NFC South: Aqib Talib

Greg Schiano never fit with Buccaneers

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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TAMPA, Fla. -- In the final analysis, Greg Schiano was fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the exact same reason he was hired.

He was an unbending disciplinarian who was never going to be loved by his players. He was as opposite as you can get from his predecessor, Raheem Morris, and that's why the Glazer family, which owns the team, lured Schiano away from Rutgers less than two years ago.

With three more seasons left on his contract, the Glazers showed Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik the door on Monday. The Bucs went 11-21 in Schiano's two seasons. The on-field results weren't flattering, but the off-field stuff was even more of a calamity.

Quite simply, the Glazers made a big mistake when they hired Schiano. There was no question Morris had to go and the Bucs needed to run a tighter ship. But the Bucs went overboard and brought in a steel barge that ended up sinking very quickly.

The Bucs went from one extreme to another instead of settling for something in the middle. They went with a coach who operated like he still was in college. Schiano came in and took control of everything, from the way practices were structured to the thermostat setting at One Buccaneer Place.

I had no problem with him running off Aqib Talib, LeGarrette Blount and Kellen Winslow. Those three were talented, but more trouble than they were worth. Their departures sent a message to the rest of the team that nobody was sacred. Had it ended there, Schiano might have been all right.

But it didn't end there. Schiano went too far in trying to control everything and everyone in the building, and it backfired on him. The strongest example came in the person of Josh Freeman, who once was viewed as the franchise quarterback.

There are two sides to every story, and Freeman had his flaws -- including an inability to find a functioning alarm clock -- but I think this situation could have been handled a lot differently.

Freeman was talented and a good guy. But he was a unique personality. He was laid back and cool, two traits that Schiano doesn't prefer in a quarterback. So Freeman and Schiano clashed.

And they didn't just clash. They did it in spectacular fashion. As Freeman went from being the franchise quarterback to being released, bombshells came from both sides. The ugliest point came when it was reported that Freeman was in the league's drug-testing program.

Freeman's camp alleged that Schiano was the one who leaked that sensitive information. Schiano firmly denied he had any involvement. But the damage was done.

Even if it's not accurate, there's a point where perception becomes reality. If you were a player in Tampa Bay's locker room, you suddenly got the impression that even your confidential records could become public.

The soap-opera atmosphere of the past few months was more than a little ironic. Schiano was supposed to be the guy who brought much-needed order to the franchise. Instead, he went overboard on matters of control -- and that's why things spun out of control.

Buccaneers reach a new low point

November, 3, 2013
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played their best football game of the season Sunday.

Naturally, they still lost. Even die-hard Bucs fans could see this one coming from 3,000 miles away.

The Bucs lost 27-24 in overtime to the Seattle Seahawks. And this wasn’t anything close to a moral victory. Instead, it was a morale loss. The Bucs are 0-8 and this one was far worse than the previous seven put together.

As the Bucs fly back across the continent Sunday night, do you think morale could be any lower?

I don’t. The Bucs led 21-0 at one point in the first half and 24-7 early in the third quarter. They could have (temporarily) silenced all of their critics by beating one of the NFL’s best teams in one of the league’s toughest road stadiums. Fans even would have backed off coach Greg Schiano -- until his next loss.

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Greg Schiano
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsWould the Glazer family think about replacing Greg Schiano before the Bucanneers' Monday night game against the Dolphins?
But the Bucs blew that big lead in disastrous fashion and you have to wonder if ownership is thinking about replacing Schiano with an interim coach.

Perhaps you’ve noted that I’ve yet to call for Schiano’s firing. My logic has been two-fold. First, going with an interim coach never solves anything. Second, the general rule of thumb is that you don’t pull the plug until the players stop playing hard for the coach.

The effort still was there Sunday and that’s something that should be considered. But I’m starting to wonder if the Glazer family, which owns the team, might go ahead and fire Schiano at the midpoint of his second NFL season.

It wouldn’t even be a small surprise at this point. Schiano has lost 13 of his past 14 games. Those are the kind of embarrassing numbers that got predecessor Raheem Morris fired. And, before you go saying the Glazers will stick with Schiano because he has three years remaining on his contract, think about something else.

The Glazers don’t like losing money. But, more importantly, they care deeply about how they and the Bucs are perceived. More than anything, the Glazers hate to be embarrassed.

Schiano was brought in to do two things. First, he was supposed to change the culture of a locker room that had run amok under Morris. He accomplished that by getting rid of the likes of Aqib Talib, Kellen Winslow and LeGarrette Blount. Give Schiano credit for filling the locker room with Boy Scouts (and former Rutgers players).

But the other thing Schiano was hired to do was win. He clearly hasn’t done that. Just like he did in some early-season close losses, Schiano got conservative against Seattle. His staff also didn’t seem to make any successful halftime adjustments.

Could things really get worse if the Bucs fired Schiano and elevated special teams coach Dave Wannstedt to interim coach? Probably not. But things probably couldn’t get much worse.

The Bucs hit their lowest point in Seattle. They squandered a chance for Schiano to say, “Hey, look at what my system can do if it’s run right."

But that didn’t happen and the Glazers might be at a point where they need to make a big choice. Remember what I said about them not liking being embarrassed. I can’t emphasize that enough.

The next game on the schedule is a Monday night contest (Nov. 11) against the Miami Dolphins. It will be on national television in a sold-out stadium that rarely sells out.

The Glazers have to decide what’s worse -- going the interim route or run the risk of letting a national audience see Schiano get booed out of Raymond James Stadium.

