NFC South: Tony Dungy

TAMPA, Fla. – On a day near the middle of training camp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith walked into his post-practice news conference and delivered a message.

"There's nothing really I can give you today," Smith said.

Smith wasn't being condescending or rude to the media. He simply was being truthful. Tampa Bay's camp hasn't had any major news or controversies. It has been downright boring at times -- but it beats the alternative.

We saw the other side of things last year, and it wasn't pretty. There was plenty of news and a ton of distractions. Former coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman were in the early stages of a feud that would end in divorce one month into the season. And it wasn't just Freeman who was having issues with Schiano's style. Numerous players had problems with Schiano's rigid ways and never fully bought into the coach.

That quickly caught up to Schiano, who was fired after two lackluster seasons. Enter Smith, who is the anti-Schiano in just about every way. Smith is calm and treats his players like adults, and you already can see the results of that. There have been no controversies.

Amid the tranquility, players are singing the praises of Smith. The coach brings back memories of Tony Dungy, who guided the Bucs to their first era of sustained success. That's no coincidence. Smith was the linebackers coach in Dungy's early years in Tampa Bay and has an approach similar to Dungy's.

People already are comparing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to Warren Sapp and linebacker Lavonte David to Derrick Brooks. Smith's hiring has brought enthusiasm to a fan base that hasn't had much to be excited about in recent years. But that fan base has pleasant memories of what things were like in the Bucs' glory days.

On several occasions, Smith has said that one of his goals is to make the Bucs relevant again. If things go according to Smith's plans, the Bucs might be boring, but they'll be good.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Smith is known for being a defensive coach, and he has some good ingredients to start with. McCoy and David were All-Pros last year, and they play two of the most important positions in the Tampa 2 defense Smith is bringing back to the Bucs. McCoy and David give Tampa Bay a nice start, but some other players are going to have to come through. The coaching staff believes strong safety Mark Barron is ready to be a star. If some role players come through, this could be a very good defense.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoug Martin is back from a shoulder injury, but he shouldn't have to shoulder all of the load in a deep backfield.
2. Doug Martin is back from a shoulder injury that kept him out for about half of last season. That should provide a huge lift for the offense. Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie in 2012, and he has looked sharp in training camp. Under Schiano, the Bucs often overused Martin. That’s not going to be the case with Smith. The Bucs have made it clear that Martin will remain as the feature back but that they’ll rotate in some other backs to keep him fresh. Rookie Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey and Mike James could be in the mix for playing time.

3. After using their first two draft picks on wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Bucs have one of the biggest receiving corps in the league. Williams, Seferian-Jenkins and Vincent Jackson each are at least 6-foot-5. They're going to present coverage challenges for defensive backs.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The offensive line hasn't looked very good in the preseason, and that's a huge cause for concern. The Bucs are especially thin at guard. All-Pro Carl Nicks left the team after not being able to recover from a toe injury. That leaves four guys without a lot of experience vying for two starting spots. Oniel Cousins, Jace Daniels, Patrick Omameh and rookie Kadeem Edwards have been rotating at the guard spots, and two of them will emerge as starters, unless the Bucs bring in some help from the outside.

2. Smith went out on a limb when he signed quarterback Josh McCown as a free agent and immediately named him the starter. McCown, 35, has been a backup most of his career, but he did play well in Chicago last year when Jay Cutler went out with an injury. McCown threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. It's too much to expect him to keep up that kind of pace, especially with an unsteady offensive line. Smith, who coached McCown in Chicago, believes he can be successful over the course of a full season. But that's something McCown has never done.

3. Smith's philosophy is to play great defense and be efficient on offense. That worked well enough to get Smith to a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. But that philosophy might be antiquated. The league has become quarterback-driven. The Bucs are in the same division as New Orleans' Drew Brees, Carolina's Cam Newton and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. McCown and this offense might not have enough firepower to stay competitive in the division.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • McCoy has had an outstanding training camp. He consistently has gotten into the backfield as a pass-rusher and has been stuffing running plays. But it remains to be seen whether McCoy's excellent play is simply the byproduct of the weakness at the guard spots.
    [+] EnlargeVincent Jackson
    AP Photo/Bill KostrounVincent Jackson, in his third season with the Bucs, will have a third starting QB throwing to him.

  • The chemistry between McCown and Jackson has been noticeable. In addition to the offseason program, the two spent a lot of time in the spring and summer working out at a local high school.

