C Jeff Christy will help solidify the Bucs' offensive line
On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced the signing of unrestricted free agent center Jeff Christy to a five-year contract. By lifting the two-time Pro Bowler from division rival Minnesota, the Bucs made perhaps their most important free agent acquisition since LB Hardy Nickerson in 1993.
"Jeff is certainly an integral part of our offseason plan," said General Manager Rich McKay. "We felt like there were three centers, one of which we needed to sign, and Jeff was the first of those that we wanted to make a run at. It's always nice when you're able to accomplish you're goals, which, in free agency, doesn't always happen."
Nickerson came aboard in the first year of unfettered NFL free agency and has proven to be one of the most successful free agent pickups the system has seen. Since then, however, the Buccaneers have been infrequent players of the free-agent market, choosing instead to focus on building through the draft. When the team came dramatically close to a Super Bowl XXXIV berth, however, the 2000 off-season was seen as the team to dive back in.
"There's still a little more to do," said McKay, "but we're a team that is trying to compete for a championship next year, so it was important for us that we got a veteran at that position. It also helps that he's a veteran that has played in our division and knows the opponents we play against very well."
Christy was one of the most coveted free agents on the market, an athletic, drive-blocking center who is recognized as the best at his position in the NFC. The acquisition drove at a very obvious need for Tampa Bay, which faces the possible loss of two offensive line starters and which is determined to improve a sputtering offense.
Christy, of course, knows good offense. As part of the most prolific scoring offense in NFL history, the Vikings '98 attack, Christy perhaps the league's most complete offensive line. His blocking up the middle helped spring RB Robert Smith for 1,187 rushing yards as the Vikings averaged 4.3 yards per carry, scored 17 rushing TDs and finished 11th in the league on the ground. At the same time, Minnesota fielded the league's most potent passing attack and the offensive line allowed just 25 sacks in 558 passing plays, ranking fourth in the NFL in that category. At the end of the year, Christy was voted to his first Pro Bowl as the conference's starter.
Christy went back to Honolulu this year, starting again for the NFC, which was coached by Buccaneer Head Coach Tony Dungy and his staff. With two games a year against the Vikings, Dungy certainly needed no introduction to Christy's talents, but it was still a perfect showcase for the talented center.
"We got a chance to spend some time with Jeff at the Pro Bowl," said Dungy, who also worked alongside Christy from 1993-95 as the Vikings' defensive coordinator. "We're looking to reshape our offensive line for the future and we think Jeff's going to be a big building block."
Christy was widely seen as one of the few blue-chip free agent linemen on the market in 2000, but the Bucs didn't need newspaper clippings to feel familiar with him. "We just felt we knew a lot about him," said Dungy. "(Offensive Line Coach) Chris (Foerster) and I both had him at Minnesota, we've played against him twice a year, and he's been to the last couple Pro Bowls. We just thought he could give us a good boost into next year. He's a tough guy; he's athletic. He is a very good worker. I think he's going to bring the right type of attitude to us. He knows how we practice, how we do things and we think it's going to be a good fit."
Foerster needed an introduction even less than Dungy. In fact, this is the second time in his career that Christy has followed Foerster to a new team. Christy first entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft choice of the Arizona Cardinals in 1992 but did not make the team's active roster that year. After a season on the Cards' practice squad, he was wooed to Minnesota by Foerster and the Vikings' staff in 1993. Foerster, who had just joined the Vikes as an assistant offensive line coach, knew that Minnesota Head Coach Dennis Green believed Christy could be an outstanding center. Foerster helped develop Christy at his new position through an uneventful 1993 season and the 6-3, 285-pounder joined the Vikings' starting line in 1994. He has missed just four games since, a forced inactivity at the end of the 1997 season due to a broken ankle.
"Jeff is an athletic center," said Foerster, who remained with the Vikings through 1995 before joining Dungy's staff as the offensive line coach in 1996. "He's able to run, they used him a lot in Minnesota where they pulled him, he's able to operate real well in space. He'll be very good on screens and the outside running game. He's a very good leader, he's a smart player and he's been in our division for six years and done a nice job."
Now it appears that Christy will remain in the 'black-and-blue' NFC Central for at least five years, but he's traded in his purple for pewter. Christy's Vikings made it to within minutes of the Super Bowl in 1998 and the Bucs followed the same path in 1999. Both Christy and the Bucs hope they can help each other take the next step in 2000.