The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the youngest team in the National Football League, with an approximate age of 25.5 years old per player. The Buccaneers are also near the top of the league's standings, with a 5-2 record that is tied for the best mark in the NFC.
One does not necessarily expect those two things to go together. A team going through a serious youth movement obviously is hoping to build a successful veteran core that will stay together for many years, but growing pains can be expected early on. When youth and success do come together, it's a beautiful thing for a franchise because it means both the present and the future look bright.
"These guys are young and they're just crazy enough not to listen to everybody else and just go out and be their best selves and get wins," said Head Coach Raheem Morris (the youngest head coach in the league, naturally). "And that's what's happening. They believe in themselves. They've got a lot of self-esteem and a lot of pride."
The Buccaneers won in Arizona last Sunday with a rookie as their leading rusher (LeGarrette Blount), a rookie as their leading receiver (Mike Williams), rookies starting at left guard (Ted Larsen), flanker (Arrelious Benn), free safety (Cody Grimm) and defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy). Their leader, quarterback Josh Freeman, isn't a rookie, but he's only 22 and in his first full year as a starter. The defense scored two touchdowns in the close win, one by 23-year-old linebacker Geno Hayes and one by 24-year-old cornerback Aqib Talib.
All of those young players – and more – will be in the same roles when the team heads up to Atlanta this weekend for one of the franchise's biggest games in years. The Buccaneers and Falcons are tied for first in the NFC South and in the NFC as a whole and the winner will have sole possession of the division lead at the midway mark. It's possible, in fact, that the Bucs' core contributors will get even younger this weekend. With fullback Earnest Graham and defensive tackle Ryan Sims on the injury report and looking like question marks for the weekend, more playing time could be coming the way of players such as rookie FB/TE Erik Lorig and recently-acquired defensive linemen Alex Magee and Al Woods, both 23 years old.
"I stopped counting," laughed Morris about how many young players are being pressed into significant roles. "We've got a bunch of rookies out there, rookies and second-year players. Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Sammie Stroughter, LeGarrette Blount, [Kregg] Lumpkin, Lorig, Larsen. We just keep piling them in there, putting them in there, letting them learn our system, being a part of our practice, being a part of our ever-changing schedule."
Simply put, the team turned over a majority of the roster over the last two years, adding almost exclusively fresh young talent, and it hasn't been afraid to let those new Bucs play right away. Lorig is perhaps the best example, as he was actually a defensive end when the Bucs drafted him in the seventh round in April but has since switched to the offensive side of the ball. He began practicing at tight end in September and then moved primarily to fullback, and that's the kind of conversion that can take awhile.
Yet there was Lorig in the game on Sundays just a month into the season. He played nearly every snap of the Bucs' Week Six game against the New Orleans Saints when Graham aggravated his hamstring injury early in the contest. Now Graham is dealing with that injury again and has been unable to join in the first two days of the week's practice. The Buccaneers value what Graham can do for them very highly, but if they have to turn to Lorig again this weekend, they will do so with confidence.
"Lorig, he's great," said Morris. "Nobody works harder than Erik Lorig. I see him in the building constantly; he's probably in there more than me. It's ridiculous. He loves the position, he loves playing football, he loves moving around. He comes in some times and makes a joke, he asks me, 'What position am I playing this week, Coach?' But he's really comfortable with what he's doing. I think our offense is fast getting more comfortable watching him go out there and play. We look forward to him going out there this week and helping us again if we don't have the services of Earnest Graham."
The Bucs also haven't blinked when injuries ripped out 60% of their original starting offensive line and forced them to turn to several players who had little or no NFL experience. That wasn't the case at center, where well-seasoned third-year man Jeremy Zuttah has eased the absence of Jeff Faine, but the Bucs' starting left guard and right tackle last week in Arizona were Larsen (23) and James Lee (25). It was Larsen's second NFL start, and James' first.
Lee filled in for Trueblood, who had a streak of 67 consecutive starts snapped last weekend due to the knee injury he suffered in the Week Seven win over St. Louis. Faine has been out since hurting his quad in Week Five at Cincinnati. Both veterans returned to the practice field on Wednesday but were then held out on Thursday. There are still several days left to determine the likelihood of either player returning to the starting lineup, but the Buccaneers know they can count on their new young contributors if necessary.