W2W4: Saints at Patriots

October, 12, 2013
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The road just keeps getting tougher for the New Orleans Saints (5-0). After an impressive win at Chicago last week, now they’re back on the road Sunday against the New England Patriots (4-1). The Patriots are 31-3 at home since 2009, but the Saints have the NFL’s best road record over that same span (23-11). Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Michael DwyerSaints QB Drew Brees is looking to stay undefeated in matchups against the Patriots' Tom Brady.
Brees vs. Brady: Does this one need any explanation? Two of the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterbacks will go head to head for just the fourth time in their careers and the first time since 2009. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has been playing much better than New England’s Tom Brady so far this year – in large part because injuries have plagued the Patriots’ offensive weapons. Brady had a very uncharacteristic performance in last week’s 13-6 loss at Cincinnati (18-of-38, 197 yards, no touchdowns, one interception late in the fourth quarter).

But that’s just all the more incentive for Brady to bounce back at home in Gillette Stadium. And certainly nobody in Saints camp expects anything less from the future Hall of Famer.

Also, Brady’s probably not keeping score since he has more pressing concerns to address. But Brees is actually 3-0 lifetime in these duels, dating back to his days with the San Diego Chargers.

Graham in, Gronkowski out? It sounds like we might miss out on a showdown between the NFL’s two most dynamic tight ends, since New England’s Rob Gronkowski might not be ready to return yet from offseason back and forearm surgeries. Even if he does play, he’ll likely be limited. The Saints’ Jimmy Graham, meanwhile, has been the most dominant offensive player in the NFL this year, with a league-high 593 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Defenses have tried a little bit of everything against him, but it has barely slowed him down so far. He has four consecutive 100-yard games.

“Certainly, Jimmy Graham is as good as anybody we’ve seen all year or will see in the passing game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He is very athletic. He has great athletic ability down the field to come up with the ball. He is fast and quick and is a hard guy to match up to no matter who you put on him. If you put size on him, it’s hard to match up to his speed and quickness. If you put speed and quickness on him, it is hard to match up to his size.”

And, of course, if defenses focus too heavily on Graham, they’re liable to get burned by receiver Marques Colston or running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas in the passing game. The Saints offense is the biggest matchup headache in the league right now.

Talib on a tear: One outside-the-box possibility for the Patriots would be using physical corner Aqib Talib to help defend Graham at times. Talib (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) has been outstanding this year – arguably the Patriots’ best player. He has four interceptions and eight pass break-ups. And the Patriots have used him to shadow opponents’ top receivers more than they’ve done in the past.

The Saints are well aware of the challenges Talib can present since he began his career with the division-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But this is probably the best the 27-year-old has played in his career.

“Aqib is someone who has excellent ball skills,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He is long, so he gets his hands on a lot of passes. You really have to be on target with where you are throwing his way. He also has very good recovery speed and so he can make up a step.

“He is playing at an elite level right now.”

Getting to Brady: Brady took a beating in last week’s loss at Cincinnati, getting sacked four times and hit several more times. That’s unusual since Brady has been one of the NFL’s least-sacked quarterbacks throughout his career, and because New England still has a healthy, veteran offensive line in place. The Saints defense, meanwhile, has done an outstanding job of pressuring the quarterback this year. The four-man front has been great, led by young breakout rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Creative defensive coordinator Rob Ryan also threw some unexpected blitzes at the Bears last week that led to three sacks.

“I think Tom Brady’s a hard sack,” Galette said. “He just knows, he can feel the pressure. He’s real good in the pocket like Drew is. Just get rid of the ball in time. So they haven’t really been giving up too many sacks. We’ll have to find a way to get there.”
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The New England Patriots are coming off their first loss of the season, and questions are mounting about the team’s revamped offense. There are no such questions right now for the New Orleans Saints, who are 5-0 and have looked like one of the NFL’s best teams.

That sets the stage for Sunday's highly anticipated matchup between these teams at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

“They’re a good solid football team all the way around. They’ve been impressive,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Saints. “We’re going to have to play a good 60-minute football game on Sunday; that’s what it is going to take.”

In some ways, the Patriots will see a mirror image of themselves when looking at the Saints.

“I’ve said this before, when we started in 2006, we tried to look closely at the franchises that were having a lot of success and study closely what they were doing. New England was one of the main ones we looked at,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “These guys have been to five Super Bowls and won three [under Belichick]. That is pretty amazing.”

Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break it down:

Reiss: Let’s start at the top with this one, Mike, and focus on the coaches. Patriots followers know they have one of the best coaches in the history of the game. Now in his 14th season, Belichick has the Patriots consistently contending. For the Saints, what stands out from here is what a difference it’s been to have Payton back on the sideline this season. What is it about Payton that makes him one of the NFL’s best coaches, and how has this turnaround from last year’s disappointment unfolded?

Triplett: You’re right to start there. It’s remarkable how much of an impact Payton’s return (and his absence last year) has made on this team. Earlier this season, I would've answer that question by talking more about intangibles. Having Payton in charge clearly gives the Saints a confidence and puts them in a comfort zone that was lost last year. I think that helped them win two early games that came down to the wire. But lately, it’s Payton’s offensive genius that has been making the biggest impact. He’s always stood out as arguably the best schemer and playcaller in the NFL. And that’s been on full display the past two weeks – first when the Saints picked apart the Miami Dolphins at home on a Monday night, then when they won last week at Chicago with a patient, ball-control game plan. Giving Payton toys like Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in recent years – not to mention quarterback Drew Brees – has been almost unfair to the rest of the league.