  • The Bucs have gotten almost nothing out of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers since taking him in the second round in 2011. But they are trying something new with Bowers this year. They're going to use him inside at defensive tackle in obvious passing situations.

  • The Bucs have high hopes for sixth-round draft pick Robert Herron. But don't look for the receiver/return man to get a lot of playing time early on. Herron has had ball-security issues in camp. He needs to hold on to the ball if he's going to earn playing time.

  • Herron will make the 53-man roster. So will Jackson, Evans and Chris Owusu. Eric Page also probably will stick thanks to his return skills. That probably leaves one spot to be filled from a group of receivers who have shown promise in training camp. Tommy Streeter, Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins and Solomon Patton all have shown flashes, but at least a couple of them won't make the roster.

  • Hamstring injuries have kept cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins out for a big chunk of training camp. But there's a flip side to that, and it's positive. Second-year pro Johnthan Banks has gotten a ton of work with the first team and has looked good. Banks didn't have a great rookie year. But his performance in camp probably will keep him in the starting lineup.

W2W4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

August, 8, 2014
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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.
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In his 24-minute Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, Derrick Brooks thanked dozens of people from every stage of his career.

There were plenty of emotional moments, but one stood out to me: when Brooks thanked the late Lee Roy Selmon, the first draft pick and the first Hall of Famer in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Lee Roy set the standard, and we’re just trying to walk the path he set for us," Brooks said.

Selmon was much more than a football player. He was elegant, classy and heavily involved in the Tampa Bay community long after his playing days were over. Selmon left this world too soon, and he left a void in Tampa Bay.

But now that void is being filled. Brooks is as close to Selmon as you can get. Of course, Brooks was a tremendous football player. But, like Selmon, Brooks is so much more. Brooks now is the biggest icon in the Tampa Bay region, but he wouldn’t like hearing that. That’s because Brooks is especially humble.

That was best demonstrated when Brooks asked all his Buccaneers teammates who made the trip to Canton, Ohio, to stand and be recognized.

“Please stand up and let me bow and salute you guys," Brooks said.

Brooks had plenty of help. But, perhaps more than anyone, Brooks was responsible for turning around a dismal franchise.

“The Tampa Bay Buccaneers [were] the team that invented losing," said ESPN’s Chris Berman, who served as the master of ceremonies.

Brooks was drafted in 1995 by a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 1982. Joining forces with coach Tony Dungy and teammates such as Warren Sapp, Hardy Nickerson, John Lynch and Ronde Barber, Brooks ushered in the most successful era in franchise history. The Bucs became regular playoff contenders and, eventually, Super Bowl champions.

Brooks last played in 2008, but he’s more visible than ever. Brooks founded a high school in Tampa, does all sorts of charity work and works as the president of the Tampa Bay Storm.

“As a servant leader, I just want to do the best I can to make something better when I come into touch with it," Brooks said.

Brooks always has made the things he comes into contact with better. Selmon started that path, but now it’s Brooks’ turn to follow in the footsteps.
I heard one of the best summaries of what's happened to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in recent years on Tuesday.

"You talk about consistency and the way of doing business. That's gotten lost over the years," Derrick Brooks said, shortly after the Buccaneers announced he will be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor and his jersey will be retired. "It really has. The sense of direction, how you go about doing things. All of those things have really gotten lost and can't be defined. What is the Buccaneer way?"

But Brooks believes that, with new coach Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay can get back to being a well-defined and successful team.

"Now, I think you can have an answer and get a visual of what that is," Brooks said. "That's what I think he brings. Is that going to turn into Super Bowl championships or 12-win seasons? I don't know, but I think Coach Smith being the right guy at the right time gives us a good start. He brings a lot more experience in this situation than what coach [Tony] Dungy did in 1996 because he has a better football team. You can tell by some of the offseason movements how they're going about their business. It's not overly splashy, but it's definitely been effective. Now, it's about bringing all this stuff together and keeping everybody on the same page."

I think Brooks is right. I like everything I've seen out of Smith and general manager Jason Licht so far. There's a sense of order that's reminiscent of the Dungy days. That order seemed to gradually get lost as the Bucs went through coaches Jon Gruden, Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano and general managers Bruce Allen and Mark Dominik.

