Warrick Dunn was part of a running back tandem that helped define the Bucs' offense during the first quarter of the season
Schoolchildren often bring home progress reports at the end of each quarter of the school year, with marks in various categories – reading, writing, math and so on.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden approaches each NFL season much like a schoolteacher, approaching each four-pack of regular season games as a "quarter" of the season and assessing them as a group. This strategy allows Gruden, his coaches and players to focus in on the near future and their immediate surroundings, rather than getting caught up in the grand scheme of a grueling 16-game season.
"The season is so long, it seems like training camp was last year, so if you can isolate four games and get familiar with them and get a couple common themes, that is big to help your guys focus," Gruden said. "Otherwise you are looking at the big picture instead of maybe a few steps in advance."
Thus, with the first quarter of the season in the books, Gruden was asked earlier this week to assess his team's performance – or give them a report card, if you will. While he declined to get into many specifics, Gruden did point out one aspect of the Bucs' first-quarter performance that stands out above the rest – the team's 3-1 record.
"I just try to break it down in a one-month segment, where we can all just kind of focus in the short term," Gruden said. "If you go 3-1 in every quarter, the last I checked that was 12-4 and you have home-field advantage for the most part. But those are just goals and statistics. We are going to analyze every quarter carefully and try to really get to know the four opponents that exist there and do the best we can to come out with as many wins as we can."
Some promising trends have already begun to develop through the Buccaneers' first four games. The defense has shown a remarkable ability to force turnovers and score points of its own, tallying nine takeaways and three defensive scores through four games. The unit has also been outstanding on third downs – allowing opponents to convert only 33 percent of the time – and in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on only 25 percent of their forays inside the Bucs' 20-yard line.
The offensive line – even in the absence of starting right guard Davin Joseph – has played extremely well, opening huge holes for the running backs and preventing Brian Griese from being sacked on his last 97 straight pass attempts. The two-pronged ground attack of Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn has paced the Bucs to a 133.8 yards-per-game average, ninth-best in the league. The passing game has given the offense a nice sense of balance, also ranking ninth in the league by averaging 227.2 yards per game.
The team has overcome injuries to Joseph, No. 1 wideout Joey Galloway and starting fullback B.J. Askew, and after two straight come-from-behind victories to close out the first quarter, there is perhaps one word that best describes the Bucs' through the first quarter – resilient.
"I am really proud of that," Gruden said. "We try to show them clips of old boxing matches where a guy is getting battered for eight or nine rounds and then finds a way, I think, to create analogies to never quit. That is what Kevin Carter is all about, that is what [Ronde] Barber and [Derrick] Brooks bring here, even Brian Griese, he has a tremendous heart, football character. Earnest Graham, the offensive line, the defensive line, these guys have tremendous football character.
"If you watch the film, the effort is outstanding. We have great football character. I am proud of these guys and that is one of the reasons why we have come from behind against two very good teams and won in the fourth quarter."
Even though the reviews of the Bucs' first four games of 2008 are overwhelmingly positive, it is now time to focus on the second quarter of the year. With 12 games still remaining on the schedule, there is much work to be done.
"We have to really concentrate on the next month of the season," Gruden said. "Some players that maybe didn't play much during the first quarter are going to have to step to the forefront now. I just think it is important to get familiar with Denver quickly, isolate the things that we haven't done well in the first quarter, because those are the things that are going to come back to bite us in the second quarter. The things that we have done well, we have to do better."
While those early patterns the Bucs have been developing so far are exciting, and three more quarters similar to the first one could leave the team at the "head of the class" come playoff time, Gruden hesitated to apply any labels to his team this early in the year. There are simply too many difficult exams still awaiting his charges to record any sort of final grades.
"I don't get into all that identity stuff," Gruden said. "We have four games done; we have won three, lost one and have a long way to go. We are in a very difficult race right now and we have a very hard schedule. This one right here, standing in front of us is going to be a real test for us."