T Luke Petitgout missed much of his first Buc season with a knee injury but still had a positive impact in the Bucs' locker room
Two weeks ago in Phoenix, where he was preparing to take in Super Bowl XLII, Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen paused for a moment to speak to Bay area reporters about the 2008 season.
The Buccaneers play in the NFC South, where worst-to-first turnarounds have become an annual occurrence, but Allen said the strategy to keep the defending division champs at the top this time is simple. The team wants no part of a replay of the 2006 season, when it slipped to 4-12 after a 2005 division title.
"[We'll] try to get better," Allen said. "You try and increase the talent level, try and increase the depth on your team. You keep the hunger that we had this last offseason. The players on the team are hungry. Some of the players commented at different times that they were embarrassed about what happened [in 2006] and keeping that hunger will be very important."
The Bucs seemed to develop a stronger team chemistry and sense of unity in 2007. Allen said that component was key to the team's success last year.
"It's more than a football team," said Allen. "These are people that care more for their teammates' success than their own. Those are the people we like. [Many of the players have] been in the same infrastructure for years, and the young kids feed off of it."
Those "intangible" assets are important even now, in the relative quiet of the offseason. Allen stressed that, as the Bucs look to reload the roster for 2008, the quality of a player's character and his ability to mesh in the locker room will be considered every bit as important as his stats and contributions on the field.
"We always look for who's the best teammate," Allen said. "That's the No. 1 criteria."
Tampa Bay succeeded in that search a year ago, and that played no small part in the team's quick turnaround. Free agent additions such as Luke Petitgout, Jeff Garcia, Kevin Carter, B.J. Askew and Cato June brought instant leadership to the locker room, and the team's rookie starters from the draft – Gaines Adams, Arron Sears and Tanard Jackson –were put-your-head-down-and-work kind of guys.
The team would like to make similar additions this offseason. In turn, the Bucs offer any would-be newcomer an outstanding environment in which to play and improve his game.
"We like what we have, everything in Tampa," Allen said. "We have the best facility in the NFL; we have the best stadium in the NFL; we have a young group of guys; and we've got plenty of cap room and an opportunity to make the team better. So that's exciting. Having the coaches remain constant, the coordinators, it allows the players on our team to understand how they have to get better, because it's the same coaching, and that's how they do get better."
More Photos to Find in SI
As was revealed Tuesday on Buccaneers.com, Buccaneers Cheerleader Milly Figuereo appears in the just-published 2008 Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated. Figuereo's appears on page 145 amid a layout of 11 NFL cheerleaders.
Just 54 pages later in the jumbo issue, another member of the Buccaneer family gets her own spotlight.
Continuing a trend of recent Swimsuit Issues, SI devotes a section to the wives of well-known professional athletes. One of the four women in this year's spread is Carmella Garcia, wife of Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia.
Also featured in the athlete's wives section this year are Ingrid Vandebosch, wife of NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon; La La Vazquez, wife of Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony; and Michelle Damon, wife of New York Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon.
After starting every single game during his rookie season in 2007, Buccaneers safety Tanard Jackson was hurt on the opening kickoff of the team's playoff contest against the New York Giants on January 6.
That was a significant blow for the Bucs' second-ranked defense, even if Jackson was the greenest of the team's 11 starters. Though he was playing cornerback at Syracuse the previous fall, Jackson had quickly emerged as the answer the Bucs had been searching for as the deep safety in their Cover Two defensive scheme. With speed, instincts and a willingness to hit, the converted corner had helped turn one of the team's weaknesses in 2006 into a strength in 2007.
So Jackson was missed for the majority of the afternoon against the New York Giants, who upended the home team in that Wild Card playoff game as the first step in their run to the Super Bowl XLII title. The good news is, Jackson will be right back in his starting spot when the 2008 season begins, barring some unforeseen circumstances.
And that will be news of sort for the Buccaneers. For some reason, the free safety position has been something of a carousel for Tampa Bay, even though the team has put together a top-six ranked pass defense in six of the last seven seasons.
In fact, Jackson could become the first player to serve as the primary starter at free safety for the Buccaneers for two consecutive seasons since 2001-02.
The carousel began in '02, when free safety Dexter Jackson won MVP honors in the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII victory then followed free agency to Arizona. The following year, Dwight Smith, who had two touchdown returns in the Super Bowl as a nickel cornerback, made a successful transition to free safety, playing alongside strong safety John Lynch.
Following Lynch's departure early in 2004, Smith moved into the strong safety role and third-year man Jermaine Phillips emerged as the new free safety. Smith bolted via free agency at the end of that year and Phillips moved into his more natural strong safety role, leaving free safety up for grabs. The position was filled by – of all people – Jackson, who returned to the Buccaneers in 2005 after his short stay in the desert.
Jackson left again after the '05 season – to Cincinnati this time – and Will Allen stepped in at free safety, playing alongside Phillips. Allen remains with the Buccaneers, but it was Jackson who won the starting free safety job this summer. Jackson is almost certain to fill that same role in 2008, which would put a merciful end to that unusual carousel at free safety.