Smith should know the Dungy way and how to succeed in Tampa Bay. He was the linebackers coach on Dungy's original staff in Tampa Bay. Smith went on to become defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and the head coach of the Chicago Bears.

Brooks said he's confident Smith is the coach to get things back on track in Tampa Bay.

"It's not so much the X's and O's, more so the Jims and the Joes," Brooks said. "I think he's shown my yes is yes and my no is no. It's not a guessing game with him."
Basketball's LeBron James caused a stir when he said he should be on the NBA's Mount Rushmore. With that in mind, let's have a little fun.

Let's talk about a Mount Rushmore for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There are only four slots available and I'm not seeing anyone on the current roster who deserves that status. There are some current players who can get there, but they're not there yet. That's why I think you have to go back into Tampa Bay's past to determine who deserves to be included.

At least in my eyes, the first three spots are easy. Then, there's a tough call for the fourth spot.

Here are my four choices for a Buccaneers' Mount Rushmore. Feel free to add your thoughts in the accompanying comments section.

Lee Roy Selmon: You have to start with Selmon because he was Tampa Bay's first superstar. He brought respectability to the franchise in its early years and had a Hall of Fame career.

Derrick Brooks: For years, Selmon was unquestionably the best player in franchise history. Selmon's greatness hasn't diminished, but I'd give Brooks the nod as the best player in franchise history now.

Warren Sapp: Like him or not -- and many don't -- you have to give Sapp his props as a player. He was the first Tampa Bay player to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Tony Dungy: This one's a tough call and I had a tough time choosing Dungy over Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Mike Alstott, Doug Williams, Jon Gruden and John McKay for the final spot. But I'm going with Dungy because he was the first coach to make this franchise consistently respectable. By the way, I'm giving retired tight end Tyji Armstrong special honorable mention for his many contributions.
TAMPA, Fla. -- When I voted (as an alternate) for Warren Sapp as a candidate for the Professional Football Hall of Fame, I did so unenthusiastically.

Don't get me wrong -- I thought Sapp was a Hall of Fame football player. I just didn't think of him as a Hall of Fame person. I had covered Sapp in his early years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when I worked for The Tampa Tribune and had seen plenty of boorish behavior out of him. But the Hall of Fame rules state that the only thing that matters is what a player did on the field.

Sapp made the Hall of Fame and he deserved it, but I didn't feel any joy when he was elected. It's completely different this year with Derrick Brooks getting selected the first time he was on the ballot.

Brooks and Sapp were the cornerstones of Tampa Bay's turnaround from a doormat to a regular playoff contender. They were best friends. But they're as different as two people can be.

Brooks is a Hall of Fame person. Through his lengthy career and since then, Brooks always has carried himself with class and dignity. I'm genuinely happy for Brooks.

I would have been even happier if former Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy and safety John Lynch, two other guys who were great on and off the field, were selected along with Brooks. But Dungy and Lynch came up short in the balloting this year. I think both have a good shot to get in at some point.

But this is about Brooks. Following Sapp and the late Lee Roy Selmon, Brooks is only the third player who spend the majority of his career with the Bucs to make the Hall of Fame. He'll also join them in the team's Ring of Honor, and probably have his jersey (No. 55) retired.

For years, Selmon was the standard when it came to talking about the best player in franchise history. Plus, Selmon was as great off the field as he was on it. Sapp entered the argument for best player in franchise history when he went into the Hall of Fame last year. But even die-hard Tampa Bay fans were lukewarm with their feelings about Sapp -- the person -- because they'd seen or heard about his moodiness.

There are countless stories about Sapp blasting fans who had the nerve to approach him in public. There are almost as many stories about Brooks stepping in and preventing what could have been uglier scenes.

When Brooks and Sapp were in their heyday, they often went out to dinner together. Brooks knew how to read his friend's mood, which often was far from welcoming. On those occasions, Brooks would politely intercept fans and tell them, "This isn't a good time."

But Saturday's selection of Brooks to the Hall of Fame marks a great time for Tampa Bay and fans of the Bucs. There are no bittersweet feelings about Brooks in Tampa Bay. There's only adoration for a guy who firmly proved good things can happen to good people.

Dungy turned the Buccaneers around

January, 29, 2014
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When I first encountered Tony Dungy, I didn’t think he was going to make it as an NFL head coach. Now, he’s a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So what changed about Dungy? Absolutely nothing. He stuck to his philosophy, no matter what. At times, he bordered on being stubborn, but that turned out to be part of the key to his success.

