On the Buccaneers' final defensive play of their 21--0 road rout of the 49ers on Sunday, rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy burst into the backfield and grabbed quarterback Troy Smith around the legs. A fraction of a second later defensive end Stylez G. White hopped on Smith's back, creating a three-man pile on the turf. As Tampa Bay celebrated in the locker room afterward, McCoy approached general manager Mark Dominik and asked if he had been credited with a full or half sack. (He and White split it.) McCoy, the No. 3 pick out of Oklahoma, hadn't brought down an NFL QB by himself yet, and he kidded with Dominik that he had worked too hard to share another sack.
The G.M. and the rookie chuckled and shook hands. Three months ago the Bucs were a laughingstock; no one imagined that after 10 games they would be doing the laughing. A year removed from a 3--13 finish and fielding the league's youngest roster (average age on Sunday: 25 years, 295 days), Tampa Bay is 7--3 and a game behind the first-place Falcons in the NFC South. In Week 11 the Bucs dealt the Niners their first home shutout in 33 years. More impressive: They did it while starting six rookies and two second-year players. A week earlier they had started seven rookies in a 31--16 win over Carolina—the first time a team had started seven rookies and won since the Cowboys in 2002.
"We knew we were only going to be as good as how our young guys played, and they've played well," says cornerback Ronde Barber, the team's oldest player at 35. "They're driving this football team."
At the front of the bus is 6'6", 248-pound second-year QB Josh Freeman, who is as cool under pressure as he is physically imposing. Freeman has six fourth-quarter comeback victories in 19 starts and is winning despite relying heavily on rookies at wide receiver (Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn), running back (LeGarrette Blount) and left guard (Ted Larsen). Williams, a fourth-round pick from Syracuse, led all first-year receivers with 681 yards through Sunday and was tied for first with six touchdown catches. Blount, an undrafted free agent from Oregon who was claimed off waivers from the Titans in September, led all rookies with an average of 63.0 yards rushing. "The talent is there," Dominik says of the youngsters, "and the coaches are getting the most of it."
The next step is to beat a team with a winning record. Tampa Bay is 0--3 against clubs above .500. With a trip to 7--3 Baltimore this weekend, the Bucs will get another chance to show that they are more contender than pretender. "We're excited," says Freeman. "Coach [Raheem Morris] talked at the beginning of the year about the race to 10 [wins], and everybody on the outside kind of laughed. But we took it seriously. The thing is, who said you have to stop at 10?"
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Photograph by PAUL SAKUMA/AP
DON'T BRING HIM DOWN Preseason expectations were low, but Freeman and his youthful mates are more than pulling their weight in the NFC South.