NFC South: Monte Kiffin

W2W4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0) and Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0) open the preseason Friday night at Everbank Stadium.

Three things to watch:

1. Tampa Bay’s offensive line: This is the biggest area of question for the Bucs. They overhauled the offensive line in the offseason, but some uncertainty remains. The Bucs will use the preseason games to determine who ends up starting at the two guard spots. Jamon Meredith, Patrick Omameh, Oneil Cousins and rookie Kadeem Edwards are candidates to start. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith, left tackle Anthony Collins and right tackle Demar Dotson are set as starters, but the Bucs need two guards to step up and claim jobs.

2. Josh McCown: The veteran quarterback probably will only play about a quarter, but this is his first action as a member of the Buccaneers. McCown was handed the starting job when he signed as a free agent and he has looked solid throughout training camp. McCown looked sharp for Chicago last season when he was filling in for an injured Jay Cutler. If McCown can be as efficient as he was last season, the Bucs will be in good shape.

3. The return of the Tampa 2 defense: That is the defense that was made famous in Tampa Bay by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin back in the 1990s. The Bucs got away from the Tampa 2 when Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano were the head coaches. But Lovie Smith, an assistant on Dungy’s original staff, is a big believer in the Tampa 2 and has brought it back to the Bucs.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at the stat sheet from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 27-6 victory against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

It will show you that the Bucs had seven sacks, four interceptions, nine tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries. It will show you that the Bucs played a dominant defensive game.

It might even have made you flash back to the Tony Dungy or Jon Gruden years, when Monte Kiffin still was running the defense. But this wasn't Dungy, Gruden or Kiffin football.

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Greg Schiano
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackGreg Schiano said the Bucs "invented ways to lose some games" early in the season. They've now won four of five.
This, believe it or not, is what Greg Schiano football is supposed to be like.

"This game is really what the Bucs are about," rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks said.

Maybe, without knowing it, Tampa Bay fans would like to see a lot more Schiano-coached football games. Schiano is down to three games left to determine if he'll be back for a third season. When the Bucs were 0-8 at midseason, it seemed a certainty Schiano would be fired.

Now, and I'm just reading the tea leaves here, it seems like Schiano has at least a chance to stick around. He has won four of his past five games. Another win or two and maybe the Glazer family, which owns the team, will decide it wants to see more Schiano football.

By definition, Schiano football is supposed to be about playing aggressive defense, running the ball on offense and taking some deep shots in the passing game. The Bucs only had a few flashes of running and passing against the Bills, but the defense carried the day.

Go ahead and rain on the parade and point out that the Bills are pretty mediocre and this was a game the Bucs should have won. The difference is this is precisely the kind of game the Bucs would have lost early in the season. Why have things been going differently the second half of the season?

"I don't know if it's that much of a difference really," Schiano said. "I think we're finding ways to win the game. Against good football teams, we were in games and found ways to lose games. Literally, you look at it and you say we invented ways to lose some games."

There's no doubt about that. Just think about linebacker Lavonte David's late hit on Geno Smith in the season opener as one quick example. Maybe, in the end, the Glazers will decide that Schiano already has invented too many ways to lose.

Or maybe the Glazers, who also might factor in that Josh Freeman's repeated tardiness prompted his benching and eventual release, will keep their coach. For that to happen, the Bucs have to finish the season playing the way they did Sunday.

"We challenged each other, coaches and players alike, to really make sure that we had the details," Schiano said.

The Bucs host the 49ers next Sunday. Then they close the season by going on the road to St. Louis and New Orleans.

Play like they did against the Bills and the Bucs can finish this season with some positive momentum and, more importantly, some hope for the future.

"This week was just go play our game," safety Dashon Goldson said. "Make them one-dimensional. Stop the run and make them beat us with the pass and we knew we weren't going to do that."

The Bucs held Buffalo to 67 rushing yards and they harassed rookie quarterback EJ Manuel into a bunch of mistakes.

"I think it all comes down to making the quarterback just a little uncomfortable," Schiano said. "It's not always sacks. Sometimes it's just getting that hand in the quarterback's face so he has to alter his release just a little bit."

The Bucs did more than just make Manuel uncomfortable. They held the Bills to two field goals. And they got an 80-yard touchdown run from Bobby Rainey on the second play of the game and two touchdown passes from rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.

Rainey and Glennon didn't do much besides that. But each has had bright moments in recent weeks. Get Rainey and Glennon back to that and keep the defense playing the way it did against Buffalo, and Schiano's version of football could be enough for him to keep his job.
As Warren Sapp gets ready to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, I wish I could sit here and give you some warm and fuzzy story from my days covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for The Tampa Tribune.

But the warm and fuzzy stories will have to wait until next year when Derrick Brooks makes his way to Canton, Ohio.

Brooks was a dream to cover. Sapp was not.

[+] EnlargeWarren Sapp
AP Photo/Steve Nesius, FileWarren Sapp was voted to seven Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro for four straight seasons.
Don’t get me wrong. At times, Sapp could be engaging, insightful and funny. I have one hilarious memory of Sapp from the Pro Bowl after the 1997 season. Unfortunately, it can’t be told on a family blog. I have another memory of Sapp praising me for writing a controversial story, but I can’t share that one, either, because it was off the record.

I could sit here all day and tell you plenty of stories about how Sapp was vicious to the media. (And isn’t it ironic that he now is part of the media?) I’ve also heard numerous tales about how he was rude to fans.

But, love him or hate him, Sapp was one heck of a football player. Selection to the Hall of Fame isn’t based on personality or how someone carries himself, or else former Tampa Bay safety John Lynch would have gotten into the Hall of Fame long before Sapp.

I had to remind myself of the rules last winter before I walked into the room to take part in the Hall of Fame vote as an alternate. The bylaws say that on-field performance is the only qualification.

