So, basically, 2 posts at the end of each week to prepare you for what lies ahead. Today, I will also attempt to provide 2 more posts - one with my full league predictions, and another is a chat I recently had with the great Albert Breer from the Sporting News as we break down the Cowboys and NFC East for you. So, on this Texas Rangers off day, you should get plenty of NFL Opening Day content from Inside Corner.
Now, on to the Buccaneers breakdown:
Tampa Bay is coming off a very interesting 2008 . Check out the Bucs 2008 to see how small details can change everything. They were 9-3 out of the gates and on their way to a phenomenal season. Then, they hit December. And Monte Kiffin announced he would be joining Lane Kiffin at Tennessee at the end of the year. And for that reason or some combination of reasons, the Bucs lost 4 straight in December, finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. This, of course, caused a chain reaction of the GM Allen and Coach Gruden being fired, many veterans being dismissed, and many more changes.
They hired Raheem Morris who turned 33 years old 7 days ago. He has coached since he was done playing at Hofstra in 1997, with a defensive coordinator post at Kansas State in 2006 (where he obviously got to know Josh Freeman a bit), but his highest job in the NFL was defensive backs coach in Tampa in 2007 and 2008. However, the Bucs think he is ready and he will coach his first NFL Game on Sunday. With a team that many think is nowhere near playoff-caliber.
A quick look at their depth chart will show you that these are not the Bucs as you know them. Gone is Derrick Brooks, Cato June, Monte Kiffin and the "Tampa 2". On offense, gone is Warrick Dunn, Jeff Garcia, and Joey Galloway. Heck, gone is their Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski who was fired on Morris' birthday last week in one of the more confusing developments around the league. A guy who was fired as coach at BC and Tampa Bay in the course of 7 months without coaching a single game to cause either dismissal.
According to the awesome blue player rankings at National Football Post by Michael Lombardi , Tampa Bay does not enjoy exceptional talent these days:
BLUE CHIP: WR, Bryant (10); ILB, Ruud (10).
ALMOST BLUE: TE, Winslow (5); OT, Penn (6); S, T. Jackson (5).
Of that group, Tanard Jackson, their special young safety, will miss the first 4 games with a suspension for violating the league's substance policy so they must play without one of their top players in September on a defense that is trying to learn a new scheme with new players.
In fact, when Morris met the media this week he spoke of his grand plan to play many, many players on defense. To me, this is code for "we don't have great talent" and he realizes it is not by the book:
"It's not unconventional for me," he said. "I've always thought outside of the box. I do that and everybody questions me, but I'm okay with that."
The philosophy: If a player is in for an entire game, he becomes fatigued and less effective. Morris wants to substitute periodically and keep players fresh.
"We want to play a bunch of people," Morris said. "We don't have many guys who need to play 70 snaps. We're going to try to get the best out of them all. If I can somehow platoon these guys and get them all playing well, we can get the best out of them.
"This is about being your best. Is your best going 70 snaps and mentally (taking) 20 plays off? Or is it giving 50 great snaps and saying (spell) me for 20?"
Players who likely won't be subject to this are middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and left cornerback Aqib Talib, two of the defense's elite players.
But at positions such as weakside linebacker, where second-year player Geno Hayes will be a first-time starter, expect to periodically see a backup such as Adam Hayward who has cross-trained at outside linebacker spots. And at safety, expect to see a continuation of the approach Morris used last season as a position coach when he used a three-man rotation. It's also possible that cornerback Elbert Mack will take some snaps in place of Ronde Barber.
Pat Yasinskas offered his views on the Bucs defense here:
Monte Kiffin and Derrick Brooks are gone. So are the days of Tampa Bay being an elite defense. Aside from middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, there's not a blue-chip player in his prime on this unit. Safety Tanard Jackson and cornerback Aqib Talib may be closing in on that category, but Jackson's going to miss the first four games of the regular season because of a suspension and Talib may face disciplinary action for a recent suspension. New coordinator Jim Bates is a great motivator and a strong strategist, but he hasn't been dealt a great deal of talent. Unless cornerback Ronde Barber can regain some of his youth and defensive end Gaines Adams suddenly develops pass-rush moves, Tampa Bay may be counting on its offense to carry its defense for the first time in ... well, forever.
A pretty good Bucs Blog is Buc 'em and they recently broke down the discussion of the ability of Tampa most famous defender that remains, the great Ronde Barber and the question about whether he has lost it which is a discussion that is all the rage these days.
Now, some reading about their offense. Some good, some bad, to say the least.
The Good is that they may be the only team with better RB depth than the Cowboys. They are loaded in the backfield and shoule be able to keep a fresh body in at all times. Of course, you can only use this depth if you can move the chains on a consistent basis, which is tough to do unless you can throw the ball. We all know in the NFL you cannot just run the ball down the throat of any opposition without the threat of play action over the top. So far, it appears Cadillac Williams will get the start with Ward and Graham on the sideline:
It's confirmed now. Williams, who is trying to bounce back from a second major knee injury, will start Sunday's season opener against the Cowboys.
