Imagine if Michael Bush hadn't gone crazy.
In Week 17 last year, Jon Gruden had his Bucs one seemingly easy win -- at home against the hapless Raiders -- from making the playoffs. But Bush rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns, Oakland shocked the Buccaneers 31-24 with 17 straight fourth-quarter points, and the demolition in West Florida began. Gruden was canned, and new, inexperienced head coach Raheem Morris detonated the roster.
I'm tempted to say you can chalk 2009 up to a lost "transition" year before training camp even opens. There are more changes on this team from '08 than any other franchise, probably by double. The quarterback situation looks abysmal. The defense looks small and overmatched. Somehow receiver Michael Clayton, who hasn't exceeded 38 catches or 484 yards in any of the past three seasons, got a five-year, $24 million contract extension. A converted safety is starting at weakside linebacker. The team has more kickers than it does proven wideouts. The story of this training camp, then, will be how this many moving parts can possibly come together quickly enough to make a coherent NFL squad. The Bucs went 9-7 last year. That's going to seem like a sweet dream around November this season.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: What's the old saying, when you have two starting quarterbacks, you actually have none? Well, what happens when you have no starting quarterbacks? Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich and rookie Josh Freeman will stage a camp competition, and you'll be forgiven if you just threw up in your mouth a little. McCown has a good arm and athletic ability, but is jumpy in the pocket and doesn't take enough chances downfield. Leftwich has a ponderous throwing motion ill-suited for the West Coast offense. And not only is Freeman a rookie, but he left Kansas State after his junior year, so it's awfully hard to imagine him being ready. It seems a fait accompli that Tampa will use musical quarterbacks this year.
Behind receivers Antonio Bryant and Clayton, there's so little proven talent that a seventh-round rookie from April's draft, Sammie Stroughter, is currently considered the favorite to win Tampa's No. 3 wideout gig. Stroughter was reportedly a starter at May minicamp, but has been battling hamstring injuries since. His competition for the gig is Maurice Stovall, Dexter Jackson and Brian Clark. Yeah, bleh.
On defense, you'll find nearly as many unsettled positions in camp as you do settled ones. Left defensive end (opposite budding star Gaines Adams) figures to be manned by either Jimmy Wilkerson, who had five sacks last year but has a total of six in his six-year career, or rookie Kyle Moore. Chris Hovan is still strong at one defensive tackle spot, but the Bucs are actually considering using all-world Chiefs bust Ryan Sims as a starter at the other spot; he'll battle with rookie Roy Miller in camp. New strongside linebacker Angelo Crowell has reportedly struggled with a knee injury that limited him last season in Buffalo, and he and Quincy Black will stage a position battle if Crowell can't get back to 100 percent. And last year's starting strong safety, Jermaine Phillips, is for some reason being moved to Derrick Brooks' old spot on the weak side, where he could wind up struggling and receiving competition from Geno Hayes. If Phillips winds up sliding back to safety, he'll have to battle with Sabby Piscitelli for the gig.
Oh, yeah, and the Bucs also plan on waging a kicker battle in camp. Matt Bryant really didn't do anything wrong last year, and in fact set a career high with 131 total points. But he's never had a big leg and struggles on kickoffs, so Tampa signed former Jets second-round pick Mike Nugent, he of the big-but-scattershot leg. One assumes that if Nugent can prove he's accurate enough, the team would prefer he win the job, considering he can be a longer-range weapon. But accuracy has been Nugent's problem throughout his career.
Fitting in: Fantasy owners will be most interested in the running back situation. Earnest Graham is coming off of surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle, but is expected to make a full recovery. Derrick Ward signed for starter-level money coming from the Giants, so he'll definitely be a big part of the Tampa offense, too. How these guys wind up sharing carries could determine a heck of a lot of fantasy fates this season. Heading into training camp, the buzz is that Ward will be given every chance to prove he deserves to be the featured player in this offense. But Graham's skills are awfully similar to Ward's, and it seems likely to me that whichever guy doesn't wind up carrying the load between the 20s is likely to be the goal-line back. So, to me, it seems that at worst, Graham winds up being a touchdown vulture.
Then there's also the question of mercurial Kellen Winslow, who finally wore out his welcome in Cleveland. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski promises to use Winslow a ton, and considering how thin the wide receiving depth chart is, that could come to pass. But K2 has also undergone at least one knee surgery every year of his pro career, and has a master's degree in alienating nearly everyone around him. The Bucs ditched Alex Smith this winter, but they made sure to keep Jerramy Stevens around, just in case Winslow gets hurt or talks his way off the roster or something.
On the line: It's a shame the rest of the roster is in flux and light on talent, because the offensive line isn't. Up the middle, this group is as solid as it gets in the NFL. Jeff Faine is still one of the league's best centers, Davin Joseph is an animal at right guard, and even if Arron Sears can't go to begin the season because of a serious concussion he suffered partway through last year, Jeremy Zuttah proved he's a capable replacement at left guard. And while the team jettisoned tackle Luke Petitgout after he failed a drug test this spring, they're still left with an above-average pair of starters on the outside: Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood. If the Bucs can get anything at all out of their passing game to distract opposing defenses, this unit could make big holes for Ward and Graham.
The bottom line
Oh, boy. It's already not a good idea to change this much of an NFL lineup and hope to be competitive right away. Add the fact that we're dealing with a rookie head coach and what has suddenly become one of the league's most talent-starved rosters, especially on defense, and this could be a truly ugly season. As in I'm not going to be shocked if Tampa's in line for the No. 1 pick in next April's draft. The quarterback situation will be resolved in camp, but there's really no good answer there, meaning that Antonio Bryant and Kellen Winslow, who will be drafted as fantasy starters, are almost sure to post inconsistent seasons. The most interesting thing to watch here will be the Ward/Graham split, because I really do like this O-line. But given the messy situations nearly everywhere else, it might be best to just stand back and let someone else invest in this carnage.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.