There's a new coach, a fresh set of players and an entirely different attitude for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they attempt to put a dreadful 2011 season behind.
Starting almost completely from scratch wasn't the plan for Tampa Bay entering the 2012 campaign, not after a collection of impressive young talent nearly took the NFL by storm with a 10-win season just two years earlier. The 2010 Bucs were short on experience but heavy on confidence and determination, feeding off the exuberance and brashness of tender-aged head coach Raheem Morris.
Just 32 years old at the time of his hiring in 2009, Morris had a gift for relating and bonding with his neophyte players. But what was perceived as his greatest strength turned out to be a fatal weakness after the Buccaneers plummeted to a 4-12 record last season behind an epidemic of mistake-prone and careless play.
In just 12 months time, Tampa Bay went from what Morris dubbed "youngry" to undisciplined and indifferent. Last season's squad was inundated with turnovers, penalties and defensive breakdowns and went through the motions while ending the year on a 10-game losing streak, with Morris' easygoing philosophy blamed for the team's sharp demise.
The Buccaneers were in sore need of a change. And boy, did they ever get one.
New sideline boss Greg Schiano is virtually Morris' complete antithesis, a stickler for rules and details who preaches unity and accountability. And the former Rutgers program architect wasted no time in weeding out members of the previous regime that didn't share his vision.
Tight end Kellen Winslow, a noted non-conformist, was traded to Seattle in May. Defensive tackle Brian Price was sent to Chicago at the outset of training camp following an altercation with rookie safety Mark Barron in a team meeting. Wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe was waived that same day after skipping a slew of voluntary offseason workouts and subsequently failing his conditioning test.
Make no mistake, Schiano is the captain of the Buccaneers' ship. And those who aren't on board with the new direction will be shipped out.
"I was always best, as a young adult, when I knew where the boundaries were," he said at his introductory press conference. "When you don't know where the boundaries are, you start drifting and all of a sudden you're in a bad place and you don't know how you got there. There have got to be boundaries, and when they hit the boundaries, there's a consequence to bring them back in. Sometimes that consequence can drive someone away, and that's the unfortunate part of it."
The offseason overhaul didn't just extend to the coaching staff. Tampa Bay was one of the more active teams in free agency, snaring three coveted players in All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and cornerback Eric Wright and bringing in accomplished tight end Dallas Clark to replace Winslow. All have been part of organizations that have reached the playoffs, with Nicks and Clark owning Super Bowl rings, and that experience in a winning environment should be an asset to a team that showed last year that it's still learning how to properly handle success.
The veteran additions, coupled with what looks to be another strong draft crop that will yield three intended impact starters in Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David, has Tampa Bay optimistic that another dramatic turnaround like the one it produced in 2010 is a realistic possibility.
"Obviously, if we didn't believe it could happen here, with the guys that they have here, we probably would have been happy to stay where we're at," said Jackson. I think we're all here hungry to prove something."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2007, lost to N.Y. Giants in NFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Greg Schiano (first season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Sullivan (first season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Sheridan (first season with Buccaneers)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Vincent Jackson, WR (60 receptions, 1106 yards, 9 TD with Chargers in '11)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Adrian Clayborn, DE (42 tackles, 7.5 sacks)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 21st overall (30th rushing, 16th passing), 27th scoring (17.9 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 30th overall (32nd rushing, 21st passing), 32nd scoring (30.9 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Doug Martin (1st Round, Boise State), WR Vincent Jackson (from Chargers), TE Dallas Clark (from Colts), LG Carl Nicks (from Saints), WLB Lavonte David (2nd Round, Nebraska), CB Eric Wright (from Lions), SS Mark Barron (1st Round, Alabama), QB Dan Orlovsky (from Colts), WR Jordan Shipley (from Bengals), WR Tiquan Underwood (from Patriots), OT Jamon Meredith (from Steelers), DE Wallace Gilberry (from Chiefs), DT Gary Gibson (from Rams), CB Brandon McDonald (from Lions)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Kellen Winslow (to Seahawks), C Jeff Faine (to Bengals), NT Brian Price (to Bears), WLB Geno Hayes (to Bears), SS Sean Jones (to Lions), FS Tanard Jackson (to Redskins), QB Josh Johnson (to 49ers), RB Earnest Graham (free agent), RB Kregg Lumpkin (to Seahawks), WR Dezmon Briscoe (to Redskins), WR Micheal Spurlock (to Chargers), DE Tim Crowder (released), DE Nick Reed (to Vikings), DT Albert Haynesworth (released), DT John McCargo (to Bears), CB Elbert Mack (to Saints), S Corey Lynch (to Chargers), S Devin Holland (released)
