Late in the first half on Sunday in Atlanta, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drove 90 yards for a touchdown to pull within three points of the Falcons at halftime. So far, that is the Buccaneers' longest drive of the season.
Touchdown drives of 90 or more yards are great, obviously, but they're relatively uncommon because it's difficult to grind out too many plays in a row in the NFL without being forced into some sort of mistake. The Bucs have just one such drive this year, and have surrendered two. All of last season, Tampa Bay managed two TD drives of 90 or more yards and gave up none. In 2008, the Bucs and their opponents each had one. And so on.
This is why teams coaches harp on the importance of turnovers and special teams. Those two elements of the game shorten the field for offenses and produce much more realistic scoring opportunities. Shorten the field, reduce the number of plays you need to execute correctly to get into the end zone.
Or you can hit one big play.
Essentially, that's what happened when the Buccaneers marched those 90 yards in Atlanta on Sunday. Quarterback Josh Freeman converted one key third down with a 13-yard pass to Kellen Winslow, two Cadillac Williams runs earned another first down near midfield and then, bam, 58-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Williams. Seven plays, just over three minutes, and most of the 90 yards coming from Williams' dash after he caught a square-in against a heavy blitz.
The problem with this option is – or at least used to be – that the Buccaneers' offense didn't have much of a big-play threat. With Freeman's cannon arm and the ability to buy time in the backfield and an emerging group of playmaking receivers, however, that appears to be changing in a hurry.
Three Buccaneer receivers – Williams, Arrelious Benn and Micheal Spurlock – are all averaging 14.6 yards per catch or better. Of all the players in the NFL's top 15 in receiving yards, Williams ranks second with his 15.5 yards per grab. Furthermore, five different Buccaneers have already caught a pass of 40 or more yards this season, making the Bucs the only team in the NFC and one of only three teams in the NFL with that many players to have done so. The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders have each had seven different players catch a 40 -yard pass.
"Wide receivers these days, we want to create more plays like that," said Williams, who has scored five touchdowns already, several from long range. "We want to be playmakers and we want to be the ones that change field position. If you get a 30 or 40-yard play, you can easily change field position. We want to do that every week and that's what we talk about, and we try to do it."
Benn's 53-yarder in Arizona the previous weekend set up the Buccaneers' game-winning touchdown. Spurlock hauled in a 43-yarder against the Falcons that got Tampa Bay out of a long third-down situation at its own one-yard line. All Buccaneer receivers are eagerly taking their routes downfield because they believe in Freeman's ability to find them and put the ball on the money.
"No matter what, you just run your route and win and he's going to get you the ball," said Williams. "That's what we do – we just try to win and we know the ball is coming."
Williams is the Bucs' leader in every receiving category but the Bucs have a variety of packages with Benn, Spurlock and Sammie Stroughter, and even rookie free agent Preston Parker got into the act in Atlanta. Freeman trusts all of them and doesn't have to focus too much on any one player when the game demands a big play.
"It's the receiving corps in general," said Spurlock. "I don't think he cares who's out there. He believes in us. We've put in the work this offseason to be on the same page, so we know what he's thinking and he knows what we're thinking. We're going to get into the right holes and the right spots so he can get us the ball and we can make plays."
They already are, and at a rate higher than what the Buccaneers are used to. In the 10 seasons from 2000-09, Tampa Bay averaged 37.2 completions per year that were good for 20 yards or more. Through the first half of 2010, the Bucs already have 26 such plays, a pace that would lead to 52 by the end of the year.
On Wednesday, General Manager Mark Dominik, a University of Kansas alum, showed a fellow Jayhawk around One Buccaneer Place and brought him out back in the afternoon to watch practice.
Not just any fellow Jayhawk; the Bucs' special guest on Wednesday was none other than the "Kansas Comet," Gale Sayers.
Sayers, who played parts of seven seasons for the Chicago Bears from 1965-71, was the youngest inductee ever into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. It is a measure of how great his career was that, despite playing in just 68 career games, Sayers was recently named the 22nd greatest player in NFL history in the NFL Network's countdown of the top 100.
Wednesday morning, Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris awed his young players with a video of some of Sayers' NFL highlights. He then used Sayers' unfortunately brief career arc to drive home another message to his team.
"He's one of the greatest running backs of all time, arguably, him and Jim Brown, right?" Morris said later. "And he played six years in this league. I said, 'What if I told you from this point on, guys, we have six more years left to be together, and some of us less? What would you do today? Here's Jim Brown – he played nine. What if I told you you only had nine more years left to be with each other, to do what we do right now. What would you do today?'
"I think you've got to come to work every single week. That's how I'm going to attack work every day. Those are arguably the two greatest players to ever play our game, and they played six and nine. This is a short-lived life, men. Enjoy it while you can."
Sayers visited Buccaneers headquarters on behalf of KU, primarily to touch base with Dominik and former Kansas players Aqib Talib and Dezmon Briscoe. He provided his fellow Jayhawks with some updates on what is happening within the KU program.
Regardless of the reason for Sayers' visit, Morris was happy to have such a highly-respected NFL legend around his young team.
"It's humbling," said Morris. "You don't want to smother a guy like Gale Sayers. You shake his hand, you keep moving and if he has something to say to you, you listen. I've always believed that's what you do around men like that. You want to be around that type of people, you want your team around that type of people. Anything they've got to say I'm sure can help you. He's a walking legend for a lot of us. He played the game we all love and we respect him for it."
Local Standout Joins Practice Squad
Tyrone McKenzie, who played his prep ball at Riverview High School and continued on to star at the University of South Florida, has now climbed to the next level of Bay area football. On Tuesday, the Buccaneers signed the second-year linebacker to their practice squad.
To make room for McKenzie on that eight-man crew, the Buccaneers released linebacker Mike Balogun.
The 6-2, 243-pound McKenzie originally entered the NFL as a third-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2009, the 97th player selected overall. However, a knee injury suffered during his first mini-camp landed him on injured reserve and he missed his entire rookie season. McKenzie returned for New England's training camp in 2010 but was released on the final roster cutdown and then signed to the Patriots' practice squad. He remained on that unit until November 6, when he was waived and then quickly signed by his hometown team.
McKenzie was two-way star in high school and a first-team All-Hillsborough County selection as a running back by the Tampa Tribune before beginning his collegiate career at Michigan State. He transferred to Iowa State after one season with the Spartans and, after sitting out one season, averaged nearly 11 tackles per game and earned all-conference honors with the Cyclones.
Prior to the 2007 season, McKenzie transferred again, this time in order to take care of his widowed mother, who had been involved in a car accident and had subsequently lost her daycare business. He joined the USF program and was not required to sit out a season after receiving a hardship waiver from the NCAA. He went on to lead the Bulls in tackles in each of his two seasons on the team, racking up 237 stops and earning first-team all-conference honors as a senior.
McKenzie arrived in Tampa in time to take part in Wednesday's practice. Some of his first work came during offensive periods as a member of the scout defense. The week's first practice was essentially a walk-through, but Morris was pleased with how well McKenzie took to the scout cards the coach was using to run that side of the ball.
"He's a really detailed kid," said Morris. "You can already see he's sharp, he's bright-eyed and into it. That's always a good first sign. We'll see him tomorrow a little bit better, get a chance to see him move around. I'm excited to have him here. He's one of those guys you liked from a couple years ago, so this is another part of the second wave of the draft, as we call it around here."