Though still an important part of the Bucs' defense, Shelton Quarles is being asked to work on special teams again
Joe Marciano might know a bit about how Tony La Russa feels these days. With legendary slugger Mark McGwire frequently out of the starting lineup over the last month, La Russa, the manager of baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, can look down his bench late in a close game and find a ridiculously powerful pinch hitter.
Marciano is the special teams coach for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A few shaky moments during the preseason and a couple of long returns in Dallas had some concerned about the Bucs special teams after the season opener. The thought was that the team's younger players were still searching for a grasp on Marciano's systems.
But Marciano has his own McGwire: fifth-year linebacker Shelton Quarles.
Perhaps the best special teamer of the Tony Dungy era in Tampa, Quarles had gradually seen his role on kickoff and punt coverage reduced over the past two seasons. Instead, he was asked to concentrate on his new job of starting strongside linebacker, a task that grew larger in 2000 when Quarles also replaced the departed Hardy Nickerson as the second linebacker in the Bucs' nickel package.
However, Marciano is now looking to Quarles to pinch hit, and the veteran's playing time on special teams has increased quite a bit. Expect that to continue.
"He said that he needed some guys," said Quarles, who holds Tampa Bay's single-season record of 31 special teams tackles. "Some of the guys hadn't stepped up yet and didn't know what to do on special teams yet. Until those guys learn what they need to do and are able to do it every time, you'll have a lot of older guys playing those positions."
Indeed, such veteran starters as cornerback Ronde Barber, linebacker Jamie Duncan and safety Dexter Jackson have also been spotted on coverage and return units early this season, but its Quarles that is most likely to make a significant impact for Marciano. The former Vanderbilt collegian and Canadian Football League moonlighter has 68 kick-coverage tackles in 65 career NFL games, only one of which came last season. In the 2001 season opener, Quarles was on the field for 13 of the game's 20 special teams plays.
"They have me on a few more special teams this year," Quarles understated. "I'm not playing in third-down nickel situations this year – the Mike's handling that – so my role on special teams comes back into play a little bit."
By 'Mike,' Quarles means the middle linebacker, Duncan and, on occasion, Nate Webster. By giving up nickel scheme duties to that pair, Quarles ends up with 15-30 fewer snaps per game. In addition, Alshermond Singleton usually gets in the game for a few series at Quarles' strongside spot. Against Dallas, Quarles ended up with about 20 snaps on defense, though that total was lower than usual because the Bucs' defense as a whole was only on the field for 44 plays, a very low single-game total. Still, Quarles' current duties do allow him to save some energy for Marciano's units.
"Whatever they need me to play, I'm willing to do that," he said. "I made my mark on special teams, starting out, so I think I can still play that position."
Quarles was an unknown free agent when he was brought over from the CFL in the spring of 1997. He bucked the odds to make the team that season and was an instant hit on special teams. After two seasons of establishing himself as the Bucs' most productive special teamer, Quarles inherited that starting spot on defense. While the latter achievement means more to him, he does understand that it was special teams that paved his way into the NFL.
Now the Bucs are turning to the seasoned Quarles to help the younger players follow in his footsteps. Tampa Bay had a rough special teams outing in the 2000 season opener at New England, as well, allowing a punt return touchdown, but rebounded to finish as one of the league's better kick-and-punt units. The Bucs expect the same thing to happen this fall, and would like to quickly put their opening-game funk behind them. It's important that they do, because a single disastrous special teams play can alter the outcome of a game and affect a team's playoff chase.
"I hope we can (improve quickly)," said Quarles. "We let the cat out of the bag a couple of times against Dallas. Everybody tries to find your weakness, so we're going to have to be ready on special teams against Minnesota."
Quarles will be ready to help in Minneapolis. Expect Marciano to use his powerful pinch-hitter.