QB: Simply put, whether the Buccaneers sink or swim in Schiano's maiden voyage rests on the broad shoulders of quarterback Josh Freeman (3592 passing yards, 16 TD, 22 INT). The 24-year-old former first-round pick was brilliant during Tampa Bay's playoff near-miss in 2010, throwing for 25 touchdowns and a mere six interceptions while orchestrating fourth-quarter comebacks in five of the team's 10 victories, but was picked off an NFC-high 22 times and responsible for 27 of the Bucs' league-worst sum of 40 giveaways in last year's debacle. While he's an outstanding leader with the physical traits to become an elite passer, his accuracy and decision-making must improve from his most recent effort. Backup Josh Johnson was not re-signed after reaching free agency, with ex-Colt Dan Orlovsky (1201 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) brought in to fill that spot after showing something in five late-season starts in 2011, in which he led a horrid Indianapolis outfit to its only two wins. Well-traveled Brett Ratliff has the inside track if a third quarterback is kept, though he's never thrown an NFL regular-season pass in stops with seven different organizations since 2007.
RB: The Bucs already had a very capable between-the-tackles runner in LeGarette Blount (781 rushing yards, 5 TD, 15 receptions) on the roster, but the powerfully built third-year pro had problems with fumbles a year ago and offers little in the passing game. That explains general manager Mark Dominik's decision to trade up into the late first round and nab Martin, a more complete back with better speed and receiving ability than his new teammate. The rookie is ticketed to be the headliner of what will be a committee approach in the backfield, as Schiano intends to utilize a more run- oriented, ball-control game plan designed to help combat the team's turnover and defensive issues. Tampa Bay also plucked Utah State sleeper Michael Smith in the draft's seventh round, with the lightning-fast youngster slated to begin his career as the No. 3 back and primary kick returner. Fullback Erik Lorig is a good special teams player but not a bulldozing lead blocker, and the incumbent is being pushed in camp by Cody Johnson, a stocky 252-pound undrafted rookie who scored 36 touchdowns as a short-yardage specialist at the University of Texas.
WR: A disappointing display from the Tampa receivers played a part in Freeman's lackluster 2011 performance, as both Mike Williams (65 receptions, 3 TD) and Arrelious Benn (30 receptions, 3 TD) regressed last year after delivering very good rookie seasons. Williams did match his 2010 output with 65 catches but didn't have near the explosion he exhibited the previous year, as his yardage total declined from 964 to 771 and he managed only three touchdowns after reaching double-digits (11) in that category during his debut. Benn struggled with drops and has been dogged with knee injuries during his brief career, including an MCL sprain this summer that put him behind the learning curve in new coordinator Mike Sullivan's offense. The Buccaneers addressed the situation by landing the best wideout on this year's market in Jackson (60 receptions, 1106 yards, 9 TD with Chargers), a two-time Pro Bowl honoree who gives Freeman the first bona fide No. 1 receiver he's had since entering the league. He's an inviting target at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with deep speed to match his big frame, having averaged a stellar 17.5 yards per catch over his seven-year tenure in San Diego. Slot duties figure to again be held by Preston Parker, who came out of nowhere to haul in 40 balls for 554 yards while showcasing impressive elusiveness after the catch, although the team did take a flyer on Jordan Shipley by claiming the brittle ex-Bengal off waivers in August. He came through with a 52-reception rookie year in Cincinnati in 2010, but has had trouble coming back from an ACL tear that kept him out nearly all of last season. Also vying to stick are newcomer Tiquan Underwood, a former pupil of Schiano's at Rutgers best known for being cut by the Patriots the day before Super Bowl XLVI, and injury-prone holdover Sammie Stroughter.