Once I digested that, the choice was easy and I knew I’d be voting for Sapp.

On the field, Sapp was a Hall of Famer. Without him, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin wouldn’t have been able to make the Tampa 2 defense famous. Sapp had rare athleticism for a man his size, and his ability to create havoc at the point of attack made life easier for every other player on the defense.

Sometimes, at the end of practice, Sapp would goof around and start doing other things. He’d punt the ball or run pass patterns. You got the feeling that if he wanted to reconfigure his body he had enough athleticism to be great at any position.

But Sapp made his name at defensive tackle. In fact, the NFL still is looking for the next Sapp.

That’s the mark of true greatness -- when you play a position better than anyone in the next generation. That -- and not personality -- is what defines a Hall of Famer.

It all started with Warren Sapp

February, 2, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – Derrick Brooks and Tony Dungy are going to be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

It’s only fitting that Warren Sapp will be there before them.

When you think about how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stopped being the “Yuccaneers," you have to start with Sapp.

Dungy and Brooks were crucial reasons why a team that had been losing for a generation suddenly started winning. They might have been even bigger parts than Sapp, who was elected to the Hall of Fame on Saturday in his first year of eligibility. But the defensive tackle was the first piece of a turnaround that eventually led to the franchise’s Super Bowl championship. Dungy didn’t come until 1996, and the winning didn’t start until a magical 1997 season that I was fortunate enough to cover for The Tampa Tribune.

Brooks came in 1995, but Sapp was drafted ahead of him on that same day. That’s when the turnaround really started.

As Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin arrived, Sapp quickly became a force on a defense that arguably became one of the best in history. Brooks was just as big a force as Sapp, and I’m confident the linebacker will get his due next year.

But everything about the legendary Tampa 2 defense that soon was copied around the league started with Sapp. He was the disruptive force in the middle that cleared the way for everything else.

Without Sapp, Dungy and Kiffin’s defense still might have been good, but it wouldn’t have been dominant. Without Sapp drawing so much attention from an offense, Brooks probably wouldn’t have been quite as good as he was. Without Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber might not be talked about as potential Hall of Famers.

All those guys played during a great era for Tampa Bay, and that’s a time period that is still remembered fondly in an age when the current Bucs are struggling for an identity of their own.

Maybe sometime soon the Bucs will get back to selling out their stadium once again. And maybe sometime soon the Bucs will be loved by the entire region the way they were in the glory days.

The irony is that Sapp was far from the most beloved player on that team. He was known for his boorish behavior with fans and the media.

Sapp still is a bit of a polarizing figure, even in Tampa Bay. Some people love him. Some people don’t.

Say whatever you want about Sapp. But come this summer, he will be forever known as a Hall of Famer.

NFC South afternoon update

January, 22, 2013
Time for a quick run through the afternoon headlines from around the division:


In this radio interview, cornerback Dunta Robinson said the Falcons had a special chemistry in their locker room. From everything I saw all season, he’s right. The Falcons appeared to be a very close-knit team and that helped them go 13-3 in the regular season. They need to try to keep most of that team together. But they obviously need to add a piece or two, if they’re ever going to win a Super Bowl.


Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he pretty much will keep the system run by predecessor Rob Chudzinski. That’s why I keep telling Carolina fans that point to Shula’s past to give him a chance. As the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay and the head coach at the University of Alabama, Shula never had anything close to what he has now with the likes of Cam Newton and Steve Smith. Shula had to be conservative in his previous stops, but he now has the talent to run a much more wide-open offense.


Now that coach Sean Payton has been reinstated from his suspension, interim coach Joe Vitt said he can forgive, but not forget what the Saints went through during the bounty scandal. It might be a good thing for Vitt and the Saints to not forget. They obviously did some things to prompt the sanctions and they can avoid making the same mistakes. They also can use a 7-9 season to motivate them to getting back to the playoffs.


Former Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said he’s happy to be back in the NFL (with the Dallas Cowboys) after a stint in the college ranks. I can’t help but think back to Kiffin’s departure from Tampa Bay and wonder how things would have worked out differently if he had never left. In the 2008 season, the Bucs were cruising along and ran their record to 9-3. That’s right about the time the news broke that Kiffin was going to leave after the season to be an assistant to his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee. The Bucs promptly lost the final four games of the season and coach Jon Gruden ended up getting fired. If Kiffin had stayed, I think there would have been a very good chance Gruden still would be coaching the Bucs.

Freeman, Bucs breaking new ground

November, 15, 2012

This really has been true for only five weeks, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the most exciting offense in franchise history and they have a true franchise quarterback for the first time.

Start thinking about the history of this franchise, because that’s a part of why I feel comfortable making those statements. We’ll run through that inglorious history in just a moment, but let’s start with the past five games.

In that stretch, Josh Freeman, who entered the season as a huge question mark, has established himself as a big-time quarterback. Rookie running back Doug Martin has become such a phenomenon that he finally might have shed that nickname he doesn’t like. And wide receiver Vincent Jackson has turned out to be worth every penny of that five-year, $55 million contract he signed back in March.

In each of the past five games, the Bucs have scored at least 28 points. When’s the last time that happened?


What’s happened in the past five games has vaulted the Bucs into the league lead in average yards per play (6.21). They’re averaging 28.9 points per game, which ranks them behind only New England (see Brady, Tom) and Denver (see Manning, Peyton). Speaking of Manning, he’s second in the league with an average of 8.20 yards per pass attempt. Freeman is No. 1 at 8.27.

Martin had a 251-yard, four-touchdown game at Oakland and has turned out to be the “all-purpose back” that coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about on the night they drafted him.

Jackson’s leading the league among players with at least 30 receptions by averaging 21.4 yards per reception. Heck, teammate Mike Williams is second at 18.3.

