Williams and Brown with Winslow and Freeman suddenly might have a better cast of receivers than he did late last year when No. 1 receiver Antonio Bryant was pouting his way out of Tampa Bay. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow and his knee throughout camp, but the belief is he’ll be ready for the regular season and that will provide Freeman with a go-to guy.

But the Bucs aren’t going to be running the West Coast offense they did with Jon Gruden and they certainly aren’t going to use the ball-control system that Tony Dungy ran. They’ve got a quarterback with big-play ability and they’re going to take their shots down the field. Williams, Brown and Benn all can go downfield and make catches in the possession game. But the real downfield threat might be Stroughter. He had an excellent rookie season, already has a rapport with Freeman and can make a lot of things happen as the slot receiver.

2. How much will the arrival of the two rookie defensive tackles help? McCoy and Price should be an instant upgrade over former starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who got pushed all over the field last year. The Bucs also plan to use Roy Miller in the rotation. That’s a pretty promising trio of young defensive tackles.

But it remains to be seen if this group can be dominant right from the start. The standard for defensive tackles in Tampa Bay is Warren Sapp. He might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but the fact is Sapp struggled as a rookie and took time to develop into a force.

The Bucs think McCoy should be fine from the start. Price got off to a great start in camp, but an injury has forced him to miss some time and that may set him back a bit. The Bucs are going to ask a lot of McCoy, Price and Miller. They want them to clog things up against the run and free up Ruud to make plays. They also need a strong interior pass rush because there’s no real force on the outside. Ready or not, McCoy and Price will have the opportunity to shine right from the start.

Raheem Morris
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThings have been quieter in Raheem Morris' second offseason as the Bucs head coach.
3. Is this team headed in the right direction with coach Raheem Morris? The Bucs were in a state of chaos through much of last year. Morris fired coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates early, changed defensive schemes early in the year and ran a quarterback competition that’s only real purpose was to make sure Freeman didn’t get on the field too soon. The results weren’t pretty.

But Morris’ second offseason has been one of peace and quiet and it only takes a few brief glances out at the practice field to see that the Bucs are much more organized than last year. Morris knows he made mistakes last season and he’s learned from that.

He’s running the defense now and believes he put Freeman in good hands with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. The Bucs still may need another offseason to get the talent level to where they really want it, but there are some parts in place and Morris needs to start showing some progress.


Aqib Talib, cornerback. The physical talent always has been there with Talib. But his first two seasons were rocky because of off-field issues and a feeling that he wasn’t always focused on football. However, the coaching staff is quietly buzzing because a new side of Talib has emerged throughout the offseason and carried over into camp. He’s more focused and more mature. The Bucs are keeping their fingers crossed on this one, but there is a belief that Talib can become a Pro Bowler very quickly if he stays on his current path.


Stylez G. White, defensive end. The Bucs know White never has been a very good practice player. But they thought he might come in with some inspiration this camp because he has a chance to be the top pass-rusher on team that doesn’t have any proven star in that area. That hasn’t happened. White’s been very ordinary in practice and doesn’t seem interested in being a leader for a young defensive line. Is that enough to cost him a starting job? Probably not because the Bucs really don’t have much behind him. They’re hoping White steps things up when the regular season arrives, but they’re a little worried that might not happen.

[+] EnlargeWard
Steve Dykes/US PresswireDerrick Ward has struggled to make an impact since his arrival in Tampa.