TE: Tampa Bay's decision to sever ties with the combustible Winslow wasn't solely based on personality, as recurrent knee woes had sapped the once-feared playmaker of his field-stretching capabilities. However, Clark (34 receptions, 2 TD) is a player in decline as well, with the 33-year-old accumulating only 71 receptions and five touchdowns combined in the two seasons since his career-best 100-catch, 1,106-yard, 10-touchdown masterpiece of 2009 when still Peyton Manning's safety valve in Indianapolis. He's also missed a total of 15 games over that span. If healthy, he'll still serve as the passing-down option in a two-man rotation with second-year man Luke Stocker (12 receptions), the Buccaneers' best in-line blocker at the position who'll be counted on as a key component to the ground attack. Several players were battling in the preseason to claim the No. 3 job, with college free agent Danny Noble (Toledo) possibly having a leg up on the competition after drawing praise from the staff. The Bucs also took Northwestern hybrid Drake Dunsmore in the draft's seventh round, while Lorig has some experience at tight end and could be another alternative.
OL: The Buccaneers scored a major coup by luring Nicks, widely hailed as the best left guard in the business, away from division-rival New Orleans with a five-year, $47.5 million contract to set up what could have been arguably the best interior tandem in the league. That title slipped away, however, when stalwart right guard Davin Joseph tore his patellar tendon in the third preseason game and was placed on injured reserve. Either backup center Ted Larsen or journeyman addition Jamon Meredith will take over in the interim, but it's a downgrade either way and further depletes what was already a thin area depth-wise. Barring another injury, the Buccaneers should be in good shape at left tackle and center with Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah manning those spots. Penn, who's started every game on the blind side four consecutive years, isn't a household name to the casual fan, but made the Pro Bowl in 2010 and was named to the league's Top 100 Players list in the summer. Zuttah shifts to the middle in a reunion with old college coach Schiano following a strong season at left guard and acquitted himself well in an eight-start stint at the pivot in 2010. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood isn't coming off a particularly good year, however, and his hold on the position could be tenuous with the coaches high on the potential of developmental swingman Demar Dotson.
DL: Tampa Bay has the makings of an outstanding front line if its core members can stay healthy, something that has been a challenge for high draft choices Gerald McCoy and Da'Quan Bowers. McCoy (11 tackles, 1 sack) has yet to blossom into the continually disruptive force at under tackle the Bucs envisioned when they tabbed him with the third overall selection in 2010, primarily because he's played in just 19 of a possible 32 games during his pro tenure. Bowers (25 tackles, 1.5 sacks) was a surefire top 10 pick in last year's draft before the discovery of degenerative knee condition caused him to slip to No. 51 overall, and the mega-talented end could miss all of the upcoming season after tearing his Achilles tendon in May. Tampa Bay still has a pair of quality starters on the edge, however, as 2011 first-rounder Adrian Clayborn (42 tackles) led the club with 7 1/2 sacks in his intro and the underrated Michael Bennett (39 tackles, 4 sacks) is a stout run stopper who can double as an inside pass rusher in nickel packages. Applying more pressure on the quarterback, particularly when residing in a pass-happy NFC South, was a high offseason priority after Tampa mustered a league-low 23 sacks last year, which explains the signings of low-cost veterans Amobi Okoye (27 tackles) and Wallace Gilberry (10 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Okoye, who produced four sacks in a situational tackle role with the Bears this past season, has missed considerable camp time with a knee injury and isn't a lock to make the roster, however. His addition was intended to bring in another able inside body to compensate for the knee-jerk trade of Price, whose starting post at nose tackle figures to be filled by a rotation of career underachiever Roy Miller (36 tackles) and former Ram Gary Gibson (16 tackles, 3 sacks) -- another Schiano disciple from the Rutgers pipeline. Gilberry, just two years removed from a seven-sack campaign in Kansas City, projects as the main backup at end with George Johnson, also a Scarlet Knight alum, and E.J. Wilson rounding out the reserve ranks at that spot.
