C Tony Mayberry (61) is headed to his third straight Pro Bowl
Nothing that happened at One Buccaneer Place on Thursday will wedge its way onto the sports page tomorrow. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' internal preparations for a busy 2000 offseason continued at the team's headquarters, but it's Super Bowl week, so backroom meetings in Tampa won't compete with the stream of news coming from Atlanta.
Still, while the Bucs weren't exactly newsworthy on Thursday, they were laying the groundwork for what should be a crucial seven months. Next year's Super Bowl will be in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, and the Buccaneers would like to be the first team to play in the big game in their own town.
The Bucs were painfully close to the Super Bowl this year - five points or five minutes, depending on how you look at it. That leaves Tampa Bay in an enviable but pressurized situation, where an excellent team must still be improved to take the next step. The first task towards that goal is an in-depth evaluation of where the team stands.
"What we do, with respect to any player, is sit down at the end of the year and have the coaches evaluate the players, as they're doing today and tomorrow," said the team's General Manager, Rich McKay, on Wednesday. "Then we sit down one-on-one with each coach and say, 'Let's go through each player, let's go through their productivity, let's go through how they fit in our scheme, how they fit going forward' and so forth, and then make a determination."
After a grueling 24-week season, you couldn't begrudge any coaches or members of the personnel department if they wanted to take an extended vacation. Unfortunately, there just isn't time, particularly since the coaches and football staff must head to Hawaii to direct the NFC squad in the Pro Bowl next week. The NFL's free agency period begins on February 11, just over two weeks from Thursday. While that usually conjures thoughts of outside help in every fan's mind, it also raises issues concerning the team's own soon-to-be free agents.
"We've got some free agents and we'll start our meetings this week," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Our coaches and our personnel department try to formulate a strategy for getting as many people back as we can. In this age of the salary cap, it's tough juggling everything, but we'll try. You know, when you've got a good team you want to keep as many components as you can, and we'll certainly try to do that."
So that means some extra work for the team's contract negotiators before that big February date, right? "We'll have those discussions this week and next week," said McKay, "and we'll probably be in a position to have some discussions with agents towards the end of next week."
And what of other team's free agents?
"We haven't sat down and gone through those lists yet, and we won't probably for another week," McKay continued. "Probably in Hawaii is where we'll sit down with the coaches and say who's on the list, here's who we consider on the hot list for us, and then we'll go through them player by player."
McKay did admit on Wednesday that the team's offensive line was a concern heading into the off-season, but that was mostly a product of the potential free-agent status of starters Tony Mayberry, headed to his third straight Pro Bowl next week, and Paul Gruber, still recovering from a recent broken leg.
The future status of Gruber, who has played in and started more games than any other player in franchise history, remains unclear. "I'm going to talk to Paul and see what he's thinking," said Dungy. "I don't really know. When he had the injury, it's something that we said we would just let that heal and let him have some time to think about it. We'll see where he is with his rehab and what's on his mind."
Dungy then addressed the state of the team's offensive line. "We did have some injuries and not many people make it to the Championship game when they lose their two starting tackles," he said. "I thought our guys filled in and did a great job. As I've said, we didn't run the ball as well as we would have liked in the second half of the season, and that's something that we've got to look at. But we think we can get better, and we think we've got good enough talent there to do it. But you always look every year at trying to make improvements."
And that close look starts this week, quietly, behind the scenes. Make no mistake about it: the Buccaneers would love to be at the center of that Super Bowl hoopla this week. Instead, there making the most of their free time.