Rookie S Donte Nicholson and his fellow 2005 draftees appear ready to make an immediate impact on the Bucs' season
In his very first regular-season NFL game, Santana Dotson was responsible for nine tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, a pass defensed and one early exit by a quarterback (Timm Rosenbach).
In his very first regular-season NFL game, Jacquez Green returned a punt 95 yards for a touchdown, still a Tampa Bay Buccaneers record.
Derrick Brooks started, had seven tackles and broke up a pass in his debut. Lee Roy Selmon had two marks in the sack column before his NFL career was even two quarters old. Mark Carrier caught six passes for 50 yards and scored a touchdown in Week One to mark his arrival.
Just a year ago, Michael Clayton caught seven passes for 53 yards in the Bucs' opener at Washington, numbers that weren't surprising when seen in context with what he would do over the next 15 games, but still unexpected at the time.
The point, of course, is that rookies can have, and have had, an impact on an NFL team's fortunes, right from the opening moments of the season. That has certainly been true in Buccaneer history, whether we're talking 1976 or 2004. The Bucs are counting on that being true again in 2005.
The obvious concern, however, when one is about to rely on rookies is that the young players will either be unprepared or too keyed up for their first games. The term 'rookie mistake' exists for a reason. Somewhere in the NFL this weekend, a league newcomer will err in a way his veteran teammates wouldn't have, and it will hurt his team. Lessons will be learned the hard way.
"The whole rookie season, really, is an experience in itself," said Buccaneers. You're playing against a completely different level of competition. What I've always discovered is the speed of the game is so much faster."
Some take that "speed of the game" phrase to mean the difference between the average talents of the players at the college and pro levels, but Gruden was actually referring to how quickly NFL referees keep the action moving from one play to the next. A rookie might make a play downfield, get up from underneath a pile of three players and realize he has 26 seconds to get back to the huddle, get the play, get lined up and start running at top speed again.
Still, Gruden agrees that there are other differences between the two levels, including the sheer volume of information that must be retained.
"It's loud as hell and the schemes are so much more complex," he said. "It's hard to describe the difference, in my opinion."
So, will the Bucs-Vikings game be the setting for one of those "rookie mistakes?" Anything can happen, of course, but Gruden seems to feel comfortable with how the Bucs own newcomers are handling their roles. Running back Cadillac Williams is the most obvious youngster in this situation as the new starting running back, but he has company. Dan Buenning may start at left guard; Alex Smith should play extensively as the second tight end; Barrett Ruud and Donte Nicholson are likely special teams contributors; Anthony Bryant may be in the defensive tackle rotation; etc.
"I think they're doing pretty good," said Gruden of the team's 10 rookies, who are nearing the end of their first regular-season week of practice. "I think they're obviously excited. Maybe deep down there are some nerves there, who knows? I think they're handling it pretty well.
"We're trying to put them in some tough situations with the crowd noise everyday. We're trying to give them the best picture we can of what we expect to see. I think they're doing quite well."
On the Mark
The return of Mark Jones has made the Bucs' game-day roster planning even more difficult. One of the key issues: Who to keep active at receiver after the obvious top three of Clayton, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard?
Last season, the Bucs kept either four or five receivers active on game day, depending upon injuries, needs at other positions and the kick-return situation. In the first two games, for instance, the Bucs kept Frank Murphy active among five receivers but used him almost exclusively on kickoff return. Later in the year, when that job was mostly in Torrie Cox's, hands, the Bucs frequently kept only four receivers active.
Similarly, the Bucs may look for a way to include Jones on their list of 45 active men this Sunday in Minnesota in order to get his help on punt returns.
"He's a guy who has obviously done it in the league," said Gruden. "We are familiar with him, he is fast, he is a good punt returner. He proved that last year in New York. It's up to us now to find a way to get him active, and as soon as we can there's a good chance he'll be back there returning punts. That's why he's here."
Jones and fellow young receivers Edell Shepherd, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell could help their chances by performing other tasks on special teams, as well, a contribution the Bucs didn't get from the receiver position last year.
As of Thursday, Gruden had not revealed if Jones would be among the 45 active men in Minnesota, and he wasn't likely to do so until Sunday.
"We still have time to decide that," said Gruden. "He's obviously taking a crash course on what we're doing. We'll decide that sometime right before kickoff."
Jones, who was the Giants' primary punt returner all of last year, is eager to get back on the field for the team that originally drafted him in 2004. He has one word for what he can add to the Bucs' lineup on Sunday.
"Excitement," said Jones. "Someone who is going to be back there that can make it happen and try and take it the distance. I am going to get the most amount of yards that I can."
The Buccaneers' official injury report didn't get any longer on Thursday, but it did get a little bit worse.
Guard Matt Stinchcomb, the only player on the Bucs' half of the report, was downgraded a notch to "questionable" after being considered "probable" on Wednesday. Stinchcomb is fighting the same nagging injury that cost him a good chunk of training camp and three of the four preseason games.
"His lower back flared up," said Gruden. "We think he'll be okay but we're going to list him as questionable for the game. Whether or not he starts, we'll determine that later in the week."
Rookie guard Dan Buenning, who has already pushed Stinchcomb for the starting spot with his strong preseason, would start at left guard if the veteran is unable to play.
The Vikings made no changes to their injury report on Thursday.