Since we’re on the subject, can you try telling me, in this brief format, what makes Belichick special? The Patriots seem to keep winning even while switching out 50 players on their roster over the years. I know that’s something the Saints have always admired and tried to emulate.

Reiss: Mike, I think the foundation of Belichick’s success has been what we remember from the start of Super Bowl XXXVI, in the Superdome, prior to the Patriots’ upset victory over the Rams in the 2001 season. The Patriots were introduced as a team before that game, as we all remember. There are obviously a lot of reasons for Belichick’s success, and books have been written about it, so it’s nearly impossible to narrow it down in a few sentences. But that’s where I’d start – the focus on the complete team in a salary-cap era that makes it hard to remain competitive year in, year out. There are many layers to that, and it obviously helps to have a quarterback like Tom Brady, but Belichick is also a teacher at heart. So team-first, where the 53rd player has a similar level of importance as a player in the 1-10 range. Then the fact he's a teacher with an incredible knowledge of football.

This week, there has been plenty of teaching as it relates to how they might be able to slow down the Saints’ offense. What has been the most effective approach you’ve seen teams employ against Graham and Sproles?

Triplett: There haven’t been many effective approaches against Graham. The Chicago Bears last week followed the formula that has worked best against the Saints over the years – a lot of Cover 2 zone defense that forced the Saints to settle for checkdown passes. But the Saints did a better job than I can ever remember of staying patient, settling for those short throws and avoiding turnovers. And Brees still completed 10 passes for 135 yards to Graham. Tampa Bay’s defense rattled the Saints in Week 2 by hitting Brees a lot with a good rush from their front four. But Graham still caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. And if a team wants to totally take Graham away, like Miami did in Week 4, the Saints are happy to exploit that, too. Sproles had seven catches for 114 yards in that game before Graham caught a single pass. And Graham still finished with four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

So how do you think the Patriots might approach it? They do have a better defense than most of the ones the Saints have faced this season.

Reiss: In a flip of the script that we had mostly seen from 2007 to 2012, the Patriots’ defense is carrying the team right now. The Patriots rank second in the NFL in points allowed per game (14.0 avg.), and that includes a Week 1 touchdown the Bills scored on a long fumble return. The key, from this view, has been the Pro Bowl-level play of cornerback Aqib Talib. As for this specific matchup, I’ve wondered about the possibility of Talib on Graham, similar to how we saw him almost exclusively cover Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson (Week 3) and Bengals receiver A.J. Green (Week 5). Usually you don’t see a cornerback matched up against a tight end, but maybe that outside-the-box thought is something the Patriots consider this week. Regardless, I expect the Patriots to be in their sub defense for most of this game. Their big linebackers don’t look like a good matchup against Sproles, so it’s imperative to get more speed on the field. I could see their top draft choice, speedy and athletic linebacker Jamie Collins, used more this week with Sproles in mind.

Speaking of defense, tell us more about how the Saints are getting it done on that side of the ball.

Triplett: Obviously a ton of credit goes to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He’s been pushing all the right buttons as a schemer and a motivator. Players have loved playing for him for both reasons. It’s reminiscent of the years when Gregg Williams was here, when they played with a ton of confidence. And he mixes up formations quite a bit – blitzing on occasion, but also rushing only two or three guys at times. Last week he caught the Bears off-guard early with some blitzes he hadn’t shown much yet. Just as key, though, has been the emergence of young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Jordan is a power-rushing 3-4 end, and Galette a speed-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker. But they’ve mostly lined up on the edges of a four-man rush. When teams can count on their four-man front as much as the Saints have this season, any scheme will be successful. The talent in the secondary is also solid across the board, especially now that they added veteran corner Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.

So what will they be facing in Brady this week? I know he hasn’t looked like himself at times, but I’m still expecting him to hold his own in this high-profile duel with Brees.

Reiss: The Saints will see a frustrated Brady, and that’s often a dangerous Brady. The Patriots scored just six points in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, and Brady’s streak of 52 straight games with at least one touchdown pass was snapped. That had a Saints tie-in, of course, as Brees holds the record at 54 straight games. Brady is obviously still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and is as competitive as they come. I’m sure he’s aware that in three previous games in which he’s squared off against teams led by Brees, he’s 0-3. Brees has thrown eight touchdowns in those games, compared with three for Brady. Furthermore, Brady has thrown three interceptions in those games, while Brees hasn’t thrown a single pick. Obviously, the quarterbacks don’t face off against each other, but knowing Brady’s competitiveness that still doesn’t sit well with him. Expect his best, and the potential return of tight end Rob Gronkowski would obviously help.

I was curious about your thoughts on how the Saints might look different, if at all, when playing outdoors. Obviously they are awfully tough in the Superdome, but last week’s game in Chicago didn’t seem to affect them.

Triplett: The Saints have definitely had a few off-days outdoors over the years, especially in colder weather or rain (playoff losses at Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco come to mind). They’ve had a lot of good days in those elements, too, though. They have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (23-11, one more win than the Patriots). And they’ve got two outdoor wins this season (the Chicago game and an ugly 16-14 win on a rainy day at Tampa Bay). So I don’t think it will be some sort of mental hurdle, and it’s not like they’re lost when they’re outside of the Superdome. But it will certainly be a hurdle they have to overcome. They’re definitely even more dangerous at home.