Let’s flash back to when Dungy first became the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was the 1996 season and I was covering the Bucs for The Tampa Tribune.

The season started badly for Dungy and the Bucs. They went 0-5 and I remember thinking that Dungy was a very nice guy, but didn’t know what he was doing. His defense wasn’t clicking and his offense was terrible.

But Dungy stuck to his core beliefs and, all of the sudden, everything changed. The Bucs got a win against the Minnesota Vikings, the team Dungy previously had worked for as the defensive coordinator. You started to see signs of hope as the Bucs finished the season on an upswing.

The next season, Dungy had the Bucs in the playoffs for the first time in a generation. The rest is history. Dungy made the Bucs into a regular playoff contender and won a lot of games. Those were good days in Tampa Bay, but they didn’t last forever.

Largely due to a stagnant offense, Dungy was fired after the 2001 season and Jon Gruden came in and won the Super Bowl. Dungy landed quickly on his feet with the Indianapolis Colts and eventually led that franchise to one Super Bowl.

As the Hall of Fame voters debate Dungy’s candidacy, some detractors will point to the fact he won only one Super Bowl despite having a great defense in Tampa Bay and Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Those are valid points.

I don’t know if Dungy will get in during his first year of eligibility. But I still think he belongs in the Hall of Fame at some point. His record in Indianapolis speaks for itself. His time in Tampa Bay was long ago, but people should remember how Dungy turned around a franchise that had been having hard times for a long time.

TAMPA, Fla. -- In his office at the Tampa Bay Storm's headquarters last week, Derrick Brooks looked the part of a successful president of an Arena Football League team. He also looked as though he could still go out and play linebacker in the National Football League.

But something was different about the Brooks of past week and the one I've known since he entered the NFL in 1995. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I asked Brooks if he was nervous about being a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Class of 2014 will be selected Saturday and Brooks, who played 14 seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is on the ballot for the first time.

"I must admit I think about it every day," Brooks said. "There's a nervous energy about it. It's kind of like the feeling you get before you play a game. But here's the difference: If I'm playing a game, I know I can do something about it and I have a say in it. This situation here, you don't have any say in it.

"The résumé has been written. My career is what it is. If I could write the next chapter, I'd be going in with this class. But the nervousness about it is you just don't know. It's human beings making a vote and there's no guarantee of anything."

[+] EnlargeDerrick Brooks
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Brooks will find out on Saturday if he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
That's a stunning admission from a guy who always seemed to have supreme confidence. Brooks was ice to Warren Sapp's fire during the Buccaneers' glory years, which included a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. Brooks, now 40, always seemed calm as he was earning 11 Pro Bowl berths, nine All-Pro honors, the 2002 Defensive Player of the Year award and the 2000 Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

But now Brooks is nervous?

Sure he is and it's understandable. That's largely because he always has been a student of the game and knows plenty about its history.

"You talk about the founders of football," Brooks said. "You talk about the history of the game. You talk about the first African-American players. You talk about greatness for centuries. You get a chance to have your bust sit in that room and share that history."

That's where the nervousness kicks in.

"I always watched the process," Brooks said. "But now I watch it with a different intent, like, 'Am I worthy of being in that company?' I guess it presented more questions for me about my career. 'Am I worthy of a bust?'"

Absolutely. Brooks deserves to be a first-ballot selection. He's the best player I've ever covered and that includes Sapp, who went in on the first ballot last year.

More than anyone -- with the possible exception of coach Tony Dungy, who also is a Hall of Fame finalist -- Brooks was responsible for one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history. Prior to Brooks' arrival in Tampa Bay, the Bucs had been a laughingstock for a generation. That point was driven home in 1996 when Brooks and Sapp were sitting in a San Diego hotel room, getting ready to play the Chargers.

"Playing a late game, we got a chance to see the pregame shows," Brooks said. "Those guys were making jokes about the Yucks, the Yuckaneers, the quarterback rating for Trent [Dilfer]. They were making fun of us. It kind of resonated with us and Warren and I just looked at each other. I was upset. But he was pissed. He went to a new level with his anger.

"I internalized and said, 'I'm going to do something about this.' But he externalized it. We went to pregame and he just went off on how we were being so disrespected by everybody. We went out there and went down 14-0 before you could sneeze. But then we fought back and won that game. I think the confidence that we built on the road that day was the turning point. I don't think it's ironic or a coincidence that we came back a few years later and won a Super Bowl in that same stadium."