Heck, if this keeps up, we might be calling Freeman, Martin and Jackson “The Triplets,” the way Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin used to be referred to in their Dallas glory days. At times, some people got carried away and called the Cowboys’ stars “The Quadruplets” because they actually thought Alvin Harper was good.

That’s a perfect way to jump back into the history of offensive football and the Buccaneers. Harper was the receiver the Bucs signed in the mid-1990s to be their Irvin. Instead, the thing most Tampa Bay fans remember about him is that he got part of his finger sliced off in a training room accident.

For their entire existence, including the good years, the Bucs have been anywhere from dismal to mediocre on offense. They won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as their quarterback and Monte Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages. They won a lot of games and tasted their first sustained success under coach Tony Dungy ... with Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages.

At one point in the 1990s, Tampa Bay’s bread-and-butter offensive play was having Errict Rhett run into Mike Alstott’s back and fall as far forward as possible. They later upgraded and had Warrick Dunn run into Alstott’s back and actually make a cut or two.

Even back during the first rise to prominence (1979), Tampa Bay was much more defined by Lee Roy Selmon and the defense than it was by the offense and Doug Williams.

Speaking of Williams, he was the best quarterback in franchise history -- until Freeman’s emergence. Between them, the Bucs have trotted out the likes of Steve Young (before he became Steve Young in San Francisco), Vinny Testaverde, Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer, Shaun King, Brian Griese and Jeff Garcia.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin, Mike Williams, Vincent Smith
Matt Stamey/US PresswireA supporting cast that features receivers Mike Williams (19) and Vincent Jackson (83) and running back Doug Martin makes the Bucs' offense so fearsome.
Although Young, Testaverde and Dilfer had talent, they never had a chance in Tampa Bay because they didn’t have a supporting cast. Williams was easily the best quarterback in Tampa Bay history, but I’m not sure you can call him a franchise quarterback because his tenure lasted from 1978 until he left for the United States Football League in a contract squabble following the 1982 season.

Freeman’s not going to follow a similar route. He’s under contract through 2013, but, after what he has shown this season, I think it’s safe to say Freeman’s going to be around a lot longer than that. Sometime in the offseason, the Bucs almost certainly will give Freeman a big contract extension.

Freeman has bounced back from the disastrous final season of the Raheem Morris era. He’s turned out to be everything Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said he would be upon their arrival. Schiano and Sullivan said they wanted to build an offense that ran the ball consistently and they wanted to take some shots downfield in the passing game.

That formula’s working. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Freeman leads the league with 19 completions on throws of 20 yards or more. Jackson leads the NFL with 10 receptions on throws of 20 yards or more.

Mike Williams has revived a career that seemed to stall last year. The Bucs plucked receiver Tiquan Underwood off the scrap heap and he’s turning in big plays. Martin is making things happen in the running game and as a receiver, and the offense is clicking, despite the fact the Bucs are without injured Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph.

For the longest time, there was a joke in Tampa that the most exciting offense the region ever saw was the “Fun and Gun” orchestrated by Steve Spurrier and the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits, who, briefly, were more popular than the Bucs in the 1980s.

Those Bandits were wildly entertaining, but part of the reason they’re so fondly remembered is because the Bucs always were boring -- and usually bad -- on offense.

Until now.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Before he was even asked a question about his first pick as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Greg Schiano was painting a portrait that probably still is invisible to most Tampa Bay fans.

Schiano had just stunned his fan base -- and probably the rest of the world -- by taking Alabama safety Mark Barron at No. 7. A safety at No. 7? This guy had better be the second coming of Ronnie Lott and Ed Reed put together or, at very least, John Lynch Jr. You don’t take a safety at No. 7, and say you gladly would have taken him at No. 5, unless you think he’s special. Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik definitely thought Barron was special.

“I think he fits into what we do defensively perfectly,’’ Schiano said. “You couldn’t draw it up any better.’’

That probably doesn’t excite you, especially if you wanted the Bucs to stay put at No. 5 and draft LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. And I know there was a contingent of Tampa Bay fans who thought Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly would be a perfect fit after the Bucs traded out of No. 5 and Claiborne went to Dallas at No. 6.

Either of those would have fit the profile of what we’ve come to expect from the Buccaneers, stretching back to Tony Dungy, running through the Jon Gruden era (with Monte Kiffin as the bridge) and right through the ugly final days of Raheem Morris.

But here’s the thing: Those days are over. This is Schiano’s team now.

Unless you’re a die-hard Rutgers fan, you don’t have any clue what a Schiano team looks like. Even if all your Knights are scarlet, you might see some changes as Schiano adjusts to the NFL. He’s not about to publicly share his X's and O's, but he certainly has implied this team is going to look a lot different in a lot of ways. Believe it or not, that might start at safety because Barron is going to be tied to Schiano forever, for better or worse.

“I think our safeties have to be more dynamic than in most schemes,’’ Schiano said.

At 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, Barron is big enough to play in the box and make an impact on a run defense that needs improvement. With 12 career interceptions, Barron also has shown the ability to make plays in coverage.

“He needs to be able to do a lot of things, and he is capable of them,’’ Schiano said.

He’s going to have to cover wide receivers man to man, Schiano said. That’s a change from the days of Kiffin’s Cover 2, when safeties picked up wide receivers only after they got past the cornerbacks and Lynch often played the role of a linebacker. That may not be enough in an NFC South in which Drew Brees has thrown for 5,000 yards in a season and Cam Newton and Matt Ryan can put up big numbers. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s not just an NFC South trend. All around the league, teams are throwing the heck out of the ball.

“Safety has become an extremely important position now,’’ Dominik said.

More important than cornerback? Where the Bucs have Eric Wright, an aging Ronde Barber and a question mark in Aqib Talib?