I was stunned to see how dominant New England has been at home, by the way (31-3 since 2009). Brees rattled off that statistic Wednesday – obviously it’s one that’s been drilled into players this week. What makes the Patriots so good at home?

Reiss: When I think of decisive home-field advantages, with the crowd truly dictating aspects of the game such as false-start penalties, I wouldn’t put Gillette Stadium in the same category as a place like Seattle. But like you said, home has been good to the Patriots, and I think the comforts of being in that environment, coupled with having good teams, getting better as the weather gets colder, acing critical situations and playing in a division where the other three teams have fallen on some hard times in recent years has contributed to that as well. I’m guessing that Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who grew up in nearby Medway, Mass., might agree with the thought that Sunday has all the elements for what can make this a special time of year in New England for fans of the game: crisp but comfortable fall weather and two talented, well-coached teams playing at a high level going head-to-head. I’m excited for it, Mike. What about the matchup are you most looking forward to?

Triplett: Easy. Brees vs. Brady. I’m sure I could give a more “under the radar” answer. But watching two of the best quarterbacks of all time going head-to-head is as good as it gets. And I think both of them will be fired up for this one for different reasons. Should be an intense fourth quarter.

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It's getting uglier for Buccaneers

September, 22, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This time, it was not some last-second loss. This time, the bulk of the blame cannot fall on Josh Freeman.

This time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers simply played a horrible game and showed that, contrary to popular belief, Freeman isn’t the root of all their troubles.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJosh Freeman and the Buccaneers are now 0-3 after falling to the Patriots 23-3.
Sunday’s 23-3 loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium showed the 0-3 Bucs have major problems in many areas. Their season already has been a soap opera with reports that Freeman and coach Greg Schiano don’t get along and that some prominent players don’t like Schiano’s militaristic approach.

Now, there’s material for many more episodes of the soap opera.

Start with kicker Rian Lindell, who set the tone for the day by missing a 38-yard field goal on Tampa Bay’s first drive. Lindell also missed a field goal in last week’s loss to the New Orleans Saints and you have to wonder if his shakiness was why Schiano decided not to go for it, rather than attempt a long field goal, twice in the first half.

Don’t be surprised if the Bucs have a new kicker next week. Some new receivers also might be a good idea. There receivers failed to catch four very catchable balls. The biggest drop came on Tampa Bay’s second drive -- when Freeman had the team moving better than it has all season -- as a pass in the end zone went off tight end Tim Wright's hands and the Bucs had to settle for a field goal.

“The plays you have control over, you have to make," Schiano said. “When you have a situation that you’re in control of and you don’t make it, then you’re living on borrowed time.’’

Tampa Bay’s time to win the game disappeared in the second quarter. That’s when Tom Brady and his young receivers started clicking and that’s when Tampa Bay’s defense showed some holes.

“You can’t pinpoint any one thing,’’ defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “The defense, we gave up 23 points. If we hold them to zero, we win, 3-0. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.’’

Holding the Patriots to zero points would be a major accomplishment for any defense. You cannot pin this one on the defense, just like you cannot pin it all on Freeman, who completed 19-of-41 passes for 236 yards.

Freeman is not completely blameless. He did throw an interception to former Buccaneer Aqib Talib late in the second quarter to set up a field goal that helped the Patriots to a 17-3 halftime lead.

Throw in an offensive game plan, some play calling that was questionable, and a rib injury that kept top receiver Vincent Jackson out of the game for most of the second half and the Bucs seem to have all the elements of disarray.

“We’ve got to get better,’’ Schiano said. “There’s no magic pill."

It’s hard to look at the Bucs and see this season suddenly turning around. The first two losses were close. This one wasn’t and it looks like things are only getting worse for the Buccaneers.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 23-3 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

What it means: The Buccaneers are 0-3. If you thought the past two weeks were crazy around One Buccaneer Place, get ready for more of the same. Quarterback Josh Freeman is under the microscope and there is a lot of room to question coach Greg Schiano, who has lost eight of his past nine games, dating back to last season. This loss was much worse than the previous two, which came by a combined three points. This time the Bucs were blown out by a team that didn’t have its full complement of receivers and tight ends. The Bucs have the look of a team in disarray, and it appears they're in for a long season.

History not on Bucs' side: Of the teams to start 0-3 since 1990, only 3 percent have made the playoffs.

Stock watch: Kicker Rian Lindell missed a 38-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter. That might have played a role in Schiano’s decision to go for it, rather than attempt a long field goal, on fourth down later in the second half. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs look for a new kicker this week.

Stock watch II: The Bucs had been holding a starting job as a carrot for defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. The coaches must have liked what they saw from Bowers in recent practices, because he got his first start of the season.

Talib’s revenge: New England cornerback (and former Buccaneer) Aqib Talib intercepted a Freeman pass with 47 seconds left in the first half, allowing the Patriots to kick a field goal to take a 17-3 lead into halftime.

Jackson out of action: Wide receiver Vincent Jackson left the game with a rib injury in the third quarter and did not return.

What’s next: The Bucs host the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday.
Doug Martin, Darrelle Revis and Josh FreemanGetty Images, AP Photo, USA TODAY SportsThree reasons Bucs fans can get excited: RB Doug Martin, CB Darrelle Revis and QB Josh Freeman.

TAMPA, Fla. – Of all places, the answer to a question I’d been pondering about four years came in a casual conversation over Memorial Day weekend.

Since about 2009, I’ve been wondering why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had trouble drawing big crowds to Raymond James Stadium and why there seems to be so much indifference about a franchise that used to be the darling of the region.

