A back injury suffered by T Jason Odom, currently an unrestricted free agent, caused the only permanent change in last year's starting O-line
On Monday, Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, General Manager Rich McKay and McKay's player personnel staff boarded planes in Indianapolis for a return trip to Tampa. That crew had spent the better part of a week in Indiana, evaluating NFL prospects at the league's scouting combine held in and around Indy's RCA Dome.
Included in the 300-plus draft hopefuls in Indianapolis were many of the top offensive line prospects, names that are likely to be heard in the early hours of the draft, April 15-16. While in Indianapolis, Dungy indicated that the offensive line could figure into the Bucs' April plans, as well.
There is no doubt that the line has figured heavily in the Bucs' offseason strategy so far. While the team is usually vague about their exact personnel plans, neither Dungy nor McKay made any secret of the fact that upgrades up front would be a central theme this spring. Then they backed it up early in the free agency period by signing the top center on the market, two-time Minnesota Viking Pro Bowler Jeff Christy. With March arriving, Dungy spoke about the possibility of adding former Viking guard Randall McDaniel, another perennial Pro Bowler, and the team could also re-sign their own unrestricted free agent, T Jason Odom.
Such moves, plus any additions that might arrive on draft weekend, could constitute the most extensive rebuilding of the offensive line the Bucs have ever undertaken. Christy will be the team's new starting center, replacing stalwart veteran Tony Mayberry, the starter since 1991. McDaniel, if signed, could earn a spot on the starting unit and Odom could regain a spot at either tackle spot after spending most of 1999 on the sideline due to a back injury. Odom has starting experience on both the right and left side, and the Bucs could have an opening at left tackle depending on the future plans of T Paul Gruber. Gruber, the team's starting left tackle since 1988, ended the 1999 season with a broken leg and has not yet decided whether to return to the field in 2000.
Such developments would constitute a major overhaul. Tampa Bay has not replaced more than two starters on the offensive line in any given year since 1984, disregarding shifts in position (e.g. switching from left guard to right guard). The Buccaneers' media guide lists the usual starting lineup for each season since 1976, based on which player started the most games at each spot that season. Last year's usual five of Gruber, LG Jorge Diaz, Mayberry, RG Frank Middleton and RT Jerry Wunsch was just one player different from the year before, as Wunsch took over for the injured Odom.
In 1983, the Bucs' front five was comprised of Dave Reavis, Ray Snell, Steve Wilson, Sean Farrell and Kelly Thomas. The following season, Wilson and Farrell held onto their spots but Reavis and Thomas were replaced at tackle by Gene Sanders and Ron Heller and Steve Courson took over for Snell at guard. The overhaul worked for Tampa Bay as the offensive line blocked for James Wilder's team-record 1,544 rushing yards in 1984 and the team scored a franchise-record 335 points.
Sanders, Heller and Courson could eventually be a valid comparison to the current situation. Heller was a rookie, a fourth-round draft pick who stepped into the starting lineup at right tackle and went on to win a spot on several all-rookie teams. A former defensive tackle, Sanders was a veteran who had seen previous action at both right and left tackle before settling in on the left side for most of 1999. Courson, acquired in a trade for Snell with Pittsburgh, stepped right into the left guard spot after starting for much of six seasons with the Steelers.
The most obvious difference, of course, is that neither the 1983 or 1984 Buccaneer teams fared well in the standings, while the 1999 Tampa Bay squad finished with a team-record 11-5 regular-season record and came within a few minutes of a Super Bowl berth. The current Tampa Bay management is looking for the final pieces to the puzzle in their quest for a championship, so the events leading up to this new offensive-line remodeling are not comparable. Still, the 1984 offense, with its revamped line, improved from 28th in the league in offense the year before to 10th in '84, the highest finish ever for Tampa Bay. The 2000 Bucs, coming off a 28th-place offensive ranking in 1999, would certainly welcome a similar jump.