  • The Bucs signed running back Derrick Ward to a big contract last year, but that move hasn’t worked out at all. Cadillac Williams has a firm grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and is a favorite with the coaching staff. Ward is not. He’s been unimpressive throughout his time with the Buccaneers and could not hold onto the ball in the first preseason game. Kareem Huggins has outperformed Ward in camp and probably will earn a roster spot. That’s something that’s no longer a guarantee for Ward. But Huggins is undersized and the Bucs may have to hold onto Ward as insurance because Williams has a long history of injuries.
  • If you’re looking for the strongest unit Tampa Bay has, look at the linebackers. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black have had fantastic camps. Ruud already was pretty good and should be helped by the arrival of the young defensive tackles.
  • The competition for the job at nickelback is ongoing. Elbert Mack held that role last year, but the Bucs would like to find an upgrade. E.J. Biggers has shown some flashes and could unseat Mack. Rookie Myron Lewis is the guy the Bucs really hoped would claim that spot. But he’s been sidelined with an injury and the lack of practice time might prevent him from getting immediate playing time.
  • Michael Clayton and Sims are two veterans on the bubble when it comes to roster spots. Sims has gone from being a starter to fighting for the fourth spot at defensive tackle. He might hang on just to give the team some experience in the interior and he’s not going to cost the Bucs a fortune because he’s scheduled to make $1.2 million. Clayton clearly isn’t going to be a starter. He’s got $3 million in guaranteed salary this year, so the Bucs may keep him and hope to get something out of their investment. But it won’t be much more than a fourth or fifth receiver and special-teams player.
  • With all of the buzz about Huggins, Clifton Smith has been somewhat forgotten. But don’t rule out the possibility of Smith getting some time in the backfield, mainly as a situational player. Smith has the ability to make things happen in the open field and the Bucs may use him as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith is coming back from concussion problems last season and he should solidify the return game. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie in the 2008 season.
  • Look for Keydrick Vincent to claim a starting guard spot from Jeremy Zuttah. Vincent started in Carolina last year and is a solid run blocker. Put him with center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs can be very good in the interior of the line. Zuttah might be best suited to serving as the top backup at both guard spots and center.

On the radar: Josh Freeman

June, 3, 2010

NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

At this time a year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were getting rookie quarterback Josh Freeman ready for half a season in hiding. These days, the Bucs are getting ready to showcase Freeman.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Fernando Medina/US PresswireJosh Freeman enters 2010 as a more confident quarterback.
After all, he is the franchise and that’s becoming obvious. The Bucs have spent most of their offseason structuring things for Freeman. They got rid of receiver Antonio Bryant, who had criticized Freeman and the coaching staff, and drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams.

They are two players who can get downfield and help the Bucs take advantage of Freeman’s arm strength. That also should help Freeman step forward as the leader of the team. Already a more confident, assertive demeanor is approaching.

Perhaps more important, Freeman seems to be showing a comfort level that wasn’t anywhere close to present at this point a year ago. That’s largely because he’s had an entire offseason to digest things. Coaches have raved about Freeman spending so much time at the facility watching film long before the offseason program even started.

Maybe the best news of all is that Freeman has spent the past few months getting used to an offense he actually will use in the regular season. This offseason has given Freeman and the Bucs time to get the full dose of coordinator Greg Olson’s system.

Last year, Jeff Jagodzinski was working as the coordinator with Olson as the quarterbacks coach. But the Bucs weren’t happy with the way Jagodzinski’s offense was shaping up. They wound up firing Jagodzinski on the eve of the season and threw Olson into the coordinator’s role.

That led to a season of still using some of Jagodzinski’s offense. Plus, Olson was doubling as the quarterbacks coach. The Bucs now have brought in Alex Van Pelt to serve as quarterbacks coach and that has allowed Olson more freedom.

It also should mean more freedom and bigger things for Freeman.

On the radar: Greg Olson

May, 20, 2010

NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGreg Olson has a full offseason as the Buccaneers' offensive coordinator under his belt.
Unlike last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going through the entire offseason with the man who will be their offensive coordinator already in place. They didn’t have that luxury last year and it led to a season absolute chaos on offense.

Jeff Jagodzinski, the initial coordinator hired by Raheem Morris, was fired about 10 days before the start of the season. It later came out the move was made because the offense was too simple and not capable of competing against NFL defenses.

Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson got thrown into the coordinator’s job immediately before the start of the season. That gave him a whole bunch of jobs in addition to getting rookie quarterback Josh Freeman ready to hit the field and trying to add a little sophistication to the playbook.

Olson’s now going through a full offseason as the coordinator and you should see his system start to take hold. You could see the Bucs get better offensively as last season went on. In particular, Freeman showed promise.

The Bucs believe their offense should be much better now that Olson is firmly running the show. He still will play a big role in Freeman’s development, but the Bucs freed Olson up to focus on the entire offense by hiring Alex Van Pelt as quarterbacks coach.

Josh Freeman met with the Tampa Bay media Thursday morning. Much like he did when I met with him over at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports back in late February, Freeman is saying all the right things.