For four years, we have tossed out theories here that pointed at the team’s on-field performance, the economy and the transient nature of Florida. I have no doubt that all of those are contributing factors. But, all the while, I believed there was something more, something deeper, to the equation.

I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then, by chance, I ran into an old friend at a charity event Sunday. With one sentence, he started to put it all into perspective.

"I hope this is the year I can fall back in love with the Bucs," he said.

This is a guy who was as much of a die-hard Bucs fan as you could find when I lived here back in the late 1990s. Heck, he even sang the national anthem before a game and called it the proudest moment of his life.

So how, I asked, did he fall out of love with the Bucs?

His answer set off bells. He said that, in the 1970s and '80s, the Bucs were new and, no matter how bad they often were, he had to love them. Then, coach Tony Dungy came along in the mid-1990s and started winning games and, in the words of my friend, became part of "the fabric of the community."

Dungy left, but many of his players stayed and helped Jon Gruden win a Super Bowl, and things remained rosy for a while. But sometime toward the end of the Gruden era, my friend said, the Bucs stopped being lovable.

He has a point. For the past few years, the Bucs have been bland -- on and off the field. The team has lacked star power and hasn’t won a playoff game since it won the Super Bowl more than a decade ago. Even general manager Mark Dominik said soon after coach Greg Schiano was hired last year that one of the franchise’s goals was to give the fan base a team it could love again.

Maybe my friend and a lot of other disenchanted Bucs fans are about to get their wish. They’re far from a finished product, but I look at the Bucs and I see a lot of ingredients fans can fall in love with.

They can’t bring back Dungy, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Mike Alstott, but maybe the Bucs already have some parts in place that soon will be embraced all around Tampa Bay.

I see six prime candidates who could bring back the magic:

Doug Martin: The running back had a spectacular rookie season and should only be better with guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph at full health. Back in the day, Alstott, Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams were all runners who were loved by Tampa Bay fans. Each of them had some great moments. But, when I look at Martin, I see a guy who could be better than any of them on the field. I also see a guy with a magnetic personality and a great nickname ("The Muscle Hamster"). This region is waiting for a superstar, and I think Martin, partly because he plays an offensive skill position and partly because he has some charisma, is the first in line to fill that role.

Gerald McCoy: Now that I think more about this concept of falling out of love with the Bucs, I think McCoy’s biggest curse might have been that he came along at the worst possible time. Drafted third overall in 2010 and possessing a big personality, the defensive tackle instantly would have been loved under ordinary circumstances. But McCoy arrived at a time when fans were suspicious about everything involving the Bucs. He started his career under a microscope, and it didn’t help when injuries interrupted his first two seasons. There was talk of McCoy being a "bust." But he put a Pro Bowl season on the table last year, and maybe it’s time for fans to stop doubting and start accepting McCoy.

Darrelle Revis: When the Bucs traded for Revis before the draft, I was surprised by the reaction around town because it usually started with something like, "That’s a lot to give up for a guy with a bad knee." Yeah, it’s true that Revis is coming off major knee surgery. But the Bucs wouldn’t have made the trade or handed Revis a huge new contract if their medical people weren’t pretty certain the knee will be fine. If it is, the Bucs will have the best cornerback in football and perhaps the biggest superstar this franchise has ever had. When a cloud has been hanging over your favorite team for a long time, it’s tough to envision a best-case scenario. But maybe that’s what the Bucs got with Revis.

Lavonte David: At least with David, some fans started looking past the clouds last year. As a rookie, David drew some comparisons to Brooks. He stepped right, made plays and quickly was running the defense. Aside from Lee Roy Selmon, Brooks might be the most loved Tampa Bay player ever. If David ends up being even anything close to what Brooks was in the long term, the Bucs have a keeper.

Josh Freeman: Coming off a season in which he set numerous franchise records, Freeman still is a question mark in the eyes of fans and, apparently, his coach. That’s somewhat understandable because there were a few times when Freeman was really bad last year. Still, there were enough good moments last year, and throughout his career, that fans should be able to look at the potential and see the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay never has had. Can he firmly claim that role? That last part is up to Freeman. Schiano has danced around his feelings about Freeman, and he drafted quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round. If your coach isn’t sold on the quarterback, how can you expect your fans to be? If Freeman can put it all together this season, though, he’ll get a big new contract and everything will be fine in Tampa Bay.

Schiano: The sense I get is that fans don’t run hot or cold when it comes to Schiano because the coach remains a mystery. I’m still not sure that Schiano’s collegiate style will succeed in the NFL, but I’ve seen some encouraging signs. Like Dungy, Schiano doesn’t want guys who don’t fit his no-nonsense style (see Kellen Winslow, Aqib Talib and LeGarrette Blount). But Schiano doesn’t need to be exactly like Dungy. He just needs to deliver wins, and fans will warm to him. They’ll also fall back in love with the Bucs.
ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss reached out to me this morning for a post he was doing on former Tampa Bay and current New England running back LeGarrette Blount. You can read the full product here.

Belichick
Schiano
But the last question Reiss asked me brought up a point that’s worthy of a post here. Reiss asked for my thoughts on the close relationship between New England coach Bill Belichick and Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano.

The following is my answer to Reiss:

“It's pretty fascinating to watch. Coming into the NFL, Schiano talked about how much he respected Belichick and viewed him as his mentor. Turns out, that wasn't just lip service. The admiration seems to run both ways, with Belichick bringing in so many former Rutgers players. I know some of Tampa Bay's coaches were scheduled to meet with New England's staff this week. Supposedly, the purpose was to plan out joint practices during the preseason.

