TAMPA — Yes, Ike Hilliard is certainly biased, but that won't prevent him from sharing his thoughts on the Bucs' oft-criticized group of receivers. Go ahead and ask him: Can the Bucs have a proficient offense despite not overhauling a unit seen as a weakness last season?
"I can give you my opinion for whatever it's worth," said the former Gator, entering his 12th NFL season.
"All I know is that last year, we won the NFC South with a couple weeks still to go and we got to the playoffs — with this same group. That's something we didn't do the year before."
As always, the on-field results ultimately will tell the tale. But one thing the Bucs are counting on is Hilliard's workmanlike effort and typical consistency. In a league where faces change more frequently than seasons, Hilliard has warded off the effects of age and injury to remain perhaps the team's most reliable receiver.
At 32, he still has the surest hands and runs the most precise routes. He is not — nor has he ever been — the biggest or fastest.
Yet, here he is again, attempting to bounce back from recent shoulder surgery to remove bone chips that has severely impacted his offseason regimen. The procedure has left him in the familiar position of having to fight for a place among a long list of hopefuls at his position.
How's it going?
"He hasn't skipped a beat," quarterback Luke McCown said. "You just trust Ike. You just know how he's going to run a route, where he's going to be and you know he's going to catch the ball when you throw it to him. As a quarterback, that's a comfort knowing that if all breaks down, you just say, 'Where's Ike?' "
Hilliard led the Bucs with 62 receptions last season, not that anyone noticed.
"He's played on a lot of division championship teams; he was a No. 1 draft choice," coach Jon Gruden said of Hilliard, who was drafted by the Giants in 1997. "For whatever reason, some of the gurus don't (have him) on their fantasy football teams."
That isn't how Hilliard prefers to measure his worth anyhow. He takes extreme pride in being versatile, able to effortlessly shift back and forth between the split end and flanker spots, no small feat.
He became a more cerebral player in New York when coaches "threw the whole playbook at me," urging him to expand his repertoire to include more than the underneath and middle routes he ran at Florida.
Now, he says, it's the mental edge that's keeping him around.
"If you can't think, you can't play," Hilliard said. "The fact that I've put in some time studying over the years … has kept me around. It's not like I'm out here running a 4.2 (40-yard dash) or I'm 6-foot-7 and catching jump balls."
That said, Hilliard will have to show enough in training camp to secure a consequential role. Joey Galloway is back from his own shoulder surgery. And the Bucs believe Michael Clayton still has something to offer, they drafted Dexter Jackson and acquired one-time 1,000-yard receiver Antonio Bryant.
The competition should be intense. That's what the Bucs are counting on because it is what will elicit the most effort and the best performances. And guess who already is making plans to be among those who create that heated competition? Hilliard, of course.
"To a man, we need more out of the group," he said. "I need to obviously elevate my play. … But I think that we have enough, barring injury and with a little bit of luck, to get it done."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]