One Buc Mailbag: Emulating the Past

Take a look at some of the best photos of the Buccaneers' defense from the 2015 season.

This week's One Buc Mailbag contains Game of Thrones spoilers

Each week during the remainder of the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans. This week, the discussion begins with a question about which current Buccaneers might follow in the footsteps of Bucs-for-life like Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks. We also try to find common threads in the Bucs' worst-to-first turns in 2005 and 2007, and even touch on the poor route-running skills of Rickon Stark, R.I.P.

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com*.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.

1. Scott,

I saw that Mike Alstott was at One Buc Place the other day to meet Dan Vitale. Alstott and Derrick Brooks are my two favorite Buccaneers ever (who's your favorite player? Mr. Derrick Brooks!),and one thing I liked about them is that they only played for the Buccaneers. Same thing for the great LeeRoy Selmon, and Ronde Barber too. My question for you is, from the roster the Bucs have right now who can you see being a Buccaneer for life. It should be somebody who you think is going to have a long career, not a player who is only in the league for a year or two. That would be kind of a loophole. I know that not a lot of players do that anymore. I mean, even Peyton Manning switched teams, which I thought would never happen. He still seems like a Colt to me, but he won a Super Bowl in Denver, and maybe an MVP too. I could look that up but I'm too lazy. I think he did. So when he goes into the Hall of fame, he's not all just a Colt. Derrick Brooks was all Buccaneer when he went into the Hall!

*Thanks for taking my question. Go Bucs!

*Mike Glenn, New Port Richey *

I think this is the second straight week in which we have a question in the mailbag that originated in New Port Richey. (Yep, last week we had one from NPR's Anthony Gironda II…do people refer to it as "NPR" down there?) Must be a thriving fan base in New Port Richey.* That's a good question, Mike. As a related aside, here are all the men in team history who played at least eight seasons for Tampa Bay and none for any other NFL team: FB Mike Alstott (12), CB Ronde Barber (16), LB Scot Brantley (8), LB Derrick Brooks (14), S Cedric Brown (9), DE John Cannon (9), RB Earnest Graham (8), C Randy Grimes (10), T Paul Gruber (12), LB Cecil Johnson (9), C Tony Mayberry (10), S Jermaine Phillips (8), LB Shelton Quarles (10), DE Lee Roy Selmon (10), T Rob Taylor (8), CB Mike Washington (9) and C Steve Wilson (10). ( including one season spent entirely on injured reserve) *

The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.

Now, your two favorites, Mike, are guys that were drafted by the Buccaneers and never signed with another team before retiring. However, I did include guys that spent time with other teams as long as they never played a regular-season game for any other NFL squad. Shelton Quarles, for instance, actually tried to start his career with the Miami Dolphins in 1994 and then spent some time in the CFL before coming to Tampa in 1997. Cedric Brown was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and actually bounced back and forth between Oakland and Tampa several times, but only ever saw the field for the Buccaneers. And so on. There are also a few guys who just missed qualifying for this list because they followed up their long Buc runs with very brief cups of coffee elsewhere, such as Karl Williams, James Wilder and Davin Joseph.* So, getting back to that list, it's only 17 players long. I said that it was a "related aside," but actually I think we can make it the bar to meet here. What player or players currently on the roster might stay at least eight years with Tampa Bay AND play their entire NFL careers as Buccaneers, a la Alstott and Brooks? Well, Gerald McCoy already has six seasons under his belt and is entering the second year of a big contract extension that runs through the 2021 season. We all know that long NFL deals often don't see their conclusion, but I think it's safe to say this deal will still be in effect long enough for McCoy to get to eight or nine years as a Buccaneer. After that, it's going to be a matter of how motivated both sides are to get one more deal done to make him a Buc for life. McCoy has been one of the faces of the franchise, a great performer on the field and a difference-maker in the community as well. I think he likes being a Buccaneer, so there's a good chance this gets done. Lavonte David, who is heading into his fifth season, is also in the early stages of a lucrative contract, one that technically runs through 2020. I've always felt that David had a Derrick Brooks-type of feel about him, both in terms of his play on the field and his likeliness of being a Buc long-term. That's not scientific, of course, but I would actually put the odds of David being a Buccaneer for his entire NFL career just slightly ahead of McCoy's. They're both good choices. *

View some of the best pictures of QB Jameis Winston at the Buccaneers' mini-camp and OTAs.