The promotion comes as a bit of a surprise because of who else the Bucs have in their backfield. Returning starter Earnest Graham topped the depth chart during the preseason and Derrick Ward was obtained in free agency.
It's a crowded backfield, but the Bucs believe they can wear people down by rotating all three backs.
That Williams likely will get the ball first is a testament to his hard work in coming back from a second patellar tendon injury.
"Yeah, it was a surprise," Williams said of earning the top spot on the depth chart. "But I knew if I could come in here and show some of the old flash and compete, I was pretty comfortable with my chances.''
Meanwhile, the WR group is both thin and recovering from injuries Antonio Bryant is clearly their #1, and will look to start a year that will get him a huge, long-term deal after his monster 2008:
Nearly a month after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, Bryant still wasn't 100 percent.
He probably won't be 100 percent when the start of the regular season rolls around, either, but that won't keep Bryant from playing in the Bucs' opener. After all, he's grown accustomed to playing at less than full strength.
"I don't really even know what 100 percent feels like," said Bryant, who came back after a season spent in exile last year and earned Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year honors.
"I just go out there and do what I'm capable of doing to the best of my ability. It's all a part of being accountable. I mean, guys are counting on me doing my part, holding up my end, but I do that regardless."
Bryant certainly held up his end last year. He led all Bucs receivers with 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns. It seems, though, that his chances of matching those figures this year have already been compromised.
Or have they? Bryant said coming back from a year spent watching football from his couch was more difficult than coming back from his knee surgery, and he added that he's ready to make an impact again.
"I feel good," he said. "I don't have any pain, and so I think along with a couple of other things and the adrenaline that'll be pumping, I won't be thinking about the knee at all."
Likewise, Bucs No. 2 receiver Michael Clayton said Tuesday that he doesn't expect to spend any time Sunday thinking about the sore hamstring that kept him out of all but one preseason game.
Clayton, in fact, declared himself to be 100 percent and it's a good thing, because it's starting to look like the Bucs might use their top two wideouts a little more than they had planned.
Though the Bucs will still lean mostly on their three-pronged running attack to move the ball, new coordinator Greg Olson is expected to add a few more passing elements to the game plan.
"When you talk about what 'Oly' brings to the table, you're talking about more dynamic routes," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "You'll see different routes, more down-the-field routes. You'll see more of the downfield, double-move hits, and you'll see the tight end game, too. But we want to be a good team, so we have to use our play-action as a weapon."
And now to the QB/OC mess. Bryan Leftwich is the man to start, and he is capable of beating you. The question is whether he is capable of beating enough opponents to get in the playoff mix. He claims all of this change is fine :
Leftwich emerged as the starting quarterback late in the preseason. He survived the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski on Thursday and saw backup quarterback Luke McCown traded to Jacksonville on Saturday.
Yet, Leftwich seemed unfazed as Tampa Bay prepares for its opener against Dallas at Raymond James Stadium.
"Everybody, we're professionals," Leftwich said. "We have to deal with a lot more than you guys give us credit for. In this league, in this time frame, it happens. It always happens around the league, on every team, and everybody knows we're down to the last cuts. You kind of prepare yourself for something to happen. But I'll say none of us were preparing for (Jagodzinski's firing).
"We're professionals. We'll handle it like men and move on."
The last time Leftwich entered a season as the starter was in Jacksonville in 2006. He made two starts for Atlanta in 2007 and appeared in five games with Pittsburgh last season, but is not approaching Sunday's opener any differently.
"Even last year when I was a backup at Pittsburgh, I always prepared myself the same," Leftwich said. "I just didn't run out the tunnel and take the first snap. The preparation is going to be the same for me. I'm going to do the things I need to do, but now I have an opportunity to throw to the guys. I have an opportunity to really practice with the guys."
Leftwich is looking forward to playing with receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. Both nursed injuries during the preseason, but are expected to play against Dallas.
"(The Cowboys) don't do a lot of different things, but what they do, they do real good," Leftwich said. "You can tell those guys who have been there and under that system. They really know their defense, because you never see guys running free, wide-open guys. Sometimes you see film on a team and sometimes somebody just won't cover a guy. You never see that with the Cowboys."
I may dispute his final point, but you get the idea.
One last detail is this oddity - the Bucs have never not sold out a game at Raymond James Stadium. But, it could happen on Sunday to open 2009 against the high-profile Cowboys:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are only a few days from their home opener and tickets are still available.
The Bucs play the Dallas Cowboys at 1 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. According to NFL rules, if a game is not sold out it will be blacked out for television viewers within a 75-mile radius of the stadium.
Bucs officials, however, do not seem worried.
"There are still a few tickets left, but we are confident the game will not be blacked out," team spokesperson Jeff Kamis said.
The NFL's deadline for selling out the stadium is 72 hours before kickoff, which in the Bucs' case is 1 p.m. Thursday. If a team is close to a sellout, the NFL occasionally will extend the deadline to 48 or even 24 hours before kickoff.
The Bucs have not had a game blacked out at 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium since it opened in 1998.