General Manager Bruce Allen says the Bucs will conduct a thorough analysis of the team over the next few weeks
Rebuild or reload?
Fair or not, that is going to be the question hanging over a team that is only 24 months removed from a Super Bowl championship but is a eight games under .500 in the interim.
Adequately defined or not, that is the issue that currently concerns Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans. Do the Bucs have to force themselves deeper into the valley before climbing to another peak, or is there a quicker path back to the top?
And easy or not, the Buccaneers are going to strive to do both. In a league where free agency and the salary cap basically mandate team-to-team movement, an NFL club always has to have one eye on the future. That is especially true of teams that become good enough to reach the Super Bowl; obviously, those teams have a core of very talented players, and those players are being or will be compensated very well. While it is important and correct for teams to try to keep that talented core, it makes future cap decisions more difficult and the need for regular infusions of young talent more palpable.
In other words, judicious use of the draft and free agency is important for every team, every year. For the Bucs, this offseason may be even more important than most, because a relative lack of remaining contributors from the last decade of drafts has left the team with some holes.
"I think there's always a balance," said Buccaneer General Manager Bruce Allen, while looking confidently ahead at the 2005 offseason. "One of the reasons the Bucs the last few years have been forced to be so active in free agency is the lack of choices on the team. Seven of the last 11 first two-rounders aren't on the team [and] there are a lot of other choices who are not on the team. Those holes in the roster need to be filled through one means, which is free agency."
That being said, even with the needs made evident by a 5-11 season in 2004, the Buccaneers will remain focused on getting back to the playoffs and, ultimately, the Super Bowl next season. Allen believes strongly in the foundation of the team and several of its most important factors – ownership's commitment to winning, an outstanding coaching staff and a passionate fan base – and he also believes the Bucs' central talent base remains strong.
"I think there's a great desire on this team to get back to the championship level," said Allen. "There's a core of this team that is champions, and we want to keep that core together. We want to add to that core. We've got to expand it."
Of course, the impending free agency period and the results of several re-sign and renegotiate discussions with players – compounded by an admitted need to trim the team's current cap number – will have an impact on how the team addresses its needs. But the first step is to use January and February to assess exactly what assets the team has and what problems need to be corrected.
"We're going to evaluate everything," said Allen, adding that the coaches will soon begin breaking down each player's performance. "We're going to evaluate every miscue, whether it's a penalty, a turnover, a missed block – we're going to look at all of those aspects.
"We're going to evaluate all the players, and we're going to keep the core of great players here, and good players, and players who perform well under difficult conditions. Whoever that might be, I've seen a great desire by the players to remain here. So that's what we'll work on."
So it's both. Rebuild the team's young talent base while also reloading for a 2005 run at the title. But there will be no 'blow-it-up-and-start-over' approach, even if the team's salary cap situation would allow for it. The championship core is still intact, and the fact that those players still want to be in Tampa means the immediate goal is still another Super Bowl.
"I'm an optimist, so I believe it will work," said Allen. "In the season-ending conversations with players, there's a great desire for all of them to come back. The players like it and they want to be a part of the program. It just takes some time to work with them and their representatives to see if we can make it fit. It never comes down to, gosh, just one player. It's a complete puzzle where you need to put all of the pieces together to make sure that you have the right combination of players. I feel confident that the players want to be here, so it should work."