Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Right Combination

That’s what the Bucs will be deliberating over the next five months as they try to work a talented group of offensive line pieces into a cohesive, effective unit


Todd Steussie said he could play right tackle if needed, adding further versatility to the Bucs' O-Line

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have 15 offensive linemen under contract and, once the regular season rolls around, five spots for them to fill. Mathematically, that equates to 360,360 possible O-line combinations, setting aside specific players' positional skills.

Even if one only includes the nine men who have started in the NFL, that still leaves 15,120 possible combinations. And if one were to ignore the concept of competition and assume the team's four recent signees and, say, holdover center John Wade as the starting line, there are still 120 ways to arrange those five men.

Now, we're not exactly talking Rubik's Cube complexity here (that famous toy from the '80s had over 43 quintillion possible configurations!), but it is nonetheless a thorny puzzle for the Buccaneers. And, unlike that confounding Cube, there is more than one correct answer.

Given that three of the Bucs' four recent signees – Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O'Dwyer – have all started at multiple positions in the NFL and the fourth – Todd Steussie – said on Monday he would feel comfortable switching spots, it appears the possible permutations might be closer to 120 than one.

There's no need for Buccaneer coaches to start worrying about higher math, however. Somebody once solved the Rubik's Cube in 16.5 seconds. Tampa Bay will have more than five months to put their five-man line together. Furthermore, the Bucs' brain trust hasn't just signed four players willy-nilly, hoping to find a way to make them fit later.

And the process of forming the right offensive line starts in less than a week.

"We have a game plan," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We have a plan. Again, we will begin to implement that plan on March 22, when the offseason program starts."

Beginning next week, a majority of the team's players will take part in a strength and conditioning program several days a week at One Buc Place. Outside of mini-camps, organized practices are not allowed during the spring, but players in for a workout can receive personal instruction from their coaches. Later in the spring and early summer, the team will conduct a string of 'organized team activity' days, non-mandatory workouts that usually draw most of the roster. Through all of this, the offensive line will come together in some form, presumably improved from the year before.

"We've got to come together March 22nd," said Gruden. "We've got to have a great draft. We've got to continue to see if anyone fits our puzzle that we can plug in here to try and help our team win and return to the game we want to get to.

"We'll have to prove that (we're better). We got to prove what aspects and where we've gotten better. That's just the nature of the beast."

But it is the nature of the Bucs' ultra-aggressive approach to the remaking of the offensive line that each of the new players has happily signed on without trying to lay claim to a specific spot. One could take left tackle as the perfect example…the team's incumbent, Roman Oben, is still around and three of the signees, Deese, Steussie and Stinchcomb, have all started at that position at some point.

Steussie, with 173 career starts at left tackle, is the most experienced of them all, but he wasn't assuming anything upon his introduction to Tampa on Monday.

"It's pretty early in that," he said. "I'm just coming in to compete and try and make myself better and the rest of the offensive line better. I'll play where I fit best. I think there's a couple spots I'd be able to fill and we'll see what comes out. That's (Offensive Line) Coach (Bill) Muir's decision, not mine."

Both Steussie and Gruden expressed confidence that the team's newest addition could play right tackle if asked to do so. O'Dwyer has started at both guard spots, Stinchcomb at left tackle, left guard and center and Deese pretty much everywhere. Holdover Kerry Jenkins played left guard and backed up left tackle last year. Guard Jason Whittle could play on either side. In just three seasons, Kenyatta Walker has made 24 starts at right tackle and 19 at left tackle.

Steussie, for one, feels the group's flexibility and the coming battle for jobs can only help produce a stronger product in the end. He has been through a similar situation, having come in as part of a revamped offensive line in Carolina in 2001.

"There's going to be a great deal of competition and that's really going to bring out the best in everybody," said the former Viking and Panther. "We had a similar situation when I came to Carolina. We brought three new starters in and having veterans coming in, I think, allows that process to merge or come together a lot quicker than if it were a bunch of young guys. I don't see that being an issue at all. I think it's a strength."

At times last year, the Bucs were hamstrung up front by injuries to Whittle, Oben, Walker and Jenkins. As a whole, the team was hit particularly hard on the injury front in 2003, and while it would be surprising to see a repeat in 2004, some players will undoubtedly get hurt. That's another way in which the new line's versatility will help in the long run.

"All these things were considered as we made these four acquisitions," said Gruden. "Again, we do have some returning good football players, and we think it's very possible that we can come together and put together a heck of an offensive line."

The shuffling will begin next Monday. The offseason's first mini-camp, the first time five men will line up in order in front of quarterback Brad Johnson for an official practice, is set for the weekend following the draft. By then, the coaching staff will have more than a month of evidence to consider in its final decision.

"We're going to play the best five linemen and we expect it to be a very competitive, exciting training camp," said Gruden. "I think that breeds a real good, healthy offensive line. At least the ones I've seen in this business.

"It's going to be very competitive. Hopefully, we've gotten bigger, stronger, more athletic and with that we'll get better."

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