LB Jamie Duncan has waited patiently for another crack at the starting lineup
False start. Delay of game. Time out.
For third-year Buccaneer linebacker Jamie Duncan, these weren't so much official's signals as they were the impressions of his early NFL career. Duncan made a near-immediate splash as a rookie in 1998, stepping seamlessly into the middle linebacker role for the last third of the season, only to find himself back on the sideline for most of 1999.
This false start had nothing to do with Duncan's development. On a personal level, Duncan had the misfortune of playing behind five-time Pro Bowler Hardy Nickerson. Of course, that wasn't a misfortune for the Buccaneers as a whole or for their fans, and Duncan continued to contribute happily on special teams. Still, one couldn't blame Duncan if he felt eager and unfulfilled during 1999, when a healthy Nickerson played nearly every snap for one of the finest defenses Tampa had ever seen.
Now Duncan's time has come. On Tuesday, Nickerson, an unrestricted free agent, signed a four-year contract to play with the Jacksonville Jaguars. While the Bucs made an effort to retain the skilled and experienced Nickerson, the team feels very confident that Duncan will again perform well in the starting MLB spot. After finishing third in the NFL in total defense in 1997, second in 1998 and third again in '99, the Bucs could become the first team to finish among the top three in the defensive rankings for four consecutive years since the fabled Chicago Bears defense of the mid-1980s. But can they, really? Can they reasonably expect those numbers to add up given the subtraction of Nickerson and the addition of Duncan?
Duncan's forced entry into the starting lineup in '98 indicates that they can. When Nickerson was suddenly diagnosed in November of that season with pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac around the heart, the rookie from Vanderbilt started the last six games. With Tampa Bay fighting for its postseason life, the team's defensive ranking actually improved from sixth to second over that span and Duncan posted 46 tackles in six starts. By all accounts, he handled the position marvelously.
"Jamie played very well," said Dungy of Duncan's first regular-season action. "Jamie played winning football in the games he played at the end of the '98 season. He didn't get much of a chance to play this year because Hardy was a very durable guy and a guy that loved to play. But we have confidence that Jamie will play well. It's not really a situation that we think he'll need any time to (adjust)…I think he'll just step right in there and play well."
The Buccaneers won four of their last five games that season with Duncan in the lineup, bucking the odds to stay in the playoff race until the final moments of the last Sunday of December. Duncan contributed nicely, but it was a team effort to get the club back on track. "We just played better," said Dungy. "We were a little desperate; we were in a situation where we had to win. I think a lot of guys stepped up their game, feeling like Hardy was going to be out and we couldn't afford to lose another game. We had to play. It was probably an attitude and mindset that we needed to get to a little earlier that year."
The Buccaneers' continued excellence during Nickerson's absence in 1998 was not an indication of his lack of importance. Rather it was an illustration that the Buccaneers' defensive talent is deep and their system is strong. "We went through it for seven weeks at the end of the '98 season," said Dungy, "and Jamie played well and other guys knew they had to pick up the slack. We're going to miss Hardy as a leader, but every year that happens. You have retirements and people that move on and injuries, but that's the way our team is built, that you really aren't going to have one person not being here change the system and how we do things."
As the middle linebacker, Duncan will take over the play-calling, Dungy indicated, adding that he is confident the 6-0, 244-pounder will handle that role well. Moreover, Dungy thinks the team will compensate in other ways. "That's where other guys have to step up," said Dungy. "Derrick Brooks has to become more of a leader now. Jamie Duncan has to step up and be a full-time player. We'll miss (players that leave) but, again, life has to go on. We've seen two offensive linemen, two starters, leave the Super Bowl champs, an offensive lineman leave Tennessee, Bruce Smith leave Buffalo. It happens.
"Basically, this is what free agency is all about," added Dungy. "We wanted Hardy back and made an offer of what we felt we could do. Hardy went out into the market place and, frankly, was able to get more money. That's what this system is all about. It's really no one's fault or an indication that there was any problem…that's just the way it works.
"I think (Nickerson) will play very well for them. They'll get a great leader and a special player, but we have a lot of confidence in Jamie Duncan and we think he's going to do a good job and we don't feel like we're void at that position."