WR Frank Murphy impressed on kickoff returns during the preseason and made the roster of a special teams-conscious Tampa Bay squad
On Thursday evening, the same night Josh Savage was adding his third sack of the preseason with a takedown of Tony Banks in Houston, the Utah Utes were upending Texas A&M by a 41-21 score, thereby validating Utah's first-ever preseason ranking (19th).
Savage, until recently a sack-happy defensive end for those same Utes, could sadly only catch the wrap up on cable. Apparently, his coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jon Gruden, saw the same highlights. On Sunday, Gruden phoned Savage in his hotel room in Tampa and teased the rookie about the outcome, saying it was clear that Utah didn't miss him. Savage laughed, and a lump in his throat eased a bit.
You see, Savage had been expecting a call from the Bucs' office. When Assistant to the Head Coach Paul Kelly put Gruden on the phone, Savage wasn't sure what he was going to hear. It was the final cut-down day around the National Football League.
Gruden's joke put Savage at ease, made him think there might be good news on the way. He was right.
"He said, 'Looks like they don't need you after all,' and I said, 'I guess not,'" said Savage, recounting the phone call. "Then he said, 'Well, you want the job?'"
Gruden wanted Savage to know that even if the Utes were moving on without him, the Bucs felt as if they needed the long shot rookie to complete their defensive line corps. Savage's answer to that question?
"Hell yeah, I want the job."
In the end, after veteran Reinard Wilson was released and free agent acquisition Lamar King landed on injured reserve, it may have come down to Savage versus Corey Smith. Like Savage this year, Smith was an undrafted free agent two years ago and he, too, made the Bucs' roster as an odds-against rookie. On Monday, the Bucs signed Smith to their practice squad.
Savage, meanwhile, will get an opportunity to prove he is more than a preseason flash in the pan. The 6-4, 276-pound rookie is definitely a hard-worker; on Tuesday, he stayed on the field long after the end of practice, working with a few other D-linemen and coach Rod Marinelli on various techniques.
Savage is obviously aware of his need to keep working hard in order to maintain his place in the NFL, and hopefully expand it. In fact, he almost felt as if he had stumbled when he admitted that the Sunday call from Gruden had calmed him down a bit.
"It was a big relief hearing the news on Sunday. I kind of relaxed...well, not relaxed. It's a different mindset now. Before, it was making the team. Now it's busting my butt every day to get some playing time on the field."
The Buccaneers convened on Tuesday, what would have originally been a players' day off, to hold a practice that was supposed to take place on Monday. Tropical Storm Frances wiped out that original plan, but the Bucs got in their 90-minute session on Monday.
On one hand, the team was scrambling to reschedule work it had lost on Monday; on the other, it was a workout the Bucs wouldn't have had during the regular season anyway. Generally, Monday sessions after a Sunday game are light, mostly running and maybe a bit of a walk-through. The normal work week in preparation for the Washington Redskins will begin on Wednesday.
So the Bucs aren't actually behind, but they're definitely working hard to stay ahead.
"It's a cram session every day early in the week when you're getting ready for a new opponent," said Gruden. "Certainly, the Redskins pose a lot of mysterious questions to us on offense and defense. Hopefully, we pose some to them, also. When you're getting used to a new opponent, new systems on both sides of the ball, it is cause for some discomfort early in the week, but that's part of football."
The research on the Redskins has actually been underway for quite some time. The Bucs had their work cut out for them, given the return of Head Coach Joe Gibbs after a dozen-year hiatus. The coaches have studied preseason Washington tape, games of similar offensive and defensive systems and even some old tape of the last Gibbs-coached Redskin teams. Still, nobody expects to see an actual blueprint of what's going to happen on Sunday on any of those tapes. Teams don't make a practice of showing their hand during the preseason.
"You respect the element of surprise," said Gruden. "I'm sure they respect the same from us. They've not shown what they're going to show on Sunday; nor have we, for the most part. But you've got to do your research."
The Bucs are banking on significant improvement from their special teams in 2004.
A strength during the 2002 championship season, the kicking units were often a problem in 2003, particularly in the areas of kickoff return and, at times, punt and kick coverage. For the former, the Bucs kept a sixth receiver in Frank Murphy to handle the kick return job and for the latter the team spent a good portion of the offseason collecting kamikaze types.
Murphy has improved noticeably as a receiver since his last stint with the team, during the 2002 preseason, but it was his hard-hitting returns that guaranteed him a spot on the opening-day roster. He finished fifth in the NFL during the preseason with a return average of 29.0 yards, and he impressed with his direct and speedy routes to the hole. He will be the latest hope to break the Bucs' franchise-long drought of kickoff return touchdowns; in fact, Murphy returned a kick for a score during the '02 preseason.
"He won the kickoff return job by making plays," said Gruden. "He ran some kicks back, he protected the ball and he shows the ability to create big plays."
The coverage units are completely remade, as proven kick-team veterans were added in March and April and the draft yielded several more players who excel in that regard.
"We made that a big issue in terms of the offseason," said Gruden. "Getting [Jeff] Gooch and [Keith] Burns in here; Frank Murphy making the football team; the addition of [Marquis] Cooper in the draft; Will Allen. We brought some guys in here we think are talented, who can run down with speed to create collisions and hopefully cover kicks much better than we have around here in years past."
During the preseason, the Buccaneers were third in the league in opponent punt return average (4.8).