Has it really been only 28 months since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl? It seems such a long, long time ago.
The Buccaneers have gone 12-20 in two seasons since then, including 5-11 last season, and the luster quickly has worn off Jon Gruden's coaching stardom. The club severed another significant tie to its Super Bowl-winning team this offseason by releasing quarterback Brad Johnson, who was benched last season by Gruden.
Brian Griese emerged as the new starter at quarterback and won Gruden's praise and trust, and the Buccaneers retained him with a restructured contract in February. Griese's new five-year deal could be worth as much as $32.6 million and lowered his impact against next season's salary cap to help the Buccaneers trim their approximately $15 million cap overage. He could be pushed for the starting job by Chris Simms, but if the Buccaneers are going to make a run at returning to respectability next season, it probably will have to come with Griese. He was the NFC's third-rated passer last season, reviving a career that had sagged badly over the previous few years. The Buccaneers obtained another young quarterback, Luke McCown, in a draft-weekend trade with Cleveland.
A year ago, Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen oversaw an offseason of frenzied activity. Things have been calmer this time around, and the recent news about the team has been dominated by owner Malcolm Glazer's takeover of British soccer giant Manchester United and his work in securing the 2009 Super Bowl for Tampa.
The Buccaneers' most significant offseason roster additions came on draft day, when they got three players who could be immediate contributors: Auburn tailback Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, Nebraska linebacker Barrett Ruud and Stanford tight end Alex Smith. Williams, selected with the fifth overall choice in the draft, gives Gruden the sort of centerpiece runner that he hasn't had while he's been in Tampa, and Williams's presence takes pressure off Griese to carry the offense by himself.
The team released one aging wide receiver (Joe Jurevicius) but re-signed another (Joey Galloway) and added yet another (Ike Hilliard) in free agency. All the Buccaneers need are complementary receivers, for Michael Clayton established himself as a legitimate No. 1 receiver last season as a rookie, with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. Gruden and Allen also helped Griese by signing tight end Anthony Becht, formerly of the New York Jets, in free agency. He had only 13 receptions last season but averaged 35 catches per season in the three years before that.
On defense, the Buccaneers made one potentially significant move by signing defensive tackle Chris Hovan as a free agent. He had fallen out of favor with the Minnesota Vikings' coaches over the past couple seasons, and he drew little interest on the open market. But that enabled the Bucs to get him for a low-budget deal, and he could turn out to be a bargain if he recaptures the form that made him a high-energy player who performed at a near Pro Bowl level.
Hovan replaces Chartric Darby, who signed with Seattle as a free agent, at nose tackle. The Buccaneers released linebacker Ian Gold and cornerback Mario Edwards, and lost linebacker Keith Burns and safeties Dwight Smith and John Howell as free agents. But they re-signed safety Dexter Jackson, their former Super Bowl most valuable player who returned to the club last season after an unsuccessful stint in Arizona that ended with him being released, and they added cornerback Juran Bolden in free agency. The trade rumblings that surrounded defensive end Simeon Rice as the draft approached proved unfounded, and the Bucs still have a solid, albeit aging, nucleus of standout players on defense with Rice, linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber.
A different NFC South team has participated in the NFC title game in each of the past three seasons -- Tampa Bay in the 2002 season, Carolina in the 2003 season and Atlanta last season. It has become a volatile, unpredictable division. But, unfortunately for the Buccaneers' prospects for the 2005 season, it's not quite that unpredictable. If they have visions of recapturing their championship glory next season, they're probably going to be disappointed.
The goal should be recapturing their dignity and trying to get back to .500. Gruden's regular-season record as Tampa Bay's coach has dropped to 24-24 -- his 12-20 mark over the past two seasons is the same two-year record that sent Steve Spurrier scurrying ashamedly back to the college ranks -- and he needs to show that he still has his magic touch.
Around the League
Left tackle Ross Verba and the Cleveland Browns agreed to a deal Wednesday by which Verba will be released. In return, he will give back a $465,000 roster bonus that the Browns paid to him in March. Verba was embroiled in a contract dispute with the Browns, who paved the way for Verba's departure by signing free-agent tackles L.J. Shelton and Marcus Spears in the past week. . . .
Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tim Bowens is retiring because of the back troubles that limited him to two games with the Miami Dolphins last season. Bowens, 32, played in 157 games over 11 NFL seasons, all with the Dolphins. . . .
St. Louis released defensive end Jay Williams, who signed with the Rams after being released by Miami earlier in the offseason. . . .
Panthers tailback Stephen Davis did some less-than-full-speed running during Wednesday's practice as he tries to work his way back from microfracture knee surgery. . . .
Coach Mike Holmgren participated in the Seattle Seahawks' practice Wednesday. He had missed Tuesday's practice after complaining of mild chest pains following Monday's practice. Doctors performed a round of tests but found no abnormalities, and told Holmgren to rest for a couple days. . . .
Seahawks wide receiver Alex Bannister reinjured the right shoulder that he hurt last season, sending him to the injured reserve list. The severity of this injury, suffered during Wednesday's practice, was not immediately clear. . . .
The Jets signed running back Cedric Houston, a sixth-round draft pick.