"I'm encouraged by where Faine is going and that he's going to be back here soon, but we're not going to rush it. We're not going to do anything that will affect his status. We'll have to find out this weekend, see if he can go. [Trueblood] was able to do some movement things earlier in the week. He's a little sore. Hopefully we can get him back and get back to full strength and what we can be. But until those guys get back we've got some real quality depth going in there. They're starters and they're playing like it.
The Buccaneers will be underdogs when they head up to Atlanta, and they probably won't convert too many skeptics into believers unless they upend their co-division leaders. It's safe to say that many analysts still expect Tampa Bay to cool off from its hot start, and with the youngest roster in the NFL, it's not hard to understand why. Internally, though, the Buccaneers have as much confidence as they do youth, and they believe they are a worthy half of this battle for first place.
"Nobody's won a Super Bowl under the radar," said Morris, knowing more victories will turn the spotlight on his young team. "You become a team that's got a target on its back. You become a team that wants to be the best, strives to be the best and you just go out there and perform."
Keeping An Eye on Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez's first reception of the 2010 season was a 20-yarder down the middle of the field that put the Falcons into position to kick a field goal and take a 6-3 third-quarter lead over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
Clutch downfield catches are nothing new for Gonzalez, of course, but this particular grab was big in another way. It just happened to be the 1,000th reception of an NFL career that clearly has Canton marked as its final destination.
Gonzalez is not only the all-time leader among NFL tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns, he's also one of only seven players in league history to reach 1,000 catches, regardless of position. As a pass-catcher, he's in an ultra-elite group that also includes Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Terrell Owens.
The former Kansas City Chiefs star is in his 14th pro season and he turned 33 earlier this year, which is creeping up on advanced age for an NFL player. Somehow, he doesn't appear to be slowing down at all. Last year, in his first season in Atlanta, Gonzalez caught 83 passes, and this year he's second on the team to Roddy White with 29 receptions.
In other words, Gonzalez remains one of those rare tight ends whose presence demands that the opposition game-plan for him.
"He's tough to deal with," said Morris. "I was angry when he left Kansas City and came over to Atlanta because you only had to play him every couple years or so. He's a great player. He's a featured player in their offense. He does so much for them. He's dynamic. You always have to know where he is. You've got to find ways to slow him down in critical situations. And Roddy White's a great complement for him. Roddy knows that Tony's opened up a lot of things for him as well."
As Morris recently said about the Falcons as a whole, however, Buccaneer defenders have great respect for Gonzalez but do not fear him. Tampa Bay linebackers believe they have the talent to stay with the future Hall of Famer.
"He's a guy you've got to really focus on because he can catch every ball," said Geno Hayes. "We respect him, but with the linebackers we have there's no lack of confidence in being able to guard him. He's a threat, but at the same time we've got the speed to run with him and cover him."
Gotta Score to Win…On Defense
Touchdowns scored by a defense can turn an NFL game around in a hurry, as they did twice for the Buccaneers in Arizona last weekend. Hayes tied the game in the second quarter with his 41-yard interception return and Talib gave the Bucs their first lead in the third quarter when he went 45 yards to paydirt on another pick.
Every NFL head coach believes in the power of turnovers. That power is multiplied exponentially win the turnover becomes seven quick points. That's why Morris constantly reminds his team that he cares far less about yards allowed by his defense than he does about how often they can help the offense out with the task of scoring.
"There are a few stats that I care about," he said, recalling his recent statement that many stats are misleading and unimportant, "and scoring and getting the ball back is the major one."
It's easy to understand why. The Buccaneers began growing their reputation as one of the NFL's annual defensive powerhouses in 1996, when Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin arrived. That regime, too, stressed the importance of turnovers and scoring on defense, and Kiffin continued to do so through a 13-year Buc tenure that ended in 2008. In the 15 seasons since that time, including 1996 and this year, the Buccaneers have scored at least one defensive touchdown in 36 games.
The Bucs' record in those 36 games: 29-7.
On Wednesday morning, Morris addressed a meeting of just the team's defensive players and he stressed that connection between scoring and defense and winning. Rookie safety Cody Grimm, who scored on an interception in the Bucs' win at Cincinnati cracked the room up when he suggested that, well, the team should obviously score on defense every week.
"I just looked at Cody and smiled," said Morris. "But these guys get the point. I tell them their job – their job is to score and get the ball back. And they enjoy it. They have a lot of fun with it."
And, so far, they've won a lot of games with it.