The kids are all right, they hope.
TAMPA -- I always got the impression that the Jon Gruden Bucs were trying to scrub clean all Tony Dungy influences on the organization. Now Raheem Morris is trying to embrace what Dungy brought here.
When Dungy took the Bucs' coaching job in 1996, he and GM Rich McKay and personnel czar Jerry Angelo decided to eschew free-agency and build almost exclusively through the draft. Already in-house were linebacker Derrick Brooks, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and quarterback Trent Dilfer. They added Regan Upshaw, Mike Alstott and Donnie Abraham that year, Reidel Anthony, Warrick Dunn and Ronde Barber the next year, and the base of a very good Bucs team was built.
Morris and GM Mark Dominik are trying the same thing. Tampa Bay had a decent base on the offensive line when Dominik and Morris took over for Gruden and Bruce Allen. They got the presumptive quarterback of the future last year in Josh Freeman, and they could play as many as five rookies from this year's draft class in starting or prominent roles, and not just special-team roles.
Six hundred pounds of defensive linemen -- Gerald McCoy and Brian Price -- could start opening day on the line. Fourth-round pick Mike Williams, barring injury, is favored to start at one receiver (last year's surprising seventh-round pick, Sammie Stroughter, could start alongside him), with this year's second-rounder, Arrelious Benn, possibly starting or playing 35 snaps a game as the third receiver. Rookie cornerback Myron Lewis eventually could start alongside third-year corner Aqib Talib, and next year might push Barber to safety if Barber still is able and willing to make play and make that move. The punting job is rookie Brent Bowden's to lose.
The Tampa Bay management is getting creamed locally for not spending money -- the prevailing theory is that the massive financial problem of the Glazers, who own the Bucs, with British football power Manchester United is siphoning money from the operation of the Bucs -- but I get the strong impression Tampa Bay wouldn't have spent in free agency this year anyway. "We want to build a team through the draft and keep it intact,'' Dominik said. "Like Tony said when he coached: 'I don't want a revolving door. I want to show loyalty to the guys we brought in and build a team the right way.' That's the way Raheem and I are operating now. Now, with two draft classes, I think we're on our way.''
I asked Dungy if he thought the two situations --Tampa in 1996 and Tampa in 2010 -- were comparable.
"I do,'' he said. "We got a lot of criticism back then with our plan at first, because we lost five in a row at the start, and eight of our first nine. They wanted us to bench the quarterback and make all kinds of changes. I read some of the same criticisms now -- the fans want to win now, which all fans do. If they're patient, I think it's going to pay off. I like the guys they've drafted.''
Dungy learned this from Bill Walsh (he was on Walsh's first 49er staff, when San Francisco went 2-14) and from playing under Chuck Noll. "Chuck always said stubbornness is a virtue -- if you are right. Fortunately for us, most of the guys we played early played well, and they became the base of a very good team.''
The first Dungy team went 6-10, the second 10-6. A period of good football was born. These Bucs have to be patient, the way I see it. There's no guarantee this rebuilding job with work, but there's no other way for them to win, at least right now.
Mike Singletary just might have saved Vernon Davis.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Always wanted to ask one of the best young tight ends in the game how he felt about being shown up/embarrassed/clapped in the face by his new coach, Mike Singletary, a couple of years ago. You remember Singletary banishing Vernon Davis from the sidelines during a game after a thoughtless Davis penalty, ordering him to the locker room and not to return.
"Best thing that ever happened to me in my life,'' Davis told me. "Woke me up. I was all about Vernon, not about the team.''
Davis also revealed Singletary told him if he wanted to fight, that was fine with him. They'd fight. "He pushed me to the edge,'' said Davis. "I needed that. When you're a first-round pick, and everyone's telling you how great you are, sometimes you need a guy to tell you that football's a team game. Here he is, one of the greatest players ever. So I had to change. Now, I'm all in.''
Davis caught 103 balls in his first three seasons, including that troubled third year, with nine touchdowns. Last year, he caught 78 passes with 13 touchdowns, most in the league for a tight end. When I asked Singletary about Davis, he smiled. "One of the most misconstrued guys in the league,'' Singletary said. "He raises the level in practice every day. He raises the work ethic. He's done everything I've asked.''
I've always thought this about the relationship between players and coaches: Most often, a player's going to respect a man who's been in the same arena more than one who hasn't. I don't think Mike Nolan, Davis' first coach, could have challenged him in any way approximating the way Singletary did. Singletary isn't the schemer of a Belichick or a Nolan, and who knows? Maybe he's lost out on jobs because the interviewers wondered if he could match wits with the smart guys in the game. But this story of challenging Davis and getting the best out of him illustrate that a coach who delegates can be just as strong as a coach who tries to do it all.
Is Matt The Man?