Obviously, the Bucs think so. Dominik said the Bucs would have chosen Barron at No. 5 if they had stayed put. That means they would have chosen him over Claiborne, who was widely considered the best cornerback in this draft.

That’s a pretty strong statement from a team that has chosen only two defensive backs in the first round in its history and both of those were cornerbacks. There’s even a bit more pure football logic about this pick.

The Bucs had a big need at safety after releasing Tanard Jackson. They were left with Cody Grimm, a possible move to safety by Barber and not much else. Barron fills that need.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron and Jarrett Lee
Marvin Gentry/US Presswire"You couldn't draw it up any better," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of getting safety Mark Barron.
But I don’t think this pick was completely about X's and O's and pure football ability.

I think the selection of Barron was another sign that Schiano is going to do things much differently than in the past. Something obviously cooled the Bucs on Claiborne. Maybe it was that he reportedly had a low Wonderlic score or maybe it was something else.

Schiano said he and Dominik saw sparks the first time they watched film of Barron. By the time they interviewed him at the combine, there was a flame. As they talked about Barron, Schiano and Dominik both mentioned that he was a two-time captain for a team that won two national championships during his stint.

“He fits who we are and what we are,’’ Schiano said.

I get the impression Schiano cares a lot about what guys bring as players, but I’m getting an even stronger sense he cares about what they bring as people and how that can translate into winning. That’s sort of a new concept around here, at least since the Dungy days.

“He fits who we are and what we are,’’ Schiano said.

In other words, the Bucs think Barron can step right in and be a leader on a team that desperately lacked leadership and personality in the Morris days.

“Our coaches are excited to get their hands on him and mold him into a Buccaneer Man,’’ Dominik said.

We’ve heard the phrase “Buccaneer Man’’ a lot since Schiano took over. The problem is we have no idea what the new Buccaneer Man is supposed to be. But now we’re starting to get a bit of a portrait.

With Barron, there’s a face and maybe an outline of a body and a personality. Looks a little like a good athlete, a natural leader and a guy who was asking if there was a way to get his hands on a playbook Thursday night, even though he’s scheduled to fly to Tampa first thing Friday morning.

Maybe the Barron pick doesn’t look so bad -- or blank -- after all.

Bucs' coaching puzzle coming together

February, 9, 2012
Although there’s been speculation from the day Greg Schiano became the head coach in Tampa Bay that Butch Davis would be joining his staff, that still hasn’t happened.

But it now appears imminent. Alex Marvez reports that Davis has been hired as a senior defensive assistant. Local reports say the deal hasn’t been completed, but appears likely.

If a deal with Davis is finalized, it likely would silence some of the criticism Schiano has taken because most of his reported hires so far have been his former Rutgers assistants — of whom few have any NFL experience.

But Davis has been a head coach in the NFL and on the college level. He also was defensive coordinator for Dallas during the Jimmy Johnson days. Davis was also the University of Miami head coach when Schiano was Hurricanes defensive coordinator and the two have remained close.

Although initial speculation was that Davis would be the defensive coordinator, it appears that won’t be the case. His role might be more as a liason between Schiano and a new defensive coordinator. The Bucs made a similar move when they hired Jimmy Raye II as a senior offensive assistant.

Neither coordinator is in place and one or both could come from the college ranks. But the presence of Davis and Raye, who has a long history as an NFL assistant, would bring a lot of NFL experience and respect to the staff of Schiano, who never has been an NFL head coach.

So what if Schiano’s bringing in a lot of Rutgers assistants? They’re guys he knows and with whom he has enjoyed success. Throw in the NFL experience of Davis and Raye and this could turn out to be a pretty good staff.

It almost certainly would be better than the staff of former coach Raheem Morris. After firing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and defensive coordinator Jim Bates early in his tenure, Morris’ staff was viewed as largely inexperienced and ineffective in league circles.

When Bates was fired, Morris, who had not officially been a defensive coordinator on the NFL level (he was selected to replace Monte Kiffin, but was elevated to head coach before he ever called a play as coordinator), took over as the defensive coordinator. When Jagodzinski was fired, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was quickly promoted and the trickle-down effect took a toll on the rest of the offensive staff.

If Schiano, who has history as a college defensive coordinator, surrounds himself with Davis and Raye and coordinators, the Bucs suddenly will be a lot stronger at the top of their coaching staff.

Around the NFC South

January, 11, 2012
Let's take a look at the top Wednesday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

Jacksonville’s hiring of Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as head coach probably means Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzkinski will be staying with the Panthers. Chudzinski also interviewed for the Jacksonville job. No other teams have asked permission to interview Chudzinski.

New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas is coming off one of the best games of his career. He had 121 all-around yards in the playoff victory against Detroit. Thomas, who was bothered by an ankle injury last year, said he’s healthy. The Saints have used Thomas in a rotation with Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory and all three running backs look fresh.

Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said that after facing the Falcons he agrees with teammate Justin Tuck who previously said the Atlanta offensive line plays dirty. Funny, but the Atlanta offensive line wasn’t slowing Pierre-Paul down in Sunday’s playoff game.

Atlanta has 20 potential unrestricted free agents and the list is heavy on defensive players. Defensive end John Abraham, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Brent Grimes are not under contract. I assume re-signing Lofton and Grimes will be at the top of Atlanta’s wish list. The Falcons have a fair amount of cap money and should be able to afford to keep both.

Marty Schottenheimer, who interviewed for Tampa Bay’s coaching job, said he’s intrigued by the young talent the Buccaneers have.

The Times-Picayune has its weekly graphic on Drew Brees’ passes. Take a look at what he did on deep passes against the Lions. I see only one incomplete pass.