In 1997, the Bucs turned the corner and made the playoffs for the first time in a generation. It also was around that time that two wise men got in Brooks' ear and planted the first ideas that he could have a Hall of Fame career.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Brooks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesBrooks returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown in the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII victory.
Early in his tenure, Dungy, who had played for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their 1970s heyday, sat down Brooks and Sapp for a chat.

"He had a conversation with Warren and myself and said, 'You can be Joe Greene, Jack Ham or Jack Lambert,'" Brooks said. "It was intimidating. He laid it on the table what his expectations were for us."

Then, there was the late Tom McEwen. He was the legendary sports editor for the Tampa Tribune. McEwen was a grandfatherly figure who cared deeply about Tampa Bay sports. At the time, he also was Tampa Bay's voter for the Hall of Fame and he always was on the lookout for someone to join Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs' first Hall of Famer.

"I had a ton of respect for Tom," Brooks said. "After the 1997 season, we started to have some pretty serious conversations. Tom kept telling me, 'Hey, you've started this turnaround. Keep it going and you can have a Hall of Fame career.'"

McEwen was a sage because Brooks only continued to become a greater player. He was a do-it-all linebacker, a leader and a model citizen. He also led the Bucs to their only Super Bowl championship and made the All-Decade Team for the 2000s.

Brooks played through 2008 and the Hall of Fame credentials are there. Still, the guy who seemed unflappable for so many years is nervous.

On Saturday, Brooks will make some appearances in New York and do a radio show. He knows the nerves will continue to grow as afternoon turns into evening.

"I'll just be sitting and waiting," Brooks said. "What's a couple hours more when you put up years of work to get to this position?"

Not much I guess. But Brooks shouldn't have to be nervous. He did his work. Now, it's time for the Hall of Fame voters to confirm him as what he made himself into -- a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With no reason to be nervous.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The hiring of Lovie Smith as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has drawn positive reviews just about everywhere.

That’s only going to be enhanced by the weighty words you’re about to hear from Derrick Brooks. As you know, Brooks was one of the best players in franchise history and was a team leader during Tampa Bay’s glory days. Smith was Brooks’ linebackers coach for six years. Brooks said Smith’s hiring is a major step for a franchise that has lost some of its luster in recent years.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Brooks
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaFormer Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks says Tampa Bay made a smart move when it landed Lovie Smith, right, as head coach.
“It’s exciting because, for five years, I’ve just sat back and watched it disappear," Brooks said Tuesday. “The Glazers are not immune to this criticism. But I just sat back and looked from afar and just watched something I felt my teammates and I put a lot of effort into building, watch it just kind of slip away. Now, I think with Lovie coming back here, now you’re starting to build it again. I think the community will start to trust the organization and make an investment into the team again."

Brooks, a finalist for this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class, said Smith is the perfect coach for the Buccaneers.

“They got it right this time," Brooks said. “For where this organization is right now, I really believe he’s the right man at the right time. He brings a calming spirit and a consistent spirit that’s going to energize the entire staff. Not just the football side, but the business side and the whole community. With this type of environment, you can create that buzz for the community and they’ll want to spend money with the Bucs again. I’m excited about that. Just since he’s been hired, I’ve had so many people tell me that they’re going to get back on board.

Smith worked as an assistant coach under former Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy. The two frequently are compared, and some see Smith as a Dungy clone. Brooks said that perception isn’t accurate.

“Faith, family and football, that’s where they’re alike," Brooks said. “They’re alike in their consistency. But they’re different in how they go about doing it. I think they’re also different because Lovie has a lot more experience than coach Dungy had coming in here in 1996. Lovie’s getting a more talented team than what coach Dungy got in 1996. Lovie brings the experience of how to run a team and all those ancillary things from his time as the head coach in Chicago that Tony didn’t have in 1996. So the expectations on Lovie are a lot higher than what they were in 1996."
TAMPA, Fla. -- Derrick Brooks, Tony Dungy and John Lynch were named among the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 on Thursday night.

It’s fitting that all three have a chance to go into the Hall of Fame at the same time because the trio played a very big role in turning the Bucs from a laughingstock into a consistent winner in the 1990s.

Brooks, an outside linebacker, probably has the best chance of the three to get in this year. This is the first time Brooks has been eligible. Dungy coached the Bucs, but won his only Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.

