G Dan Buenning started all 16 games as a rookie in 2005 and could be even better in 2006
If you've been following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason, you've undoubtedly noticed that offensive linemen were high on the team's shopping list. When your first two draft picks and about half of your spring free agent haul are all members of that brawny fraternity, it's clear that you've spent a lot of time browsing that aisle.
That being said, it's not as if the cupboards were bare in Tampa.
Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, Toniu Fonoti, Torrin Tucker…hopefully Tampa Bay's personnel men hit the mark with all or most of those additions. However, the Bucs could go through all of 2006 without any of those men cracking the starting lineup and still reasonably expect the front line to make significant improvement.
It happened last year.
No one would claim that Tampa Bay had the league's most dominant offensive line in 2006, at least no one that had seen the work done in such cities as Pittsburgh, Seattle, Denver and Kansas City. However, the Bucs did have one of the more improved units in the league last year, particularly in terms of running the ball. After ranking 29th among the 32 teams with 93.1 rushing yards per game in 2004, the Bucs jumped all the way to 14th last fall, picking up 114.1 per contest. Their per-carry average climbed from 3.8 to 4.0 and they scored four more rushing TDs. The pass protection improved, too, if not as dramatically, reducing its sacks allowed from 44 to 41 and rising four spots in the rankings in that category.
The Bucs also had one of the league's most durable lines, as the same five men started all 16 games together, a first in team history. And those five starters – left tackle Anthony Davis, left guard Dan Buenning, center John Wade, right guard Sean Mahan and right tackle Kenyatta Walker – are all signed, healthy and prepared to defend their collective hold on the lineup.
According to the man they are charged with protecting, that development is at least as important as the exciting O-line additions made in March and April.
"As an offense right now, we're really gaining a lot of ground," said quarterback Chris Simms. "I think the biggest thing is, we have pretty much the whole starting 11 back. We have the same [players] back up front, as far as the offensive line goes, and that's the biggest thing. This will be our first year in a long time where we've got the same five guys up front working together. They've been practicing great and they're going to continue to do great things for us."
Simms has been with the Bucs only since 2003, but his contention is accurate. If the offense ends up with the same five primary starters for a second straight year in 2006, it will mark the first time that has happened since…well, ever. Defining "primary starter" as the player who made the most starts at the position over the 16 regular-season games, the Bucs have never had the same five men repeat those designations for two consecutive years. Even the Super Bowl-winning squad of 2002 got a new center for 2003, bringing in Wade to replace Christy.
Of course, there are plenty of factors that play into season-to-season discontinuity and some of them, such as injuries, are uncontrollable at worst, unpredictable at best. The Davis-Buenning-Wade-Mahan-Walker fivesome will need some good fortune to repeat its collective 2005 run, but at least they will have the opportunity to try…and to build on the improvement they started last fall. Re-signing Walker, Mahan and Davis – unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights free agents, respectively – before the draft made sure that was possible. Those moves could end up being as important next fall as the selection of Joseph in the first round of the draft.
Of course, those five will also have to hold off Joseph and his fellow newcomers, all of whom are quickly learning from the returning players what it takes to be a starter in Tampa.
"You can tell by their presence," said Joseph. "They're all about business, and there's a standard around here that's pretty high. I'm trying to live up to that."
David Boston figures Jon Gruden remembers him from a 2001 game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders. He's right.
Gruden recalled that game after the Bucs worked out Boston on May 18, a week before they signed the eighth-year veteran as a free agent. Gruden remembers Boston's 106 receiving yards, the way he "ripped" Oakland's defense; Boston remembers his own animated demeanor on the field and the sideline and figures he made an impression in that way, too.
In turn, Gruden made an impression on Boston when the former Miami Dolphin visited two weeks ago. Citing the manner in which Gruden has helped other veterans re-launch stalled careers as well as the coach's obvious fervor for the game, Boston quickly realized Tampa was a good place to get his own football life back on track.
"I love the game of football," he said. "Coach Gruden has given me an opportunity here and I'm just glad to be a part of it. I had a few different visits lined up for me. As I got closer to the end of my rehab, I started narrowing down my options. I came on a visit here and they welcomed me with open arms. Coach Gruden has a passion for the game that I love and we have that in common, so I figured it would work out well."
Boston joined the Bucs in practice last week. Knowing that he has spent the past two years trying to recover from a patellar tendon injury in his last knee – he says he's 90% now and should be completely back by training camp – the Bucs are starting him slowly. Boston expects to run about 15-20 reps per practice early on until he feels more comfortable in the system. However, it didn't take him long to draw Gruden's attention on the practice field, making a nice catch on a deep ball on Thursday that earned him a close-up visit from the coach.
"He was excited that I got out there and made a nice play downfield," said Boston. "That's the reason why he brought me here. He's just very passionate and he loves the game of football."
Boston says his passion for the game will be directed in whatever manner will help his new team, should he earn a role of any significance on the offense. He is three years removed from a 70-catch season in San Diego and five years removed from his best campaign, a 98-catch Pro Bowl performance with the Cardinals in 2001. He also knows that the Bucs already have plenty of talent at the receiver position, starting with 2005 star Joey Galloway and a rededicated Michael Clayton.
"We have a lot of talent on offense and there are a number of great receivers who are already here," said Boston. "My role here is just to try to help the receivers out any way I can to make a play on offense. That's what my duty is and that's what I'm here to do.
"We have a really good football team here and I'm just glad to be a part of it. I have an opportunity here and I want to make the most of it."
Last year, the Buccaneers finished with the league's top-ranked defense for the second time in four years, returning to the number-one spot after two years of 'slumming it' at the fifth spot.
Obviously, the team's number-five rankings in 2003 and 2004 were points of pride, too, as is the team's seemingly endless streak of top-10 finishes, which stretched into it's ninth year in 2005. But the team's hop back to the pole position last year vindicated some of the team's veteran defenders in the face of whispers that the proud unit might be growing a bit long in the tooth. According to that defense's undisputed leader, however, the unit sharpened its edge not by focusing on its legacy but by keeping its attention span very short.
Nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks says they plan to do the same thing this year, with hopes of producing the same results.
"Our objective again is to be dominant," said Brooks, the 2002 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "We're like everyone else at this point – everyone's in first place. Everybody's goals are the same. We're not trying to worry about that right now. Right now we're worrying about today, then we'll come back and get better [the next day]. All that stuff will take care of itself. I think that's been one of the key turnarounds that we had last year, that we kept our goals short-term and we kept our focus short-term. We're going to keep our goals daily. Like I said earlier, we're just going to try to get better tomorrow than we are today."
Simply maintaining the same spot in the rankings might take an even greater effort in 2006 because the Bucs' division looks to be loaded with offensive talent this year. Newcomers include Reggie Bush and Drew Brees in New Orleans, DeAngelo Williams and Keyshawn Johnson in Carolina and Jerious Norwood in Atlanta.
"I hate to sound like a broken record, but that's none of my concern," said Brooks. "My concern is getting better here at One Buc Place, getting our team better. We'll face them when the time is right on the schedule. We'll deal with them then. Right now, we can't line up against them so I'm not going to worry about it. I'm only going to control what I can control, and that's me getting better today."