NFC South: Antonio Bryant

Superlatives on the Buccaneers

October, 15, 2012
We have what’s been a rare event in the NFC South this year. Two division teams won on the same day.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 38-10 and the Atlanta Falcons beat the Oakland Raiders 23-20.

As we’ve been doing all season, we’ll take a look at the statistical superlatives when an NFC South team wins. Let’s start with the Buccaneers and we’ll come back with the Falcons later. This one is courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information and the Bucs’ media relations department:
  • Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber made history Sunday when he intercepted a pass and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. Barber now is the first player in NFL history with at least eight interceptions returned for touchdowns, four fumble recoveries returned for touchdowns and a punt return for a touchdown. Barber’s eight career interceptions returned for touchdowns tie him for No. 7 in NFL history.
  • Barber is now tied with Derrick Brooks for the franchise lead in career starts with 221. Barber also pushed his league-best consecutive starts to 204.
  • Since the start of the 2000 season, the Bucs rank No. 3 in the NFL in defensive touchdowns with 41. Only Baltimore (44) and Green Bay (42) have more.
  • The Bucs have opened the offense up for quarterback Josh Freeman. Two of his three touchdown passes were thrown at least 15 yards downfield. That gives him three such throws this season, compared to three in the entire 2011 season. Freeman’s completion percentage on throws of 15 or more yards (55.6) this year is better than on what he’s done on throws of fewer than 15 yards (55 percent).
  • Freeman had the fourth 300-yard passing game of his career. His 12.62 yards per pass attempt also ranked No. 3 in franchise history.
  • Mike Williams finished with four receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown. It marked the second straight game Williams has had at least 100 receiving yards. He’s the first Tampa Bay receiver to have back-to-back 100-yard games since Antonio Bryant in 2008.
  • Williams had a 62-yard reception and so did Tiquan Underwood. That marked the first time since 1998 that two Tampa Bay receivers each had receptions of 60 yards or more.
  • Rookie running back Doug Martin had a 42-yard reception. That marks the longest reception by a Tampa Bay running back since Earnest Graham had a 46-yard catch against Pittsburgh on Sept. 26, 2010.
  • Tampa Bay held the Chiefs to 80 rushing yards on 30 carries. Kansas City came into the game averaging 180.8 rushing yards a game, which ranked No. 2 in the NFL.
  • The margin of victory was Tampa Bay’s best since winning by 34 points on Dec. 16, 2007, against Atlanta.
  • Tampa Bay had 463 yards of total offense. That’s the third-best total for a home game in franchise history.

Film of the NFC South chat

May, 25, 2012
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from Friday’s NFC South chat.

Free (Pittsburgh): Hey Pat, sort of glad tampa got rid of Winslow because he developed the Antonio Bryant, me first syndrome. I know that we are suppose be a run first team as we always say, but I am expecting big thing from Freeman and Mike Williams. Do you think that both can return to the 2010 form?

Pat Yasinskas: Possible on both. I definitely think Freeman can bounce back. Williams might have been humbled by last year and might come back better. He also might be helped by having Vincent Jackson taking up defensive attention.

Scott (Maine): If the falcons give matt ryan full control of offence I believe with the talet he has he could throw over 4500 yards your thoughts?

Pat Yasinskas: If they let him throw enough, I think that's certainly possible. He's got some great targets in Roddy, Julio and Gonzalez and they might even get some pass receiving yards out of Jacquizz Rodgers this year.

Tom Cruise (Crazy Town): If Cam throws for 4,500 years, but misses the playoffs, will critics still praise him so highly? Personally, I see Alex Smith's point. Stats look great on paper, but wins mean more.

Pat Yasinskas: I see his point too. But why say that publicly if you're Alex Smith?

Eric (Paris, Fr.): Do you feel it's Doug Martin's job to lose or shall we see Blount have the same amount of carries in bucs backfield?

Pat Yasinskas: Blount will still play a role, but my guess is his total carries will drop.

J. White (Georgia): Lots of negative stuff on Atlanta paper's website about Coach Smith being Falcon's problem. That's a pretty big turnaround isn't it?

Pat Yasinskas: Well, he lost his layer of insulation when the coordinators left. The pressure is squarely on him until he wins a playoff game ...or two.

Ryan (Raleigh NC): Pat are the Saints waiting for the bounty gate blow to over then sign Drew Brees to a long term contract to start the season off on a positive note

Pat Yasinskas: I don't think there's any big conspiracy or plot behind it. I think both sides simply just can't agree on a contract -- yet.

Ben (Atlanta): Pat after Kuechly, who would you rate as the most exciting pick the panthers have gotten in 2012?

Pat Yasinskas: Joe Adams because he seems to have the potential to be explosive as a receiver and return man.

Brandon (Lafayette,La) [via mobile]: Are the Saints moving Martez Wilson to de full time or just situationally and is this year that Scott Shanle is moved to his rightfull spot as a back up ?

Pat Yasinskas: They say they're experimenting with Wilson. My guess is he'll be at DE. They've got a whole bunch of LBs now. I think Shanle could end up as backup even if Wilson is at DE.

Sean (NO): What?s the deadline for signing Brent Grimes to a long term deal? That could definitely help out the cap in signing salary cap casualties later.

Pat Yasinskas: July 16 for all franchise players.

Mort (Rural Hall, NC): Any guess who will ultimately win the #2 corner job in Carolina?

Pat Yasinskas: Munnerlyn for now. But, like I said earlier, don't be surprised if Brandon Hogan becomes a factor.

Dale ( Union, MS ) [via mobile]: Who's probable to replace Will Smith, has there been any talk of trying to sign ir trade for defensive line and when abouts will you be covering some of the Saints workouts/camps? Thanks.

Pat Yasinskas: Think they're serious about giving Wilson and Romeus good looks and that might be the answer. Believe I'll be at Saints minicamp June 5 and 6.