“But, given the relationship of the two head coaches, you have to wonder if this meeting also is a bit of 'think tank.' The AFC East and NFC South teams play each other this year. Belichick isn't going to give Schiano a blueprint of how to beat the Patriots. But it would help Belichick if Schiano and the Bucs can give the Jets, Dolphins and Bills a loss. And it would help Schiano if Belichick and the Patriots can knock off the Falcons, Saints and Panthers.’’

I then played a little quid pro quo and asked Reiss for his thoughts on the relationship between Belichick and Schiano.

“The Belichick-Schiano dynamic reminds me a little bit of Belichick's previous connection with Florida coach Urban Meyer,’’ Reiss said. “Over the years, Belichick has had a few known allies -- Meyer, Nick Saban etc. -- that are 'go-to' guys for him and whose opinions and trust trump most everything else. Schiano is definitely in that category.

“My opinion is that part of it is that Belichick's son, Steven, played for Schiano at Rutgers, which obviously hits close to home, and so Belichick got a real up-close view of how things were done at Rutgers. What he saw was pretty much reflective of how he tries to run his own program. Belichick has said as much, most recently noting that the team's three Rutgers draft picks are probably as ready for the NFL as any prospect in the draft.

“I'm sure there is more to it than that, and in the end, it comes down to trust. I'm not sure Belichick would have traded for Aqib Talib last year if Schiano wasn't on the other end of the trade, giving him information that he felt was genuine and accurate. Ditto for this year's trade for running back LeGarrette Blount. I'm also surprised that the teams are probably going to hold joint practices this preseason (mid-August) because they will be playing a game that counts about one month later. I think that also speaks to how strongly Belichick feels about Schiano.’’
We conclude our look at which picks each team holds in the 2013 draft with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
  • First round: No. 13
  • Second round: No. 43
  • Third round: No. 73
  • Fourth round: No. 112 and No. 126 (acquired from New England in Aqib Talib trade)
  • Fifth round: No. 147
  • Sixth round: No. 181 and No. 196 (acquired in trade of Arrelious Benn)
  • Seventh round: No pick (was sent to Philadelphia as part of Benn trade)
Darrelle RevisThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesCornerback Darrelle Revis certainly has the star power that would get Bucs fans fired up.
While seemingly every NFL team is denying interest in New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, there is one team that should be going after him.

I say put Revis Island on Davis Islands.

That’s the tandem of islands in the shadows of downtown Tampa, Fla., and just down the road from Raymond James Stadium. It’s on those islands that New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter built a mansion, and he could use some company.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also could use a shutdown corner.

Revis and the Bucs would be a perfect match on every level. Other teams are citing the cost of a trade and the salary cap as reasons why they don’t want the guy who might be the best cornerback of his generation. But none of those excuses works for the Bucs.

In fact, the things that work against those other teams work for the Bucs.

Let’s start with the price of getting Revis and keeping him for the long term. It will probably take a couple of draft picks to pry Revis from the Jets. The Bucs have some flexibility there because they have an extra fourth-round pick this year. Even if the Bucs had to give up this year’s first-round pick (No. 13 overall) as part of the package, so what?

They’re not going to find a better cornerback than Revis in the middle of the first round.

Then, there’s also the realistic fear that trading for Revis would be only a one-year solution because he’s heading into the final season of his contract. But the Bucs are in a unique spot there. They are more than $32 million under this year’s salary cap and have plenty of cap room in upcoming years.

They could trade for Revis, immediately sign him to a huge extension and still have plenty of cap room to work with now and in the future.

But the Bucs have more than just the means to get Revis. They have a glaring need.

Did you happen to catch Tampa Bay’s secondary last season?

The Bucs were so bad they allowed more passing yards than the New Orleans Saints, which is saying a lot. The Bucs were so bad that they had the league’s top-ranked run defense but still managed to finish No. 31 in total defense.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Matt Stamey/USA TODAY SportsYoung Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron could benefit in a big way if the Bucs managed to acquire star CB Darrelle Revis.
In the process, they traded away their top cornerback, Aqib Talib, mainly because he was a perpetual headache. Eric Wright, the free agent they signed to a big contract last year, didn’t really work out. He ended up getting suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. That suspension voided his guaranteed base salary for this year, and the Bucs may end up releasing Wright.

This is a team that can’t afford to go into next season counting on Leonard Johnson and E.J. Biggers as anything more than role players. This is a team that needs a big-time cornerback, and those don’t come any bigger than Revis.

He instantly would make the Bucs better, and that would be a huge plus for a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season. Put Revis with second-year safety Mark Barron and add another cornerback and a safety behind a front seven that has some talent, and Tampa Bay’s defense suddenly could become very good.

There were hints last season that the offense could be pretty good. Get a little more consistency out of quarterback Josh Freeman, let Revis bolster the defense, and Tampa Bay could be in the playoff hunt.

That brings us to another point. The Bucs need to win and they also need to excite a fan base that hasn’t had a lot to be excited about in recent years.

Winning can cure a lot of that, but so can an injection of charisma. Revis has charisma. He trademarked the "Revis Island" name and he has star power.

That’s something the Bucs desperately need as they try to get fans into a stadium that rarely has sold out in recent years.

The arrival of running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson gave the Bucs some star power last year. But, still, Tampa might be the rarest of NFL markets.

