Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Man in the Middle

The Buccaneers’ offensive line will have a very new look in 2004, but returning center John Wade gives the unit an important dose of stability

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C John Wade will lead a new front line into the fray this fall

A year ago, John Wade was a pivotal figure for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the most important offseason acquisitions made by the defending NFL champions.

This year, he is the pivot, literally the fulcrum around which the Buccaneers' offensive line has swung. It is completely possible, maybe even probable, that the Buccaneers will start the 2004 season with a line 80% new, familiar only at its center. Wade, who would be that returning center, is like the eye of a hurricane, holding still while everything around him is rearranged.

Twelve days into the 2004 free agency period, the ultra-aggressive Buccaneers had signed Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie, Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O'Dwyer, four veteran offensive lineman with extensive starting experience in the NFL. Arrange them right, and you've got two new starting guards and two new starting tackles, though holdovers such as Jason Whittle, Kerry Jenkins, Cosey Coleman and Kenyatta Walker may work against that turnover.

Wade, who started all 16 games at center for the Buccaneers last year, doesn't appear to have a significant challenge to that job. At the team's recent mini-camp, he held that job on the first-team line, flanked on the left by O'Dwyer and Deese and on the right by Stinchcomb and Steussie. Still, Wade is resisting any feeling of security at this point, perhaps impressed by the depth the Bucs have worked hard to build along the front line.

"I don't know what's going to happen," said Wade. "I am just trying to focus on making the right calls and keeping my own job. There's going to be a lot of battles. No one is going to be given the job every year, no matter what is written or said. That's a fact of life in the NFL. Training camp will give you a lot of the answers."

Two summers ago, the story of Tampa Bay's camp was Jon Gruden, and whether the new head coach could help a perennial playoff team take the next step (the Bucs won the Super Bowl that season). Last year, the focus was on whether the team had done enough to repeat in 2003 (Tampa Bay went 7-9 and missed the playoffs despite ranking fifth in defense and 10th in offense).

This summer, the Bucs are an enigma...an intensely interesting enigma. Some big names have moved on; many proven veterans have moved in; and the face of the team is changing. Predictions for the team are all over the board. Perhaps no Buc unit has seen more upheaval than the offensive line. But that was the plan. Four signings in the first two weeks of free agency made that clear. Buc management made those moves with the very near future in mind.

"I don't like the word rebuild," said Wade. "We have new faces and whoever is in there is going to do the job. We're just looking to win, period. It's not about 'rebuild' or 'reload.' There are all kinds of words you could use, but I wouldn't say rebuild. There are all kinds of new people, but that's just the nature of the business. We're just out here to work together and that's what we're doing. Come training camp, it will be time to pull it all together and get ready for September.

Wade is an affable sort who concentrates on the job at hand. Whether he's the new guy in the middle or – suddenly – the only returning starter on a brand new line, his responsibilities remain the same. And perhaps that's fortunate for the Buccaneers, that the one holdover in the five is the man responsible for making the calls.

"I just try to do my job and if I make the right calls that makes it easy on everybody," said Wade.

In general, the Bucs' offense looked good during June's mini-camp. That's limited evidence, however, given the contact restrictions at that time of the year and the defense's own work to incorporate new arrivals. How well will the new starting five come together when the hitting is for real and the quarterback's safety is on the line?

"I wish I had an answer," said Wade. "It could take a week. It could take two months. When you get the pads on and training camp comes, we can really assess how we are coming together as a unit.

"It looks good in the film room where you can rewind all day, but when the real bullets are flying that's when you really see. Come training camp when we get the pads on and there's real contact, real game-like situations, and practice, we will get a better assessment of that."

Fortunately, the 2004 Bucs, new and returning, have worked very hard this spring to put themselves in position for a strong training camp. Wade, who is actually the second youngest of the five who formed the starting line at mini-camp, has been impressed with the work ethic of the veteran linemen.

"This is a great group of guys," he said. "There's a lot of experience and talent. Everybody's done a great job with the mental part because this isn't an easy offense. It's not un-learnable, but you have to spend some time, and I think people have put in the time all spring to get the knowledge they need.

"There is a very good sense of enthusiasm. People are eager to learn. The people who have already been in the system are building on the knowledge they already have. There's definitely a sense of urgency on both sides of the ball."

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