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- All off-season, since Kurt Warner retired, the Cardinals have given off a yeah-but vibe about their quarterback situation. Matt Leinart's our guy, but we're signing Derek Anderson for insurance. We're behind Matt all the way, but he's got to play well early to keep the job.
So the skeptics of a growing fandom made the two-hour drive up from Phoenix, from the 102-degree dusks, to northern Arizona and the more tolerable climes of 7,000 feet. It's beautiful here, for those who haven't found Flagstaff -- a vivid blue sky, pine trees dotting the hills around the practice fields at Northern Arizona University (home of the Lumberjacks and, for some reason, a little domed stadium), and the pretty San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden just to the north of the fields. It's here that Leinart is trying to win over a team that loved Warner.
Watching Leinart practice, the one thing that's apparent is he doesn't have the accuracy Warner did. Warner was a 65-percent passer in his five Arizona seasons; Leinart, in 29 career games, has completed 57 percent. Watching him last Thursday, I saw him throw a couple in a row slightly behind Steve Breaston, then a low fastball to the ground to Early Doucet. But he also made two nice deep throws to Larry Fitzgerald. (Better than Anderson, at least on this day. Anderson was all over the place with his throws, continuing the bugaboo that prevented from taking the permanent job in Cleveland.)
We'll see. Leinart will get more than a little rope here, and he deserves it. "My time has come,'' he said, walking off the field after practice. "I'm going to play smart. I'm going to play efficient. I understand why people are skeptical of us. A lot of that's on me. I feel so much more ready than when I first came in the league. All quarterbacks want to play, but there's something to sitting for a couple of years and thinking, 'What would I do there?' I know watching Kurt and thinking about the game was good for me.'' We'll see how good in a relatively friendly September schedule (at St. Louis, at Atlanta, Oakland), against no killer pass-rushes.
You forget about the intensity of the Bear fan sometimes.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- I left 15 minutes to get the three miles from my Fairfield Inn to Olivet Nazarene University for the Bears' Sunday night practice. Big mistake. Should have left 45. Lines of cars near campus, as always. Chicagoland loves its Bears like few other markets love teams. And its been clear, from the tenor of talk radio and the smart beat writers here and remembering last season, that the most important single thing to vault the Bears into playoff contention with the hated Packers and Vikings is fixing the offensive line. The sexy story lines have been the Mike Martz-Jay Cutler marriage and the boost Julius Peppers should give to a defense that needs to bring more pressure. But one of the handful of vital people to the fortunes of the Bears this season is the big 6-7 lug out joking on the field during warmup with center Olin Kreutz.
"Big year, Tice!'' one fan yells as the team stretches.
Mike Tice knows, too. The line was abysmal last year. Chicago, always a good running team, was 29th in the league in rushing with just 93 rush yards a game. The Bears allowed 35 sacks, middle of the NFL pack, but some of Cutler's 27 interceptions had to be attributed to being under the pressure that comes with an under-performing line. So the Bears went looking for some new offensive staffers. Martz came in as offensive coordinator. "This is what I probably should be doing,'' he told me last night, smiling. "I'm probably too much of a knucklehead to do the other thing (head-coaching).'' And Jack Del Rio let his good friend Tice out of his Jacksonville contract -- he was the Jags' tight ends coach -- to come to Chicago, where he could do the thing he probably did the best in his coaching career, which is coach the offensive line.
There's only one guy on the line no one has to worry about -- Kreutz, returning from an Achilles injury that robbed him of strength last year. Chris Williams takes over for an over-the-hill Orlando Pace at left tackle, Williams returning to his natural college position. He should benefit from going against Peppers in practice every day. Untested journeyman Frank Omiyale should win the right tackle job, with another unproven kid, Lance Louis, a seventh-round pick last year, likely to win the job at right guard. Veteran Roberto Garza moves to left guard after making 64 straight starts on the right side.
How Tice brings this group together, and how he fixes their errors weekly, will go a long way toward determining whether the Bears can contend. On this night, Williams looked feisty going after Peppers, with good quickness pushing him wide. But the group, obviously, is a work in progress.
"We're up and down every day,'' Tice said on the field after practice. "But I learned from some good coaches -- George O'Leary, Chuck Knox -- that on an offensive line, when you work hard, good things happen. These guys are working hard.''
I asked him if he felt the pressure of the Ditka crowd sure to let him know if his line isn't playing well. "I don't feel it at all,'' he said. "I'm having fun.'' For now.
Well, I missed the Sunday night preseason opener because of Bears practice. But reading about it and watching the highlights, there's one headline, and it has nothing to do with Terrell Owens. Dallas tight end John Phillips, who has played better that presumptive number two tight end Martellus Bennett, may have been lost for the year with a major knee injury. The organization (read: Jerry Jones) is in love with Bennett, but Phillips is the better player. That's a huge blow if he's lost. Tony Romo likes and trusts Phillips. It would put a premium on Jason Witten staying healthy for 16 games.
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