Hockey’s Steven Stamkos and baseball’s Evan Longoria might be more popular in Tampa than any of the Bucs. Jeter might even be Tampa’s most famous resident from the sports world, and he plays his home games more than 1,000 miles away, not far from where Revis has spent his NFL career.

But maybe it’s time for the Bucs to step up and take Revis out of New York. If they do, they can give themselves a true superstar, fill their stadium and maybe turn into a playoff team.
In their Insider Offseason Playbook seriesInsider, Gary Horton and Field Yates propose a solution for Carolina’s problems in the defensive backfield.

They suggest the Panthers go out and sign free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib.

On the surface, that may sound like a big stretch. The Panthers don’t have much salary-cap room and Talib’s checkered past usually isn’t the kind of thing owner Jerry Richardson likes.

But this one is intriguing because it could fill a very big need. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is expected to be a salary-cap casualty. That would leave the Panthers very thin at cornerback and there’s no guarantee they can land an impact cornerback in the middle of the first round of the draft.

Despite his off-field issues, there’s no denying Talib is a talent. He might be an instant upgrade over Gamble and he’s way better than any other cornerback the Panthers have. The cap is an issue. But the Panthers should be able to restructure some contracts to create cap room for Talib -- if they really want him.

Current, for now, 2013 draft order

February, 21, 2013
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Here is the current draft order -- as it stands for now -- at the scouting combine Thursday.

Things will change some in March because compensatory picks will be given out in then and that will impact things from the end of the third round onward. But, as it stands right now, two NFC South teams will be drafting with short decks.

The New Orleans Saints ad Carolina Panthers each have only five picks. San Francisco holds Carolina’s third-round pick and Oakland holds its seventh-round choice.

The Saints had to forfeit their second-round draft pick as part of their punishment for their bounty program. Seattle holds New Orleans’ seventh-round pick.

Tampa Bay has a division-high eight draft picks. The Bucs hold an extra fourth-round choice, courtesy of New England and Aqib Talib.

Atlanta has one pick in each round.

Around the NFC South

February, 18, 2013
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Let's take a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Owner Arthur Blank put out a statement saying his intention remains to get a new stadium built in downtown Atlanta. That came several days after team president Rich McKay implied the team might look to the suburbs if a deal can’t be worked out in the city limits. But I think a move to the suburbs remains a back-burner option if a deal can’t be reached for a downtown stadium.

Daniel Cox has a great statistic. The Falcons were 11-2 last season against quarterbacks that have been to at least one Pro Bowl.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

In this radio interview, defensive tackle Chris Canty said he would give the Panthers a hometown discount if they want to sign him. Canty, who recently was released by the New York Giants, is a Charlotte native. The Panthers have a glaring need at defensive tackle, so there’s plenty of logic for a potential homecoming. But Canty might have to give the Panthers a huge discount to make this happen because they have very little salary-cap room.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The team has hired former Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar as its running backs coach. Bret Ingalls, who previously was the running backs coach, will now become the offensive line coach. Ingalls has plenty of past experience working with offensive lines.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Roy Cummings writes that maybe the Buccaneers should bring back Aqib Talib, the cornerback they traded away last season. Talib certainly is more talented than most of the cornerbacks that will be available in free agency. But I have a hard time seeing coach Greg Schiano bringing back a player with trouble in his past.

Around the NFC South

January, 18, 2013
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Time for a look at the top Friday morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Tight end Tony Gonzalez has been saying for months that he’s 95-percent certain he’ll retire after this season. He admitted that figure went up a couple of percentage points after getting the first playoff victory of his career. The implication is that Gonzalez would walk away if the Falcons win the Super Bowl, because he’d get a chance to go out on top. But Gonzalez still is playing at such a high level that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return for another year.

San Francisco’s Aldon Smith had a franchise-record 19.5 sacks this season. But he hasn’t produced a sack in the past four games. Still, the Falcons have to be aware of where he is on every play.

Mayor Kasim Reed continues to show his support for a new stadium for the Falcons.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Joseph Person reports the Panthers will choose their new offensive coordinator from a list of three finalists -- Pat Shurmur, Hue Jackson and Mike Shula. Nothing against Jackson or Shurmur, but I think Shula is the logical choice. He’s been the team’s quarterbacks coach the past two seasons. He knows the system installed by Rob Chudzinski, and he has a close relationship with quarterback Cam Newton.

Erik Spangberg has some details on the proposed deal between the Panthers and the City of Charlotte for funding for renovations for Bank of America Stadium. One thing that jumps out is that part of the deal would require the Panthers to make a commitment to stay in Charlotte for 10 years. But it would take the city 15 years to pay off the $125 million the Panthers are looking for.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes that there have been no winners and no losers in the Saints’ bounty scandal. He’s right. The latest, and perhaps final, example of that came Thursday when a federal judge dismissed linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Nobody won there either. Vilma lost his suit, but the judge had some harsh words for Goodell’s handling of the bounty case.

Jeff Duncan has a fine column on former New Orleans player Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS. But Gleason continues to fight to help others with the disease. His latest effort is to open a living facility for those with the disease.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Ira Kaufman has a feature on how cornerback Aqib Talib has fared well since his trade to New England. I know a lot of Tampa Bay fans think it was a mistake to trade away the team’s best cornerback at midseason, and the statistics of Tampa Bay’s pass defense certainly support that argument. But I still think the Bucs made the right move in unloading a player who had given them nothing but trouble and would have walked away as a free agent in March. At least the Bucs got a fourth-round draft pick for Talib.