Here’s the complete transcript of Friday’s NFC South chat.
Just about everywhere you look or listen there is speculation the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be in hot pursuit of wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

It makes sense on many levels, starting with the facts that the Bucs need a true No. 1 receiver and Jackson probably is the best available in free agency. There’s likely to be competition from Chicago and Washington and perhaps some other teams. The San Diego Chargers are also holding out a bit of hope that they can re-sign Jackson.

[+] EnlargeChargers' Vincent Jackson
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREVincent Jackson, a proven No. 1 receiver, could help the Bucs win more games in the NFC South.
But the Chargers will only do that if his price tag is somewhere around $11 million a season. If it gets higher than that, he likely will walk and Tampa Bay’s a very logical place for one of the top members of this free-agent class.

The Bucs have about $43 million in salary-cap space and it’s become increasingly clear the Bucs want to do everything possible to put quarterback Josh Freeman in position to succeed. Jackson certainly would help in that regard.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Jackson may not sound like the deep threat so many think the Bucs need. But Jackson is a bit of a freak of nature when it comes to his speed, plus he uses his strength to get separation.

Just look at his numbers when it comes to yards per catch. Last season, Jackson averaged 18.4 yards per catch. That’s the second-highest total of his career and the highest (19.7) came in his rookie season when he was used as a third receiver.

That shows Jackson isn’t losing a step, which is a concern for a receiver who just turned 29. It looks like Jackson has several good years left and the Bucs shouldn’t let their infamous history of bringing in receivers scare them off. Jackson’s not Alvin Harper or Bert Emanuel, guys that were No. 2 receivers elsewhere that the Bucs thought could emerge as No. 1 guys. Jackson also isn’t Keyshawn Johnson, Joey Galloway or Antonio Bryant, guys who produced in the short term, but, for various reasons, didn’t last in the long term.

Jackson is a proven No. 1 receiver. Although he had some off-field problems, those appear to be behind him and teammates and media members who have covered him say Jackson doesn’t have the “diva’’ personality so many receivers do. He’s described as very quiet and always has been liked by his coaches.

If the Bucs are going to get Jackson, it likely will cost them around $12-$13 million a year. That’s a lot, but the Bucs have indicated they’re ready to spend money after going lightly in free agency in recent years.

Jackson is the one guy out there that seems like a sure thing. Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent and I don’t think the Bucs are looking to give up draft picks. New Orleans Marques Colston isn’t a speed guy and he’s been banged up at times in the past.

If the Bucs don’t get Jackson, then they need to look in a different direction.

Robert Meachem (Saints), Mario Manningham (Giants) and Laurent Robinson (Cowboys) are guys that can stretch the field, but none of them is a true No. 1 receiver, although they'd come at a much lower price tag than Jackson. But even adding a speed guy could make it easier for Tampa Bay’s current group of receivers – Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe, Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter — to get open.
NEW ORLEANS -- Time for some halftime observations and notes on the Saints and Buccaneers with Tampa Bay leading 10-7.
  • The Saints, who already had several injured players sitting out, are getting more banged up. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee), running back Chris Ivory (foot) and tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle) all left the game in the first half. The team just said all three players are questionable to return to the game.
  • I know New Orleans coach Sean Payton said he wouldn’t be watching the scoreboard, but maybe he should. As I type this, Atlanta has a 21-0 lead against Carolina. Assuming the Falcons don’t fall apart, they’re headed for the NFC South championship and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. That would leave the Saints as the No. 5 seed and they can’t improve their seed as long as Atlanta wins. With the injuries piling up, Payton might be wise to rest his starters and not risk more injuries.
  • New Orleans’ Drew Brees now has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 27 consecutive games.
  • Tampa Bay may be the youngest team in the league, but you should be able to get your players on and off the field in a timely fashion by the final week of the regular season. The Bucs couldn’t pull that off consistently. Mainly due to problems getting the proper personnel on the field, the Bucs used their third timeout of the half with 13:52 left in the second quarter.
  • Looks like the Bucs got the better of the Antonio Bryant "trade." Rookie Dezmon Briscoe had a spectacular touchdown catch midway through the second quarter. You might remember Briscoe as the guy the Bucs signed to their practice squad after he was cut by Cincinnati. The Bengals wanted to bring Briscoe back to their practice squad, but the Bucs beat them out by offering Briscoe a contract worth about three times what practice-squad players make. They kept Briscoe on the practice squad most of the season, but activated him after Arrelious Benn suffered an injury. Bryant, Tampa Bay’s top receiver a year ago, was allowed to walk in free agency because the Bucs didn’t want him back. He signed with Cincinnati, but was released in the preseason.
  • When Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris looks back on this season, I hope he scraps the Wildcat package entirely. The Bucs used it once in the first half, putting Josh Johnson in at quarterback. He pitched the ball to Micheal Spurlock, who continued rolling to the right. Spurlock pulled up and tried to throw across the field to Johnson, but the Saints had the play covered all the way. Gimmicks are nice, but they’re not needed when you have a real quarterback. The Bucs have a very real quarterback in Josh Freeman and they shouldn’t waste their time by taking the ball out of his hands.

Randy Moss in the NFC South?

November, 1, 2010
The Minnesota Vikings pulled a shocker Monday, deciding to waive wide receiver Randy Moss. I haven’t had a chance to even open the NFC South mailbag after arriving home from New Orleans, but I’m sure there are plenty of questions about the possibility of Moss ending up in this division.

Let’s make it clear: Moss must go through the waiver process, which means teams with the worst records will have the first shot to claim him and the pro-rated portion of his $6 million contract for the season. If Moss clears waivers, then he becomes a free agent and is eligible to sign with any team.