Since the Bucs seem intent on going with an older coach, Charlie Campbell throws out a suggestion. He writes the Bucs should hire Monte Kiffin, who is the defensive coordinator at the University of Southern California. Kiffin hasn't been an NFL head coach. But he had a long run as Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator and was very popular with the fans.

One man could fix the Buccaneers

December, 8, 2011
Tony DungyJamie Squire/AllsportA return by Tony Dungy would reinvigorate a flagging Buccaneers fan base.
There is one man on the planet who could solve everything that is wrong with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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

His name is Tony Dungy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bucs' defensive woes by the numbers

December, 5, 2011
It’s become painfully obvious that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense no longer even resembles what it was back in the days of Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin.

Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some perspective.

The Bucs allowed 38 points to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. That marked just the fifth time since 1994, two years before the arrival of Dungy and Kiffin, that the Bucs have allowed that many points in a home game.

The Bucs have lost six straight following a 4-2 start. The defense obviously has been a big part of the reason for that. Since Week 7, the Bucs have allowed an average of 30.7 points. The only teams that have allowed more in that stretch are the Indianapolis Colts (32.5) and the Minnesota Vikings (30.8).

Unheralded Bucs have a lot to love

October, 1, 2011
Josh FreemanKim Klement/US PresswireJosh Freeman had reason to celebrate against Atlanta, but when will Bucs fans wholly celebrate him?
TAMPA, Fla. -- If you scoured the stands of Raymond James Stadium on any game day over the past few seasons, you would have seen more replica jerseys for guys like Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott, John Lynch and Warren Sapp than any of the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

If you looked in those same stands, you also would have seen a lot of empty seats. The past 10 regular-season home games (all eight last year and the first two this season) have not been sellouts.

Is this a fan base living in the past?

It’s not quite that simple. In fact, things are on the cusp of changing. When the Buccaneers host the Indianapolis Colts on "Monday Night Football," the game will be sold out. So an entire nation will have a chance to view the Buccaneers, who have been in the NFL’s version of the witness-protection program even in their own backyard.

The past 10 home games haven’t been shown on local television, and even fans who go to the games haven’t really had a chance to get to know the NFL’s youngest team (25.17 years was the average age of the opening-day roster) like they knew Brooks, Alstott, Lynch and Sapp.

“It’s a team I want our town to fall back in love with,’’ Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said.

The Bucs went 10-6 last season and are off to a 2-1 start this year, but the speed-dating process really could kick in with the national stage. Once fans really get a look at the Bucs, they could fall in love. Some fans don’t know it yet, but there’s a lot to like about the Bucs.

Let’s take a look:

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Raheem Morris
Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE"It's an opportunity to show everybody what they've been missing," coach Raheem Morris said of Tampa Bay's game on "Monday Night Football."
The understated franchise quarterback. Other than cornerback Ronde Barber, the lone holdover from the Jon Gruden/Tony Dungy era, Josh Freeman is the most-well-known Buccaneer. That’s simply because he’s the quarterback, but fans haven’t totally embraced him. They should, because he’s the first true franchise quarterback this team has had at least since Doug Williams, and you could debate whether Williams was around long enough to be considered a franchise quarterback.

Freeman’s physically gifted and already has shown a knack for leading fourth-quarter comebacks. He comes across as a bit shy and soft-spoken in group interviews. But when Freeman, 23, was leading players-only workouts during the lockout, you could easily spot rare leadership skills and more personality than he displays in public.

In the Atlanta game, Freeman stepped outside himself a bit, flapping his wings in what could be interpreted as an imitation of the Falcons’ “Dirty Bird’’ celebration.

“It was good to see him come out of his shell a little bit,’’ running back/fullback Earnest Graham said.

The gregarious head coach. Public displays of emotion aren’t lacking when it comes to Raheem Morris. The guy can talk, sometimes a little more than he should. With the possible exception of Rex Ryan, Morris might have the most entertaining news conferences of any NFL coach. But following Gruden -- who will be in the “Monday Night Football’’ broadcast booth -- and Dungy is not an easy task.

Gruden won a Super Bowl, and Dungy changed the direction of the franchise. Fans still aren’t quite sure what to make of Morris, who remains the league’s youngest head coach at 35. Morris has more public charm than Dungy and Gruden did as coaches. He just needs to keep winning.

The completely unknown portion of "the triplets." When the Bucs started winning last season, that’s the nickname (borrowed from when the Dallas Cowboys had Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith) that was given to Freeman, receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount. Williams and Blount were rookies last year, and both made good first impressions on the field. Williams instantly became Tampa Bay’s No. 1 receiver, and by midseason, Blount had replaced Cadillac Williams as the feature back. Still, there’s been a little apprehension from fans about both of them, and that goes back to their college days.

Blount is most famous for punching an opponent at the end of a game, and Williams was labeled as a "quitter" for leaving the Syracuse football team in his last year of college. But if you get to know them, you’ll see that labels can be deceiving. Williams is the anti-diva wide receiver. He comes across as quiet and humble.

Blount’s a punishing runner on the field, but is gentle off it. When he made his pre-draft visit to One Buccaneer Place, Blount ate his lunch and then went into the kitchen to thank every member of the staff. After last week’s victory in Atlanta, Blount sat in the locker room an hour after the game and told a staff member, "I don’t want to go home."

The big investments on the defensive line. In the past two years, the Bucs have used four draft picks in the first two rounds on defensive linemen. They brought in defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price last year and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers this year. We’re only starting to see what they can do. Price and McCoy both got hurt as rookies. They’re starting this year, along with Clayborn, and there’s a lot to like.

Price is quiet on the surface, but there’s a depth to him. He’s coming off a rare surgery in which doctors inserted screws into his pelvis, and he's showing signs he can really play. McCoy’s had a gregarious personality from the start, but we’re still waiting to see big results. Clayborn’s outgoing like McCoy and already has made some plays. If this unit can continue growing, the Bucs could have a very good defensive line for a long time.

