- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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WHEN WILL the bloom be off the rose for coach Jon Gruden? Since winning the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, his first year in Tampa Bay, Gruden has no playoff wins and his teams are a combined 36--46.
You think of the marquee players on the club now, and you think AARP. Quarterback Jeff Garcia is 38, favorite targets Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard are 36 and 32, respectively, and Warrick Dunn, the free-agent former Buc brought back to breathe life into the running game, is a spry 33. On defense, linebacker Derrick Brooks (35) and corner Ronde Barber (33) continue to be vital to the game planning of coordinator Monte Kiffin (who, by the way, is 68).
So why is Gruden looking more smug than usual about his team's future? Consider how Tampa Bay is building a solid core.
• The average age of the starting offensive line is 25. Guards Arron Sears and Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood were drafted in the first or second rounds since 2006. Plus, the Bucs went after free agent Jeff Faine, 27, and made him the highest-paid center in football.
• Signal-calling middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, 25, is the speedy sideline-to-sideline playmaker Kiffin's athletic scheme requires.
• The secondary has four long-term starters who are 27 or younger, including fast-rising free safety Tanard Jackson, 23.
• Gruden expects defensive end Gaines Adams, 25, to prove himself worthy of the No. 4 pick in the '07 draft and become an edge-rushing force.
"Why are we better?" Gruden said during training camp, with that I-know-something-you-don't-know smile. "Depth, the best we've had. A young offensive line that's much better than we've had. A veteran, heady quarterback. A lively Gaines Adams. We've got a lot of players who haven't gone global yet. Barrett Ruud—anybody know who he is? I'll tell you who he is: He's a hell of a football player and our leading tackler. Two young guards who might be the best combination in football."
After the Bucs didn't land Brett Favre this summer, they scrapped any plans for a quick-strike downfield offense. Now they'll use Garcia, their version of Fran Tarkenton, to be a mobile and accurate short-range passer. He completed 64% of his attempts last year with only four interceptions. Josh Johnson, a rookie fifth-round pick and a Jim Harbaugh disciple from the University of San Diego, could become the heir apparent. He's fast, with a quick release, and Gruden threw bouquets at him throughout camp.
But this year Tampa Bay will again try to beat teams with its defense, a unit that ranked second in the NFL in '07, and there's no reason they shouldn't be as good. "It's not like it's 2002 around here, but we can definitely be a dominating defense," says Barber. "With the exception of me, Derrick and [backup defensive end] Kevin Carter, we're very young on defense. We've got some young DBs with tremendous ball skills."