I think it’s an extreme long shot that he’ll end up in the division. Let’s take a quick look at each team’s situation and see if Moss could be a fit.

Carolina Panthers. They might get a shot to claim Moss off waivers, but there’s no way the Panthers would touch his contract. They’re not spending money and they’re firmly committed to their youth movement. Besides, who possibly would think it would be a good idea to put Moss in the same locker room with Steve Smith?

Atlanta Falcons. It might be a little tempting to think about the possibility of giving Matt Ryan one more toy that could truly put the Falcons over the top. But the Falcons already have a great No. 1 receiver in Roddy White and a nice role player in Michael Jenkins. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are big on team chemistry and they aren’t going to bring in a guy who has the potential to blow up everything around him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Much like the Panthers, the Bucs aren’t spending money and they’re in a youth movement. In fact, they’re already seeing the benefits of that youth movement with their young wide receivers emerging. Antonio Bryant tried to destroy Josh Freeman last year ,and the Bucs aren’t going to bring in another guy that could cause headaches for their franchise quarterback.

New Orleans Saints. Let me emphasize that this is a long shot, but New Orleans is the one NFC South team I could possibly see having an interest in Moss. The Saints have shown a willingness to let guys revive their careers in New Orleans (see Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma) in the past. Drew Brees owns that locker room and is powerful enough that he wouldn’t be pushed around by Moss. But the Saints already have a bunch of talented wide receivers.

Superlatives on the Buccaneers

November, 1, 2010
With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, Elias Sports Bureau and the Tampa Bay media relations office, here are some superlatives on the Buccaneers after Sunday’s win against Arizona.
  • The Bucs are 3-0 on the road for the first time since 2008.
  • Rookie running back LeGarrette Blount ran for a career-high 120 yards. He also scored two touchdowns to become the first Tampa Bay rookie to rush for two touchdowns in a game since Cadillac Williams in 2005.
  • Aqib Talib had two interceptions to give him five for the season. That makes him the first player in team history to have at least four interceptions in three straight seasons since Donnie Abraham did it from 1999 through 2001.
  • Talib and linebacker Geno Hayes each returned interceptions for touchdowns. That gives the Bucs 35 defensive touchdowns since 2000. Only Green Bay and Tennessee, which each have 36, have scored more defensive touchdowns in that span.
  • Rookie receiver Mike Williams had a career-high 105 receiving yards. It marked the first time a Tampa Bay receiver went over 100 yards since Antonio Bryant on Dec. 6, 2009. Williams also had a touchdown catch, giving him four for the season. The only Tampa Bay rookie receivers to have more touchdown catches in a season were Michael Clayton (seven) in 2004 and Kevin House (five) in 1980.
  • In only 16 career games, quarterback Josh Freeman now has led six fourth-quarter comebacks. In those victories, Freeman had completed 39 of 57 passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Before I flew out of the Atlanta airport this morning, I wrote that the Bucs should go ahead and release tight end Jerramy Stevens and make a bit of a statement.

Well, that’s exactly what they did a few hours ago. The Bucs released the tight end, who was charged with narcotics violations on Saturday night. Stevens had past problems with the law and off the field. Surely the fact that he was nothing more than a role player made it easy to kick him to the curb.

The Bucs probably don’t do that with Josh Freeman or Gerald McCoy. But Freeman and McCoy have shown no propensity to get into any sort of trouble, and that’s important to note. Freeman and McCoy were the first-round picks in each of the drafts run by coach Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik.

Those guys got bashed a lot last year, but let’s give Morris and Dominik some credit for trying to do things the right way. They care about character. The previous regime of coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen really didn’t, and they were the ones who brought in Stevens as well as Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson, some other guys who ran into recent problems.

Morris and Dominik might not have a room full of choirboys like the Bucs did in the Tony Dungy years. But they realize good character can help a team succeed, and we’re not talking just about guys with legal problems.

Morris and Dominik ran Antonio Bryant and Derrick Ward out of town because they didn’t have great attitudes and were viewed as bad influences in the locker room.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 15, 2010
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Eagles chose to showcase Michael Vick against the Falcons last season, something that didn't sit well with some in Atlanta.
Payback time? We don’t know if Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick will even play against his former team, the Atlanta Falcons, but it doesn’t really matter. This game already is a grudge match behind the scenes. When the Eagles came to Atlanta last year, Philadelphia coach Andy Reid inserted Vick, then serving as a part-time player behind Donovan McNabb, into the lineup enough to throw for a touchdown and run for one. Those were his first scores since 2006, when he was with the Falcons. At the time, the Falcons were playing without quarterback Matt Ryan, several other starters and they had a whole bunch of guys banged up. There was a feeling among some important people in Atlanta that Reid intentionally -- and unnecessarily -- was rubbing the organization's nose in it. That story hasn’t gotten a lot of play because the Falcons don’t talk publicly about it. But that feeling was there then and it’s there now. At the very least, it provided some extra motivation in the team’s Flowery Branch headquarters this week and probably will do the same Sunday. The Falcons are completely healthy now and on a four-game winning streak. What if they get a chance to really rub it in the Eagles? Just my guess, but I think coach Mike Smith is too classy to do something like that. If he can win this game, he’ll do it gracefully.

The Michael Jenkins factor. Atlanta receiver Michael Jenkins will make his season debut after recovering from a shoulder injury. I think this is going to be a much bigger boost to the Atlanta offense than most people realize. The Falcons have played (pretty well) for five games without the full offense they want on the field. Now, they’re going to have it. Jenkins is going to step into the No. 2 receiver position and be the role player he always has been. He’s not flashy, but he’ll catch a few passes and he’ll help as a run blocker. More importantly, he’ll allow Harry Douglas to settle in as the slot receiver. That’s the spot the Falcons have pictured Douglas in since the day they drafted him and it just might help ease all the talk about how the Falcons don’t take enough shots down the field.