The new “quarterback’’ of the defense. A lot of fans were upset in the offseason when the Bucs let middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, another holdover from the Gruden days, walk via free agency. They should start getting over that, because third-round draft pick Mason Foster is showing signs he can make more big plays than Ruud ever did. The Bucs were a little hesitant to put too much on Foster right away and started the season by letting outside linebacker Quincy Black wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays.

By his third career start, Foster had taken on those roles. It might not have been a coincidence that the Bucs went out and had their best defensive performance since the days when Monte Kiffin was running the defense for Gruden.

The Bucs once were beloved by their fans. There’s no reason they can’t be that way again. The parts are in place. The world just needs a chance to get to see and know them.

“It’s an opportunity to show everybody what they’ve been missing,’’ Morris said.

That chance comes Monday night.

Tampa Bay's young defense grows up

September, 25, 2011
Dekoda Watson and Gerald McCoyKim Klement/US PresswireBucs LB Dekoda Watson is congratulated by Gerald McCoy (93) after he sacked Falcons QB Matt Ryan.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Before he even took off his uniform and headed for the shower, Gerald McCoy went through the locker room, searching for a stat sheet.

When the Tampa Bay defensive tackle finally found one, his reaction came in one word.

“Wow,’’ McCoy said.

He then tapped fellow defensive tackle Frank Okam on the shoulder and pointed to one line. Sitting in his chair and taking off his shoes Okam looked at where McCoy’s finger was and elaborated.

“Thirty rushing yards?’’ Okam said. “We held them to 30 rushing yards? Wow.’’

What Tampa Bay’s defense did in Sunday’s 16-13 victory against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium was worth plenty of wows.

A defense that is incredibly young on the front seven shut down what many thought would be one of the league’s best offenses. The Bucs shut down a team that many considered a Super Bowl contender, but is now 1-2.

With rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster wearing the radio helmet and calling the defensive signals for the full game for the first time, a rookie (Adrian Clayborn) starting at defensive end and two second-year defensive tackles (McCoy and Brian Price) in the starting lineup, the Bucs turned in their best defensive performance since legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin left after the 2008 season.

Heck, you can go back a month further than that. The Tampa Bay defense started falling apart that November when word leaked out that Kiffin was leaving to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee. The Bucs lost their final four games that season and the defense hasn’t been very good since.

The Bucs couldn’t stop much of anything in a 3-13 season in 2009 and they rode the coattails of quarterback Josh Freeman and his last-minute miracles to 10 wins last season. But things changed in a big way Sunday.

The Bucs (2-1) played defense the way they did in the early 2000s or late 1990s, when Kiffin was running the show and guys like Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and John Lynch were making the big plays.

In this brand-new age, it was guys like Foster (a sack, a quarterback hurry and a tackle for a loss), Clayborn (his first sack in the NFL), Price (a sack and two tackles for a loss) and veteran cornerback Ronde Barber (an interception) making the big plays.

More importantly, the Bucs didn’t give up a lot of big plays.

“They still threw for 300 yards [actually 330], but it didn’t matter,’’ Okam said. “We didn’t give up big plays and we kept them out of the end zone for the most part.’’

Atlanta’s lone touchdown didn’t come until the fourth quarter. That’s the same offense that scored 35 points last week against “The Dream Team’’ (the Philadelphia Eagles) and the same team that had beaten the Bucs five straight times, dating to 2008.

But that streak ended and Atlanta’s offense fizzled because the Bucs realized the real backbone of Atlanta’s offense.

Michael Turner is a great running back,’’ Foster said. “We knew we had to gang tackle him and we played at a high level all night. We swarmed to the ball and got him on the ground.’’

Turner, who had rushed for 100 yards in each of Atlanta’s first two games, carried 11 times for 20 yards (a 1.8-yard average). His longest run of the game was 9 yards and Atlanta’s longest run was a 12-yard scramble by quarterback Matt Ryan.

That’s pretty much the way coach Raheem Morris and his staff drew up the defensive game plan, although it certainly helped that a Tampa Bay offense that had started slowly in the first two weeks produced 13 first-half points.

“We knew it was really important to stop the running game,’’ Okam said. “If we could make them one-dimensional and knock out their run game, our rushers could get there and get pressure and help Matt Ryan make mistakes for us.’’

Ryan threw one interception, was sacked four times and was the victim of some dropped passes, particularly one by Roddy White in the fourth quarter that could have put the Falcons ahead. But the Bucs came in willing to let Ryan throw the ball a fair amount. The caveat that came with that part of the plan was to limit the big plays. The Bucs did a good job of keeping plays in front of the secondary and there weren’t many deep throws.

“They’ve got great receivers and a great quarterback and a Hall of Fame tight end [Tony Gonzalez],’’ Foster said. “We kept them in check and did what we had to do to win the game.’’

But, most of all, the Bucs stopped Turner. That’s more than a little surprising because this defense has struggled to stop the run since the final month of Kiffin’s time in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs have taken criticism from the media and their own fans for not adding a few experienced pieces to the front seven of their defense in the offseason. They didn’t seem to need any of that against the Falcons. They shut them down with youth, fresh legs and a well-executed scheme.

“Everyone was playing sound technique,’’ Okam said. “Everyone was holding their gaps and being physical at the point of attack, getting off blockers and making plays when they came to you. You make something happen just by doing your job. When you’ve got 11 guys focused on doing their job, the game plan comes to fruition and it just works out.’’

Maybe this was a game where Tampa Bay’s defense simply got lucky. The Bucs could have been in trouble if the Falcons got the ball back at the end of the game. Instead, Atlanta defensive tackle Corey Peters jumped offsides and the Bucs were able to run out the clock.

