Bucs could stick with Jones at RB

With the report this week that Charlie Garner will pay the Oakland Raiders $400,000 to void the final season of his contract and become a free agent, the people who try hard to connect the dots between some players and coaches are already linking the tailback to Jon Gruden, a man under whose leadership he enjoyed great success.

At first blush, it seems like a logical marriage, since Garner had more than 1,400 yards of offense when he and Gruden were together with the Raiders in 2001. And most observers would acknowledge that Gruden's current team, Tampa Bay, could use a tailback of Garner's pedigree. But before anyone starts to fit Garner for a pewter uniform, and to suggest he will re-emerge as the kind of versatile back he proved to be for the Raiders, take a deep breath.

Because sometimes, folks, the dot-connectors are wrong. And this might be one of those occasions when one and one doesn't necessarily add up to two.

For openers, Gruden and new general manager Bruce Allen are eminently familiar with Garner and some of his warts. With the manner with which he often practiced. With how, on occasion, he didn't practice at all. With his mood swings and recalcitrance. With all his idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. So while it seems like a logical coupling, do not consider it a matter of course that Gruden and Garner will be reunited.

More important don't bank on it because, Gruden being Gruden, sometimes things are not what they appear to be. That may be especially true this offseason when Gruden could say one thing and do another. And the tailback position could well be reflective of that.

While reports are that the Bucs want to bolster their backfield, Gruden was actually very impressed in 2003 with Thomas Jones, and wants desperately to re-sign him before he hits the free agent market early next month. The former first-round bust, acquired from Arizona in a training camp trade when Tampa Bay officials feared that Michael Pittman was headed to jail, quietly rushed for a career-best 627 yards and 4.6 yards per carry.

In three late-season starts, the former University of Virginia standout and seventh overall player selected in the 2000 draft averaged 98.7 yards, and had two games of 134 yards each in the second half of the campaign. Jones, 25, demonstrated more toughness and grit than at any time during his three years with the Cardinals, and it would not be shocking if he opened the 2004 season as the Tampa Bay starter, provided he re-signs there.

"All the talk about (Garner) coming here, part of it is just Jon being himself, and a lot of it is media-produced," said one Tampa Bay insider. "He really likes Jones. But you know how Jon is, right? He's a grass-is-always-greener guy. But a lot of that is just talk. He'll say something and might not mean it at all."

Fact is, there's a lot of that going on these days with the Bucs, a team still plenty good enough to rebound in 2004, but one for whom the Super Bowl window of opportunity is beginning to close. A few other examples of Gruden or the Bucs hinting at changes but not trying too hard, actually, to promulgate upheaval:

  • Gruden certainly would like to at least provide Brad Johnson a challenge for the No. 1 quarterback spot and, in his heart, would probably prefer to replace him altogether. But the Bucs won't overspend to land a player like Mark Brunell (although the Bucs would jump if Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon is jettisoned) and Johnson will probably be the starter on opening day. One thing Gruden will almost certainly do is seek an upgrade at the primary backup spot. He needs a proven backup for one year, or until Chris Simms is ready to assume that role.

  • Forget the rhetoric and published reports that wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson could return to the team for 2004. Nice rainy-day story but a bad idea, and it simply isn't happening, folks. Tampa Bay has instead concentrated on bolstering the wide receiver spot with cheap free agents, lesser players who might blossom in Gruden's clever passing system, guys who won't cost much but could be a cut above serviceable. The Bucs have signed six "street" wide receivers since the end of the season, the most notable of whom is probably Sylvester Morris, the 2000 first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. An all-rookie selection, Morris hasn't played since tearing up his knee in the summer of 2001, was released last year, and is strictly a gamble. He is indicative of the kind of "casting call" players over whom Gruden and former general manager Rich McKay often disagreed. The receivers added include Danny Farmer and Frank Murphy, guys in whom the Bucs have no real investment, but who merit a look. Gruden seems confident he can get by with the trio of Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius and Charles Lee.

  • While he still wants to address the tackle situation, Gruden isn't as hell-bent now on tearing up the middle of his offensive line. In fact, the Bucs may attempt to retain guard Cosey Coleman, a player once on the hit list of Gruden and line coach Bill Muir. The former second-rounder showed considerable progress in the second half of 2003 and, while a deal probably won't get done before free agency begins, the Bucs will closely monitor Coleman's situation.