The one potential knock on Dungy is that he won only one Super Bowl, despite having a great defense in Tampa and quarterback Peyton Manning in Indianapolis.

Lynch was known as one of the hardest hitters of his era. But it’s difficult for safeties to get into the Hall of Fame, and Lynch might have to wait until there is a class that’s not as deep as this one.

The Class of 2014 will be selected Feb. 1, the day before the Super Bowl.
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.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When the Carolina Panthers end a training camp practice, there’s a universal yell from the fans.

“Cam!" they shriek.

It’s an attempt to get quarterback Cam Newton to come sign autographs. It’s also a reminder that Newton’s popularity is greater than that of the 89 other players in camp combined.

“Imagine what it would be like if we win," a team employee said on a recent day while fans yelled Newton’s name.

Yeah, imagine the frenzy around Newton if the Panthers produced a winning season in his third year. That’s pretty much the objective, because coach Ron Rivera needs to win to keep his job, and this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2008 season. And it’s mostly up to Newton, who is somewhat a polarizing figure, to make it happen.

The guy is an attention magnet. He’s beloved by Carolina fans but is often bashed by the national media. Presumably, the negativity stems from episodes in which he pouted when things were going badly, and critics have questioned his leadership skills.

But those who know Newton best say what you see isn’t what you get. They say Newton is ready to take the Panthers to the playoffs.

“The thing that I really admire about Cam is, even through all the adversity and even through all of the stuff the media has tried to create that’s not true about him, he’s done a really good job of weathering those storms," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “His self-evaluation is phenomenal. He’s approached many guys and said, 'Look, I know I don’t do a great job with this or that,' and he’s the first one to tell you that he’s working on it and he’s going to do his best to make sure bad things don’t happen again. I’ve been around guys that are too prideful to ever say that or make an effort to do that.

“I’ve played around guys who will tell you, 'This is who I am, take it or leave it. I really don’t care what you think of me.' Cam’s not like that. That’s something that I really respect out of him, and that’s going to help not only with his teammates, but with himself."

Those who have spent the most time around Newton say the quarterback has grown immensely and is more than ready to be a leader.

“People have talked about him handling the ups and the downs," said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who worked as quarterbacks coach during Newton’s first two seasons. “We all hate to lose. You don’t ever want to get used to losing and justifying and saying, 'That’s OK, we can get them next week.' You want them to burn inside, but on the outside you have to manage that. It’s not golf. You’re not by yourself. You’ve got 10 other guys that feel just as bad as you do, so channel that feeling and get the most of not just yourself, but get the most out of those other guys. That’s what leadership is in my opinion."

If Newton can get the most out of himself and his teammates, the Panthers will be in the playoffs. And the Newton critics finally will be silenced.

"He's had the best first two seasons of any quarterback," general manager Dave Gettleman said. “The elephant in the room is the win-loss record. Now, it's time to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonRon Rivera and Carolina finished strong last season, and hope that momentum carries into this fall.
1. Ron Rivera needs to make the playoffs. Rivera needs to win, and he needs to do it quickly. The Panthers have gotten off to dismal starts in each of his first two seasons. Owner Jerry Richardson spent several days after last season debating whether he should keep Rivera.

Richardson ultimately decided that the team’s strong finish last season was a sign that Rivera had the Panthers pointed in the right direction. But Richardson is running out of patience.

Anything less than a playoff berth probably won’t be enough for Rivera to keep his job.

2. The offense needs to find an identity. Newton is talented in so many different ways that the Panthers haven’t figured out how to use him properly. That task is now up to Shula as he takes over the offense.

I think Shula has a chance to be one of this season’s success stories. In his previous stint as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s, Shula was bashed for being too conservative. But he didn’t have very talented personnel. He also was under instructions from coach Tony Dungy to keep things conservative.

Shula is too smart to be conservative in Carolina. He has a rare talent in Newton and good skill-position players such as DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. I can’t see Carolina’s offense being boring.

3. The secondary can make this defense great. On paper, Carolina’s front seven is as good as any in the league. But some very large questions remain in a secondary that wasn’t very good last season.

Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing. Because of salary-cap issues, the Panthers weren’t able to bring in any big names to patch up the secondary and settled for several midlevel free agents. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw out of the secondary during my visit to camp.

