RB Earnest Graham and the Bucs' ground game has picked up this summer
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to be better in 2005 than they were in 2004, when high preseason expectations melted into a disappointing 5-11 campaign. It stands to reason, then, that they would need to be better one week into training camp this summer than they were a year ago.
So are they?
Head Coach Jon Gruden thinks so. In fact, he thinks the Bucs are better now than they have been at any point since they won Super Bowl XXXVII in January of 2003.
"I can't say it's the best [camp since his arrival], but it's certainly been better than it has been in some time," he said. "We still have plenty of areas to clean up and we've got to get some of our newcomers ready to play. You're going to have a couple missed passes, you're going to miss some things. But fortunately we're in training camp. We've got another three or four weeks to address that and we're doing everything we can."
One of the observations that has Gruden feeling more confident in his team this year is a more level playing field. With a streak of eight straight top-10 finishes in the NFL rankings, the Bucs' defense is obviously an outstanding unit, and some summers they've controlled most of the action in camp. This year, the offense seems to be holding its own on a more consistent basis, suggesting Tampa Bay might be a more complete package in 2005.
"We're doing a much better job as a football team," said Gruden. "There's not complete dominance on one side of the ball all the time. There are flashes where [it appears] we're going to be a pretty good football team."
Some of the offensive highlights have been a convincing win in Tuesday's live goal-line drill and a 4-2 edge in an impromptu game of OL/DL one-on-ones Wednesday. On Thursday, the Bucs used an entire period to run a two-minute drill under game conditions, though without full tackling. The first team offense scored a touchdown and the second team drove for a field goal.
"I was pleased with the work we got done today," said Gruden. "The offense did very well in the two-minute drill. I was pleased with that."
Most of the two-minute plays were passes, of course, and starting quarterback Brian Griese, who hit wide receiver Ike Hilliard on a long touchdown pass, has looked as sharp as he did last fall. What might be making the biggest difference is a surge in the team's running game. That's partly a result of such additions as Hilliard, Carnell Williams and Alex Smith, and partly a result of the continuity with those players who are not new to the squad this year.
"There have been different offensive linemen every year since I have been here and this is really the first time where the majority of the group is coming back and playing with the same group as last year," said running back Michael Pittman. "I think that Coach Bill [Muir] is getting these guys right and of course right now people are still making mistakes and not staying on blocks but at the same time they are working hard. We are all trying to get better so I think we are moving in the right direction. We added 'Cadillac' to our running game and we drafted a couple of offensive linemen so I think we are moving in the right direction."
That direction, the Bucs believe, is up. Right now, they're better off than they were a year ago; the key is to continue to widen the gap.
Bucs Sign Fullback
On Thursday, the Buccaneers made only their second roster addition of training camp so far, signing rookie fullback Steve Kriewald. There was no need to release another player, as the waiver of tackle Kevin Fischer earlier in the week had opened up a roster spot.
The Bucs had a need at the position, with rookie fullback Rick Razzano sidelined for most of the first week of camp with a hamstring injury. The 5-10, 245-pound University of Nebraska product donned jersey number 41 and was on the practice field with the Bucs on Thursday morning.
After serving as a reserve for his first three seasons at Nebraska, Kriewald took over the starting fullback job as a senior last fall. A rugged blocker, he was asked to carry the ball only three times in 2004, though he did turn those three carries into 54 yards. Kriewald also made the most of his five receptions last year, scoring on three of them. An intelligent player, he was an All-Academic Big 12 choice in each of his four seasons.
Razzano injured his hamstring on Saturday morning, during the second day of camp practices. He has yet to return to the field and that is obviously not helping his efforts to earn a job this fall.
"Guys aren't going to make the team in the training room," said Gruden. "They've got to get out here and get it done in between the lines.
"You can't come in as a seventh-round draft choice, or any kind of draft choice, never practice and expect to make this football team. It's too bad, but he's got to get himself back out here in a hurry. Injuries are part of the game. In the meantime we'll try to teach him the stuff the best we can so when he does come back he's not real far behind."
Overall, the Buccaneers have still had a relatively healthy first week of camp. Hamstring issues sidelined five players on Thursday – Razzano, running back Jacque Lewis, cornerback Juran Bolden, running back Michael Pittman and linebacker Jeff Gooch – but only Razzano and Lewis have injuries of any significance. Bolden, Pittman and Gooch are basically dealing with tightness in that notorious trouble spot and were held out Thursday as a precautionary measure.
More positively, veteran tackle Derrick Deese returned to work after missing the last four days of work due to a foot sprain. Deese's injury is similar to the one that cost him time during last year's camp, but his layoff was shorter this summer and he was fully involved in Thursday's work.
"It's good to have him back," said Gruden. "Obviously, he's a guy who has played a lot of football and he's a good player, so it's good to have him back out there."
Rookie wide receiver Larry Brackins, who was not quite ready to go when camp began due to an offseason hamstring injury, put together his first full practice on Thursday.
"Larry Brackins returned to practice and was a little bit more full-speed," said Gruden. "He's got a long way to go. He's missed a lot of time. He hasn't been able to do anything physically within the lines. But he is putting forth effort and hopefully we can see progress here in the next 10 days. It's critical for him."
The defense was missing two of its starters. Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland was given the morning off as a simple issue of rest, and safety Jermaine Phillips was excused from the day's work to attend to a personal matter. Both are expected back on the field on Friday.
More from Coach Gruden
Gruden also touched on a variety of other issues after Thursday's morning practice.
On DT Anthony Bryant: "He's a big guy, obviously, with some athleticism. It's a stamina issue with him right now. If he can continue to work himself into great shape he'll be a factor here. If he can't, he won't. That's the big question right now with him."
On which running backs are making an impression: "They're all doing good some good things. Unfortunately yesterday for Derek Watson, fumbling the ball on the goal line is not going to get you any good grace from the staff. But he's doing some good things, he's a physical guy. Ian Smart has had his moments. Earnest Graham's had a quiet but very, very good camp. He's taking reps at fullback and halfback, he's been very good. We've been pleased with Jameel Cook. Jameel Cook's having a great camp for us right now, as is Alstott. And we think Cadillac Williams is going to be special."
On if it was a change of plans not to practice in pads on Thursday: "No, it was part of the schedule. We had about three or four consecutive days of pads. We do give them a day without the shoulder pads and the uniform on to get a little physical recovery, but if you watched us practice today it might have been more physical than yesterday."
On if the afternoon off on Wednesday had the desired effect: "Well, a little bit. But the big thing is these guys needed to put some fluids back in them and eat a good, solid square meal, and get some rest. They've been pushed very, very hard by themselves and by the coaches, and I think it's smart to give a guy his space and let him have a little time to regroup."
On whether players are eager to play against a different team: "I think so. It gets old after awhile to hit the same guy and have the same guy hit you. But I think professional football players understand that's part of training camp. It's unfortunate a little bit because the depth on your team isn't what it used to be years ago. Some of these guys don't get to become friends until training camp is over."
On if he sees any difference in the heat this year: "I don't see any difference. It looks the same to me. But it's a little hotter. I just can't get over the heat index. That was new to me – the 'feels-like' temperature as they say on TV. It feels like it's hotter, yes."