For an offensive line, no news is usually good news.
When an offensive line is failing to produce, it is usually one of the quickest units to be blamed. When it is producing, it’s often one of the last units to be praised.
So it goes with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive line, the league’s youngest unit in age and experience.
They’ve grown up awfully fast and done so very quietly.
“They weren’t afforded the time to through their growing pains,” Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia said. “They had to learn on the fly and do it right.”
With two weeks remaining, the team’s record for rushing yards in a season — 2,437 yards in 1979 — isn’t attainable. But there are several milestones that are:
The Bucs have already matched the second-most rushing yards in a season under head coach Jon Gruden with 1,648 yards. They’re well within striking distance of the 1,826 yards the Bucs rushed for in 2005, led by Carnell “Cadillac” Williams.
The Bucs are on the verge of producing a 1,000-yard rusher for the second time in three years, as Earnest Graham has 877 yards. In fact, combine the totals of the starting running back in every game this season and the Bucs have produced 937 yards.
“It sounds a lot better when it’s one guy, though,” center John Wade said.
The Bucs are ranked No. 10 in rushing with two games remaining. Their highest league ranking in team rushing since Gruden arrived is 14th in 2005.
It’s no wonder Gruden and the rest of the organization are high on this group of young, but hungry, linemen.
“I think the right side, we’ve got two great players there, two guys that are going to be seven, eight, nine, 10, 12-year starters, provided they stay healthy,” Gruden said.
That would be second-year right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (24 years old) and second-year right guard Davin Joseph (24). And they’re grizzled veterans next to rookie left guard Arron Sears (23) and first-year left tackle Donald Penn (24).
Wade, the 10-year veteran Penn affectionately refers to as “grandpa,” is 32.
Trueblood, Joseph and Sears were all drafted in the past two drafts. The Bucs plucked Penn from the Minnesota practice squad.
After the franchise’s failed experiment with building an offensive line through free agency after their Super Bowl victory, they’ve committed to drafting and developing their own offensive line.
“I think the draft the last few years they’ve invested in the offensive line,” Wade said. “They have to take advantage of their investment.”
That investment is starting to mature.
The unit began building momentum at the start of the season with back-to-back 180-yard rushing games before injuries to both Williams and veteran left tackle Luke Petitgout brought the whole offense down to earth. Against Indianapolis — a game in which they lost Michael Pittman for an extended period — and Tennessee they gained just 47 rushing yards.
Since then, the Bucs have failed to gain 100 yards rushing just twice in nine games. While the team is averaging 66.9 yards per game rushing for the season, the team is averaging 87.6 yards per game the last eight games. Then they hammered Atlanta for 190 yards last Sunday.
The components in the backfield have changed, but the offensive line has not.
And it seems since rushing for 162 yards against Arizona on Nov. 4, the line’s level of play has continued to rise.
But this run of success has been building, Penn said.
“All during camp and all during OTAs coaches were stressing back-side blocks and base blocks,” Penn said. “It’s not like it just started. That’s what they’ve stressed since OTAs. I guess it’s just starting to click more and more now.”
The veterans, to a certain degree, can’t get over the level of study and preparation these younger players are putting in. It’s obvious to someone like Wade that they’re working on their own time, in addition to the team’s time.
Sears is a great example. The Tennessee product is a physical specimen at 6-foot-3, 319 pounds. In college, he likely rarely faced a NFL-caliber defensive tackle. Now he faces one every week. The adjustment can be daunting, Wade said.
So young players either commit to studying or get left behind. Sears, obviously, has committed to the former.
“My calls are the calls, but how he translates the calls, I can’t make his brain do that,” Wade said. “The time he’s spent on his own, watching tape, studying his notes is carrying over to Sunday.”
Wade is the group’s fulcrum. He’s not only the only experienced starter, but he’s also the quarterback of the unit, relaying line calls and play changes to the youngsters.
Players like Penn and Joseph said they’d be lost without Wade’s guidance, which makes it hard to believe the Bucs threw open his starting job to competition during training camp. He staved off Matt Lehr and Dan Buenning to keep his job, and that’s not lost on Gruden.
“John Wade has been the key,” Gruden said.
The signal post for any successful offensive line is a 1,000-yard rusher. Gaudy passing stats are great, but most successful teams are measured by their ability to run the football, and the Bucs are no different. Two years ago the Bucs went 11-5 with a 1,000-yard rusher and they may do so again this year.
“Anytime you get a 1,000 yard back that’s what you’re looking for as an offensive line,” Wade said.
And this from a group that hasn’t even hit its peak yet. That may be the most encouraging sign of all.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” Penn said. “I have a lot more potential left to tap.”
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.