P Josh Bidwell is one of the 2004 newcomers on an improved special teams crew
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished up practice on the far field on Friday, practice squad kicker Jay Taylor used the near field to practice a variety of kickoffs. Taylor, picked up earlier in the week from the Arena League's Orlando Predators, was working on various aspects of his game in case the Bucs have to call on him Sunday; veteran kicker Martin Gramatica is questionable on the injury report with a hip strain.
That's the primary storyline for the Bucs' special teams this week: Will Gramatica be able to play?
For the season, however, the story of the Bucs' special teams is one of improvement almost across the board.
After being a significant asset during the team's championship run in 2002, the Bucs' special teams were not sharp in 2003. Tampa Bay ranked last in kickoff return average, opponent gross punting and opponent net punting, next-to-last in field goal percentage, 29th in opponent punt returns, 28th in opponent kickoff returns and 26th in punt return average.
After the season, the Bucs acknowledged their shortcomings in that third of the game and made a specific and concerted effort to address special teams during the offseason. Among the moves made to that end were the signings of punter Josh Bidwell, tight end/long-snapper Dave Moore and linebackers Jeff Gooch and Keith Burns, the re-signings of Corey Ivy and John Howell and the drafting of Marquis Cooper and Will Allen.
The effects have been dramatic. The Bucs are back among the league's best special-teams crews, ranking first in kickoff return average, fifth in net punting, seventh in gross punting, 13th in opponent punt returns and 15th in opponent kickoff returns. Not every statistic has flipped – the Bucs are still ranked low in field goal percentage and opponent punting – but the special teams are now back to making impact plays…and in a good way.
Kickoff returner Torrie Cox, for instance, has turned in long returns at important times at New Orleans and St. Louis and is ranked second in the NFL in kickoff return average (27.4), a category in which a Buccaneer has never led the league. As such, the Bucs have made a drastic improvement in one of the league's more hidden stats: Average kickoff drive start. After kickoffs, the Bucs' offense is starting its drives with an average line of scrimmage of their own 31.2, the third-best mark in the NFL. Last year, Tampa Bay ranked second-to-last in the league in that category.
The Bucs' punt coverage unit has also shown marked improvement. Last year, opponents got 12.5 yards per runback; this season it's down to 7.3, even after Kansas City's Dante Hall broke off a 29-yarder in last Sunday's game. The longest return the Bucs had allowed before Hall's breakaway was a 12-yarder.
Such containment will be particularly important this Sunday in the Georgia Dome, where proven veteran return man Allen Rossum is in the middle of another fine season. Rossum, who averaged an impressive 14.0 yards per return last year, has his pace up to 15.6 per this season, first in the NFC and second in the NFL. Among his 2004 exploits is a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against Kansas City on October 24.
Atlanta has also been very good at covering their kicks, ranking first in the league against punt returners and fourth against kickoff returners. Cox has his work cut out for him: The Falcons have allowed just 18.3 yards per kickoff return this season, with a long of 32.
No news is…no news?
That's the case on the Buccaneers' injury front, where the report after Friday's practice is the same as the one from Thursday: Wait until Sunday.
There are three players listed as questionable on the Buccaneers' injury report, officially meaning they have an equal chance of playing and not playing: Gramatica, wide receiver Joey Galloway and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland.
"All those guys are 50-50," said Gruden. "We'll give those guys tomorrow and see where they are on Sunday."
Gruden did confirm that McFarland, one of two starting defensive tackles, did not practice on Friday for the third straight afternoon due to his triceps injury. Obviously, a turn on the practice field would have led to more optimism about McFarland's status, but his absence did not rule him out for Sunday's game.
"Maybe some guys have a coaching guide that they use for Friday being a cut-down day; I don't do that," said Gruden. "It depends on the player and the position he plays sometimes. We'll just listen to the trainers, listen to the players and give them as much time as they need to showcase whether they can play or not."
One of the Guys Again
Defensive lineman Chidi Ahanotu, a Buccaneer from 1993-2000, was playing for the Buffalo Bills in 2002 as Tampa Bay made its Super Bowl run. He would head off to San Francisco shortly after the Bucs beat Oakland, 48-21, in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Ahanotu remembers feeling pleased for his former teammates, and also feeling a connection to the excitement and relief that came with the franchise's first title.
"I was happy for them," he said. "I was a part of that whole team during the run and could not help but feel like I should be out there with those guys. I still felt like I was a part of it and a part of that run."
Ahanotu joined the Buccaneers as a sixth-round draft choice in 1993. His first four seasons as a Buccaneer were the last four in a string of 14 straight losing campaigns for the franchise. In 1997, he was the starting left end when the team broke through with a 10-6 record and its first playoff berth in 15 years. Ahanotu was also part of the 1999 team that advanced to the NFC Championship Game against St. Louis.
"Those guys we had out there [in the Super Bowl] were part of the product of the steps that we took when I was here," said Ahanotu. "I definitely felt like I was a part of it. The whole run that we had and the guys we had out there; that was product of the steps we took when I was here. It felt like a sense of completion; even though I was not still on the team."
Brooks, a first-round draft pick in 1995, is one of only three current Buccaneers who have played more games for Tampa Bay than Ahanotu (also Dave Moore and Mike Alstott). He believes Ahanotu can be an asset to the defense once again.
"It's nice to have Chidi back on our football team," said Brooks. "I spoke to him early and often this offseason and he stressed how if he had the opportunity to come back to Tampa, he would jump on it. Thank God, this week, that opportunity came, and we are looking forward to him coming back and making a big impact."