DT Anthony McFarland has consistently shown the ability to get to the quarterback
If you were a little surprised by Monday evening's roster news, imagine if you were Anthony McFarland.
McFarland, the team's last first-round draft pick, walked into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' complex Tuesday morning and right into a starting role on one of the league's best defenses. That elevation actually occurred on Monday, when the team included former starting nose tackle Brad Culpepper among its 12 league-mandated cuts. Tuesday afternoon, McFarland will line up next to Warren Sapp as the interior duo on the Bucs' first-team defensive line.
For his part, McFarland seemed like the least jolted person in the locker room or the surrounding area. To him, becoming a starter basically just increases the number of snaps he'll play from 20-30 a game to probably around 50 or 60, and he feels more than ready for that jump.
"Once I started learning (the system)," said McFarland, "I knew that, sooner or later, I would develop enough so that the coaches would say, "Okay, now he can play." Whether it was two years, three years, however long, it wasn't my decision. I just tried to go out and improve every day."
As the coaching staff had indicated even before Monday's cuts, McFarland has done an excellent job of daily improvement this past offseason. That may have given the team more confidence in this move, but it didn't change McFarland's basic sense about himself.
"I feel I had a good offseason," he confirmed. "Things were good. I'm confident in my abilities. I think that's the most important thing, and I've always been confident. I'm not scared to make mistakes. You move on and play another play."
Dungy characterized the team's move on Monday as a decision based not on Culpepper, who had not slipped in his play, but on the readiness of McFarland and backup James Cannida to assume larger roles. Dungy sees good things on the horizon for the man Tampa Bay selected with the 15th overall pick in 1999.
"He's a young, strong guy that has his whole future ahead of him," said Dungy. "He's learning the game, he's learned from Brad and Warren very well…but he's just got a lot of ability. We felt it was time for him to get going. He's rushed the passer very well when he's had the opportunity. He's played on the nose and also played in Warren's spot. He played last year for us and played in some big moments and we feel like he's going to be very good."
That feeling was emphasized by McFarland's outstanding training camp performance, as well as an eye-opening turn by Cannida. On Tuesday, Dungy said, simply, that the team felt the need to get those two young linemen on the field a lot more.
"Anthony's a guy that has played well when he's gotten a chance to play," said Dungy. "He's obviously going to get a chance to play a little bit more. James Cannida's another guy that we feel can come on and do some very good things. He's had a good preseason and he's going to get in the rotation and play some. We feel like those two guys are going to play well."
Sapp, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is going to make sure that happens.
"I ran it over in my mind the last couple of hours," he said on Tuesday. "I have to play better than I did a year ago. Anthony has to play better than Brad did a year ago and James has to play better than Anthony did last year. We still have three capable tackles inside and we have to fill the void. We've just got to get better."
This marks the second straight season that the Buccaneers have made a change to the starting defensive line just before the regular season. In 1999, the coaching staff felt good enough about the development of Steve White and Marcus Jones to trade former right end starter Regan Upshaw and move White into that role. Though White was somewhat limited by injuries, he and Jones combined for 64 tackles and nine sacks.
"We're not dumping a whole load on (McFarland)," said Sapp of this year's switch. "He's going to be scrutinized triple what Steve was a year ago when we moved Regan out of the starting spot. I've got to do my part to make him feel comfortable, and I'm going to do that. We've got to go out and get it done."
McFarland also mixed into the rotation as a rookie last year, playing more and more as the season progressed. He finished with 13 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble and gave the Bucs confidence that they could rest either of their tackles without experiencing a drop off in play. He'll be asked to fill an expanded role now, but he doesn't expect a drastic change in his preparation.
"It's no different," said McFarland. "You've got to take the same approach when you go out regardless of whether you're playing with the first, second or third team. You have to play against your opponent over there, and that's the way I look at it. So hopefully we can take this stride.
"I go out and take things as they come each and every day. A lot of people make a big deal out of it…I just go out and play my game. That's the way I've been since I got here."
Of course, nobody really doubts McFarland's ability, but he moves into the starting role on the heels of an unexpected move. The buzzword for pundits trying to weigh the pros and cons of this switch is 'chemistry' referring to Culpepper's experience and his fit with the rest of the starting defenders.
"We always worry about chemistry, but we felt like this was the way to go to make us a better defense, and that's what the decision was based on," said Dungy. "Every year is a different year. You come into camp and try to do things that will make the team better. You try to do what's going to be best for your team that year. If you don't do that, you'll end up falling behind. It would be easy to say 'We're just going to stay status quo,' but we didn't win it last year."