It's tempting to say Jameis Winston, of course, and I do think he'll be a Buccaneer for a very long time. But if his career lasts 10-15 years, who can say if even the last few are in Tampa? I mean, Peyton Manning didn't even finish his career in Indianapolis, as Mike pointed out above. Brett Favre played 16 games in Green Bay and started, what, 6,000 consecutive games for the Packers but even he moved on to the Jets and Vikings before hanging up the spikes. (Favre wouldn't have counted anyway because he spent his rookie season in Atlanta and played in two games.) Doug Martin, who just got a new deal, might seem tempting, too, but I tend to think that tailbacks are not good bets to stay put for an entire career. They eventually get replaced in the draft and move on to another team to get in a few more years.* Want a couple dark horse candidates? I'm not picking any rookies or second-year players, as much as I might like Vernon Hargreaves or Ali Marpet. Let's get these guys to four years as a Buc first, then start projecting how the rest of it will go. If Demar Dotson has a strong enough season in 2015 to warrant one more contract in Tampa, he would be an interesting candidate. He's already been in Tampa for seven years. William Gholston is entering his fourth season and has proved to be a productive player who could provide useful D-Line depth for years. Look back at that list of 17 above and among the star-caliber Bucs you'll find a handful of players who were just solid "glue" guys for a long time – Earnest Graham, John Cannon, Jermaine Phillips, Rob Taylor, etc. Gholston might end up in that category. Similarly, Luke Stocker has carved out a niche as a blocking specialist and has already played five seasons. If he gets to eight or nine and then chooses to call it a career, he might end up as a Buc for life. 2. Hey, Scott. I know Carolina's been on a roll lately, but the NFC South used to be known for teams going from last place one year to first place the next season. Worst to first. Happened all the time, IIRC. I think the Bucs even did it a couple times. Well, even though we beat those lousy Falcons twice last year we still ended up in fourth place in the division. So if anybody's going worst to first this year, its us, right! We can hope! So my question to you is, what years did the Bucs do the worst-to-first thing (I know I could look it up, but I figured you'd know) and why do you think it happened? That might give us an idea if the Bucs can do it again this year. Give me reason to believe, Scott! ! I'm counting on you!*

- Mark Brooks, Tampa

Take a look at some of the best photos of the Buccaneers' offense from the 2015 season.

So I can tell from all the exclamation points. I'm taking this one from Mark even though I answered another one of his questions just last week. I usually like to spread it around, but the mailbag was thin and I thought this was a pretty good question.

Anyway, yes, from the time it was formed during the 2002 expansion and realignment through just a couple years ago, the NFC South was known as the NFL's most topsy-turvy division. It was kind of exciting, really. It gave you reason to believe, as you say Mark, year after year.

The Bucs won the division in its first year on the way to a Super Bowl title, and Carolina finished last. The very next year, Carolina took the division crown, going worst-to-first from 2002 to 2003. Then Atlanta did it from 2003 to 2004, and the Bucs got into the act from 2004 to 2005. Amazingly, the trend continued with New Orleans from 2005 to 2006 and then Tampa Bay again from 2006 to 2007. Carolina finally broke the string in 2008 when they won the South after finishing second in 2007, but then New Orleans promptly went worst-to-first from 2008 to 2009. That's the last time it happened in the South, but still, six times in the first seven years it was possible is pretty amazing.

So, to recap from a Bucs' perspective, the worst-to-first triumphant years were 2005 and 2007. Let's take a look at those teams.