Mike Mitchell looks like he can fit nicely at strong safety. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence aren’t household names, but they’re smart veteran cornerbacks and they seem to have the edge on youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. Still, it remains to be seen how this secondary will match up in a division that includes wide receivers such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The way the team finished last season showed that the players have bought into Rivera. It also showed he’s grown as a coach. The Panthers made major changes to their offensive scheme after the dismal start and wound up winning five of their final six games.

If the Panthers can carry over that momentum, anything is possible. This is a team that’s been down for a while. But there are plenty of players with elite talent on this roster. This isn’t a team that is building from scratch. This is a team that simply is looking to turn a corner.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeJon Beason
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTo reach their goals, the Panthers could use a healthy season from linebacker Jon Beason.
Linebacker Jon Beason and Stewart have been unable to practice so far as they attempt to come back from injuries. Both are extremely talented players. But their injury histories are troubling.

It remains to be seen if Beason and Stewart can get back to being anywhere close to the players they once were.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • A lot of people rip on Carolina’s receiving corps and say it has no depth beyond Smith. I have to disagree with that after watching the Panthers in camp. I think Brandon LaFell is a much better No. 2 receiver than he gets credit for. I also think reclamation project Ted Ginn Jr. might pay off because he has elite speed, and Domenik Hixon gives the Panthers a steady veteran backup.
  • That new-found depth at wide receiver doesn’t bode well for David Gettis. I know he’s a fan favorite because he had a nice rookie season in 2010. But injuries have limited Gettis to only two games over the past two seasons. I don’t know whether Gettis still is dealing with injuries, but I watched him in camp and he didn’t look much like he did as a rookie.
  • Sixth-round draft pick Kenjon Barner is going to have an impact on this team in some way. The backfield is crowded, and the Panthers have plenty of other options in the return game. But Barner has explosive quickness, and I think the Panthers will find a way to get him on the field.
  • Even though he hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since the 2010 season, I think defensive tackle Colin Cole has a shot at making the roster. Cole is massive and can be a nice backup run-stuffer to rookie Star Lotulelei.
  • Maybe it’s a smokescreen, but I don’t think I saw a read-option play the entire time I was at Carolina’s camp.
  • Despite their salary-cap limitations, I think the Panthers made an excellent move by signing free-agent linebacker Chase Blackburn. Beason and Thomas Davis have a history of injuries. Blackburn has starting experience and can play all three linebacker positions.
  • I’m not sure the Panthers are sold on their depth on the offensive line. They’re taking a look at some young backups now, but I think they could look to add a veteran or two.
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.
Tony Dungy has been selected at No. 20 on our Greatest Coaches in NFL History list over on our main NFL page.

I’d like to say I saw this one coming all the way, but I can’t. Truth is, I was covering the Buccaneers for The Tampa Tribune back when Dungy was hired to coach Tampa Bay in 1996, and I wasn’t so sure he’d make it through a single season.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
Andy Lyons/Allsport/Getty ImagesTony Dungy laid the foundation for a Super Bowl winner as head coach of the Buccaneers.
The Bucs started 0-5 and eventually got to 1-8. They looked even more hapless than they did in the Sam Wyche years. They didn’t look like a team that was progressing, and Dungy seemed to be sitting back stoically. He didn’t seem all that bothered by the losing, and just kept telling his players his system would work.

I was having serious doubts about whether a nice, soft-spoken guy could succeed as an NFL coach. And, then, I saw magic happen right in front of me. The Bucs went 5-2 down the stretch, and everywhere you looked stars were emerging – Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Mike Alstott.

But the real star was Dungy, and, like a lot of people, I came to understand him a lot better as time went on. I realized what I first thought was a quiet nature was much more than it seemed. Dungy had a sturdy belief that what he was doing was going to work.

He didn’t yell or go crazy on the sidelines, like Wyche, but he had an intense desire to win.

And, before long, he started to win. The 1997 season was a magical one in Tampa Bay. Dungy’s system firmly took hold and the Bucs made the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

A period of unprecedented success followed. The Bucs became playoff regulars. But, eventually, ownership tired of Dungy’s bland offense and a trend of coming up just short of the Super Bowl. Jon Gruden came in and the Bucs promptly won a Super Bowl.

Dungy went on to Indianapolis and more success. No doubt it helped to finally have a quarterback like Peyton Manning.

But, when Dungy led the Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLI it was proof that nice guys don’t have to finish last.

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