Everybody’s smiling. When I was out at One Buccaneer Place the other day, one thing stood out when I was in the locker room. The atmosphere was completely different than a year ago. Sure, winning cures a lot of things. But I think this process started back in the offseason and preseason when the Bucs unloaded Antonio Bryant and Derrick Ward. I’m not going to dance around it: They were not good locker-room guys. Coach Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik are growing up just like their team, and I think one of the more important things they decided in the offseason was they weren’t going to put up with malcontents in a locker room full of young players.

Signature game? A lot of people say Sunday could be a signature game for the Bucs if they can beat the Saints. While I think a win over New Orleans would be important, I don’t think that really would be the right way to look at it. I think this team already has turned some corners and coming from behind to win on the road in Cincinnati was a pretty big one. I don’t think the process in Tampa Bay has completely played itself out yet. But I don’t think winning or losing to New Orleans is going to make or break this season. The Bucs already have shown they’re respectable.

On the bright side. There’s no doubt New Orleans fans are passionate. But the “sky-is-falling’’ attitude that popped up after the loss to Arizona is a little over the top. Yes, losing to a bad team with an undrafted rookie (Max Hall) at quarterback was horrible, and it’s clear that the Saints have issues and injuries. But Sean Payton’s still the coach, Drew Brees is still the quarterback and that means this whole thing isn’t coming apart at the seams.

NFC South turning to rookie WRs

October, 8, 2010
LaFell/Williams/Gettis Icon SMI, AP PhotoRookie receivers Brandon LaFell, Mike Williams and David Gettis are expected to start this Sunday.
TAMPA, Fla. -- When you’re watching NFC South teams this Sunday, keep an eye on the wide receivers. By choice and by circumstance, you’re going to see something rare.

You’re going to see a whole bunch of rookie wide receivers starting or playing a lot. That’s rare because there’s a school of thought, and most NFC South teams have backed it up through the years, that you shouldn’t ask too much of rookie receivers too soon.

We’re almost certainly going to see at least three rookies start at receiver for NFC South teams on Sunday and a fourth will get considerable playing time. A fifth might even be active for the first time in his career. In Week 5 of the NFL season, it’s kind of amazing that NFC South teams are leaning so heavily on rookie wide receivers, especially when not a single one of them was a first-round draft pick.

Tampa Bay’s been starting Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick, since the start of the season. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris hinted strongly during the bye week that second-round pick Arrelious Benn will get increased playing time going forward, probably splitting time with second-year pro Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs play at Cincinnati on Sunday.

In Carolina, it appears highly likely the Panthers will start two rookies at receiver on Sunday against Chicago. They likely will go with third-round pick Brandon LaFell and sixth-round pick David Gettis as the starters. Armanti Edwards, who is converting from playing quarterback in college, might be on the game-day active list for the first time this season.

In Carolina, this wasn’t exactly the plan. The Panthers, who traditionally have been very patient in playing young receivers, wanted LaFell starting as a rookie, but they thought Gettis and Edwards would have time to develop. But that’s all changed because the Panthers are likely to be without Steve Smith due to an ankle injury. They cut veteran Dwayne Jarrett after he was charged with driving while impaired Tuesday morning. The rookie receivers will be working with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

While putting rookie receivers around a young quarterback might sound like a formula for disaster, that’s actually the plan the Buccaneers have had since draft day.

“We made the conscious decision to draft these young guys and let [quarterback] Josh [Freeman] grow with them," Morris said.

Morris then pointed to the New Orleans Saints and how they let a young crew of receivers grow up around Drew Brees. Not a bad example, although Brees had been a starter in San Diego before coming to New Orleans in 2006. Freeman’s only been starting since the second half of last season.

“They, and I’m talking the wide receivers and Josh, always talk about growing up together," Tampa Bay receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “We talk about that as a staff. We’ve got a lot of young guys, but eventually these guys are going to become big-time players in this league."

Williams already has shown promise. In three games, he has 12 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Although Benn was the higher draft pick, he hasn’t been much of a factor so far after missing some preseason time with an injury. But the Bucs are saying that’s about to change.

[+] EnlargeArrelious Benn
AP Photo/Paul AbellSecond-round pick Arrelious Benn is expected to see more playing time for the Bucs.
“Arrelious is coming on very well," Yarber said. “Early on, he had to spend a lot of time in the playbook. But now that he’s got the plays down, he’s playing much faster and we’re seeing the real Arrelious Benn now."

Still, is it wise or even productive to rely on rookie receivers so early? History has shown it’s a position that often takes time to grow into. Atlanta’s Roddy White, now the best receiver in the NFC South, didn’t really produce until his third year and he was a first-round pick. Smith spent a year as a kick returner before even getting a chance at wide receiver. Then, there’s a pretty lengthy list of guys who never really developed.

Carolina drafted Jarrett, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter and got very little from them. Tampa Bay used early picks on Michael Clayton and Dexter Jackson. Clayton had a big rookie year, but did nothing after that. Jackson never even made an impact and couldn’t make Carolina’s roster in the preseason.

Yarber admits there are challenges to playing rookie receivers right away.

“It is difficult because of the physicality on the outside against bump and run," Yarber said. “The guys in college are going against maybe one good DB that’s physical. On this level, every DB they face is physical and good at rerouting you. They’ve got to get used to the physicality on the outside.’’

But it’s far from just being a physical thing. The Panthers have been historically hesitant to play rookie receivers too much because they believe the mental adjustment takes time. In four seasons, Jarrett never was able to grasp the playbook. They don’t have much choice but to go with rookies now.

In Tampa Bay, the choice was made deliberately. The Buccaneers let veterans Antonio Bryant and Mark Bradley go to clear the way for Williams and Benn. They held onto Clayton through the preseason, but cut him once they were comfortable with the way the rookies were progressing.