Rewind to 2003, when Tampa Bay still owned the most freshly-minted Lombardi Trophy. They blazed into their title-defense season extremely confident; some players privately felt the team was stronger in 2003 than it had been the year before, and they immediately provided evidence with a 17-0 win in Philly over a very good Eagles team in Week One. Then the wheels came off.

A handful of key injuries and a couple bizarre and disheartening losses turned a 3-2 start into a relatively disastrous 7-9 finish. The team's architects responded by signing a huge number of free agents before 2004 in an attempt to squeeze another title run out of the remaining core of players who had won in 2002. Almost all of those free agents proved to be spectacular misses and the Bucs fell further to 5-11.

That in turn put the Bucs at fifth in the 2005 draft, and they used that pick on Auburn running back Cadillac Williams. Even though Williams' career would be largely derailed by injuries, making that top-five draft investment a poor one in the long run, he had a marvelous debut campaign, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Tampa Bay's rushing attack, which finished 24th and 29th the two previous years, jumped all the way up to 14th, and that made a big difference. Williams' incredible start – he had 434 rushing yards through the first three weeks – propelled the Bucs to a 4-0 start.

Just as importantly, the Bucs' defense, nearly a decade after first rising to prominence, pulled it together for one last outstanding season, finishing first in the league's yardage rankings and eighth in points allowed. John Lynch and Warren Sapp were gone, but Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Shelton Quarles and Brian Kelly were still around from the Super Bowl core, and they all played well. Brooks and Barber were both first-team Associated Press All-Pros, the latter recording five of the Bucs' 17 interceptions. Plus, this was really Simeon Rice's last big hurrah, as he racked up 14.0 sacks.

Chris Simms did pretty well after replacing an injured Brian Griese five weeks into the season. Rookie draft picks Barrett Ruud, Alex Smith and Dan Buenning all made sizeable contributions along with Williams, although Ruud was mostly just a special teams ace at this point.

And, frankly, some things just broke right, somewhat the opposite of the 2003 disaster. After that 4-0 start, the Bucs lost three of their next four and were close to losing another one at midseason to Washington before Edell Shepherd made a diving touchdown catch in the last minute and Jon Gruden chose to go for two and the win. Mike Alstott barely got it over the line for a 36-35 victory. The next week in Atlanta, the Bucs rallied for 10 points and a 30-27 win in the last two minutes thanks in large part to a Michael Vick fumble. In Week 16, with Tampa Bay's playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Atlanta was on the verge of an overtime victory in Raymond James Stadium after a Shepherd fumble on the opening kickoff of the extra period, and then Dewayne White blocked a field goal. Then the game nearly ended in a tie before Atlanta decided to punt in the final minute of overtime because the Falcons weren't sure how a tie would affect their playoff chances. A big runback by Mark Jones set up the game-winning field goal.

In all, the Bucs won four games by a field goal or less, and that was the difference between 11-5 and 7-9. I remember that season well and I can tell you that it didn't feel like an 11-win team until very late in the season. In fact, the record was 7-4 entering December and the Bucs were facing a string of three straight road games in a span of 14 days, which seemed like it could be disastrous. It started with a relatively routine win at New Orleans, but then the Bucs had to go to Carolina to face a very good 9-3 Panthers team. Cadillac Williams, Chris Simms and Ronde Barber all had huge games and the Bucs pulled off the 20-10 upset. That win proved to be the difference as both teams finished 11-5 but Tampa Bay won the tiebreaker and the division. Of course, the Bucs then lost their first playoff game to Washington and the Panthers went all the way NFC Championship Game.

So, the differences from 2004 to 2005? A better rushing attack, a last gasp by a once-proud defensive core and just some plain good fortune in close games.

