The Buccaneers started the 2006 season as defending division champions and
favorites to at least contend once more for a playoff berth. Instead, they went 4-12
and arguably were the worst team in the league outside of Oakland. What happened?
Well, one very visible cause was the season-ending (and near-fatal) injury
suffered by starting quarterback Chris Simms in Week 3 against Carolina, where multiple
hits led to a lacerated spleen and severe internal bleeding requiring immediate surgery.
Simms’ absence pointed out one huge flaw in the Bucs’ roster, the lack of a healthy
veteran backup quarterback (feel free to hold GM Bruce Allen fully accountable for that
development). Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had to hand over the offense to rookie Bruce
Gradkowski, who had enjoyed a fine
preseason. However, the Bucs quickly
found that good performances in the
second half of games in August don’t
necessarily translate to wins in the fall.
Gradkowski started 11 games and finished
with a NFC-worst passer rating of
65.9; he generated just 5.1 YPA, nearly a
full yard worse than any other QB in the
league (including Joey Harrington and Andrew Walter).
Between Gradkowski’s ineffectiveness
and injuries on the offensive line,
the running game also suffered, as Cadillac Williams (also battling injury
woes) gained just 798 yards in 14 games.
Worse yet, Williams scored just one
touchdown and had only four runs of 20
yards or longer. So, the offense stunk,
but hey, this is Tampa Bay…the defense
can carry them, right? Not last season, as
the league’s top defense in 2005 seemingly either got hurt or got old all at once.
Officially, the Bucs ranked 17th in the NFL in defense in 2006. Unofficially, it was far
worse than that; in many impact categories, they ranked in the bottom five in the league
(including sacks, interceptions, passing touchdowns, time of possession and sack-adjusted
YPA). Put it all together, and the Bucs finished with the second-worst point differential in
the league. Indeed, take away a 60-yard field goal in one game and a botched last-minute
replay call in another, and the Bucs would have finished with the first overall draft pick.
Chastened by that fall from grace, Gruden and Allen (both with jobs likely on the line)
set about plugging as many of those holes as they could in the offseason. However, the Bucs
could rebound into contention this season. Whoever starts at quarterback (either Simms or Jeff Garcia) will be a significant improvement over an inexperienced Gradkowski. There’s
new blood on defense as well as the offensive line. Plus, there’s that always-helpful lastplace
schedule (just two out-of-division games against returning playoff teams, as opposed
to six last season).
1. GARCIA VS. SIMMS: THE JOB BATTLE AT QUARTERBACK
We’ve noted that, after Chris Simms went down, the Bucs went to Bruce Gradkowski
at quarterback last season due to a lack of other options. That’s not the case this season;
at this writing, the Bucs have no less than five quarterbacks on their roster with at least
one NFL start on their resume. However, the job battle figures to be between Simms and Jeff Garcia, signed as a free agent from Philadelphia; both took a team to the playoffs in
their most recent full season. One would think Garcia has an edge going into Jon Gruden’s
training camp, as he has experience with the West Coast offense. Plus, the Bucs wouldn’t
have signed Garcia to carry a clipboard, would they? However, at the Bucs’ first OTA in
March, Garcia appeared just a touch unfamiliar with Gruden’s offensive scheme, while
Simms, now healthy, seemed to revel in the opportunity to work out of the shotgun. We’ll
see how this shakes out in August. The other quarterbacks on the roster are Jake Plummer
(if he doesn’t retire), Luke McCown, Gradkowski and undrafted free agent Zac Taylor from
Nebraska. Of that mix, an older and wiser Gradkowski should win the third quarterback job
role he should have had last year before injuries struck.
2. WHO DO THE QBS THROW TO? Joey Galloway, fresh off two healthy and productive seasons, returns as the lead wideout. Michael Clayton, fresh off two unhealthy and unproductive seasons after his big rookie
year, returns as the nominal number two, but Maurice Stovall, a third-round pick in 2006,
could challenge for more playing time. The Bucs had to use their tight ends primarily as
pass protection last season, so Alex Smith didn’t get many chances to impress; he and Jerramy Stevens will wage an interesting job battle in camp as well. Gruden also likes
throwing to Michael Pittman out of the backfield, and he’ll work on getting Cadillac
Williams more involved in the pass offense as well.
3. THE 2007 CADILLAC…WHAT’S THE MILEAGE?
Speaking of the Cadillac…after his big three-game start as a rookie in 2005, he’s averaged
just about 60 yards a game in his 25 starts since then, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s just
a flash in the pan. In his defense, he’s run behind substandard offensive lines in each of the
last two seasons and it would have been hard for any feature back to excel in last season’s
dysfunctional offense. Still, if Davin Joseph and Dan Buenning return healthy to the Oline,
and two additions (veteran Luke Petitgout and second-round pick Arron Sears) further
bolster the line, Williams will have the responsibility to prove he’s still got eight under the
hood. We’ll have to see if Mike Alstott still gets the call in goal-line situations, however.
Rising:Cadillac Williams, running
behind a healthier and improved line, with the
chance of an improved passing game to keep
Falling:Bruce Gradkowski will
not start 11 games at quarterback in 2007,
although he still has potential down the road.
He should never have had to play as much as
he did in 2006.