Still, the Bucs admit their receiving corps is very much a work in progress and that affects the entire offense.

“You have to scale back a little bit," Yarber said. “You want to get them out there, but you don’t want to give them too much. That’s when you get to paralysis by analysis. They’re thinking so much that they can’t play fast. You need a happy medium that you don’t taper the offense down too much, but you don’t want to put too much in so that they’re thinking too much and they don’t play fast.

“One thing that can be a detriment to young guys early on is if you give them too much, they can lose confidence. You don’t want to give them too much too soon. You want them to have some success that they can build on and develop confidence and play better."

For better or worse, much of the NFC South is turning to rookie wide receivers.
TAMPA, Fla. – Just to fill you in on a little behind-the scenes dynamics in the NFL, there’s a long-standing tradition where the coach and a key player do Wednesday conference calls with media in the city of the upcoming opponent.

It’s how writers get quotes for stories on the out-of-town teams, but these conference calls are usually pretty boring. That started off being the case this afternoon when Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis was on the phone with the Tampa Bay media.

But, suddenly, Lewis erupted and ripped the Buccaneers when he was asked about receiver Dezmon Briscoe, who was drafted in the sixth-round by the Bengals this year. Briscoe was cut at the end of the preseason and the Bengals planned to bring him back to their practice squad at the standard salary of around $80,000.

The Buccaneers, however, stepped in and made an unusual move. They signed Briscoe to their practice squad, but they did it for the $325,000 minimum salary for players on the active roster.

"When you overpay a guy on the practice squad, you create a problem for teams,'' Lewis said. "I don't know that teams want to set that precedent and they did with Dez.

"That's not a great precedent for teams to set as we try to keep the NFL and doing the things we're trying to do as a league. It's still a league of 32 teams and things are put together a certain way.''

I get Lewis’ point, but the Bucs did what they felt was necessary. Besides, the Bucs are 2-0 against the Bengals so far this season. They got Briscoe and they also got the last laugh as the Bengals paid a ton of money to former Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Bryant and had to turn around and cut him.

Roddy White has remade his career

October, 1, 2010
Roddy WhiteAP Photo/Paul Abell Roddy White struggled early in his career, but can smile now as the NFC South's top receiver.
Before we start pondering how it happened or the precise moment it took place, let’s go ahead and throw out the obvious. Atlanta’s Roddy White is the best wide receiver in the NFC South and one of the best in the NFL.

There, I’ve said it, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized this has been the case for quite some time. You’re welcome to try to pinpoint the exact date that a guy who once seemed headed to being a bust became the best receiver in the NFC South. I couldn’t do it and, when I asked White, neither could he.

Fact is, White has just kind of grown into the role as some other guys have been backed off their claims. Narrow the time frame down from 2007 until today and White has been steadily surging while Carolina’s Steve Smith has been weighed down by a series of quarterback problems. Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant came and went in Tampa Bay. New Orleans’ Marques Colston has had to share Drew Brees’ passes with all those other targets the Saints have.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
AP Photo/Ric FeldRoddy White struggled during his first two years in the league until he "just finally grew up,'' White said.
There is only one NFC South wide receiver who has caught passes for 1,000 yards in each season starting with 2007. That’s White, and he’s at it again. Through three games, he’s second in the league with 25 catches, which has resulted in 258 yards, two touchdowns and a 2-1 start by the Falcons.

“Roddy White is the complete wide receiver,’’ Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said moments after the Falcons recorded one of the bigger regular-season wins in franchise history Sunday with a 27-24 overtime victory against the Saints in the Superdome. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s fast. He runs great routes. He works hard. You couldn’t ask for more in a wide receiver.’’

Funny, because once upon a time, there were people around the league who thought White was going to go down in history as one of the biggest receiver busts ever. Taken out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the first round (27th overall) in 2005, White was seen as a raw talent.

One person who worked for the Falcons at the time White first arrived admitted the brass in Flowery Branch had a huge case of buyer's remorse after they saw White in his first training camp and through most of his first two seasons. That person said there was a moment during White’s rookie season when an assistant coach stood up in a meeting and said White simply wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL and there was no argument in response.

But a strange thing happened after White bumbled his way through a rookie season that featured 29 catches and a second season in which he improved to 30 catches, but zero touchdowns. As the Michael Vick saga was casting a sad shadow over the Falcons and Bobby Petrino was about to do the same, White suddenly became a legitimate NFL wide receiver.

That may be the single bright spot to emerge from a very dark time in franchise history. The more you look at where White is now, the brighter that spot gets. As the world around the Falcons seemed to be crumbling, a convergence of events were taking place that would shock everyone and put White’s career on a good path.

“I guess the easiest way to put it was that I just finally grew up,’’ White said.

That’s the simple way to put it, but White is quick to point out that it was much more complex than that. He’s even quicker to point out that he had some help.

“I’d gone through life just getting by on being a good natural athlete,’’ White said. “That’s the way I approached it my first two years and, in the NFL, it’s not good enough to just be an athlete.’’

As Vick was going and Petrino was coming, two other subtle moves took place that would forever change White’s career for the better. Perhaps the only good move Petrino made in his short stint as the head coach of the Falcons was hiring his younger brother, Paul, to coach wide receivers.

“When coach [Jim] Mora and his guys were here, I was eating a lot of cheeseburgers and going at about 215 [pounds],’’ White said. “When Paul Petrino came in, he sat me down and said, 'You need to get back to where you were in college.' I got back to around 205 to 208 and I suddenly realized I was moving faster and jumping higher. But it wasn’t just that. Paul Petrino worked me so hard and pushed me to string together good practices, go out there and do it every day.’’