    Around the league

  • Despite published reports to the contrary, the Miami Dolphins have not offered their first choice in the 2004 draft, the 20th selection overall, to the Washington Redskins in return for current starter (and soon to be Mark Brunell's backup) Patrick Ramsey. In fact, sources from both teams told ESPN.com on Thursday there has been zero dialogue between the franchises. That doesn't mean there won't be trade discussions, however, if the Redskins consummate the deal for Brunell, as anticipated. Make no mistake: Ramsey and agent Jimmy Sexton are going to seek a trade if Brunell moves to Washington. Given that Sexton represents some key Redskins veterans, he can make things uncomfortable for owner Dan Snyder and his minions. Read the quotes from Ramsey, the ones that followed his Wednesday meeting with coach Joe Gibbs, very carefully. The very bright Ramsey was very careful in how he phrased the results of that air-clearing session. He said all the right things, as always, but his language was purposely ambiguous and very precise. And know this, too, about the potential Brunell deal: It is certainly Gibbs-driven and there are a few prominent members of the Washington front office who aren't sold on it and feel it will ultimately cost the Redskins a talented young quarterback with a bright future. Gibbs and other team officials continue to insist that, if Brunell is acquired, Ramsey still won't be traded. But should the Redskins sacrifice draft choices to get Brunell, one way they can recoup selections is by dangling Ramsey in trade talks.

  • In their meeting on Monday night, Gibbs all but assured Brunell that the Redskins will bolster their running game, either with a proven veteran or through the draft. One name that keeps popping up as a potential panacea for the Skins' running-game woes is Corey Dillon of Cincinnati but, as noted in this space last week, Cincinnati officials can discern no real market yet for the veteran tailback. And given an emphasis on players of character -- and not players who are characters -- Gibbs isn't apt to pursue Dillon ardently unless he is convinced the Bengals star will buy into what the Redskins are selling.

  • Don't look for Dallas, another franchise to whom Dillion is often linked, to be chasing the Bengals star, either. In fact, word is that Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells aren't really in the dealing mode right now. They want to hold on to draft choices and, if a veteran pops free as a salary cap casualty, might be interested in doing a low-priced deal. Truth is, Parcells is convinced that, despite a modestly-talented roster, the Cowboys honestly don't need all that much tweaking in the offseason. Don't be too surprised if the Cowboys use their first-round choice on a defensive lineman, probably a tackle. Then, in the second round, they would address the need for an upgrade to current tailback Troy Hambrick.

  • There is absolutely nothing to connect Michael Vick to the recent drug arrest of two men in Newport News, Va., who were driving a truck registered to the Atlanta Falcons star quarterback when apprehended. But the incident further reflects the continuing concerns that some team officials have about the three-year veteran and the folks with whom he associates himself. Vick has surrounded himself with a rather large entourage and, while they publicly debunk reports of their concern, Atlanta officials do fret at times about the control the posse exercises over their franchise performer. Vick isn't always the most dependable or responsible person but, at age 23, most agree it's time that he begin to demonstrate more maturity off the field. In the Virginia arrest, two men, Harry Leon Snead and Jerry Lee Garner, were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and also conspiracy to commit a felony. Snead, who attended Warwick High School at the time the Falcons star was playing there, told police he had the truck because he and Vick are friends. The truck is registered to Vick and Charles W. Reamon, who is the nephew of Vick's former high school coach, Tommy Reamon.

  • Consensus opinion coming out of Thursday's workout is that Drew Henson still has a bit of rust on him but that the University of Michigan quarterback demonstrated enough to whet the appetites of three or four teams. Nine of 75 passes hit the ground Thursday but Henson had very good arm strength, solid mechanics and undeniable poise. It's all but a given that some teams will request from Houston general manager Charlie Casserly the right to bring Henson in for a private workout. That said, don't look for trade talks to get serious until we get closer to the draft. Some teams feel the asking price for Henson will drop as the clock ticks down on the Texans' retention of his rights. Henson's situation must be resolved before noon on April 23 or he goes back into the '04 draft pool.

  • Some have postulated that, if the Bucs fail to strike a new deal with defensive tackle Warren Sapp in the next week or so, the club might consider using the "franchise" tag to retain his negotiating rights. Two things: First, teams only have until Feb. 24 to designate "franchise" or "transition" players and there haven't been any substantive talks between new Tampa Bay general manager and agent Drew Rosenhaus over Sapp's future. Second, and far more important, the Bucs don't have a "franchise" label to use anyway. Surprised by that? Yep, a lot of people are, including a few Buccaneers club officials. So where is the Bucs' "franchise" tag? Um, firmly planted on former Tampa Bay defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who has now been with three different teams (St. Louis in 2001, Buffalo for 2002 and San Francisco last season) since departing the Bucs after the 2000 campaign. It was a rather obscure and now all but forgotten transaction but, a few months before he got a six-year contract in July of 1999, Ahanotu was slapped with the "franchise" label by the Bucs. That "franchise" designation, because of some esoteric collective bargaining rules and the fact that the Bucs tendered Ahanotu a contract offer in the spring of '99, remains with the defensive end through the 2004 season.

