Tampa Bay entered the 2007 season with a lot of questions marks, not only on the field but in the front office. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were both on the hot seat. Now, it appears both are on their way to contract extensions.
This 2007 season was one filled with plenty of injuries, drama and unsung heroes who came to the team’s rescue as the season threatened to disintegrate. The Buccaneers won a division title, at times, in spite of itself.
But who were the real stars? Who were the real disappointments? Who really deserved the praise? That’s what we set out to find out with our 2007 Awards. Sit back and read along through a final journey of the best and worst of this season.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
There’s a solid short list of players. QB Jeff Garcia stabilized his position. RB Earnest Graham rode to the rescue of the run game. LB Barrett Ruud played Pro Bowl level football in his first full season as a starter. WR Joey Galloway had another fine season.
To me, the MVP is the player that meant the most to any team during a season. So while Garcia certainly fits the category, I’m going to give the award to Graham. Here’s why. When Graham took over as the starter the running game appeared to be in shambles. Carnell Williams and Michael Pittman were both hurt. The Bucs had just dealt for Michael Bennett, who had no experience with the system. Graham had to be the guy, and without a competent running game defenses would have put eight men back in coverage and dared Garcia to beat them through the air. Few quarterbacks are good enough to do that consistently.
|Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in 2007. (Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt)|
After a lackluster 29 yards against Tennessee, Graham never gained fewer than 61 yards in any of the next eight games. He rushed for 100 yards three times. He set a team record by scoring a touchdown in six straight games. More importantly, he ran well enough to keep defenses honest and help keep the heat off Garcia. Without him, these Bucs might have finished 7-9 and Garcia wouldn’t have been nearly as efficient as he was. Garcia made this offense go, but Graham saved it from ruin.
This has to go to Garcia. He came in and stabilized a position that had been in flux since 2004, gave the offense incredible leadership, poise and toughness while protecting the football and helping Galloway to another fine season. His ability to make things happen with his feet gave the offense a new dimension and gave a young offensive line a little more margin for error. And his presence allowed head coach Jon Gruden, for the first time in a few years, to open up his playbook to new possibilities, including the shotgun formation. Without Garcia, the season would have been dead in the water before it even started.
Ruud immediately leaps out. But so do other contenders, like first-year DE Greg White, whose ability to sack quarterbacks and create turnovers became a big factor in the second half of the season. Jovan Haye gave the Bucs their best play at under tackle since the now-retired Warren Sapp left. Safety Jermaine Phillips patrolled the middle with aggression this year and led the team in interceptions.
|Tampa Bay linebacker Barrett Ruud had a Pro Bowl-level season in his first year as a starter. (Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt)|
But I’ll take Ruud. Middle linebacker is a critical position in the Cover 2 and Ruud was a first-year starter, taking over for Shelton Quarles, a beloved and above-average player in the middle. Ruud started out with a bang, earning the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month honor for September and never let up. By October there were no questions about Ruud’s pass coverage abilities or inexperience as a starter. He led the team in tackles with 169 and put forth a Pro Bowl-level season.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Gaines Adams made a late play for this award, grabbing six sacks for the season (mostly in the second half). Arron Sears did a fine job inside at left guard and the Bucs are really high on his future. But the award goes for fourth-round pick Tanard Jackson.
The former Syracuse corner entered a position that received plenty of criticism last year — free safety. The Bucs put him in the fire early in training camp, allowing him to compete with incumbent Will Allen. All Jackson did was win the job by opening day, and his blend of corner cover skills and hitting ability quickly became an asset to the secondary. He made few mistakes, broke up 12 passes (second behind Ronde Barber) and stabilized a position that was horrible last year. Plus, he did it for 16 games, and not eight like Adams.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR (NON-ROOKIE)
It has to be White. By now the story is almost like lore. He came from the Arena Football League on Jay Gruden’s recommendation and ended up leading the Bucs in sacks with 8 in 2007. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script or cast a better 28-year old journeyman in the part. Always with a smile on his face, White knew he was part of the “Just happy to be here” club. But by the end of the season he became a part of this team’s future.
FREE AGENT OF THE YEAR
Garcia, obviously, followed closely by LB Cato June and DE Kevin Carter, both of whom brought leadership and solid play to a defense that was starting the process of getting younger.
ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR
It would be easy to pick defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, but we’ve seen him take water and turn it into wine before. Same goes for running backs coach Art Valero, who tutored Graham all season.
My award goes, in a close call, to defensive line coach Larry Coyer. No assistant had a tougher job. The Bucs wanted a better pass rush after just 25 sacks last season and gave Coyer a grab bag of talent to work with. Plus, they released Simeon Rice on the eve of the first practice of training camp. No position group had more question marks at training camp.
Coyer got everything he could out of Haye, White, Adams, Carter, Chris Hovan, Ryan Sims and Greg Spires and squeezed 33 sacks out of them. Plus their pressure helped contribute to the fourth-best turnover ratio in the NFL in 2007. Coyer’s job was certainly Marinelli-esque.
My next choice was secondary coach Raheem Morris, who turned around that position group and held the pass defense together until the pass rush caught up.
BEST MOVE OF THE YEAR
Releasing Rice, though at the time no one thought it was a great idea. But at the end of the season the Bucs had their improved pass rush and Rice was out of football. It was an unceremonious end to a fine career, and it vindicated general manager Bruce Allen when conventional wisdom said to keep him. Imagine the distraction Rice would have caused if he had stayed.
WORST MOVE OF THE YEAR
Until they do something with him, it’s the Jake Plummer trade. The Bucs lost their seventh-round pick this year and Plummer is still hiking in Idaho. Finding a trade partner will be difficult. Releasing him will be near impossible without incurring salary cap damage. When Jeff Garcia went to Oakland for his first visit, they panicked, pure and simple.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER
The season was filled with mostly good vibrations, but there were a few disappointments. DE Patrick Chukwurah was injured just about the whole season and never really contributed to the defense the way the team thought he would. All the major injuries certainly fit the category, and none was bigger than Williams’ patellar tendon.
|Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton finished the regular season with just 22 reception in 2007. (Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt)|
But the biggest disappointment, to me, was WR Michael Clayton. In his fourth year, and with his health problems seemingly behind him, Clayton caught just 22 passes, the worst output of his career. Clayton had a chance to re-establish himself as the No. 2 quarterback, but he lost the job, first to Maurice Stovall and then to 31-year old Ike Hilliard.
Clayton is now a bust. He was healthy most of the season but never played with the assertiveness he did his rookie season. Yes, he’s a talented blocker and special teams player, but he was a first-round pick and more is expected of any first-round pick at any position. He has two more years left on his deal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was traded or released before his contract expired.
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.