Paul Petrino got some help from another source. In 2007, the Falcons brought in veteran wide receiver Joe Horn, in large part because they weren’t sure if White could play. But Horn ended up being part of the reason White has been playing so well in recent years.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireRoddy White has 25 catches for 258 yards and two touchdowns this season.
“Playing with Joe was the best thing to ever happen to me,’’ White said. “He was a guy who had been to Pro Bowls and he took me under his wing and really taught me what this league is all about. He’s the one who made me realize what’s expected of you if you’re going to be a good pro. He’s the one who taught me that you have to prepare mentally every day and you have to go out and practice hard every day. He’s the one who showed me that this game takes so much more effort than I was putting into it.’’

The results were pretty much instant. In a 2007 season in which the Falcons went through several quarterbacks with little success, White somehow emerged with 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns.

The next year, coach Mike Smith arrived and promptly drafted Ryan, who clicked with White right from the start. White had 88 catches for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008 and 85 catches for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009.

“It was somewhat of a gradual process, but there was a good chemistry between Roddy and me right from the start,’’ Ryan said. “It just keeps getting stronger because Roddy’s a guy that works very hard and he’s always where he’s supposed to be.’’

White’s been to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and there’s no reason to think he won’t be there again.

“The thing with Matt is, he came in from the beginning and was asking what kind of routes I liked running and where I liked getting the ball and things like that,’’ White said. “When you do that, you’re both sort of volunteering ways to get better.’’

In their third season together, Ryan and White have the Falcons off to a fast start. In the past two games (victories against Arizona and New Orleans), the running game has clicked, the passing game has clicked and the rebuilt defense has a faster, more aggressive look.

“The sky really is the limit for this team,’’ White said.

It’s kind of funny that the guy the Falcons once thought couldn’t play is leading the way. He’s soaring on the field and he has become a leader in the locker room. Before every game, there’s a little reminder of the past and how White got to where he is now.

“Before every game, Joe Horn sends a text,’’ White said. “It’s pretty simple. He just says, go out, play hard, play physical and play smart.’’

That’s what White has been doing, and that’s the other strange twist to all this. The guy who once couldn’t go past fast-food restaurants on the way home or stay out of the nightclubs is taking on the role Horn once did.

“You know, it’s hard to find a guy that will share information with you when we’re all competing for jobs,’’ White said. “But Joe did that with me and now I try to do it with Harry Douglas. I look at Harry like my little brother, but I also look at him as what I used to be before Joe came along. I’m always on Harry about working hard every day. The most important thing Joe taught me was that you have to put the game first.’’

White’s been doing that since 2007 and that’s what has put him among the best receivers in the NFL.

Josh Freeman growing up before our eyes

September, 17, 2010
Josh Freeman AP Photo/Chris O'MearaJosh Freeman, now in his second season in Tampa Bay, is carrying himself as a leader.
TAMPA, Fla. -- From his spot in the back of meeting rooms and on the team bus and team plane last season, Sammie Stroughter usually had a very close view of fellow rookie Josh Freeman.

“The best way to put it is that Josh was in the passenger’s seat last year,’’ said Stroughter, a receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He was getting chauffeured around. He never said much of anything, and he usually had this look on his face like he was lost or something.’’

That’s why Stroughter and the rest of the Bucs are stunned by what they see this year.

“When he walks into the locker room now, you can just feel his presence,’’ Stroughter said. “He knows it’s his time.’’

Freeman’s time actually started the second half of last season when the Bucs started playing him. Like most rookie quarterbacks, he struggled. Oh, he had a few bright spots, but most of them were overshadowed by the team's 3-13 record.

Now, the Bucs are 1-0 heading into Sunday’s game at Carolina. Now, there is hope for a franchise, and it’s mostly because of the franchise quarterback.

“He’s growing up,’’ coach Raheem Morris said Wednesday.

Yes, Freeman is growing up before our eyes. At 6-foot-6, he’s hard to miss and it’s even more difficult to overlook him now that he’s no longer slouched in the passenger’s seat.

“It’s like somebody threw him the keys and said: 'It’s your car,' ’’ Stroughter said. “He’s driving now, and he’s not letting go of the wheel.’’

We might end up pointing to this season’s opener as the moment Freeman grabbed the wheel. After a shaky start by Freeman, the Bucs fell behind Cleveland, 14-3. Last year, it was virtually impossible for Tampa Bay’s offense to overcome any deficit, no matter who played quarterback. But Freeman threw for two touchdowns, leading the Bucs to a 17-14 victory that just might be the start of something big.

At One Buccaneer Place all offseason, people raved about how hard Freeman, 22, worked. He spent countless hours studying film, meeting with the coaches and working out with a young crew of receivers. People in the building could see Freeman growing up. Now, Freeman said he sees everything differently.

“Understanding the offense,’’ Freeman said. “Understanding the alerts. Understanding really taking what the defense is giving you and not trying to force too much.’’

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesJosh Freeman "knows it's his time'' according to Tampa Bay teammate Sammie Stroughter.
Even with a fractured right thumb, Freeman feels comfortable on the field. The Bucs dumped disgruntled receiver Antonio Bryant, who made negative comments about Freeman and the coaching staff, immediately after last season. With visions of Stroughter as a perfect fit as slot receiver, the Bucs drafted wide receivers Arrelious Benn (second round) and Mike Williams (fourth round). They also signed speedster Micheal Spurlock, who caught one of the two touchdown passes against Cleveland.

“We have some guys who can stretch the field and can make things happen when you throw the ball out there,’’ Freeman said.

It’s pretty obvious Freeman has quickly developed chemistry with his receivers. But it goes way beyond the receivers. Freeman has earned the respect of his teammates, who elected him one of the five captains just before the start of the season.

“The thing that’s stood out most just over the last few months about Josh is that he’s the hardest critic on himself,’’ Stroughter said. “He expects the best and, now, he’s letting other people know he expects the best out of them. If you’re supposed to be somewhere and you’re not, he’s stepping forward and letting you know.’’