LB: This is an area where the Buccaneers are banking on improvement, as poor containment by the linebackers contributed greatly to the 2011 team finishing last in the NFL in run defense (156.1 ypg). Middle linebacker Mason Foster (84 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) struggled after being thrust right into the fire as a rookie without the benefit of a full offseason, but should fare better in his second go-around with last year's learning experience. Strong-side starter Quincy Black (59 tackles, 1 INT) didn't meet expectations after receiving a sizeable five-year contract last summer, but the sixth-year pro has been an effective player in the past. The unit could get an immediate boost from David (2nd Round, Nebraska), who's undersized but extremely fast and instinctive and possesses the coverage skills of a safety, making the 22-year-old well-suited for the Will position and a day-one starter. Adam Hayward (32 tackles) is back as the top backup in both the middle and at the weak side who's value his enhanced by his work on special teams, with fellow returnee Dekoda Watson (23 tackles, 1 sack) a capable outside replacement who saw a lot of time in nickel looks last year. 2012 fifth-round choice Najee Goode (West Virginia) is a solid developmental inside prospect who'll likely start out cutting his teeth on the coverage teams.
DB: Morris' defense wasn't very adept at covering receivers either, so a secondary responsible for surrendering 8.2 yards per pass play (31st overall) last year will be getting a major makeover as well under the new regime. The process started with the signing of Wright (74 tackles, 4 INT, 16 PD), who despite an inconsistent 2011 season in Detroit, represents an upgrade on graybeard Ronde Barber (79 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) at right cornerback in terms of speed and athleticism. The 37-year-old Barber in turn will switch to free safety as the franchise icon returns for a 16th season with the organization, and his wisdom and knowledge make him a perfect mentor for Barron as the Alabama All-American supplants departed liability Sean Jones on the strong side. The No. 7 overall selection in the most recent draft is already pretty well-schooled after starting three years in a pro-style defense under Nick Saban, and he's a hard-hitter with excellent ball skills with definite Pro Bowl potential. The lone member of the backfield remaining in place is left corner Aqib Talib (34 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD), the group's best man-on-man defender and a noted playmaker who's registered 17 interceptions over his four NFL campaigns. The 2008 first-rounder's greatest weaknesses have come off the field, as he's had a few brushes with the law, but has so far fallen in line with Schiano's rules. With Barber still expected to cover the slot in the nickel, lightly tested second-year man Ahmad Black will hold down a key role as an extra safety in those situations. Depth at corner will be provided by E.J. Biggers (61 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PD), often overexposed as last year's nickel back, returnee Myron Lewis and possibly rookie Leonard Johnson (Iowa State) after the undrafted free agent turned a few heads in camp. 2012 sixth-round pick Keith Tandy (West Virginia) is in the mix for a reserve safety job and special-teams work.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The MVP's of Tampa Bay's forgettable 2011 season may have been the kicker/punter combo of Connor Barth and Michael Koenen. Barth missed only two of his 28 field goal attempts and finished a splendid 15-of-17 from 40 yards or beyond, earning a well-deserved contract extension in the spring. Koenen (45.1 avg.) ended fourth in NFC with a 40.3 net average in addition to performing well as the team's kickoff man. Smith showed a real spark handling kickoffs during the preseason and will have a chance to bolster a pedestrian department for the team last year, but the punt return game remains a serious question mark. Parker served in that capacity for most of the season but was very shaky, fumbling six times while averaging a modest 9.1 yards per attempt. Shipley, an excellent return man in college, could get a look there. Long snapper Andrew Economos has been reliable since joining the club in 2006, but missed seven games last year with an Achilles tear.
PROGNOSIS: It wasn't all that long ago when a rookie-laden Tampa Bay squad was being touted as one of the NFL's fast risers after defying the experts, and if Freeman can rediscover his 2010 form and Jackson and Martin become the offensive catalysts they're expected to be, the Buccaneers could be a tough opponent to handle much like they were two years ago. This is still a very young mix that will have a lot of unproven depth, however, and growing pains among both the players and the first-year coaching staff should be expected. Residing in an NFC South division with a pair of powerhouses in New Orleans and Atlanta plus a Carolina team that's further along in the rebuilding process and may be ready to take off also doesn't bode well for Tampa's chances of a quick fix. The Buccaneers are making progress and that improvement should reflect in their final record, but it may take another year before all the parts truly come together.