General Manager Rich McKay, Head Coach Jon Gruden and the rest of the Bucs' staff want to reach a draft consensus within a week
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who didn't make a selection until pick number 86 in last year's draft, at least have a second-rounder to work with in 2003. General Manager Rich McKay and Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster, two of the Bucs' policy-shapers for the upcoming draft, had the same take on the team's improved position.
"I think the main difference we've discovered is that the moon won't be out this year when we pick," quipped McKay. "There actually might be sunlight, it's rumored. We're going to run out and make sure there's sunlight."
Added Webster, dryly: "It might be dark by the time we pick, but it won't be pitch dark."
With 15 minutes allotted for each first-round pick and 10 minutes for each second-round selection, the Bucs' first choice could conceivably fall at 1:20 a.m. on Sunday morning, if every team used every second of its deadline. More likely, Tampa Bay will make its selection, at number 64 overall, somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m. on Saturday.
In a way, though, the Bucs are already on the clock. Tampa Bay's brain trust won't know until draft weekend who the newest Buccaneers will be, but they plan to have at least a good idea by next Wednesday. To avoid indecision and internal strife – and the very real errors they can cause – Tampa Bay's coaches and personnel men will have a very specific plan in place days before Commissioner Paul Tagliabue strolls to the Madison Square Garden podium.
It hasn't always been this way. In McKay's first few years with the team, beginning in 1992, the Bucs' decision-makers often began the draft proceedings still heavily in debate over players. Assessments were constantly sought from assistant coaches, most of whom spent the day in the war room and were known to campaign heavily for players at their positions.
"I witnessed it in Sam (Wyche)'s first couple years," said McKay, who would become general manager in 1995 and take the lead on draft decisions. "I witnessed how hard it was on draft day to make decision when there were 58,000 people in the room. Opinions were still being taken on draft day. Every year after that, it became more apparent to me that all that input and all those meetings and everything should be done by Wednesday of draft week. There should be no more meetings, there should be no more discussion. It should be over by that point."
The Bucs' current draft room usually holds a more Spartan crew of about 10 scouts and personnel men, including McKay, Head Coach Jon Gruden and Director of Player Personnel Tim Ruskell. Traffic in and out of the room is mostly discouraged. Back in 1992, the setting had been much looser, with coaches, team sponsors and the like looking on and, McKay swears, food being cooked in the back corner.
"We're sitting at the table and I remember James Harris, who was one of our scouts, was talking and I couldn't hear a word he was saying," said McKay, who says the policy was not Wyche's fault but a natural reaction to the previous Ray Perkins regime, which allowed almost no outside input. "Sam was trying to be more open, but it was…wow! I'm not joking. It was unreal, very difficult to make a decision. That changed. That definitely changed."
For years, the Bucs' draft setup also included a camera mounted in one corner, a 'War Room Cam' that was an intriguing part of ESPN's weekend coverage. To keep any secrets from spilling on national television, there was no sound on the feed. Nowadays, the same camera wouldn't pick up much noise anyway.
"The object is to sit and watch ESPN and mark guys off the list and not to have a lot of discussion," said McKay. "The discussions should be had in advance."
As they have been now for months. The strategy planning is heating up in the final days before the draft, with the area scouts assembled in town and the coaches and personnel department holding daily meetings. Ten days before the clock starts ticking, there are still differences of opinion, plenty of them, but those will be ironed out in a week.
"The best way to be is to have a plan, have it absolutely written out, no decisions to be made on draft day," said McKay, who has presided over eight very successful Buc drafts. "'This is what we're going to do. If Player X or Y is there, we're taking him. If Player X or Y isn't there, we're trading out. And what would we take? We'll take this. If we don't get this, these are the next guys on the list.' Make it as hard-and-fast as you can because decisions on draft day become emotional if you don't. Then it becomes a little tougher to make decisions in a rational, best-interest-of-the-franchise way."
McKay stresses that this early-preparation approach is not intended to stifle or discourage opinions. While they do not send their assistant coaches on scouting trips, as some teams do, the Bucs do ask them to study film on selected players and offer frank opinions. McKay may have the absolute final call on draft day, but he never wants to use it. If there is any disagreement on a player, the Bucs are likely to steer clear.
"You absolutely have to let the input in, and you clearly want to make a decision that is a consensus decision," said McKay. "Making one that is not a consensus decision is stupid. Then, the guy comes in with an X on his chest either from personnel's perspective or the coach's perspective. The guy will fail. Mark it down: he's going to fail. So, give him every opportunity to succeed, build a consensus and draft guys who fit. We've been able to do that."
And what will that plan be? Those are details we won't get from McKay. For obvious reasons, teams are very guarded about their draft strategies, often going so far as to spread misinformation regarding their favorite players or most pressing needs. Neither McKay nor Webster, both of whom spoke to the press on Wednesday, will answer direct questions about specific players or positions. However, McKay did concede a few points on Wednesday afternoon.
First, the Bucs are not likely to move up or down from their spot at number 64, the last pick of the second round.
"Like I said last year, when you get down that far it becomes very hard to move up," McKay explained. "And if you're going to move up, you're only going to get to move maybe 10 places, and to do it is going to be very expensive. You might. If you're list is running out and you're down to one guy and you say, 'Let's go.' He's on your list, he's above the line and he's the last one left…yeah, you'll consider it. But that probably will not happen. I didn't think it would happen last year and I don't think it will happen this year."
Second, the team's recent acquisitions and re-signings at quarterback (Shaun Matthews, Jim Miller, Shaun King) have probably cooled the team's desire to add another passer in the draft.
"I wouldn't say it's a priority position for us," said McKay. "We're comfortable with the quarterbacks we have. We've got a young one in Shaun who's under contract. We've got Shane, we've got Jim Miller, who's got to rehab, and obviously we've got Brad (Johnson). I wouldn't say that is (a priority).
"Now, this is a deep class, a very deep class. It's very unusual to see potentially six quarterbacks that are going to get drafted in the first two rounds. But we're not sitting there saying that's a position that we're focused upon. If Carson Palmer falls (to 64), we're taking him. But I wouldn't say that is one we'll walk away from day one with."
And third, there are a few positions at which some added help might be particularly appreciated.
"We'd like to get some depth at certain positions," said McKay. "We wouldn't mind getting depth at the offensive line, we wouldn't mind getting depth at linebacker, we wouldn't mind getting depth in the corner. There are a lot of guys, positions where we wouldn't mind adding a player to, specifically those who can come in and help us on special teams."
Whatever the Bucs decide on draft weekend, it's not likely to stray far from the plan the team finalizes next Wednesday. McKay has seen enough war room wrangling to believe it is not conducive to success.
"(Former Defensive Coordinator) Floyd Peters can tell you that he was in one draft where I thought we were going to have a Civil War over who the pick was going to be," he said. "That is a thing of the past. We try to do all that in advance. That doesn't mean you don't have those discussions and even arguments at times leading up to the draft. You do. But once you make the decisions, that's enough."