Young linebackers Geno Hayes (54) and Quincy Black (58) were at the center of the Bucs' defensive improvement down the stretch
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played 34 seasons in the NFL, and like any franchise they've seen their overall talent level ebb and flow from year to year.
It was hard to find in 1976, with the unfavorable expansion rules of the era. It likely peaked in 2002, when the team won its first Super Bowl title.
Some positions have been more difficult to stock in Tampa through the years than others. The team spent a first-round pick on quarterback Josh Freeman this past year after watching too much upheaval at the position over the previous five years. The recent emphasis on building a powerful offensive line may be a reaction to a position that has rarely been a Buccaneer strength. Lee Roy Selmon was one of the best defensive ends of his era, but since his career ended the Bucs have sent only one end to the Pro Bowl (Simeon Rice).
But if there is one position on the depth chart that has historically bristled with talent in Tampa, it's linebacker.
The Buccaneers believe that is a tradition that can continue with the fresh-faced crew of 'backers that took the field in 2009.
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, a full-time starter since 2007, was the most experienced of that group, though he is still only 26 at the end of the '09 campaign. Ruud was flanked by two players – Geno Hayes (22) and Quincy Black (25) – who had zero combined starts entering the season. It was a bumpy year for the Buccaneers across the board, but by season's end, that trio appeared to be emerging as a major part of a new, young foundation for a defense with a proud tradition.
"You are talking about down the stretch and the progress that we [were] showing," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris, after Tampa Bay's defense improved dramatically down the stretch. "What Quincy Black was able to do. He really picked his game up to another level. He made splash plays in the last couple of weeks. Geno Hayes and all of those guys developed. All of those guys have just been able to rise to the forefront and take leadership roles."
Black and Hayes, in particular, have impressive footprints to fill, given that they won their starting jobs after the team released starting outside linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June just before the 2009 league year began. Brooks is one of five linebackers who have made the Pro Bowl as Buccaneers, easily the franchise's highest total at any position. David Lewis, Hugh Green, Hardy Nickerson and Shelton Quarles were all deemed all-stars as well, making a total of 20 Hawaii trips between them.
In addition to those five, the Bucs have at one point or another seen All-NFC linebacker selections in Cecil Johnson and Ervin Randle, All-Pro recognition for Dewey Selmon and Broderick Thomas and all-rookie honors for Keith Browner and Sidney Coleman. Though not showered with postseason awards, such linebackers as Richard "Batman" Wood, Scot Brantley, Jeff Davis, Winston Moss, Lonnie Marts and Al Singleton are considered franchise standouts by Buccaneer fans.
Moreover, those players have commonly overlapped, forming outstanding linebacker units as a whole at several points in franchise history. Tampa Bay used a 3-4 front for the first 15 or so years of franchise history and were often loaded in the middle line of their defense. The hard-hitting quartet of Lewis, Selmon, Wood and Johnson formed the heart of the Bucs' top-ranked 1979 defense. The team struggled to a 6-10 mark in 1984 but featured a strong LB corps of Browner, Davis, Brantley and Green. When Brooks arrived in 1995 he joined Nickerson, already an established Pro Bowler, and formed a series of strong trios with the likes of Marts and Quarles. Quarles later moved into the middle after Nickerson's departure, and he Brooks and Singleton were a destructive force in '02.
Could Hayes-Ruud-Black be the next great Buccaneer LB crew? They have a long way to go to prove themselves in that regard, but there was promising evidence in 2009, especially in the season's second half, when Morris took over the play-calling and unleashed the talents of all three more effectively. One thing is certain, at least in Morris' mind: Those three have the speed to make the Bucs' traditionally wide-ranging linebacker schemes work.
"I've been here for eight years and this may be one of the faster defenses we've had," said Morris. "You're talking about Quincy Black, somebody playing that SAM (strongside) position. I don't know if there's a guy who's been faster than a guy like Quincy. Quarles and Barrett, throw them in a hat and mix them up, but Geno is certainly as quick as anybody I've seen. He looks like that young Derrick Brooks – not as thick, not as big yet, but he certainly is quick. If you're talking about speed here, that guy can flat-out run."
Ruud finished the year with 205 tackles, the second-highest single-season mark in franchise history behind Nickerson's 214 in 1993. Like his greener counterparts, he was obviously more effective in the revamped scheme and he finished the year with an exhausting 20-tackle performance against the Atlanta Falcons on January 3.
Hayes was second on the team with 136 tackles, and first with 14 tackles for loss. He gave the Bucs a pass-rushing component that they haven't frequently had in the WILL (weakside) spot, even when Brooks was holding that position down for 14 amazing years. Hayes finished with three sacks and 12 quarterback pressures, to go with two interceptions, seven passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was the only Buccaneer defender to make a mark in each one of those statistical categories.
As has always been the case, the SAM position is less lucrative in terms of stat compilation, in part because it is usually the one that leaves the field when an extra defensive back comes in for the nickel package. Still, Black finished tied for third on the team with 93 tackles, including seven for loss and 1.5 sacks. He added an interception and a forced fumble. His stats much up quite well with the accomplished Buccaneer SAM backers of the past 15 years, such as Singleton in 2002 (89 tackles, one sack, one interception); Ian Gold in 2004 (120 tackles, 0.5 sacks, one interception); Cato June in 2007 (120 tackles, no sacks, one interception); or Quarles in 2001 (77 tackles, two sacks, one interception).
Even better, the Bucs believe these numbers are just starting points for Hayes and Black.
"What was [Black] in, his third year?" said Morris. "Geno Hayes is in his second. Realistically, Geno is supposed to be graduating in Bobby Bowden's last year, which is right now. You are talking about a bunch of young guys."
Morris spoke frequently about the play of his three linebackers during the month of December, as the Bucs showed improvement across the board. He pointed out specific plays that showed how well the three were playing the defense, such as Ruud's diving pass break-up at a key moment in New Orleans or the game-changing forced fumble by Hayes in the same game. "Some of the stuff we were talking about," said Morris, "you saw it coming alive with the 'backers."
Perhaps the best thing that the Bucs' young linebackers gained during the 2009 stretch run was confidence. Ruud, obviously, was well established as one of the league's best young middle linebackers, but the Bucs weren't sure what they had in Hayes and Black when the season began. Those two now head into the 2010 offseason believing they can excel in the NFL, and the team believes it too.
"You can look at the stats, but when you come down to it, it's about what the guys put on film," said Hayes. "The guys never backed down from anybody. You learn a lot coming out of a tough season like that, because tough times do not last.
"We showed that we had confidence. We showed that we still had effort. Everybody was still trying to take advantage of the chance to show what we can do. Be ready – that's all I can say."