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Bunch of Thirtysomethings on roster

8/10/2004

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Five observations on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, based on the training camp practices of Aug. 8:

1. You've seen those Disney commercials, right? The ones where they urge we baby boomers to visit the theme parks even after the nest is empty? Well, it seems like about half the Bucs roster heeded the call. The Disney Wide World of Sports complex, where the Bucs hold training camp, is a veritable Geezer Nation. By our count, 22 players on the Bucs roster are 30 or older, and that does not take into account AWOL wide receiver Keenan McCardell. A dozen Bucs veterans have 10 or more seasons of NFL experience. Nine of the 30-year-old players were added this spring in the Bucs' ever-active but also cut-rate shopping spree. It's as if coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen simply mounted on wheels the old-age home over which they presided in Oakland, and relocated it 3,000 miles to the southeast. But, hey, Gruden loves older guys. And, to be honest, it was his geriatric Raiders in the Super Bowl two years ago. Sure, the Raiders all suddenly looked their age in the title game loss to the pre-Gruden-era Bucs, but they had the highest octane offense in the league during the regular season, and no one was griping about their football dotage at the time.

No one in Tampa will moan much, either, if Gruden can turn the team's 2004 highlight film into a remake of the movie "Cocoon." The question is, can Gruden pull it off again? He certainly thinks he can and, not surprisingly, so do most of his old fogies. But you've really got to wonder. Over the weekend, guys like wide receiver Joey Galloway and offensive linemen Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie missed practice. Tailback Charlie Garner, coming off knee surgery, clearly isn't as spry as he was when Gruden coached him in Oakland. Mike Alsott, the power-running fullback, seems recovered from serious neck surgery, but still has to test himself in preseason play. Middle linebacker Shelton Quarles is missing time with a broken wrist. Good Lord, even sackmeister Simeon Rice is 30 (how did that one sneak up on us?), although he shows no decline in quickness. The conventional theory leaguewide is that the Bucs will get out of the box quickly, play like gangbusters early in the season, and then fade when the old guys start playing their age.

2. The dearly departed Warren Sapp is one of our favorite guys but, even with his exit in free agency, Tampa Bay will still feature one of the NFL's premier defensive fronts. The Bucs have one tremendous line coach in Rod Marinelli, who would have been a coordinator by now if Bucs management had ever done the right thing and allowed him out of his contract. This is a line much deeper than outsiders realize. Is it as good as it was a couple years ago? Probably not. But there still aren't many teams who will match it in terms of quality and solid bodies. The most surprising thing, watching practices on Sunday, is that Anthony "Booger" McFarland, the heir apparent to Sapp's "under" tackle spot that he has long coveted, is actually splitting time with Ellis Wyms at the position. It's interesting, first, because everyone figured it was a fait accompli that once Sapp departed or retired, McFarland would slide from nose tackle over to the "three-technique" position. But, uh, not so fast, Booger. The Bucs coaches like to challenge their players, to fan the flames of competition, and the head-to-head battle between McFarland and Wyms will last, sources said, the entire camp. If Wyms gets the job, McFarland will go back to nose tackle. If McFarland claims the "under" spot, then current starting nose tackle Chartric Darby will stay put and Wyms will probably be the "swing" guy. Darby is an interesting player because, even though he is listed at 270 pounds on the roster, he has a thick lower body and plays with such good leverage that he can really anchor the inside.

Rice is one of the NFL's premier sackers, still plays with great energy, and is a much better defender against the run now than people think. Left end Greg Spires, like Darby and Wyms, has really progressed under Marinelli. At the backup end spots, the Bucs hope one of the retreads they brought to camp (Lamar King or Reinard Wilson) show them something, or that youngsters Dewayne White or Corey Smith do too. White was a second-rounder in '03, looked lost as a rookie, but has made the leap typical of second-year players. The Bucs defense, in general, is still one of the fastest in the league, and it all starts upfront. Super speed here, it appears, no matter where players eventually line up in the regular season.


3. This isn't exactly what holdout McCardell will want to hear, but the Bucs brass doesn't seem to care if the Pro Bowl pass catcher ever reports to camp. There is considerable animus now between the two sides, and Tampa Bay officials seem ready to move on and play with the wideouts they've got. Now part of that is posturing, of course, but there is also this element: Gruden simply figures that his system will enhance the skills of the receivers in camp. He is raving about former Packers and Lions starter Bill Schroeder, signed just a week before camp, and the nine-year veteran, indeed, has jumped out in practices. Not quite as fast as he was a few years ago, Schroeder can still get on top of a corner and simply run by him. But while Gruden has gushed about Schroeder, the veteran is a guy who used to drive Brett Favre nuts in Green Bay by running sloppy patterns or making bad route adjustments. That said, the Bucs appear to have enough to get by at the position. Galloway provides at least a deep threat, the vertical dimension the Bucs haven't had under Gruden, and everyone feels first-rounder Michael Clayton will be a playmaker. The former LSU star did not practice Sunday, so we didn't get a look at him. But word is that Clayton, while lacking blazing speed, is deceptively quick and runs the post with great explosion. The term "mature" is mentioned a lot with him. There is a collection here of guys like Danny Farmer, Charles Lee, Frank Murphy, guys who have played in the NFL but not played with much distinction. Certainly the loss of Joe Jurevicius to back surgery, an injury that might end his career, is a setback. The Bucs have also added veteran Tim Brown, who played for Gruden in Oakland, and he clearly can jump into a system with which he is eminently familiar and play right away. Whether the glowing assessment of their receivers by Bucs officials is accurate remains to be seen. What is undeniable is that Tampa Bay isn't going to change its stance on McCardell.


4. For all the naysayers who keep trying to knock quarterback Brad Johnson off the top of the depth chart, these two words: Not yet. The veteran quarterback, who seems to never be able to satisfy his legion of critics, has been both sharp and healthy in camp. The latter of those qualities might not last forever, given the shaky status of the allegedly rebuilt offensive line. But in terms of just throwing the football, Johnson has been very good. He doesn't have a great arm but the ball goes where it's supposed to, and Gruden's system of crossing routes and inside picks to free receivers is a good fit for Johnson. There is some buzz about second-year veteran Chris Simms, and the son of former Giants star Phil Simms will be a player. The lefty exhibited nice touch on several tough throws Sunday, and is growing in the system. He doesn't try to rifle everything now through the holes in the secondary. There is a good chance that Simms will be the No. 2 guy on the depth chart. By next season, he could push for the starter's job. Brian Griese has been up and down and it will be interesting to see if he is able to hold off another longtime veteran, Jason Garrett, for the third spot on the roster.

5. Offensive coordinator Bill Muir is one of the top line coaches of the last couple decades in the league and he has set out to refurbish a blocking unit that neither he nor Gruden liked very much, even in the team's Super Bowl season two years ago. The Bucs signed four veteran linemen in the offseason -- tackles Deese and Steussie and guards Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O'Dwyer -- and figured to keep just one starter, center John Wade, from last season. But O'Dwyer is already lost for the season to a pre-camp injury and the other three veterans have missed time with an assortment of ills. This doesn't bode well for an area that really needed an upgrade. Fact is, on Sunday, some guy named Anthony Davis, a first-year player from Virginia Tech, was getting plenty of reps at tackle. There weren't many holes for the runners and the quarterbacks faced more pressure than you would like. There are lots of veterans on hand, but they are breaking down too much, and the projected starting unit isn't getting much work together. Despite all the efforts to reconstruct, this definitely remains a problem area.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.