LB Derrick Brooks knows the Cardinals have a trio of receivers who can make big plays
Tampa Bay Buccaneer players spent the last week fending off questions about whether or not they were taking the season finale seriously, given its lack of playoff implications. The players questioned offered a variety of reasons why, indeed, they were as driven as ever, most of them boiling down to professional pride.
Here's another one: The Arizona Cardinals.
Granted, the Bucs-Cards tilt on Sunday won't be the epicenter of NFL action. Neither team is alive in the playoff race, and neither can finish with better than six wins this season. But the Buccaneers believe they are capable of significantly more than their 5-11 record suggests, and it's safe to say the Cardinals feel the same way.
If the St. Louis Rams make it into the playoffs this season, they will do so two weeks after losing at Arizona, 31-7. While the Atlanta Falcons enjoy their first-round playoff bye, they probably won't cue up any film of their 27-0 loss at Tampa in December.
Simply put, every team in the NFL is loaded with talent and capable of great things. In the Cardinals' case, a good chunk of that talent is located in the guys who play pitch-and-catch.
Arizona may be ranked 23rd in the league in passing yards per game, but its aerial attack has taken wing in recent weeks behind quarterback Josh McCown and an impressive group of young receivers.
Tampa Bay's secondary, which ranks second in the league in passing yards allowed per game, is certainly not mailing in the finale. They are wary of the Arizona's receiving trio of Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson. All three were either first or second-round draft picks in the last two years, and all three have at least 47 catches this year.
"They make big plays," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "They have a great receiving corps, no matter who is at the quarterback position. They also do a decent job at running the ball with Emmitt [Smith]. We still feel we have to go out there and stop the run and take away the big passing plays of their receiving corps and get some pressure in the pocket."
Brooks' reference is to the recent game of musical chairs the Cardinals played at quarterback. McCown started the first nine games of the season as Arizona stayed on the fringes of the playoff race. He was then replaced by former Buccaneer Shaun King and, later, Michigan product John Navarre. McCown regained the starting job three weeks ago and has put up good numbers since. With that young trio of pass-catchers plus tight end threat Freddie Jones roaming the field, McCown has thrown for 832 yards and five touchdowns in the last three games.
"He has come along," said cornerback Ronde Barber of the Cardinals' third-year passer. "The guy is definitely talented. He has great personnel to work with. His two receivers there are as physical, young and talented as I have seen in a while, so he has a lot to work with. They have turned the corner as far as production level."
Buccaneer safety Dexter Jackson is a former teammate of McCown's, having played for the Cardinals in 2003. Jackson knows that McCown is prone to the same growing pains any young quarterback will experience, but thinks he has a bright NFL future ahead of him.
"He is a tricky guy, a very mobile guy who is trying to learn the system," said Jackson. "I am watching him now, he is trying to do the Peyton Manning thing with the fake calls and things like that, but he has all of the potential in the world. It is just a matter of him grasping it."
The Cardinals may look back at the end of the 2004 season as the time when McCown 'grasped it.' At the very least, he is a threat this Sunday simply because his receiving corps is so good.
"That's one of the consistent things – no matter who is at quarterback their receivers make big plays," said Brooks. "We saw the past two weeks, where they have been ahead putting up points and where they have been behind, so we know the capabilities of this offense if they get it rolling, they can score some points."
The Cardinals' passing attack wasn't the only topic of discussion in the Buccaneers' locker room this week. Below are additional thoughts from Buccaneer players on a variety of current topics.
CB Ronde Barber on whether the team is already looking toward next year: "I am not. I don't think anyone in this locker room is. They shouldn't be. We have another week. There are [a few] more days left in the season and we are going to finish."
S Dexter Jackson on whether he is looking toward next year: "No, I don't look toward next year. I try to play every game as well as I can. You never know. It might be your last time and you are always showcasing your talent, so you can never take a year off and look for the following year."
S Dwight Smith on whether he feels everyone has been playing hard: "Yes. I believe so. I don't think anybody out here doesn't want to win. I hope that I can speak for all of our guys when I say we all want to win. I just want that to continue. I don't want the fact that we are 5-10 with the chance to go 5-11; we don't have a shot at the playoffs, to cause guys to pack it up already. I hope everybody comes out and gives the guy next to them their best effort."
LB Derrick Brooks on his mindset going into the Arizona game: "The mindset is to win; to win our sixth game of the year. That's the only thing we can accomplish at this point. That's what we are going out there to do. The attitude is pretty good. Hopefully, we will go out there and get a win on the road."
Smith on whether this last game is important to him: "It is really important to me. I don't ever want my teammates or my coaches to feel like I gave up because we don't have a chance to make the playoffs. I want to go out there and give 110 percent. It is not like I haven't been doing that all year, but I want to try to give a little extra because of the fact that guys are looking for you to lay down and quit."