Or maybe this was a sign that Tampa Bay’s young defense has arrived and it just might keep getting better. If that’s the case, the Bucs could be a very real player in the NFC South race.

“I told the team we didn’t come into the season to beat the Atlanta Falcons,’’ Morris said. “We came into this season to win the division."

That just might be possible, if the Bucs can keep playing defense like they did Sunday.

Defense will decide the NFC South

September, 22, 2011
Ray Edwards, and Malcom JenkinsGetty ImagesWill Ray Edwards (left) or Malcolm Jenkins step up and help their teams dominate the division?
Now that the Carolina Panthers have stepped into this century, the NFC South has a new look from top to bottom.

Cam Newton is flinging footballs, the Panthers are scoring points, and the days of John Fox signing off on a third-and-long draw play to Nick Goings are history. The Panthers have their franchise quarterback in Newton, which gives them something in common with the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers.

Newton joining New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman just might make the NFC South the league’s only division with four franchise quarterbacks. That’s great.

But, now that everybody has a franchise quarterback, this division isn’t going to be settled by a quarterback. All four teams now are capable of scoring points in bunches.

[+] EnlargeJon Beason
Zuma Press/Icon SMIThe division's best defensive player, Jon Beason, is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
The team that wins the NFC South this year will be the team with the best defense. Think about that for a second. Suddenly there is no clear-cut favorite. The division filled with elite quarterbacks doesn’t have a blue-chip defense or anything close to it.

The days of Fox taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl purely with defense and Monte Kiffin doing the same with Tampa Bay were almost a decade ago. While the NFC South was becoming a quarterback-driven division in a quarterback-driven league, everybody sort of forgot about defense.

It’s time to remember the old adage that “defense wins championships,’’ because that’s what it’s going to come down to in the NFC South. That’s a scary prospect no matter which of the four teams you root for.

None of them are loaded with defensive talent, and none of them are off to great defensive starts. Based on yardage allowed through two games, the NFC South has three bottom feeders.

Carolina is No. 26 at 406.5 yards a game. Atlanta is No. 27 at 412 and Tampa Bay is No. 28 at 414.5. The Saints are No. 12 at 322.5, but before Who Dat Nation gets too carried away, let’s remember the Packers hung 42 points on New Orleans in the opener.

There’s not even a truly dominant defensive player in the NFC South. On offense, you can go beyond the quarterbacks and point to guys like Atlanta receiver Roddy White, Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross, Tampa Bay tight end Kellen Winslow and Atlanta running back Michael Turner. You can say they’re in the top five in the league at their position and nobody’s going to give you much of an argument.

Try that on defense? Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber and Atlanta defensive end John Abraham are the biggest names, but they’re at the end of their careers. New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins and Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson are budding stars, but they haven’t done it long enough.

The best overall defensive player in the division might be Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, and he’s out for the season with an injury. So who’s going to step up and play enough defense to win the NFC South?

Let’s take a look at the candidates.

New Orleans. This is a defense that can go two ways, as evidenced by the Super Bowl championship in the 2009 season and the playoff collapse at Seattle last season. The Saints are never going to be one of those defenses that shuts you down for an entire game.

With Brees, they don’t have to be that type of defense. They just have to be opportunistic like they were in 2009. Coordinator Gregg Williams is an aggressive guy, and he’s going to take chances and call blitzes all season long.

If this defense can just come up with some turnovers at key times and stop a few drives, the Saints could go a long way. But they’ll need the pass rush to force some mistakes so players like Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and cornerback Jabari Greer can come up with the big plays.

Atlanta. This is the one defense that I think has the potential to be good all the way around, but it’s not there yet. It’s kind of ironic that coach Mike Smith comes from a defensive background, but hasn’t been able to totally play his kind of defense in his first three seasons.

That could change this year. Abraham still has a little left and he’s starting to get some help from defensive end Ray Edwards, the Falcons’ big acquisition in free agency, and defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who is starting to remind people why he was a first-round pick in 2009.

If defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux can get healthy, the Falcons could have the type of defensive line that allows linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon, cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, and safety William Moore to become playmakers.

Tampa Bay. Like Smith, Raheem Morris comes from a defensive background. Like Smith, his defense is a work in progress. But Tampa Bay’s defense might not be as close to breaking through as Atlanta’s.

The Bucs are incredibly young in the front seven. But there is plenty of potential. Defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers were the team’s first two draft picks this year, and defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price were the top two draft picks last year. The Bucs are starting rookie Mason Foster at middle linebacker and he’s already flashing potential.

It might take the Bucs some time to get this defense going. Then again, Morris and his staff have been known to get quick results from young players. They won 10 games last season when Freeman was in his first full season as a starter.

Carolina. Ron Rivera also has a defensive pedigree, but he’s been dealt a tough hand. Beason and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis are out for the season, and the Panthers started losing defensive tackles in training camp.

But there’s hope because Carolina potentially could have the division’s best pass rush with defensive ends Johnson and Greg Hardy. They could force some turnovers and give Newton some help. A little defensive help is really all that’s needed in the NFC South.

The offenses are going to dominate this division. But one defense is going to decide it. Which one? It’s too early to say.

They all have potential, but the one that maximizes it at the right time and makes itself a little bit different from the rest is going to be the NFC South champion.
Darren Sharper and Ronde BarberGetty ImagesSafety Darren Sharper, left, and cornerback Ronde Barber could benefit from a few more big seasons to help their Hall of Fame candidacy.
Let’s be clear here: We’re playing zone, not man-to-man coverage.

We’re not putting Saints S Darren Sharper and Buccaneers CB Ronde Barber against each other straight-up and declaring that one or the other has a better shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We’re just lumping these two veteran NFC South defensive backs together and exploring their chances of one day being enshrined in Canton, Ohio. (For what it's worth, voters in our recent NFC South poll think Barber has the edge.)

