C Jeff Christy has anchored a Buccaneer offensive line that has steadily built cohesiveness
Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel are used to this.
Though it was with the Minnesota Vikings, Christy and McDaniel had started the last 32 games together before the 2000 season, at which point the two independently signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was obviously their Pro Bowl blocking ability that made them attractive to the Buccaneers, but Christy and McDaniel were also notable for their durability.
Perhaps it's luck, or perhaps Christy and McDaniel have rubbed off on the rest of the Bucs' O-line starters. For some reason or another, not a single brick has slipped out of Tampa Bay's front wall this season.
Christy, McDaniel, guard Frank Middleton and tackles Pete Pierson and Jerry Wunsch have started all 13 games together so far. Middleton had occasion to receive an MRI on his left shoulder this week, but he is expected to be take his usual spot in that Fab Five this Sunday in Miami.
That puts the Buccaneer offensive line on the verge of something remarkable. Never in team history have the same five men started in the same positions for all 16 games of a season on the Bucs' O-line.
"It really is remarkable, and I think it just shows what a tough group of guys they are," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We've been happy to have them playing together as a unit all the way."
Perhaps the closest the team has come to that was in 1979, when LT Dave Reavis, LG Greg Horton, C Steve Wilson, RG Greg Roberts and RT Charley Hannah were supplying the push up front. Hannah missed three late-season games and was replaced by Darryl Carlton, though Hannah did return for the season finale, a memorable 3-0 win over Kansas City that gave Tampa Bay it's first NFC Central championship.
Not coincidentally, that '79 squad was the best rushing team in Buccaneer annals. With Ricky Bell and Jerry Eckwood running wild behind that stable offensive line, Tampa Bay racked up 2,437 rushing yards, or 152.3 per game, and averaged 4.0 yards per tote.
Similarly, the 2000 Buccaneers have found success running the ball, particularly of late. Tampa Bay is 8-3 this season in games in which it has amassed more than 100 rushing yards, which means it's a very good thing that they've only failed to reach the century mark twice. Over it's last six games, Tampa Bay has rushed for an outstanding average of 152.5 yards per game, not to mention six rushing touchdowns.
"I think it has really made a difference," said Dungy of the offensive line's growing cohesiveness. "We're starting to gel now. They've gotten better as they've played together."
So much better that the Bucs have moved all the way up to third in the conference and eighth in the league in rushing yards, averaging 130.3 per game. The team was as low as 10th and 18th, respectively, in that category just a month ago.
Just as the fine weather in Tampa allows the team to maintain a normal practice schedule throughout the season, a factor that Dungy feels contributes to the team's strong finishes, the fact that Tampa Bay's offensive line is usually together in practice every day also helps.
Formidable but nicked-up linemen Paul Gruber and Tony Mayberry often missed practice time last season, which may have contributed to the unit's declining numbers. With Christy and McDaniel now on board, the Bucs' front line has been just as effective on Wednesday and Thursday as Sunday.
"We haven't had a lot of missed practices," affirmed Dungy. "Frank Middleton's been banged up a little bit, but other than that, hardly anybody has missed any practice time."
They also haven't missed many blocks in recent weeks. Facing the league's 17th (Miami), 10th (St. Louis) and 13th-ranked (Green Bay) run defenses in the last three weeks of the season, the Buccaneers have a chance to maintain or even better there 130 yards-per-game rushing pace.
The only season in Buc history that was better in that regard: 1979.