Jackson on whether it would be great to make some big plays in this game: "It would be really nice, just to show them that they made a mistake. Again, I still can't carry on my shoulder, but I just throw that off and keep going. I can't let that get to me. Life goes on."
QB Brian Griese on why the Bucs are losing despite outscoring their opponents on the season: "It's hard to say right now. I'd like to take some time and reflect and look back and watch the film from each game. When you're in the middle of it, it's kind of hard to look back objectively and say this is the reasoning behind it. I have some good inklings and inclinations, but I'll reserve that judgment for later."
T Kenyatta Walker on the Bucs having a losing record despite outscoring their opponents: "You can point at a lot of things. Like I said, the biggest thing is that things just didn't go our way. It's a tough year, man. It's tough, frustrating. But out of a bad year I do have some good and bad things about it. A lot of guys fought through it. As I get older and longer in this league, I'm not surprised the things that happen, and the things that are said and what goes on. You just learn that it's part of our job and what we do. It's a tough year, but there are a lot of good things that happened."
Barber on the Bucs having a losing record despite outscoring their opponents: "Initially, I think that's a stat that probably doesn't mean as much as it says it means. But at the same time, it shows you we're not entirely playing that bad of football. We're just not making enough plays to win close games. Essentially that's what it was. I saw it all year – every close game we didn't make a play to win it and the other team did every time."
Barber on games also being lost on poor plays by the Bucs: "At crucial times this year we had crucial breakdowns. The interceptions, obviously, stand out; it seems like they always do in a game. But how many two-minute drives did we not stop. We talked about that last year – same thing. We just weren't a team that finished a lot, and you've got to finish to be a good team. To win close games, you finish ballgames."
Brooks on whether he wonders how the team got to this point: "No, it is something that I will address at a later date, but right now I am just trying to focus on beating the Arizona Cardinals and ending the season on a positive note."
Griese on if he would like to be the long-term solution for the Buccaneers: "I'd love to be here, yeah. I'm going to continue to work hard on my game and see what happens. You've really just got to take it day by day and continue to get better as a player. But I'd love to be here. I love Tampa, I love the fans and my wife and I have kind of moved in here. It's been really an honor for us to be in such a great town."
Griese on what he has to work on the most over the offseason: "I need to understand the offense better. I've continued to get better, I think, as the year has gone on. This is my first year in the offense, really. I'd like to take an offense and really look at the film and how I played and try to improve as a player as far as the knowledge of the game and the knowledge of this offense. I think there's a tremendous opportunity to take this offense to another level from my standpoint. I'm excited about the opportunity to go through the offseason and get healthy and really take some strides in the mental aspect of it."
Griese on if he feels he has revived his career: "I'm on way. I haven't revived it yet, but hopefully I've taken some steps. Like I said, I'm never going to be satisfied with anything. I'm going to continue to try to get better. There are obviously some mistakes that I've made that I need to correct, and then try to build on the things that we've done well."
QB Chris Simms on how he can gauge his progress in practice as compared to a game situation: "A game-like situation, you can't be prepared for it until you really get out there and do it. Even right now, when I think about being out in the game, I think about that first drive I had against Seattle. Those are the experiences I have to go on – my first drive against Seattle, my first drive against New Orleans. There is something to be said for [game experience]. It's just a different game out there. It's faster, blitzes are more disguised. Out here in practice, you've got a schedule, you know what plays are going to be called at some point in the day. Out there, it's free will."
Simms on if his father told him to "hang in there" during this season: "Always, probably three times a week. Every time I talk to him, he understands what I'm going through. I can remember three or four years where he was having a good year and got hurt. Even the Super Bowl when they came down here and played Buffalo in Tampa, he got hurt in Week 13 and they were 12-1. I still bad for him with that. He doesn't have to feel that bad for me; I'll be alright."
Brooks on playing against Karl Williams: "It is always fun to play against [former teammates]. It has kind of been the norm this year, playing against former teammates and just finishing off playing against Shaun [King], as well as Karl."
Griese on Michael Clayton: "He's been really consistent for us. For him to come in as a rookie and be able to handle this offense mentally as well as physically is a great testament to him. But the thing that's impressed me the most is that he's come in each and every week and been consistent."
Walker on if it would help to have offensive line continuity: "You would think it would help, but that's really not my area of expertise. You would think that would help, but you never know."
Griese on how comfortable he is with Jon Gruden's play-calling: "The more and more we work together, the more I understand him and the more he understands me and the things I like to do. I feel really comfortable working with him. It's been a great opportunity for me to learn more about the game. I've learned more this year than I have in my whole career, just about how offensive football works, defensive football and taking advantage of situations. It's been really exciting and fun for me this year to be able to play in that kind of system."