WR Frank Murphy may return to resume his kick-return job on Sunday, but the Bucs found another option while he was out
During the 2004 preseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers basically auditioned one player for the punt return job: rookie receiver Mark Jones.
Because that was likely to be the main – and perhaps only – avenue for a roster spot for Jones, the team used every opportunity to gather evidence for that decision, at the expense of looking at any other options. Jones, in fact, had all 11 of the team's punt returns during the preseason. That was a negligible risk, however, as two very experienced punt returners were on hand as fall-backs, and neither Joey Galloway nor Tim Brown needed a preseason cameo to convince anyone they were worthy of the job.
But Jones didn't make the team, and Galloway didn't make it to the first punt return of the regular season. Before Washington's first punt in the season opener, Galloway suffered a groin injury that will keep him out for most of the first half of the season. And the Bucs know Brown is more of a sure-handed alternative than an explosive one. After three games, Brown and Bill Schroeder, another veteran familiar with the job, had combined for eight returns at a clip of 4.5 yards per, with four fair catches. Tampa Bay currently ranks 28th in the NFL in punt return average.
Those numbers have prompted the Buccaneers to consider some additional options, not all of them chock full of experience. In fact, one player who is most definitely not a veteran nearly got his first crack at the job on Sunday night in Oakland.
"We were going to have Michael Clayton prepared to return punts in the regular field," said Head Coach Jon Gruden on Monday, referring to Sunday's game.
By the 'regular field,' Gruden meant any territory not backed up against the Bucs' own end zone, where returns are less likely and sound decision-making is paramount. On Sunday night, the Raiders weren't forced into their first punt until the game was just three-and-a-half minutes from ending, and even then they were kicking from near midfield.
Thus it was Brown, the former Raider, who went back for the only two punts of the game. One was downed by the punting team and one went into the end zone for a touchback.
"There are certain situations where the opponent is punting inside the 20, down-it punt-type situations," said Gruden. "We let Tim Brown handle some of those because of his experience and the fact that there is probably not going to be a return. We are looking for the sure-handed, good-decision catch from an experienced player in that situation."
Still, it is intriguing simply that Clayton was considered. The rookie first-rounder came to the Buccaneers with a jack-of-all-trades reputation, a player who was willing to take on any role. He has the hands to take on the job plus a special teams mentality, though he has more often been a cover man than the one returning the ball.
The Bucs have been checking out a variety of punt return alternatives during practices in recent weeks. Others who have been given a look include cornerback and special teams ace Corey Ivy and receiver Frank Murphy, the designated kickoff return man.
Actually, the Bucs may have two very nice options on hand for the kickoff return job, a fact they discovered when Murphy was unable to go against Oakland due to a hamstring strain. Second-year cornerback Torrie Cox, playing in his first regular-season NFL game, assumed the job with aplomb, returning five kickoffs for 144 yards, an average of 25.6 yards per return. The Bucs averaged a starting spot of the 30-yard line for the five drives following his returns, which was the team's stated goal coming into the season.
Murphy has been even better, averaging 26.9 yards per return over seven tries during the first two games. His 54-yarder against Washington in the opener tied for the ninth-longest in franchise history. Between the two of them, Murphy and Cox have combined to average 24.6 yards per return, the fourth-best mark by any team in the NFL. Tampa Bay has an average kickoff drive start of the 29.5-yard line, fifth-best in the NFC.
Despite the fine fill-in work by Cox, the Bucs hope to have Murphy back for Sunday's home game against Denver, which has been hurt by the return game, ranking 25th against kickoffs and dead last against punts. Murphy's value goes beyond returns, as he is also a gifted kick-coverage man and a 'forcer' on the punt team.
"That was another injury that hurt us [against Oakland], on special teams and as a coverage man and as a return man," said Gruden. "I thought Torrie Cox did some good things. Frank couldn't go; we tried to warm him up before the game."
Gruden said Murphy would begin the week as questionable on the injury report.
In Week Two, Gruden tried to spark his offense by inserting quarterback Chris Simms for starter Brad Johnson in the second quarter. In Week Three, Gruden got his spark by standing pat.
As in the first two games, the Buccaneers got to halftime, and then the fourth quarter, without having scored an offensive touchdown. That drought prompted Gruden to try Simms against Seattle, and the young quarterback performed well, if inconsistently. The next day, Gruden announced that Johnson would remain the starter and would open the following game at Oakland.
Gruden also said he wanted to keep Johnson from looking over his shoulder during games. On Sunday night, the coach stuck with Johnson even as Oakland took over the game in the third quarter; Gruden was rewarded for that decision when Johnson threw two touchdown passes and moved the team up and down the field in the fourth quarter.
In all, Johnson completed 22 of 36 passes for 309 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, which was returned for a score by Oakland. Simms is still considered a big part of the team's future, but Gruden is playing for the present and feels like Johnson is currently the best option.
"Brad Johnson deserves to play," said Gruden. "You want to give Chris some game action. He's a young player. He needs to develop. He needs some snaps, but we felt staying with Brad was the right thing to do. Brad Johnson showed tremendous character and grit and for that I am very proud of him. I thought Brad made some great throws in the ball game."
The one that was not a great throw, obviously, went 32 yards the other way in the hands of cornerback Phillip Buchanon. On a dead run, Buchanon cut in front of tight end Dave Moore on the left sideline and intercepted the pass with an open path to the end zone. Gruden attributed that play, at least in part, to the team's continuing struggles in protection, a factor of the constant turnover in offensive personnel. A blitzing linebacker was bearing down on Johnson, obscuring his view of the play.
"In fairness to him, I don't know of a team that I have ever seen, been associated with or heard of, that has had the lack of continuity that we have had here," said Gruden. "We failed miserably on that particular play to assign ourselves to a linebacker that was accounted for on protection. He threw the ball under duress, did not see Buchanon, and paid for it."
After that play, Johnson was 14-20 for 177 yards and two touchdowns as the Bucs attempted to rally from a 30-6 deficit in the fourth quarter.
Get to the QB
The Buccaneers had five sacks of Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in Week Two but still left with a 10-6 loss. That was a pattern-breaker for the Bucs, as it marked the first time since Gruden arrived that the team has lost a home game when it had at least three sacks.
In all, the Bucs are 26-7 over the last five seasons, including 2004, in games in which they have at least three sacks. That includes a 14-2 mark under Gruden; the only other loss under those circumstances was on the road, at New Orleans on December 1, 2002.
Tampa Bay's pass rush has been up-and-down, as it had none in the season opener at Washington, then those five against Washington and back to just one at Oakland. Part of the reason is that both the Redskins and Raiders used a lot of 'max-protection' schemes, sacrificing additional route-runners to keep more men in to block. That obviously reduces an offense's passing options, and Washington was able to pass for only 125 yards despite the lack of sacks. But Oakland beat the odds, throwing for 228 yards despite the extra blockers.
"That's tough sledding sometimes on the defensive line," said Gruden. " It's just unfortunate we didn't handle their passing game better. They created some very big plays with three men out in the route."
Perhaps the return home will jumpstart the team's pass-rush again. Then again, Denver doesn't make it easy on the opposing rushers; the Broncos have allowed just two sacks and are second in the league in the lowest percentage of sacks per pass play.