> Once again:the starting quarterback. Last year Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski and TimRattay all took turns, without lasting success. Exacting coach Jon Gruden,feeling the heat after a 4-12 season, has turned to free agent Jeff Garcia, whorescued the Eagles in relief of Donovan McNabb and, at age 37, will be playingfor his fifth team in five seasons. Gruden hasn't been happy with anyone at theposition since Brad Johnson took the Bucs to the Super Bowl five years ago, butfrom the outset of camp the coach liked what he saw in Garcia. "I thinkhe's a hell of a quarterback," Gruden says, "and to achieve greatnessin the NFL, you need stellar play from the quarterback."
The Garciasigning was only the biggest rumble among many, as the Bucs continue tooverhaul their roster. Defensive veterans Simeon Rice and Shelton Quarles werereleased for failing physicals, which could leave the team with an opening-daystarting lineup that includes as few as four holdover starters from that 2002championship team. Free agents Luke Petitgout (left tackle), Kevin Carter(defensive tackle) and Cato June (linebacker) were added. "I came herebecause they want to win now," says Carter, a 13th-year vet who won a SuperBowl with the Rams. "This is no rebuilding; this is inserting a fewveterans for help, right now."
> The numbersspeak the truth about the franchise. "We're 10¬†games under .500 sincewe won the Super Bowl," says veteran outside linebacker Derrick Brooks."What happened around here five years ago is ancient history." Sincetaking home the Lombardi Trophy, the Bucs have had one winning season andplayed in one playoff game. "We've been mediocre for a while now," sayscornerback Ronde Barber. "There's a need to win." If they don't, jobscould be lost, including Gruden's.
Garcia is thekey. Last year Gruden publicly supported Simms in August, but the youngquarterback was terrible in three starts and suffered a ruptured spleen in Week3; he has been slow to come back and was fighting for his roster spot intraining camp. Gruden tried to make a player out of rookie Bruce Gradkowski,but in 13¬†games (11 starts) he had an abysmal 65.9 passing rating, and theBucs went 3-8 in his starts. Rattay was better, but he was simply running outthe clock on a lost season.
Meanwhile Garciashowed passion, leadership and toughness in taking the Eagles to the NFCdivisional round after McNabb went down last November. Garcia also hasexperience running the West Coast-style offense Gruden favors. "I loveJeff's presence and the way he competes," says wideout Joey Galloway,who'll turn 36 in November. "When you've got a veteran quarterback and aveteran receiver, you've seen a lot together."
After disastrousstops in Cleveland (2004) and Detroit ('05), Garcia earned a new life in Phillyand now gets another shot at running a team from Day One. "I picked thisteam because it was the best chance to compete for a starting job on a team notfar removed from winning a Super Bowl," Garcia says. "And it'sdifferent from last year, where I was watching Donovan lead the team and I wasjust trying to get comfortable. Here it's been attack mode from thebeginning."
If Garcia iseffective, third-year running back Cadillac Williams will benefit. As a rookieout of Auburn in 2005, Williams rushed for 1,178 yards and was an electricpresence. Last year he tailed off to 798 yards (on 65 fewer carries), promptingquestions about his durability. "We had young quarterbacks last year,"says Williams. "People crowded the line of scrimmage on us. With Garciathat won't happen. I really feel like this is the year for me."
Williams will runwithout the drive blocking of veteran fullback Mike Alstott, who was placed oninjured reserve and is probably finished. Petitgout is expected to anchor anO-line that will include three starters--Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood andArron Sears--with less than two years' experience. Swift maturation will bevital.
Cover Two guruMonte Kiffin continues to tweak the defense. A year ago, when the unit wasbeset by injury, opposing quarterbacks had a lusty 91.0 rating. So Tampa Baysigned June from Indianapolis to shore up the linebacking unit and drafteddefensive end Gaines Adams of Clemson in the first round to replace Rice."I've got a lot on my plate," Adams said during training camp. "Prooffensive linemen do some intelligent stuff." Barrett Ruud, a second-roundpick in 2005, will start at middle linebacker, and Barber, Philip Buchanon andBrian Kelly can be a formidable cover trio. "We feel better about ourdefense," says Gruden. "Some players who had storied careers are gone,and we'll miss them. But it's time to get to work and have some fun with theguys we have now."
How much fundepends on Garcia holding together in his dotage, a young offensive linegrowing up quickly and Kiffin's defense getting much better in a year. It's alot to ask--and a long way from 4-12 to respectability.
9 at Seattle
23 ST. LOUIS
21 at Detroit
18 at Atlanta
2 at NewOrleans
9 at Houston
23 at SanFrancisco
NFL rank ...T27
Opponents' 2006winning percentage ...¬†.473
Games againstplayoff teams ...¬†4
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BUCS
> I don'tthink this is a good team. Jon Gruden is on the hot seat; the whole franchiseis in transition. . . . The offensive line is young, and Luke Petitgout is justan average guy at left tackle. He's not the answer. Jeremy Trueblood is a bigstiff on the other side. . . . Jeff Garcia is a good quarterback, and he'll getthem a couple of wins they wouldn't get otherwise. He's a lot better than ChrisSimms. But Gruden is not an easy coach for anybody to play for under anycircumstances, so it will be interesting to see how that goes. . . . On defenseDerrick Brooks is getting long in the tooth, and he's been way overrated for awhile. Gaines Adams looks like a good player, but he's soft in the run game. .. . This is a 6-10 team. Maybe 8-8 at best.
THE KING 500
For the firsttime in 11 years he's the only NFLer in his family. "Remember, Tiki wastaking hits all these years," Ronde says, "while I've been giving themout." A physical Cover Two corner who often plays the curl-zone nickelback,he made his fourth Pro Bowl last year and doesn't appear to be slowing."I'll do this as long as I can," says Barber, 32, "but Tiki'sretirement has injected a little reality
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COACH JON GRUDEN(77-67 in NFL), sixth season with Buccaneers
JEFF GARCIA (NEWACQUISITION)
HT 6' 8"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 5"
ARRON SEARS (R)(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 3"
LUKE PETITGOUT(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 6"
KEVIN CARTER (NEWACQUISITION)
SACKS 5 1/2
SACKS 4 1/2
CATO JUNE (NEWACQUISITION)
NEW ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics) *2005 Stats
> 2006 RECORD4-12 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 28/26/29 DEFENSE 17/19/17
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES
¬†DRIVESHAFT¬†Williams expects to rev up his numbers with the help of a potentpassing game.