He also is saying he’s doing all the right things. He’s spent much of the offseason at One Buccaneer Place, even before there were any official workouts. He’s been watching film, lifting weights and getting familiar with new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.

That’s all very good and it’s always a nice thing when a rookie quarterback heads into his second year because he gets to spend a whole offseason with the team. Freeman’s talking like a leader and that’s a positive.

I know some of you think coach Raheem Morris made a mistake (like that would be a first?) at the owners meetings last week when he said he expects Freeman to elevate the players around him. The thinking from some of you was that Morris was putting too much pressure on Freeman.

I’ll disagree with that school of thought. First off, isn’t a franchise quarterback supposed to elevate the people around him? Second, Freeman’s a man now and he gets paid a lot of money to deal with pressure. Third, and most importantly, look at Tampa Bay’s roster right now – who else is there that’s capable of elevating others? Who else is capable of being a leader?

Nobody really. This is Freeman’s team and it’s his time to start stepping up. Yes, there still will be some growing pains along the way and it would be nice if the Bucs can give him a respectable receiver or two. But, basically, Freeman is saying – and appears to be doing – exactly what the Bucs expected when they drafted him.

Freeman doing some scouting for Bucs

February, 26, 2010

Scott A. Miller/US PresswireQuarterback Josh Freeman is helping the Bucs prepare for the upcoming draft.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There’s a new guy helping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they scout the prospects for this year’s NFL draft.

It’s quarterback Josh Freeman -- the same guy their drafted with their top pick. Yes, he’s part franchise quarterback and part scout and he’ll even tip his hand and tell you some of the guys he thinks the Bucs should take.

"I’ve been in watching film of different receivers with the offensive coordinator and the quarterback coach,’’ Freeman said Friday. “You might not have the Michael Crabtree or the Darius Heyward-Bey, but it’s a pretty talented receiver group coming out this year. There’s Dez Bryant and I’m a big fan out Jordan Shipley out of Texas.’’

Along with “The Fabulous Sports Babe’’ of ESPN Radio Tampa, I got to spend about 20 minutes chatting with Freeman on Friday afternoon as he attended “ESPN The Weekend’’ and the re-branding of ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. It was just a momentary break for Freeman, who soon will be back in Tampa, working out and scouting.

Yes, the Bucs really are asking Freeman for his opinions. That may sound a little bit out of the ordinary, but it’s actually a very smart move. Freeman, after all, is the franchise quarterback and the most positive thing the Bucs have going for them at this moment. It only makes sense to hear his thoughts.

You might be a little surprised to hear that Freeman’s first choice isn’t to get a wide receiver. Freeman said, if the draft were today and he was in the shoes of general manager Mark Dominik, he would take Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

“I would love to see Suh here,’’ Freeman said.

The Bucs would be wise to listen to Freeman’s thoughts on Suh because their quarterback knows the defensive tackle very well. They first became friends as teammates in a high-school all-star game, saw each other frequently as college foes and were hanging out together at the Super Bowl in Miami a few weeks ago.

“He basically lived in my backfield every time I played against Nebraska,’’ said Freeman, who played at Kansas State. “The drive that that guy has is unbelievable. He’s going to be a great teammate for whoever he goes to. The guy makes plays. He gets in the backfield and nobody can block him. They’re trying to figure out what’s going to help our team the most. If it’s a receiver, it’s a receiver. If it’s get Suh, it’s getting Suh. Anyway you look at it, I’m excited.’’

Freeman should be excited. After a 3-13 season in which Freeman took over as the starter near the halfway point, the Bucs have 10 picks in this year’s draft, including five in the top 99. If they can get Suh with the third overall pick, wide receiver could be a target area for one of their two second-round picks.

The Bucs already have made it clear they’ll let last year’s No. 1 wide receiver, Antonio Bryant, leave as a free agent.

“Antonio’s a great player,’’ Freeman said. “He makes a lot of plays. Obviously, the franchise -- the owners, GM and the coaches -- didn’t feel like he’d be able to help us next year. The time I got to spend with Antonio Bryant, I treasured it and he made a lot of great plays for me. I wish him luck with the rest of his career even though he’s not going to be in Tampa next season.’’

Freeman praised Bryant, but that formula didn’t always work in reverse. At one point last season, Bryant said his lack of production was due to playing with a rookie quarterback. That may be part of the reason why Bryant is on his way out of Tampa Bay.