In a sign that perhaps he's seeing the field better or that he is assuming more of a leadership role, Freeman, who might have only changed four calls at the line last season, made a whole bunch of checks in the Cleveland game.

“He kept putting us in position to make plays,’’ Stroughter said.

One game doesn’t make a season, and Freeman is sure to still have some downs along with the ups. But there were smiles in Tampa Bay’s locker room this week, and that’s largely because the Bucs believe they have the right guy at quarterback.

“All you can do is smile and say, “Man, this is going to be great,’’ Stroughter said. “Once it all starts clicking, it’s going to be something to see, and it’s going to be beautiful.’’

Cleaning out the mailbag

August, 30, 2010
I just took one more pass through the mailbag before I cleaned it out in preparation for a coming onslaught. Very shortly, I’ll be making an announcement about how we’re going to handle an idea we’ve been kicking around: Selecting the most disliked figure for each NFC South team.

I’ve set the parameters and we’ll be announcing them as well as one other twist to this project in just a bit. Stay tuned for that. But in the meantime I wanted to answer a few more questions from the mailbag.

Al in Washington, D.C., writes: I'm surprised that you have Everette Brown so low. I know his great preseason alone isn't enough to support moving him up, but he's got a year of experience, has put on weight, and as far as I can tell has the attitude you need to be dominant. I was thinking Tyler Brayton's job might be in danger, but now I guess I should ask if you really see Greg Hardy passing Everette on the depth chart?

Pat Yasinskas: Like I said in the original post, the Panthers still think Brown has a world of potential and could be a factor. But his development hasn’t been rapid. Hardy’s emergence has been incredibly rapid.

Jared in New York writes: I know this may sound a little bit strange, considering his position, but do you think Todd Sauerbrun is a candidate for most (disliked) Panther? As great as he was, he did some pretty bad things for them like refusing to place kick, showing up overweight, getting a DWI, and (being linked to a steroids investigation)?

Pat Yasinskas: That’s going to be up to you as fans, because you’re the ones who are doing the voting. But the list of Sauerbrun’s indiscretions that you ticked off kind of speaks for itself. If I were a fan, I think I’d at least consider giving him a vote. I know some coaches and front-office types at Bank of America Stadium who might give him some votes. Sauerbrun's time in Carolina never was dull.

Nate in Palmer, Alaska, writes: I've never been a fan of Antonio Bryant. I'm laughing still from the news of him getting cut by the Bengals. That noise you hear is me laughing from 6500 miles away! Of course, Bryant's laugh is probably just a little bit louder seeing he made $8 million and I'm still working my tail off to provide for my wife and kids. You can add Antonio Bryant to the most disliked player of the NFC South's history. I’ve never liked the guy.

Pat Yasinskas: You’ll be able to cast your official ballot shortly. Like I wrote yesterday, there are plenty of people inside One Buccaneer Place that aren’t members of the Bryant fan club.

Scott in Atlanta writes: Have not heard anything lately about Jonathan Vilma's strained groin. Any news about how serious?

Pat Yasinskas: Your question was very timely. New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis spoke to the media just a little bit ago and said the injury is not serious. Loomis expects Vilma to be ready for the regular-season opener.

Massive Monday morning mailbag

August, 30, 2010
Patterson in Atlanta writes: Do you think the Falcons have any interest in Antonio Bryant, now that they have a somewhat shorter depth in wideouts?

Pat Yasinskas: No. There were reasons why Bryant was released by Cincinnati even though he was guaranteed $8 million. The question about his knee is just one of a lot of questions about Bryant. I know Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff are pretty smart guys and they’ve got a scouting department that does a nice job. I don’t see any way they go after Bryant. Besides, I really don’t think they’ve got a need. Michael Jenkins is going to be healthy for the first game and he and Roddy White will be the starters. Harry Douglas can be a very nice No. 3 receiver and Brian Finneran and Eric Weems provide solid depth. Yeah, the Falcons had hoped rookie Kerry Meier would factor in, but he's out for the season with an injury. Tight end Tony Gonzalez almost counts as a wide receiver and there’s only one ball to go around in the passing game. Besides, Arthur Blank has learned from past mistakes and Dimitroff and Smith are fully on board with him when it comes to avoiding guys who are potential headaches.

Keith in Cary, NC writes: I just saw that the Bengals released Antonio Bryant. Do you think the Panthers might take a look at him since the offense has struggled so much? The young guys haven't stepped up yet and Bryant could help. Your thoughts?

Pat Yasinskas: See the above answer and I’ll elaborate a bit more and steer some of the same things toward the Panthers. Yes, they’ve got no certainties at wide receiver besides Steve Smith. But how can anyone count on Bryant at this point? Owner Jerry Richardson is even more firm on character stuff than Blank. Yeah, the Panthers may bend the rules a bit on Smith, but they do that because he also brings a lot of positives. Bryant's never earned that sort of goodwill anywhere he's been, so I don't think the Panthers will be cutting him any slack. Also, memo to Tampa Bay fans: Please don’t start asking if it’s possible the Bucs might bring back Bryant. I think I already have made it abundantly clear why there’s absolutely no chance of this happening.

Jeff in Charleston, SC writes: Does any part of you think the coaches and Dimitroff were just using this "hamstring injury" as a cop-out to mask their fear that their prized off-season pickup, Dunta Robinson, might incur a completely different injury from playing in the preseason? I definitely understand their logic, but do you think there is a possibility coaches/trainers/GMs make up injuries during training camp and preseason for older veteran players to ensure they make it to at least Week 1?

Pat Yasinskas: No, I don’t think any team makes up injuries. Now, I think just about all teams can be very cautious with certain players participating in meaningless preseason games. All indications I’ve received out of Atlanta are that Robinson has gotten back to full strength and will be ready for the season opener, which is all that really matters. I wouldn’t count on seeing him or many of Atlanta’s starters in the preseason finale.