NFC South award time

January, 3, 2013
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Doug Martin, Robert McClain, Drew BreesUSA TODAY SportsThe NFC South may not get a lot of recognition come awards time, but Tampa Bay's Dough Martin, Atlanta's Robert McClain and New Orleans' Drew Brees all deserve some attention.

Although we in the NFC South sometimes have an inferiority complex when it comes to recognition, there will be no shortage of it in what follows.

I already rolled out my All-NFC South team and named Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan the division’s Most Valuable Player. But let’s take this time to hand out some other awards for the 2012 season.

Comeback Player of the Year: I’m starting with this one because it’s probably my favorite story of the season. I’m going with Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. He probably won’t win the league-wide award because Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson are bigger names (there’s that NFC South inferiority complex again). But nobody came back from more than Davis. The guy tore his ACL three times. As far as anyone knows, no NFL player had ever come back from three torn ACLs -- until Davis did it. And he did more than come back and just play. He turned in a very solid season.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: This one is easy. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is the only choice. On the night they drafted him, coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about how Martin would be an all-purpose back. He was precisely that. He ran inside and outside, caught passes and made LeGarrette Blount disappear.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one is not quite as easy. I’m giving the nod to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, but only by a slight margin. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David also had an excellent first season, but Kuechly led the NFL in tackles, and Carolina’s defense was better than Tampa Bay’s.

Coach of the Year: Hmmm, I’ll go way out on a limb and take Atlanta’s Mike Smith. In a year when the other three teams went 7-9 and the Falcons went 13-3, Smith is the only option. Aside from throwing a challenge flag on a play that would have been automatically reviewed and trying to force the ball to Michael Turner too much, I can’t think of very many mistakes Smith made. Of course, the real test for Smith will be whether he can get the first postseason win of his career.

General Manager of the Year: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff wins in a landslide for the same reason Smith did. You just can’t argue with 13-3. Plus, I’ve got to give Dimitroff a lot of credit for not listening to public sentiment (that’s not a strong point for every general manager in this division) during the free-agency period. Fans were screaming for the Falcons to go after Mario Williams and other big-name free agents. Dimitroff didn’t listen and simply re-signed most of his own free agents. You can’t argue with the result.

Best free-agent signing: Receiver Vincent Jackson cost the Buccaneers a fortune, but he was worth every penny of it. Almost instantly, he became the best receiver the Buccaneers have ever had (yep, he edged out the likes of Alvin Harper, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green). He gave Tampa Bay a big-play threat, and he also made Mike Williams perhaps the best No. 2 receiver the Buccaneers have ever had.

Best trade: Dimitroff’s biggest move of the offseason was a trade to get Asante Samuel, even though there were rumblings the veteran cornerback was in steep decline. That turned out to be far from the truth. Samuel showed he has plenty left. More importantly, he has brought a swagger that Atlanta’s defense lacked in recent years.

Second-best trade: I know there is a segment of Tampa Bay fans that thought the midseason trade of Aqib Talib to New England was a horrible move. I understand that the Bucs' pass defense was bad and trading away your best cornerback isn’t going to provide immediate help in that department. But I think Dominik deserves kudos for looking at the big picture and for getting anything in return for Talib. Let’s be honest: Talib was nothing but a headache throughout his time in Tampa, and there was no way Schiano was going to want him around in 2013. Talib would have walked away in free agency, and the Bucs wouldn’t have had anything to show for him. The trade at least gave them a 2013 fourth-round pick.

Best release: A lot of people think Smith is too nice a guy. That’s mainly because the Atlanta coach genuinely is a nice guy. But that doesn’t mean he’s soft. Smith can be very firm when it’s in the best interest of his team, and that’s what happened at midseason when he and Dimitroff released defensive end Ray Edwards. Let’s not sell Edwards short and say he was a slouch. The 2011 free-agent signing was a tremendous slouch. He had lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann, and he was causing problems in the locker room. Instead of letting things fester and spread to other corners of the locker room, Smith simply told Edwards to hit the road.

Best defensive player on the worst defense in history: The New Orleans defense shouldn’t get too many accolades because it allowed more total yards than any defense in history. But middle linebacker Curtis Lofton deserves some praise. He came over from Atlanta, where he no longer was viewed as an every-down linebacker and showed that, at least for the Saints, he still was an every-down linebacker.

Best assistant coach: Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wins, although Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan got consideration. Koetter came in and did a better job than predecessor Mike Mularkey of letting Ryan go out and do the things he does best.

Best off-field tactic: Appeal anything and everything. That’s the approach New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma took throughout the entire bounty scandal. There were plenty of twists and turns, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who oversaw the final appeal, did not clear Vilma of wrongdoing (no matter what Saints fans think), but Tagliabue ultimately did vacate what was supposed to be a season-long suspension for Vilma.

Most underrated player: Robert McClain. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re not a Falcons fan. Even Atlanta fans had no idea who McClain was until Brent Grimes went down with a season-ending injury. McClain stepped up and gave Atlanta quality play as the No. 3 cornerback and sometimes even as the No. 2 cornerback. For the record, McClain was a seventh-round draft pick by Carolina in 2010 and spent some of 2011 in Jacksonville. He probably will be sticking around Atlanta for a long time.

Best performance by a guy that had a "down" season: Drew Brees might be the only guy in the world who can go out and throw for 5,000 yards and have people still think he had a bad season. Brees wasn’t horrible. But when you’ve been almost flawless for several seasons, anything less is viewed as an off year.

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