You don’t criticize the franchise and Freeman is the franchise here. Freeman also praised Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall and Sammie Stroughter, but he made no secret of the fact the Bucs are looking for a No. 1 receiver in the draft or free agency.

“Looking at our roster right now, we’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays,’’ Freeman said. “But we really don’t have that burner, the guy you can just send him on a Go (route), throw it up 70 yards and let him run under it.’’

The Bucs have that guy who can throw it up 70 yards in Freeman and they’re going to try to get him every toy possible because he is the franchise. At very least, Freeman’s going to have some say in who that guy is and, listening to him talk Friday, he’s more of a student of the game than I ever realized. Freeman talked extensively about college players at all positions and sounded a little like a draftnik.

That’s a good thing and talk about the draft wasn’t the only positive thing coming from Freeman. Although team offseason workouts don’t start for nearly another month, Tampa Bay fans will be happy to know that Freeman already has been working (not just scouting) for the last few weeks.

“You take a little break and after about two weeks, I was kind of like, “Man, I’m kind of tired of this. I’m ready to get back into the football mood,'’’ Freeman said. “I’ve started working out with our new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and our offensive coordinator (Greg Olson). I’ve been working. I can’t wait for the second season.’’

Freeman has seemed pretty poised ever since the Bucs drafted him. But I thought he seemed even more mature Friday. That may be because he already has seen so much. The Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski just before the season and the team struggled under first-year coach Raheem Morris for much of the season.

But there was some hope later in the season, after Freeman started playing. He had some good games and led a victory over Super Bowl champion New Orleans. Freeman said the game slowed down for him as the season went on and he’s looking forward to having an entire offseason working in Olson’s offense.

He also said he’s looking forward to Morris returning for his second season.

“It was kind of evident during the early part of the season, he was feeling his way around just like any rookie,’’ Freeman said. “They did the stuff with the coordinators and you could see later in the season we were playing better and better. You could tell he’s getting the grasp for it and he’s getting it fast. I’m excited to see him coach this year.’’

Funny, but that sounds a lot like the scouting report on the quarterback. Freeman went through a lot of the things rookie quarterbacks do. Late in the year, he did some really good things. You could tell he was grasping it and maybe he’s right about Morris grasping it.

Maybe the Bucs are just a few pieces from turning the corner. Maybe, with Freeman helping as a scout, the Bucs will figure out exactly what to put next to their franchise.

Bucs finalize 2010 coaching staff

February, 4, 2010

MIAMI -- Before jumping back into Super Bowl stuff, time for a quick update on the Buccaneers.

They sent out a release this morning announcing they finalized their 2010 coaching staff. Most of the moves were reported over the past few weeks. But if you missed any of them, here’s a look at how Tampa Bay’s coaching staff now stands:

  • Raheem Morris -- Head Coach
  • Greg Olson -- Offensive Coordinator
  • Richard Bisaccia -- Associate Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator
  • Joe Baker -- Linebackers Coach
  • Tim Berbenich -- Assistant Wide Receivers Coach
  • Tim Holt -- Offensive Assistant Coach
  • Jay Kaiser -- Assistant to the Head Coach
  • Chris Keenan -- Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach
  • Jimmy Lake -- Defensive Backs Coach
  • Steve Logan -- Running Backs Coach
  • Pete Mangurian -- Offensive Line Coach
  • Chris Mosley -- Defensive Assistant Coach
  • Alfredo Roberts -- Tight Ends Coach
  • Kurtis Shultz -- Head Strength and Conditioning Coach
  • Dwayne Stukes -- Assistant Defensive Backs Coach
  • Alex Van Pelt -- Quarterbacks Coach
  • Todd Wash -- Defensive Line Coach
  • Eric Yarber -- Wide Receivers Coach

Bucs add Van Pelt as QB coach

February, 1, 2010

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new quarterbacks coach. It’s Alex Van Pelt, according to our John Clayton.

I like the move because Van Pelt is a young guy and has played in the league. That should help him relate to Josh Freeman, who basically is the franchise in Tampa Bay.

Van Pelt was quarterbacks coach in Buffalo before being promoted to offensive coordinator right before the start of the season. Greg Olson remains as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator and will work closely with Van Pelt and Freeman.