  • The clock is ticking toward the Feb. 24 date by which teams must designate "franchise" players but, even with little more than incremental progress, both sides remain somewhat optimistic the Tennessee Titans and defensive end Jevon Kearse can reach an accord before then. Titans officials, of course, still have to deal with a projected cap overage of about $18 million. And, as general manager Floyd Reese has noted, there remains some concerns about the injuries that have reduced Kearse's production the past two seasons. But the man nicknamed "The Freak" clearly remains a rare talent and Tennessee isn't just going to let him escape in free agency. Another highly regarded defensive end, Darren Howard of New Orleans, likely will be slapped with a "franchise" designation if he does not have a deal by Feb. 24. Saints officials and agent Gary Wichard have been talking since before the end of the season and discussions will accelerate as the deadline for the "franchise" tag draws nearer. One NFC team that this week concluded its rankings of the potential unrestricted free agents told ESPN.com it has Kearse and Howard "almost in a dead heat" at defensive end. Hardly a surprise there except that the defensive line coach for the team spent more time gushing about Howard than Kearse.

  • San Francisco officials have begun hinting that tailback Garrison Hearst will have to rework his contract, to reflect what is expected to be a backup role in 2004, for the 11-year veteran to remain with the club. At the same time, team officials acknowledge they fret a bit at the prospect of just handing the starting job to three-year pro Kevan Barlow, who has problems with fumbles and isn't all that reliable off the field in some ways. Hearst is scheduled for a base salary of $2.5 million in 2004, has a salary cap charge of $3.5 million, and is due a roster bonus on March 1. Hearst remains a steadying force in the locker room and, even when injured late last season, never forfeited his role as one of the team leaders. Barlow posted his first 1,000-yard performance, is undeniably talented, but still notably immature.

  • You've got to wonder about the San Diego Chargers, who had internal meetings this week to begin determining what to do about their quarterback situation, and who still seem reluctant to use the first overall choice in the draft on a passer. It's now been six seasons since the Chargers chose Ryan Leaf with the second overall pick in the '99 lottery. Hey, guys, time to get over it, already! Neither Eli Manning of Mississippi nor Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio) carry the Leaf bust quotient. Seems like San Diego is looking to trade down from the top spot and acquire additional picks. The Chargers definitely will add a veteran quarterback, either to supplant the now-flawed Drew Brees as the starter or augment him, and that will spell the end of Doug Flutie's tenure in San Diego and perhaps in the NFL as well.

  • The three fastest-rising draft prospects, according to one AFC personnel chief: wide receiver Mark Clayton of LSU and two Southern Cal players, cornerback Will Poole and defensive end Kenechi Udeze. The two players for whom several teams are considering moving up into the top five are Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Miami free safety Sean Taylor. Several teams appear intrigued by Phillip Rivers, the North Carolina State quarterback with the unusual release point.

  • Punts: Scratching for salary cap room, the Dolphins will almost certainly complete a deal to rework the contract of middle linebacker Zach Thomas, converting a $4.5 million roster bonus into guaranteed money, which allows them to prorate it. Less certain is if kicker Olindo Mare's and defensive tackle Tim Bowens's accede to Dolphins wishes for reworked deals. … Tennessee kicker Joe Nedney who blew out the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee in September, will test his leg next week for the first time since surgery. … Despite some reports to the contrary, the Lions want tailback James Stewart to return in '04, but he will have to accommodate the team by lowering his $5.9 million salary. … The Falcons, who have changed uniforms lately the way some people change socks, will go with red jerseys for home contests in 2004. … Four veteran players with whom ESPN.com spoke this week all said that Marc Bulger will be the Rams starter in 2004. Two of the four said they feel Kurt Warner will somehow not be back with the club. … Add linebacker Eric Barton to the list of Raiders players who have voided contracts and opted to be eligible for free agency. He joins tailback Charlie Garner and defensive tackle Rod Coleman … Since ESPN.com reported earlier this week that the Indianapolis Colts will allow veteran offensive linemen Adam Meadows to speak with other clubs, before he is released for cap reasons, three franchises have indicated interest in him.

  • The last word: "I have a great desire to learn football and break down defenses. Brett Favre is my favorite player, but I've always loved how Peyton Manning can beat teams in the film room. I know my capabilities, and my job is to drive the car. Not paint it. Not tune it up. Guys like (Jake) Delhomme and (Tom) Brady, they drive the car well, and they end up in the Super Bowl. I can handle that." -- Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown, recently named the team's starter by new coach Dennis Green.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.