T Jeremy Trueblood performed well in his first NFL start despite being matched against strong pass-rusher Charles Grant
For all the talk about rebuilding that has inevitably been brought on by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 0-4 start, the reality is such a period may already be well under way. In fact, it's been in motion for several seasons now.
That's not to say the team isn't focused on winning ball games. Every Buccaneers player is hungry for the team's first victory of the season, and Head Coach Jon Gruden is just as committed to getting Ws as he ever has been.
But the fact remains: At least on offense the Bucs are a very young and inexperienced group. That's not a knock. If anything, given the way the unit performed last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, it should be the basis for much hope in Tampa.
The average age of Tampa Bay's offensive starters on Sunday in New Orleans was 26.8 years, a product of the Buccaneers starting three rookies last year and now two more rookies – so far – in 2006. Last season, running back Cadillac Williams, guard Dan Buenning and tight end Alex Smith became mainstays in the starting lineup. Sunday, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood got their official baptisms by fire.
That young group, joined by several other even younger offensive players throughout the course of the game racked up 406 yards of total offense and three touchdowns. That performance – by far the best of the season – was all the more impressive considering that nine players who saw action on that side of the ball had two or less years of overall experience.
Williams, the Buccaneers most notable young player, regained the form he exhibited during his rookie campaign last season, running for 111 yards on 20 carries. He again was particularly effective in the fourth quarter, breaking free for a season-long 34-yard run to set up the Bucs' final touchdown.
Even those players who didn't start, such as guard Davin Joseph and wide receiver Maurice Stovall, seemed ready to make significant contributions. Joseph checked in several times in heavy formations that featured the first-round selection at right guard and fellow offensive linemen Cornell Green and Sean Mahan as tight ends. And Stovall, making his regular-season debut, appeared to pull in a fade pass for a touchdown before having the score nullified by off-setting pass interference calls. The Buccaneers were bailed out of that red zone miscue by yet another young player, second-year tight end Alex Smith who pulled in a three-yard touchdown pass two plays later.
"I'm really encouraged by our young players," Gruden said. "Offensively, that is where most of them are. Alex Smith made, again, a big catch for a touchdown. Jeremy Trueblood's debut was good against a very good pass rusher in Charles Grant. Bruce's performance speaks for itself."
Yes it does, but it still merits a review. All Gradkowski did Sunday was complete 20-of-31 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions, finishing the game with a 107.6 passer rating. More importantly, he rallied the team from a 10-point deficit to take a momentarily take the lead in the fourth quarter – not bad for a sixth-round draft pick making the first start of his career on the road against a quality team and in a domed environment.
Then there was the play of 2006 second-round pick Trueblood. Making the first start of his career as a result of Kenyatta Walker's season-ending knee surgery, Trueblood responded well. Though Charles Grant did produce the game's only turnover on a sack-forced fumble, overall the Bucs' 6-8, 320-pound rookie out of Boston College had a strong showing, neutralizing his man for the majority of the game.
Joining Buenning and third-year left tackle Anthony Davis, Trueblood gives the Buccaneers one of the youngest offensive lines in the league. That line will get even younger as soon as Joseph enters the starting lineup at right guard – a move that could happen as early as Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I think as soon as [Joseph] is ready to go, he will be in the starting lineup," Gruden said. "No disrespect to Sean Mahan or any of the other guards that we have, but this is a man who we think will really add something to our football team, and hopefully for years to come.
"You will see Davin Joseph against Cincinnati. Cadillac had his first 100-yard game. I am encouraged by Dan Buenning, Anthony Davis and the young nucleus of players that we have. We are going to build the offense around them and I think they understand that. So it is encouraging, if there is anything to be encouraged about at this stage."