C John Wade makes the adjustments at the line of scrimmage for a front that includes three first-time starters
In his eighth pro season, John Wade finds himself in the middle – literally – of a youth movement.
That can be good or bad for an NFL veteran. It's good if the youth in that movement is playing well. It's good if the young players are able to mesh with some established veterans. And, of course, it's good if one of those young players isn't taking your spot.
So far, it's been good for Wade.
Wade is the starting center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the same in 2003 after coming over from the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent, and for the first eight games of 2004. However, a rather serious knee injury suffered last November 7 ended his second Buccaneer campaign prematurely and forced the team to scramble up front.
Tampa Bay's brass had been pleased with Wade's play since his arrival, but the overall productivity of the front line was in question. The Bucs ranked 24th in rushing yards per game in 2003 and 29th in 2004. That issue became perhaps the single biggest point of emphasis for the team during the 2005 offseason, as evidenced by the use of the fifth overall pick in the draft on running back Cadillac Williams. Williams has given the Bucs' rushing attack, now ranked fifth in the league, instant credibility, but even a talent of his magnitude would be struggling at times had the offensive line also not taken a big step forward.
Some of the improvement has been attitude and plain hard work during the offseason, and no one worked harder than Wade, who was not a sure bet to be ready again by training camp. But some of it can also be traced to three new and green players among the starting five. Rookie Dan Buenning has stepped right in at left guard, next to second-year player and first-time starter Anthony Davis at left tackle. Sean Mahan, who filled in admirably for Wade at center during the second half of 2004, is now starting at right guard.
There's a familiar face on the right edge, where Walker is the holdover starter at tackle. Still, most of the line is new, young and leaning on Wade for his leadership and experience, not to mention his precise line calls. After all, Wade has 64 career NFL starts, more than twice as many as Buenning, Davis and Mahan have combined (26).
"He's made a big difference for us," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. Having him back is critical for us. He makes a lot of key decisions in there and he's been a very physical presence for us in the running game and in the passing game. It's good to have him in there. He's a leader. I think he really believes in what we're doing and he's a guy we're counting on."
Wade is the kind of leader who works hard but keeps things loose. He speaks matter-of-factly and without self-aggrandizement about most issues, including his recovery from no ordinary knee injury. The 6-5, 299-pound lineman is taller than most centers, but he's got the requisite instincts and he has been a pillar on the Bucs' line since signing in the spring of '03. Before coming to the Buccaneers, he started 38 games for the Jaguars, including all 16 in 2002 after coming back from a foot injury that made him a reserve in 2001.
When he first started with the Bucs, it was in the middle of a very experienced line, if not necessarily one that was lighting up the league. The tackles were Walker and Roman Oben and the guards were Kerry Jenkins and Cosey Coleman. Oben and Jenkins were long-time vets, and Walker and Coleman were at about the same points in their careers as Wade was. Now, he's the elder statesmen.
He has handled that role, becoming the glue that has held together the inexperienced but aggressive new front.
"Early on we had to do some adjusting," said Wade. "We've been playing for awhile now, so I haven't talked much about it lately. But I think it's a tribute to the young guys, [like] Anthony and Dan coming in. Anthony has been in the system a little bit longer and Dan's coming in as a rookie. It's tough to pick up a system no matter who you are, what kind of system it is. Just coming into a new environment and being a player in the NFL, I think they've adjusted to it well. I think it all started back in the spring when they first came in with the mental part. It's a lot easier to play more aggressively mentally when you know what you are going to do, or what to expect when you get up there. I think both of those guys have done a great job."
Now Wade has another young player to help shepherd into success, and he's playing perhaps the most critical position: quarterback Chris Simms. Simms takes over as the starter this week following the season-ending knee injury to Brian Griese. As usual, the even-keeled Wade seems to be much less concerned with that issue than everyone who wants his opinion.
"Brian was a big part of our team," he said. "I had a lot of confidence in him on what his abilities were, physically and mentally, especially because he was on the same page as Coach Gruden. But I also think Simms is on the same page as Coach Gruden. He's been here three years now, listening to three years worth of installs, of meetings and quarterback camps. I don't know anybody that meets more than they do. So I don't know what he could see that he hasn't already seen repetitively with Coach Gruden. [Gruden] prepares like a maniac, and his quarterbacks do too. So we just go out there and execute it, and that's it."
That last thought would be as good a way as any to describe the way Wade approaches the game. He works hard to learn his assignments, prepare for defensive fronts and stay in peak shape, then he just goes out and plays. There's virtually no fanfare to Wade. There is, to the Bucs' endless benefit, talent and professionalism to spare.