Eric in Canton, Conn. writes: How can Panthers fans be voting for Jake Delhomme? That's pathetic. What a bunch of short-sighted thankless fans. I'm ashamed to be a part of the group.

Pat Yasinskas: Eric’s writing about the upcoming project we’re going to do on the most-disliked figure by fans of all four NFC South teams. I’ll have an announcement of the parameters and will be asking for votes on that soon. But, yes, I’ve already seen some votes fly in for Delhomme and that made me feel the same way Eric does. Yeah, Delhomme had a horrible final season in Carolina. But the guy was the best quarterback in franchise history and took the Panthers to their only Super Bowl. He also was a fierce competitor, a great leader and one of the classiest players I’ve ever dealt with.

Russell in New Orleans writes: Because of Scott Shanle's age do think the Saints might run a 3-4 this year with Shanle and Jonathan Vilma in the middle and the young guys on the outside? With those two in the middle they can help put the younger athletic LB's in better positions.

Pat Yasinskas: I see what you’re saying, but I sincerely doubt you’re going to see a team coming off a Super Bowl victory suddenly switch defensive schemes and it sure hasn't seemed like they've been putting in much time working on it in any of their public practices in training camp. Gregg Williams mixes things up from time to time and you might see a few situations where the Saints use a formation like that, but it’s not going to be the norm. Also, remember, Vilma became pretty much irrelevant and ineffective in the 3-4 when he was with the Jets. That’s why he landed with the Saints.

Robbie in Murphy, NC writes: Is this Carolina defense for real? They have registered 18 sacks in three preseason games. The defense was supposed to be our Achilles heel but now it's looking like our strong point. How concerned should we be with the offense?

Pat Yasinskas: Be encouraged by Carolina’s defensive performance so far. But, remember, it’s only the preseason. The offense? Same deal, but flip it around. The offense hasn’t looked good, but it’s not like the Panthers are game planning like they will in the regular season. They’re just testing some things out. Even more significant, the Panthers have been playing without Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Jeff Otah. I think the presence of those guys in the regular season automatically make the offense a lot better than it’s been in the preseason.

James in Morehead City, NC writes: Is it safe to say the Panthers defense is going to be just fine without Julius Peppers in the mix? They've looked as good as I've seen since '96.

Pat Yasinskas: Again, keep the preseason in perspective. But other than Jon Beason and Chris Gamble, do we really know much for sure about anybody on Carolina’s defense?

Kyle in Montgomery, Ala. writes: Do you have any idea why the Saints are getting so little respect in preseason projections? I can't remember a defending champ getting this little respect. Am I the only one who feels this way? In your opinion, what's the deal?

Pat Yasinskas: No, you’re not the first New Orleans fan I’ve heard this from. But I’ve got a little problem with fans saying their team is getting no “respect’’ when it comes to predictions. People in the media throw out predictions because that’s their job. They’re not doing it to respect or disrespect anybody -- at least not in most cases. In the case of defending Super Bowl champions, I’d guess and say a lot of media members just like to be trendy and go with somebody new. As I often say, I don’t put much stock in predictions. But you’re going to see my predictions for the season very soon and, whatever they might be worth, I’ll throw you a hint and say I think you’ll like the “respect’’ I’m showing the Saints.

Party at One Buccaneer Place

August, 29, 2010
Sitting more than 20 miles from One Buccaneer Place, I’m pretty sure I just heard some laughter coming out of the building.

Listen, the people who run the Bucs – Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris – are pretty classy guys, no matter if you think they’re good at their jobs. They’re not the type to gloat.

But I think they and some other important people in that building are at least feeling a sense of “we told you so’’ Sunday. At the very least, they have a right to feel that way. AFC North colleague James Walker reports the Bengals have cut Antonio Bryant, the guy they signed to a $28 million contract, and $8 million of that is still going to go to Bryant because it was guaranteed. Brilliant move, Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis. So brilliant that they had to go out and sign Terrell Owens and bring dynamite into a locker room that already was unstable.

They cut Bryant in part because he had some knee problems. They also cut him because they realized he just wasn’t that good and, maybe – just maybe – because Owens would be a better fit in the locker room. .

This is all stuff the Bucs realized long ago. Some fans showed outrage and did the tired old thing where they just blamed it on the Bucs being cheap when the team said it would let Bryant walk into free agency in February.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Letting Bryant walk had nothing to do with money, and the decision to let him walk was made long before February, when Morris announced it at the scouting combine. The decision on Bryant was made essentially by Bryant.

Bryant is a guy the old Tampa Bay regime (Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen) took a big shot on in 2008. They were the only ones willing to take a shot on a guy who had a slew of problems throughout his career. He responded by playing great for them and behaving like a model citizen.

Then, all that changed. Bryant immediately wanted a massive long-term deal. The Bucs basically said, “Show us you can behave and produce like that for one more season and you’ll get your deal’. They then turned around and guaranteed him $9 million by making him a restricted free agent for 2009.

The opportunity was there for Bryant and he dropped it in the open field with no defenders around him. He went through 2009 pouting about his lack of a long-term contract. His knee problems started flaring up. He started taking shots at then-rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. Not a very bright idea when Freeman’s been declared “The Franchise.’’

Bryant took shots at the coaching staff and blamed his sore knee on the long plane flight back from London – umm, they have ice and team doctors on planes, and you can get up and move around if you want.

Anyway, by late last season, the Bucs knew they had enough of Bryant and they would have shown the door even more quickly if they could have.

The Bengals then jumped on the wreckage. I know the saying is supposed to be “you get what you pay for.’’ In this case, though, I think the Bengals paid for what they got – a receiver with creaky knees and a bad attitude.