Rookie safety Will Allen, who had an interception in San Diego, was the latest young player pressed into important duty
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin preparations for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday, they'll spend a good portion of practice looking at rookies and second-year men. Players like Sean Mahan and Jeb Terry, Josh Savage and Dewayne White, Earnest Graham and Ian Smart. Rookie Nate Lawrie will step into a new role. Rookie Michael Clayton will build on his.
None of this will have anything to do with the Buccaneers' 5-8 record.
The Bucs are in a precarious position in regard to the NFC playoff race, needing three wins and some outside help to have a crack at the final Wild Card spot, but they haven't given up on the season. And even if its quest for the postseason falls short in Week 15, 16 or 17, the team won't be artificially starting a youth movement.
Fact is, they've already worked a lot of young players into the mix, and not in order to get a sneak preview for 2005. Necessity has been the mother of promotion on the Bucs' roster, which has seen 68 different players on the active, 53-man squad this season.
Three defensive tackles hit injured reserve so the Buccaneers move White, a second-year defensive end, into the middle and he promptly records a sack in six straight games.
Injury and suspension prevent Charlie Garner and Michael Pittman from ever playing together, as intricately planned during the offseason, leaving the Bucs to search for a 'rocket back' pairing for Pittman. Enter rookie Ian Smart, who has the speed and the moves and is just now getting some experience.
When Frank Murphy goes down, second-year corner Torrie Cox takes over the kickoff return job, followed by Smart. Earnest Graham gets a crack when Mike Alstott gets hurt and Jamel White gets released and averages six yards a carry. Sean Mahan, in his second season, takes over at center for John Wade, lost to IR. Rookie Will Allen plays most of the game at free safety in San Diego when John Howell, already replacing the injured Jermaine Phillips, sprains an ankle.
And so on.
So Head Coach Jon Gruden doesn't see much point in the time-to-evaluate youngsters argument.
"We've been evaluating from the very beginning," said Gruden. "There's not a team in football that's probably played more people than we have. We've lost three defensive tackles, and when Howell goes down that's three safeties. Ian Smart's playing, Earnest Graham's playing. You might see a couple new faces – who knows? We've got a lot of pride in our locker room. At the same time, there are some young players getting increased playing time, and hopefully they can take advantage of it."
Sixteen of Tampa Bay's 53 current players, or roughly 30% of the roster, had one year of NFL experience or less before 2004. The Bucs are not the only team fighting through deep injury woes this season, and they have probably not been either the best or the worst at adjusting to the roster strafing. But the Bucs have been extremely competitive over the last nine weeks, going 5-4 with three late fourth-quarter losses, even as new faces have been integrated into the scheme. The team still ranks fifth in the NFL in defense and was able to hang 436 yards of offense on the 11th-ranked defense on the road last weekend.
"We are playing young players here," said Gruden. "Sean Mahan is the center. Michael Clayton is a young guy playing. Will Allen played a lot [in San Diego]. He's a young guy. Just because we lost the game doesn't mean we are going to make wholesale changes. We have a lot of young guys playing. Ian Smart is going to play a little bit more, as is Earnest Graham. We're going to try to win this game."
What the Bucs won't be doing over the last three weeks, in or out of the playoff race, is making changes simply for the sake of making changes. Promising second-year man Chris Simms will not replace promising 29-year-old Brian Griese at quarterback. Anthony Davis, the preseason standout, will not suddenly take over at left tackle. And Graham and Smart will get their carries and receptions when it makes sense in the attempt to win ballgames.
It's a win movement, not a youth movement. Gruden puts it simply enough:
"We're going to play the guys that have earned the right to play."
Pro Bowl Voting Coming to An End
The online fan voting portion of the Pro Bowl selection process is almost over. Fans have until Friday, Dec. 17, at 12:00 p.m. ET to cast their votes at NFL.com.
To vote for your favorite Buccaneers, please click here.
The AFC and NFC rosters for the 2005 Pro Bowl will be formed by combining the composite votes from three separate sources: The fans, the players and the coaches. The NFL is the only sports league that chooses its all-star game in this manner. Over 50 million votes will be cast online at NFL.com before the process is over.
The Buccaneers have had at least four players selected to the Pro Bowl in each season since 1997, peaking at nine in 2000. LB Derrick Brooks has been selected to the last seven Pro Bowls, DE Simeon Rice to the last two, and FB Mike Alstott has played in six of the last seven. Last year, the Bucs were represented by Brooks, Rice, WR Keenan McCardell and DT Warren Sapp.
Among the Buccaneers currently among league leaders are QB Brian Griese (passer rating), RB Michael Pittman (touchdowns), WR Michael Clayton (receptions, receiving yards), Rice (sacks), Brooks (tackles), CB Brian Kelly (interceptions), CB Ronde Barber (defensive touchdowns), punter Josh Bidwell (gross and net punting average) and CB Torrie Cox (kickoff return average).
Buccaneer players will cast their votes on Friday after practice.
Linebacker Shelton Quarles is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' nominee for the 2004 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. On Tuesday, the league announced the 32 nominations – one from each team – for this prestigious honor.
The Walter Payton Award – renamed in 1999 for the late Chicago Bears running back – has been given annually since 1970. It is the only league award that recognizes player off-the-field community service as well as playing excellence. The finalists all demonstrate an outstanding balance between civic and professional responsibilities in their lives this season.
Quarles is one of the Buccaneers' most community-minded players. Most recently, his Shelton Quarles IMPACT Foundation hosted the Extra Effort Awards, which recognized local community leaders and awarded scholarships to several students.
Kansas City guard Will Shields won the award in 2003. Derrick Brooks was a co-winner with Chicago's Jim Flanigan in 2000. Other past winners include Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Darrell Green, Junior Seau, John Elway, Derrick Thomas, Mike Singletary and, of course, Walter Payton.
The winner is selected by an elite panel of judges including NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, Connie Payton and former players Frank Gifford, Jack Kemp and Anthony Munoz, along with Shields.
The winner will receive $25,000 to donate to his selected charity. Each finalist will receive a $1,000 contribution towards a charity of his choice. The winner will be announced during a press conference on February 4 in Jacksonville, the Friday night before Super Bowl XXXIX.