Fans may think Sharper and Barber already are locks for the Hall of Fame because each has put up impressive career statistics. But it’s not nearly as easy as you might think to make the Hall of Fame when you’re a defensive back, especially when you’re a safety like Sharper.

Take a look at this list of Hall of Fame members. It’s broken down by position, and defensive backs are one of the most exclusive clubs. When Deion Sanders goes in later this summer, the Hall of Fame will be home to 22 defensive backs. That number includes cornerbacks, safeties and guys who were a combination of the two. It also includes some guys like Sanders who were more than defensive backs. Sanders also was a return man, occasionally a wide receiver and, in his prime, one of the most famous athletes on the planet.

Barber and Sharper each have had excellent careers, but I don’t think you can look at either of them and say they’re sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famers. If they’re going to get in, it might take some time and some effort in the voting room. It also might take some more work by each of them.

Let’s start with Sharper. He’s property of the New Orleans Saints for the moment, but can become an unrestricted free agent once the lockout is over. We don’t know if Sharper will re-sign with the Saints or move on. but we do know he has already put up huge numbers in a career that’s been divided between the Packers, Vikings and Saints.

Sharper has 63 interceptions, the most among active players and No. 6 on the all-time list. Sharper’s been to five Pro Bowls and made the all-decade team for the 2000s. But he is a safety, and even his spectacular numbers might not be enough.

You want evidence? I give you Paul Krause, a safety with more career interceptions (81) than anyone in history. Krause went to eight Pro Bowls, was All-Pro eight times, and put up his numbers in an era when teams didn't throw nearly as often as they do now. He finished his playing career in 1979, but didn’t get into the Hall of Fame until 1998.

Statistically, Krause might have been the best centerfielder safety ever, but voters haven’t given easy passes to guys who were pure safeties. Besides Krause, there are only four other enshrinees who played their entire careers at safety. Guys like Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson spent much of their careers at safety, but also played some cornerback.

Sharper is tied with Lott in career interceptions, and four of the five guys in front of them are in the Hall of Fame. But wherever Sharper plays this season, he needs to keep adding to his numbers to improve his chances at the Hall of Fame.

Sharper played on some good teams in Green Bay and Minnesota, but he didn’t win a Super Bowl until he joined the Saints. Another Super Bowl title, or at least a good playoff run, would help. Sharper’s biggest strength, besides his interception total, might be what he’s done after he’s intercepted passes. He’s returned 11 interceptions for touchdowns, which puts him second in history.

Still, if Sharper’s going to get to Canton, he needs to keep building his numbers this year and maybe even beyond that.

It’s a similar story for Barber, who has spent his entire career playing cornerback for Tampa Bay. He’s got strong career numbers -- 40 interceptions, 26 sacks -- and Bucs fans will proudly tell you Barber is the only player in history to register at least 40 interceptions and 25 sacks.

That’s a neat little bit of trivia, but I don’t think being the best pass-rushing cornerback ever will be enough to get Barber automatic entry into the Hall of Fame. That title may be nice, but it sort of equates to being the first baseman with the strongest throwing arm in baseball history. Strong arms for first basemen and pass-rushing skills by cornerbacks aren’t bad things to have, but they’re not really part of the job description.

Besides, even if you focus just on Barber’s interception total and skills in coverage, which is what Hall of Fame voters generally do with cornerbacks, he might be sitting on the bubble at best.

There are scouts, coaches and players who will tell you Barber never has been a dominant shutdown corner. They’ll tell you he’s a very nice player, but, in his prime, was a product of a Monte Kiffin defense that was built around DT Warren Sapp and LB Derrick Brooks. They’ll also tell you offenses never spent a lot of time worrying about Barber because their focus was on Sapp and Brooks.

Those two guys and others also could present another hurdle for Barber. Tampa Bay fans seem to think Brooks, Sapp, Barber, safety John Lynch, fullback Mike Alstott, defensive end Simeon Rice, former coach Tony Dungy and probably even tight end Tyji Armstrong will all waltz right into Canton.

Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. The Bucs of that era won precisely one Super Bowl title. They were not the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and voters take that type of stuff into strong consideration. Brooks should have no problem getting into the Hall of Fame and Sapp’s right on his heels. Dungy probably gets in, but a good bit of his work was done later with the Indianapolis Colts.

That might be it for a Tampa Bay team that was known for its great defense in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Barber and Lynch each have a shot. But, at absolute best, maybe one of them gets in someday.

It should be pointed out Barber has transcended eras. He’s continued going strong since the departure of Kiffin after the 2008 season and has provided stability as Tampa Bay has gone through a youth movement.

Barber is 36 and has committed to at least one more season. Durability counts for something, but Barber might need a big 2011 season and maybe more to really get his résumé shining for the Hall of Fame.

Barber’s 40 career interceptions rank No. 75 on the all-time list. I’m looking at the guys ahead of him and seeing names like Terrell Buckley, Troy Vincent and Dre' Bly. I seriously doubt any of those guys will be in the Hall of Fame. When it comes down to voting time, Barber's going to have to deal with contemporaries like Champ Bailey, who has been viewed as a shutdown corner most of his career.

Like Sharper, one of Barber’s strengths is what he’s done after intercepting passes. He has seven career interception returns for touchdowns, which ranks No. 8 in history, and also has returned four fumble recoveries for touchdowns.

There’s one way Barber can make himself a clear Hall of Famer: put up big numbers for another season, or several seasons, and help the Bucs build another great defense. If he can get to somewhere around 50 career interceptions, add a few more playoff wins and maybe even another Super Bowl ring, then Barber’s path to the Hall of Fame will be much easier than it is right now.