TE Ken Dilger is already only one touchdown shy of his single-season career high
There is an unassuming, four-word entry on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2004 log of player personnel moves next to the date of March 24. That is exactly one month before the entry that signifies the team's drafting of Michael Clayton and less than one week after the one that trumpets the trade for Joey Galloway.
Clayton is the Bucs' breakout player and leading receiver, owner of a team-leading 10 catches of 20 or more yards. Galloway has missed the bulk of the season with a groin injury but is still expected to emerge as the team's primary deep threat over the last two months of the season.
Big acquisitions, obviously. But that move in the middle, on March 24, was important, too. On that day, says the personnel log, the Bucs 'Signed TE Ken Dilger.'
It wasn't necessarily front-page fodder at the time, mainly because Dilger had also spent the previous two seasons with the Buccaneers, including the 2002 championship run. He had started 30 games for the Bucs over the past two seasons, but he was one of five players released by Tampa Bay on March 2, just before the new, 2004 salary cap would kick in.
Dilger was off the roster for all of 22 days. When he came back, his job was waiting for him, and he hasn't let it go since. In fact, the 10th-year veteran is having perhaps his best season as a Buccaneer and could challenge his career highs for receptions and touchdowns.
And, most surprisingly, like Galloway and Clayton, Dilger is proving to be somewhat of a deep threat. His 22-yard touchdown catch in Atlanta was his third catch of at least that length in the Bucs' last five games. In 31 games in 2002 and 2003 combined, Dilger had a total of six catches of 20 or more yards.
"He's obviously one of our deep threats right now," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who sent his tight end on a deep cross to get him open at the goal line in Atlanta. "He's making a lot of plays down the field, which is good for Ken Dilger. He's a good man. He's a good football player."
The Bucs' down-the-field weapons from tight end was supposed to be Rickey Dudley again in 2004. But Dudley was lost to a season-ending injury in Game Three and Dilger is now backed up by second-year man Will Heller and long-snapper/tight end Dave Moore, neither of whom are deep threats. By stepping up and sprinting down the field, Dilger has kept the tight end position from becoming irrelevant in the Bucs' passing attack.
In the end, this downfield development, for however long it lasts, is not really that surprising. Dilger has always been one of the league's more complete tight ends, generally excelling at whatever task he was asked to perform.
"He has played so well for so long," said Gruden. "We would like to utilize him more and more. As a pass receiver, he's really pretty good at it. He's a guy who does a lot of things that go unnoticed. He's a guy who can lay on the nose. He's a guy who can block the point of attack; come out in motion; handle defensive ends; do a good job as a football player."
With 24 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns through nine games, Dilger is on pace to catch 43 passes for 413 yards and five touchdowns. His highs in each category are 47 (2000 season), 635 (1995) and four (1995, 96). The last Buccaneer tight end to catch at least 40 passes in a season was Jackie Harris, who had 62 grabs in 1995.
For just a moment on Sunday afternoon, as Torrie Cox was sprinting diagonally away from the left sideline on his first kickoff return of the day, did you think he was going to go the distance?
Did you think the Bucs' irritating run of 29 years without a kickoff return touchdown was about to melt away, along with the Falcons' seven-point lead?
If so, you might have been right.
After watching the film of Cox's kickoff return early in the first quarter in Atlanta, Gruden believes his second-year return man really did have a shot at the end zone.
"Yes [I did]," said Gruden. "He made a great run. Made a couple of in-and-out cuts and found daylight. Unfortunately, he slipped. We had a couple of players slip yesterday in some key situations, but that is part of life."
Cox had started up the middle of the field and cut sharply to the left before running into traffic. After eluding several tacklers near the sideline, he suddenly shot off in the other direction, with several Buc blockers around him. There were a few Falcon tacklers in the general vicinity, but Cox appeared to have an angle that would allow him to get around the rest of the defenders and find open field to the end zone.
However, as Gruden said, Cox slipped, and so we'll never know. What we do know is that Cox seems to be coming awfully close to making franchise history.
After nine games, Cox ranks second in the NFL with a kickoff return average of 27.0 yards per try. He is less than a yard behind the Giants' Willie Ponder, who has a 27.8-yard average on just 15 returns (Cox has 23). Besides the touchdown drought, no Buccaneer has ever lead the NFL in kickoff return average for an entire season.
As for the ill-timed slip, Gruden wasn't sure the sometimes slick turf in Atlanta had anything to do with it.
"I don't know," he said. "That turf is very similar to what we played on in New Orleans. We didn't hear any complaining after that game, so we shouldn't complain after this one either."
In fact, Cox contributed a 59-yard kickoff return in the Bucs' win at Atlanta, helping the team gain valuable field position for a game-clinching drive.
Last year, the Buccaneers set an unwelcome franchise record for yards penalized, with 1,104. This year, they're on pace to break the mark for penalties, set in 1984 at 118. With 67 infractions through nine games, the Bucs' average would take them to 119 by the end of the year.
It didn't look that way just two weeks ago. Tampa Bay drew only nine penalties combined in games at St. Louis and at home against Chicago. Over the past two weeks, however, the Bucs have been flagged a total of 23 times, including 13 Sunday in Atlanta. That fluctuation in the numbers suggests that the flurry of flags over the last two week could be nothing more than a fluke. Nevertheless, the penalties have definitely been a problem, as they were in the second half in Atlanta when the Bucs' attempts to rally from three points down were hindered by a string of false starts and other procedural penalties.
"We had some penalties on offense that really threw us behind the eight ball in a down-and-distance standpoint," said Gruden. "It puts you in some real predictable passing situations and it's no way to go. It's not a way to win."
The Bucs have been penalized for fewer yards than a year ago, but that statistic is somewhat misleading, in that the painful effects of a penalty are not always limited to the yards stalked off by the referee. Sometimes the greater hurt is a big play erased on offense or a stalled drive sustained on defense. On the Falcons' third drive, for instance, LB Derrick Brooks dropped QB Michael Vick for an apparent sack on third down, but DE Simeon Rice was flagged for defensive holding. The drive was thus prolonged and it eventually ended in a Falcon touchdown.
"I'm disappointed," said Gruden. "It's not a signature of our play here. We had two or three fouls that basically sustained drives for Atlanta and those were hard to overcome and certainly Atlanta did a great job making us pay for those penalties. They were able to convert on them with a first down, with a touchdown in the process."