LB Keith Burns and other proven special teamers have made it harder to return a kickoff against Tampa Bay
Last week in Houston, Texans wide receiver J.J. Moses opened the second half with a 41-yard kickoff return out to the home team's 47-yard line. That wasn't the best moment of the game for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers' team that basically dominated the evening and won 17-9. However, it did have a silver lining of sorts and that's why we bring it up.
You see, while Moses was making his way up the field, nobody on the Bucs' sideline was tempted to think, 'Here we go again.'
That's because kickoff coverage, a serious thorn in the Bucs' side in 2003, appears as if it will be a strength in 2004.
"We made that a primary effort of ours," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after the Bucs allowed an opponent average kickoff drive start of the 29.1-yard line in 2003, ranking 17th in the league. "I just watched our kickoff team line up, and when you see Keith Burns and Jeff Gooch, Frank Murphy, you see bigger, faster guys than we've had. They've got to get down the field and get off blocks and do what they're capable of doing."
Burns, Gooch, Murphy and other newcomers like running back Jamel White and draftees Marquis Cooper and Will Allen all showed that they can help the team in other ways during the preseason. But each was considered a special teams ace, and it appears as if that infusion of talent is going to give the Bucs a much better footing in the ongoing field-position battle.
"I think all our guys are just willing to put it on the line," said Murphy, the wide receiver who was also a revelation on kickoff returns. "That's what you have to do and now people are starting to understand it more. Last year they had a lot of injured guys and it forced a lot of people to be on special teams and play offense and defense. This year, it's not like that, so that's definitely going to help out."
The Texans, admittedly, got to the Bucs in that regard. There were four Buc kickoffs in the game, one that went through the end for a touchback, the aforementioned third-quarter kick that Moses took back and two others that got out to the 33 and the 29, respectively. If you consider getting back to the 30 as a baseline of success – the Bucs have said they'd rather have that consistent result than one return for a touchdown – than the Texans succeeded. But before that game, which was played primarily by second and third-stringers, many of whom are no longer with the team, the Bucs had allowed just 21.8 yards per kickoff return during the preseason.
Preseason gains are admittedly difficult to quantify, so the Bucs have to settle for their own confidence in the proven kick-coverage talents of men such as Gooch and Burns. Sunday in Washington will give the Bucs a real test in that regard, however. Last year, Chad Morton averaged 23.4 yards on 44 returns and broke one 94 yards for a touchdown.
"On paper and what we've seen through the preseason, we look pretty good there," said Gruden. "That looks to be an area that maybe we've improved a lot. But Morton's dangerous. He's taken a lot of kicks back. We're going to see some deadly weapons this season, so you've got to do your job."
Alive and Kicking
One area of the Bucs' special teams work that was admittedly up and down from one preseason game to the next was the field goal kicking of Pro Bowl veteran Martin Gramatica.
Gramatica made six of 10 field goals during the four preseason games, with all four of his misses coming in the 40 to 49-yard range. That followed on the heels of an excellent – and healthy - training camp for the sixth-year kicker and a good opening-game effort against Miami.
Since the final preseason game, Gruden has been singular-minded about Gramatica, refusing to accentuate anything but the positive. The team's veterans have followed suit, knowing that they still have one of the league's most talented kickers. From 1999-2002, Gramatica made 82.9% of his field goal tries (121/146), including the postseason. He had no problem with long-range kicks, making a sparkling 13 of 20 tries from 50 yards or further. Memories of many big kicks gave Gramatica's teammates confidence in him, and the resulting feedback is important to the kicker.
"It's awesome," he said. "It just tells you about the kinds of guys we have here, the type of teammates and coaches. These guys are great and I thank all of them for it. I just need a couple of good kicks to get back on track. I have been feeling good and kicking well in practice, so hopefully they start going through in the games."
Gramatica is very candid about the issue, admitting as some players might not that the issue isn't completely physical.
"Confidence is huge," he said. "That's 99 percent of it. There are a million guys that can kick 60 yards in the backyard and then in games they can't. That's the thing. Confidence. You have to be able to control it and that's what I haven't been doing, so hopefully I can get back to doing it."
Watching and Waiting
Having adjusted for Charley and hunkered down through Frances, the Bucs are now keeping a wary eye on Hurricane Ivan, as is the entire state of Florida. The team doesn't believe its travel plans to Washington will be affected, as the weekend is supposed to be nice weather, but the string of storms has definitely affected sports all across the state. The Miami Dolphins, for instance, will now play their season opener against Tennessee on Saturday night instead of Sunday.
"I think it's distracting for all of us, you and me and everybody out there in Florida," said Gruden. "These storms that are looming out there, you wonder when it's going to end. But you just try to educate yourself and everybody the best way you can. You try to have a contingency plan in place just in case it hits."
The Bucs had to move their Monday practice to Tuesday because of Frances, but have enjoyed (as much as one can enjoy swelteringly humid heat) a week of uninterrupted work since. As linebacker Derrick Brooks said on Monday, the players have been able to put aside their familial concerns when they've stepped through the door into One Buccaneer Place.
"There is obviously a lot of concern from all of us, but I don't believe it's affected our preparation," said Gruden. "We had a very good practice [Thursday], spirited. I thought the guys came back well today after a very hot, long practice yesterday."
Gruden never loses sight of the fact that the effects of these piggy-backed hurricanes have been much more severe in certain places than a few rescheduled practices and games.
"We've got to somehow, some way overcome this, but we're not alone," he said. "Let's have some feeling for people who have been hit hard by this storm. There are some people who lost everything they had. That's the reality."