Michael Pittman wants the people of Arizona to know that he
appreciated their support during his four seasons with the
Cardinals, that his desire to leave the team wasn't an indictment
of them or his teammates. It's just that a pro running back gets
sick of playing games in November with nothing on the line but
pride, and tired of slamming into the eight-man defensive fronts
that Arizona faced nearly every week. Pittman wanted the playoffs
to be more than a pipe dream. He wanted to make a difference on a
contender, and more than anything, "I'd always wanted a team to
pursue me," says Pittman, who signed with the Buccaneers as a
free agent last March, after Warrick Dunn had left Tampa Bay for
Atlanta. "When I found out Dunn was leaving, I knew that was
where I wanted to go. I called my agents and asked them to get me
a meeting." He pauses, savoring the memory of what happened next.
"They told me Tampa had already called, that they wanted me."
As Pittman happily discovered, what new Bucs coach Jon Gruden
wants, he gets. When general manager Rich McKay asked Gruden what
he needed in a replacement for Dunn, the answer was a back strong
enough to run between the tackles, fast enough to run away from
linebackers and versatile enough to be a weapon in the passing
game. In short, Gruden wanted Pittman."He's not too well known,
but Pittman's a talented, complete football player," says Gruden.
"He's willing to do anything to contribute. I'm very, very
excited to have him here."
The Bucs--and seemingly everyone in the greater Tampa area--are
just as pleased to have the fiery Gruden. After the popular Tony
Dungy was fired in the wake of a loss to the Eagles in the
wild-card round for the second straight year, the franchise
endured an embarrassing search for a replacement. After being
spurned by, among others, Steve Spurrier and Bill Parcells, the
Bucs had to give up two first-round and two second-round draft
picks, plus $8 million, to pry Gruden from the Raiders.
The most noticeable changes under the new regime will be Gruden's
multithreat version of the West Coast attack, which should inject
life into the Bucs' perennially moribund offense. For the first
time in three years a high-profile offensive newcomer, such as
quarterback Brad Johnson in 2001, isn't expected to be the
difference between a first-round playoff exit and the Super Bowl.
"If anything," says Pittman, "that burden's on Coach Gru's
scheme. I just want to be a piece of the puzzle."
The change in command dropped the curtain on Tampa Bay's
five-year Thunder-and-Lightning Show, which starred 248-pound
Mike Alstott and the 180-pound Dunn and was the two-back
centerpiece of Dungy's predictable, conservative offense. Both
were ineffective last year, combining for 1,127 rushing yards,
400 fewer than their previous low.
In Pittman the Bucs get a tough, 6-foot, 215-pound muscular back
who ran for a career-high 846 yards and caught 42 passes for 246
last year. Over the last two seasons, in fact, Pittman had more
receiving yards than Dunn and more rushing yards than Alstott.
"Mike's a joy to have, because he's only interested in helping
the team win," says Brad Johnson, who won a battle with Rob
Johnson for the starting quarterback job in the preseason. "I'll
tweak the way he runs a route, and he only wants more feedback
when I'm done. He makes it easy for me."
So will a pair of free-agent signees, wideout Keenan McCardell
(formerly of the Jaguars) and tight end Ken Dilger (Colts), who
will join with wideout Keyshawn Johnson to give the Bucs a much
needed boost in the passing game. With the improvements to the
offense, Tampa Bay could go deep into the playoffs if its
perennially strong defense retains its place as one of the
league's best--and tackle Warren Sapp gets more than the paltry
six sacks he had last year.
If those high expectations sound similar to those of the last two
years--when the heavily favored Bucs started 3-4 and struggled to
make the playoffs--don't bother telling Pittman. "It's totally
different here, being a Super Bowl contender every year," he
says. "You can just tell that the guys love knowing that if we
play like we're capable of, we'll go a long, long way. I know I
do." --Josh Elliott
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES With a new offense and more weapons, Brad Johnson has the tools to succeed.
COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS PITTMAN
The Bucs lost middle linebacker Jamie Duncan, who signed with
the Rams, but they weren't that sorry to see him go. Sixth-year
veteran Shelton Quarles was ready to move over from the strong
side. An expert at making presnap adjustments, Quarles will be,
according to one NFC scout, "Tampa Bay's next great Pro Bowl
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Buccaneers
"Jon Gruden is the best coach in the NFL, and he'll add to that
reputation. He's the perfect mix of old- and new-school values.
He schemes well and exploits his opponents' weaknesses better
than anyone. He's tough without being a Tom Coughlin type.... For
the defense it's do-or-die time. Their window as a dominant unit
is closing, especially on the defensive line. [Defensive tackle]
Warren Sapp doesn't scare people anymore. If I had to choose
between Booger McFarland and Sapp, I'd take McFarland....
Derrick Brooks was banged up last year, but if he's healthy he's
still great.... Michael Pittman will be a more durable version of
Warrick Dunn. Pittman's more elusive than people think, and he's
a perfect fit for Gruden's offense.... Brad Johnson will be the
quarterback there because he's a winner, he's been productive and
he doesn't make mistakes. Gruden's offense demands quick
decisions, and Rob Johnson hasn't shown he can make them.... The
offensive line will be just O.K. Kenyatta Walker has to be
better, and Roman Oben is a liability as a run blocker.... Keenan
McCardell will be serviceable for them, but he's not a
game-breaker. The same goes for Joe Jurevicius. Keyshawn Johnson
is still the key for them.... Every year they're a chic pick, and
then they fight to go 9-7. Still, no team will benefit more from
realignment than the Bucs."
Sept. 8 NEW ORLEANS
15 at Baltimore
23 ST. LOUIS (Mon.)
29 at Cincinnati
Oct. 6 at Atlanta
20 at Philadelphia
27 at Carolina
Nov. 3 MINNESOTA
10 Open date
24 GREEN BAY
Dec. 1 at New Orleans
15 at Detroit
23 PITTSBURGH (Mon.)
29 at Chicago*
NFL rank: 24
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .480
Games against playoff teams: 6
PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics
COACH: Jon Gruden; first season with Tampa Bay (38-26 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 9-7 (third in NFC Central)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 30/15/T26; defense 12/5/6
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Brad Johnson 24
559 att. 340 comp. 60.8% 3,406 yds. 13 TDs 11 int. 77.7 rtg.
RB Michael Pittman [N] 58
241 att. 846 yds. 3.5 avg. 42 rec. 264 yds. 6.3 avg. 5 TDs
RB Travis Stephens (R) [N] 133
291 att. 1,464 yds. 5.0 avg. 19 rec. 169 yds. 8.9 avg. 11 TDs
FB Mike Alstott 60
165 att. 680 yds. 4.1 avg. 35 rec. 231 yds. 6.6 avg. 11 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Keyshawn Johnson 31 106 rec. 1,266 yds. 1 TD
WR Keenan McCardell [N] 40 93 rec. 1,110 yds. 6 TDs
WR Joe Jurevicius [N] 177 51 rec. 706 yds. 3 TDs
TE Ken Dilger [N] 172 32 rec. 343 yds. 1 TD
K Martin Gramatica 196 28/28 XPs 23/29 FGs 97 pts.
PR Karl Williams 315 35 ret. 10.5 avg. 1 TD
KR Frank Murphy 361 20 ret. 22.3 avg. 0 TDs
LT Roman Oben [N] 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 13 starts
LG Kerry Jenkins [N] 6'5" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeff Christy 6'2" 285 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RG Cosey Coleman 6'4" 322 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Kenyatta Walker 6'5" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Marcus Jones 15 tackles 3 sacks
LT Anthony McFarland 23 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
RT Warren Sapp 28 tackles 6 sacks
RE Simeon Rice 39 tackles 11 sacks
OLB Alshermond Singleton 22 tackles 1 sack
MLB Shelton Quarles 33 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Derrick Brooks 79 tackles 3 int.
CB Brian Kelly 46 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
SS John Lynch 62 tackles 3 int.
FS Dexter Jackson 55 tackles 4 int.
CB Ronde Barber 58 tackles 10 int.
P Tom Tupa [N] 67 punts 38.4 avg.
[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)
"Pittman will be a more durable version of Warrick Dunn. He's a
perfect fit for Gruden's offense."