The pendulum swung back hard in the other direction in 2006. Simms struggled badly out of the gate and then suffered a frightening spleen injury. That turned the quarterback job over to rookie Bruce Gradkowski, and while the sixth-round pick admirably held his own, he certainly didn't scare opposing defenses. That was especially true with Cadillac injured for much of the year and Tampa Bay's running game plummeting back down to 29th in the league rankings. Rice lost his edge and was eventually released and the defense lacked any real pass rush. There was a flurry of other key injuries – a common theme on teams that fall hard after a good season – including ones to Michael Clayton, Brian Kelly, Shelton Quarles and Dan Buenning.

And then, just as quickly, another hot start in 2007. After an opening-week loss at Seattle, the Bucs ran off three straight and worked their way back to 4-2. The biggest difference was at quarterback, where free agent signee Jeff Garcia took over for Gradkowski and put up a 13-4 TD-INT ratio, a 63.9% completion rate and a 94.6 passer rating. Those were all huge improvements over the QB numbers from 2006. Garcia missed time with injuries but Luke McCown filled in very well in his absence. Earnest Graham came out of nowhere to fill the Caddy-sized void in the running game, with 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. The defense cobbled together a much better – and frankly surprising – pass-rush out of the likes of Stylez G. White, Gaines Adams and Jovan Haye. The defense featured seven new starters, including Kevin Carter and Barrett Ruud, and it jumped all the way back up to second in the league in yards and third in points. Mike Alstott landed on injured reserve before the season (and retired after it) but otherwise there were no terribly significant injuries. All of that still only bought the Bucs a 9-7 record and a first-round playoff exit, but it was nonetheless another worst-to-first jump.

So in this case the main differences were a veteran quarterback, an out-of-nowhere rushing threat and a largely-overhauled defensive lineup that somehow came together into a very strong unit. That's not necessarily a common occurrence.

Can the 2016 Bucs gain any confidence from those two pieces of recent team history? Well, neither is a spot-on blueprint for where the team is now, but there are relevant bits and pieces. Some of it will just be a matter of good fortune, if it happens, particularly in terms of injuries to key players (or a lack thereof) and the outcomes of close finishes. Perhaps the addition of kicker Roberto Aguayo will affect that latter point, particularly considering how much below league average the Bucs' field goal rate was last year.

The Bucs don't need to find a new rushing star like they did in 2005 and 2007, having brought back the very effective duo of Doug Martin and Charles Sims. They don't need to go out and find a new quarterback, either, but they can expect an uptick in their numbers from that position as Jameis Winston continues to develop. The 2016 defense is likely to see an overhaul to its starting lineup almost as dramatic as that 2007 team, with new pieces once again coming from both free agency and the draft. If it can come together as quickly and as effectively as it did nearly a decade ago, you'll definitely see an improvement in the Bucs' record.

Oh, and you may have heard from time to time that turnovers are kind of important. Well, the 2004 Bucs committed the seventh-most giveaways in the league, but the 2005 crew took care of that problem and finished tied for the sixth fewest turnovers. Similarly, the 2006 team tied for eighth-worst in that category while the 2007 team was third-best. Well, your 2015 Buccaneers tied for the eighth-most turnovers; fix that problem again and you could go a long way towards making another leap to the top of the division standings. Somebody needs to do that; I'm tired of the Panthers.

3. Stark Disappointment

I know, right? The only good news was that the defender beaten on the play, Jon Snow, did eventually sack the quarterback and knock him out of the game. And it wasn't particularly good news for Ramsay when he got back to the Bolton sideline and found that Sansa Stark was the team trainer. Her treatment methods were, um, unorthodox.

I imagine the word "serpentine" was shouted more often on the evening of June 19 than it will be on the most popular fantasy football draft night in August. To be honest, though, Rickon didn't even really need to zig-zag around that much. All he really needed to do was look back. We're talking arrows here; if he was watching, he could see when Ramsay released each bolt. Just wait for that and THEN veer one way or the other. These aren't bullets; he would have enough time to change his spot while the arrows arced through the air.

Anyway, I think that will probably be Rickon's last deep route. That injury looked career-threatening to me.

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