Newcomers like WR Michael Clayton have helped put the Bucs on the rise even in a time of great change
In January of 2003, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to San Diego for Super Bowl XXXVII, the area's own team was at home after an 8-8 season. The San Diego Chargers then slipped to 4-12 last season. However, less than eight months after exercising the first pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, the Chargers have surged to 9-3 and are in first place in the NFC West by two games.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are in their second season of trying to get back to the playoffs. Injuries and inconsistency doomed the Bucs to a slow start in 2004, but they too are surging in the second half as they try to fight into the playoff field.
The paths of the Buccaneers and Chargers since January of 2003 haven't exactly been opposite, but they've been disparate. What the two teams have in common, however, is that they each have a very different look just 23 months later.
There are many reasons for roster turnover in the NFL – injuries, free agency, the salary cap, player decline, new coaching staffs, an effort to improve on a poor record – and very few teams can avoid them all. The challenge is to handle change in a way that leads to continued – or in the Chargers' case, renewed – success.
"Unfortunately, it's just part of football these days," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Even New England, the team that won the first Super Bowl [of their two], has had massive changes on their team. If you look at every team in the league, they undergo some changes, and some are more drastic than others.
The Bucs and Chargers will meet on Sunday in a game that has significant playoff implications, albeit more serious ones for the visitors. Gruden would argue, with good reason, that it is an intriguing matchup of two teams on the rise.
"We've won five out of our last eight," he said. "We feel like we're getting better, and we're encouraged by a lot of the things that have happened. Some of these young players have come in and given us not good play but great play at key positions where we need it – Mike Clayton, Brian Griese, Ian Gold. Obviously, Jay Taylor has uplifted us at a position where we need help. You couple that with a team that has won five out of eight, and we've got 11 or 12 picks in next year's draft, those are good signs. But we're not happy about being 5-7, although we're excited about competing Sunday."
Gruden sees turnover in San Diego that is, in some aspects, similar to what the Bucs have gone through. Before the Chargers pulled out of a streak of eight straight seasons without a winning record (they clinched that by winning their ninth game last weekend), they went through the departures of such long-time stalwarts as linebacker Junior Seau and safety Rodney Harrison.
"They lost some hallmark players, kind of like we did, a couple of years ago," said Gruden. "They've brought in some new players; they've changed to a 3-4 defense; Wade Phillips deserves a great amount of credit. They've done a great job, obviously, with the quarterback. They've drafted well; [Nick] Hardwick and [Shane] Olivea, two starters on their line, have come from the draft. [Antonio] Gates is turning into a superstar player at tight end and [LaDainian] Tomlinson's been one of the best. It's a combination of a lot of people contributing there – Keenan [McCardell]'s played a big role – and that's a credit to them."
The Chargers, incidentally, are the last time to make the playoffs after starting the season with an 0-4 record, a feat the Bucs are trying to duplicate this year. San Diego pulled it off in 1992, winning 11 of their last 12 to take first place in the West. The Bucs haven't been that hot, but they haven't been too far off. Gruden believes only a few critical errors have kept Tampa Bay from winning seven of their last eight.
Even at 5-3, the run has been a good one, particularly the last game, in which the Bucs completely dominated Atlanta, previously 9-2, in a 27-0 victory on Sunday. That's the sign of a team headed in the right direction.
"We were 1-5 sitting in St. Louis," said Gruden. "We're playing much better football. We feel like we've squandered a couple games, but we've been in every game, we've been in position to win and last week was arguably our best performance, collectively, of the season. It's a credit to the football players and to the assistant coaches."
A Full Practice
The Buccaneers have five players on their first official injury report of the week, but they had 61 players (including the practice squad) on the practice field on Wednesday.
Everybody on the team practiced in some fashion, although the five players on the team's injury report were limited to specific drills. Even safety Jermaine Phillips, who is listed as doubtful on the report as he continues to recover from surgery to repair a right forearm fracture, got some work in.
The other four limited Buccaneers, all probable on the report, are safety Dexter Jackson (hamstring), tight end Dave Moore (ankle), running back Michael Pittman (knee) and defensive lineman Dewayne White (calf).
"The guys who are on the injury list were limited," said Gruden, "but everybody did, in some way, shape or form, practice."
San Diego's injury report is also five players long, although it includes three men who are considered questionable or worse. Cornerback Sammy Davis has been ruled out due to a lower leg injury, while wide receiver Tim Dwight, the primary kickoff return man, and safety Hank Milligan are questionable with toe and hamstring ailments, respectively. None of the five players on the Chargers' injury report are listed as starters on the team's depth chart.
Defensive end Greg Spires already has a career-best 4.5 sacks this year, but those who follow the Buccaneers closely know that sacks are only a small part of the veteran's all-around game. Spires is good at bull-rushing opposing linemen and collapsing the pocket, he can hold his own at the point of attack on running plays and he racks up huge tackle numbers for an end by hustling down the line.
And there may be another underrated facet of Spires game that belies his smiling, genial quality in the locker room: Ferocity.
On Wednesday, safety Dwight Smith was asked who the team's hardest hitter is, and he had a surprising answer: "What do you mean, besides Greg Spires?"
According to Smith, Spires's hard-hitting is the origin of his unusual nickname, bestowed upon him since his arrival in Tampa in 2002.
"That's what he does," said Smith. "That's why he's called 'The Crane.' He takes tackles, tight ends, backs…they all look the same to him."
Spires laughed when Smith's assessment was handed down the row of lockers to his. While enjoying the compliment, he figures the position he plays makes the 'Hardest Hitter' title unlikely. He also thinks Smith could have looked closer to home for the answer.
"Nah, it's probably a linebacker because a lineman doesn't generate enough speed to hit a man hard," said Spires. "It's probably a linebacker or a safety. He's just being modest; he's probably the hardest hitter on the team."
Pro Bowl Update
After three more weeks of voting, linebacker Derrick Brooks stands right where he did after the first batch of Pro Bowl balloting: First among all vote-getters at outside linebacker in the NFC.
Brooks's continued strong showing in the fan voting is a good sign as he seeks his eight straight Pro Bowl selection. Using online ballots at NFL.com, paper ballots at stadiums around the NFL and wireless text messaging, fans are forming one third of the composite voting that determines the AFC and NFC Pro Bowl rosters. Over 42 million votes have already been cast on NFL.com.
The fans' collective ballot is one third of the selection process. It is combined with one created by players' votes and one created by coaches' votes. The NFL is the only sports league that combines the opinions of its players, coaches and fans to create its all-star game.
Brooks is the leading vote-getter among all outside linebackers in the NFL. He had received 177,717 votes through Monday, December 6. The AFC leader at outside linebacker, Tennessee's Keith Bulluck, had 124,085 votes.
The leading vote-getter among all defensive players in the NFL is New York Jets defensive end John Abraham, with 262,525. The leader among defensive players in the NFC is Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher, with 188,652. The top 10 overall vote-getters are all offensive players, led by Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning (722,669).
Brooks has been to the last seven Pro Bowls and has started the last six. He is tied with Warren Sapp for the most Pro Bowl appearances in franchise history.
Pro Bowl balloting continues on NFL.com through Sunday, December 17. Click here to visit the Pro Bowl section at NFL.com and cast your vote.