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Do Tampa Bay Buccaneers have NFL's latest version of triplets

Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin

• • •

Long before they got around to becoming legends, they were surrounded by doubts.

They were kids, and they had just gotten off the bus, and the questions about them took up more room than their luggage. They were the quarterback who went 0-11 as a rookie, and the running back who was too small and slow to play, and the wide receiver who could not stay healthy.

Together, they looked helpless to help a team that was hopeless.

That, of course, was a few years before they became the Triplets. That was before they all moved into the Hall of Fame. That was before they became the model of how to build an offense.

• • •

Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig

• • •

These days, the best offenses function in three parts. If the quarterback's arm is good enough, if the receiver's hands are sure enough, if the running back's legs travel far enough, then a team is destined to kick a lot of extra points.

And win a lot of games.

And hoist a lot of trophies.

True, a great quarterback can carry a team a long way. And a bruising running back can make an afternoon tough for a defense. And a sleek wide receiver can ruin an opponent's day.

Ah, but put one of each into the same huddle, and you have something special. You can attack any part of the field, and you can exploit any weakness in an opponent's defense.

Think of it like this: When is the last great set of triplets you've seen that didn't win big?

• • •

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann

• • •

For the Bucs, this is the idea behind the Second-Chance Trio, the three talented, young players who have turned the offensive huddle into the most intriguing — and dangerous — group in Tampa Bay history.

Consider Josh Freeman, the most improved quarterback in the NFL from a year ago.

Consider Mike Williams, the leading rookie receiver in the league.

Consider LeGarrett Blount, the leading rookie rusher.

Then think of what they might yet grow into, and it's easy to believe the Bucs have a chance to finally develop an offense that is something special. Congratulations, Raheem. It's triplets.

They arrived with question marks of their own, of course. People thought the Bucs were silly for drafting Freeman and risky for taking Williams and foolish for claiming Blount, who slugged another player following a college game, off waivers.

Well, what do you know? Silly, Willy and Bully have kicked in the door to the NFL. Stop them while you can, because as they grow together, it might get tougher.

At 22, Freeman already has proven to have a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks. His touchdown-to-interception ratio has risen to 18-6 (it was 10-18 last year). And he seems to get a little peeved when an opponent intercepts one of his passes and tiptoes down the sideline. Yeah, there is a lot to like.

At 23, Williams already has polish as he runs through secondaries. He leads rookie receivers in catches, yards, touchdowns and plays for more than 20 yards. Yeah, that will do, too.

At 24, Blount already has three 100-yard games. If he can add a couple of more, he may end up with 1,000 yards, which is pretty good considering he wasn't a Buccaneer until after final cut-downs and wasn't a regular until the sixth game of the season. Yeah, he fits.

Can they be as good as the great triplets of all time? Too soon to tell. But do they have a chance to be better than, say, Vinny Testaverde, Lars Tate and Danny Peebles? Yeah, they do.

• • •

Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry

• • •

The better a team can run, the better it can play-action. The better it can throw, the more the safeties have to back away. Put a quarterback, a running back and a receiver together, and an offense becomes versatile and dangerous. It's like fighting a boxer who has three fists.

That's nothing new. Back in the '40s and '50s, the Cleveland Browns used to shred opponents with Otto Graham, Marion Motley and Dante Lavelli. All three are in the Hall of Fame.

Triplicated success isn't as rare as you might think. There are five sets of triplets where all three players are in the Hall. Cleveland, with Graham and his teammates. Baltimore, with Unitas and his guys. Dallas, with Aikman and friends. Miami, with Bob Griese, Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield. And Pittsburgh, with Bradshaw, Harris and Swann (or John Stallworth, if you prefer).

That number could grow next year. Craig, the old 49er, is a finalist for the fourth time and could join Montana and Rice. And Andre Reed, the old Bill, is a finalist and could join Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas.

In the years to come, who knows how the Hall of Fame voters will view the Indy trio of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison. Or the Rams bunch of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce.

There are others, too. There is the trio of Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and Drew Pearson, although Pearson hasn't mustered much enthusiasm from Hall voters. There was John Elway, Terrell Davis and Rod Smith, though neither Davis nor Smith has gotten as much attention as they deserve.

Anymore, this is what offensive coordinators have in mind. It's the hammer, saw and pliers of their tool belts.

Can a team have more weapons? Sure. The 49ers had John Taylor. The Steelers had Stallworth. The Cowboys had Jay Novacek. But in the NFL, offense starts with three heartbeats.

• • •

Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield

• • •

For the Bucs, here's the thing to stress to the young weapons: They have a lot of improving to do.

Ask Freeman. Much of his success this year came because he attacked the offseason so vigorously. He came into 2010 a smarter, more aware quarterback.

In the offseason, Williams could use some work on his routes. His hands are good, but they could be better. Likewise, Blount needs to know protections better. He needs to figure out short yardage. Freeman could reread the chapter on starting more quickly.

Still, it's a lot of talent for a Bucs huddle. Put it this way: The closest thing the Bucs have ever come to triplets were the years of Sapp, Brooks and Lynch.

This time, the offense has to lead the way.

This time, there are at least three good reasons why it should.

Hall of fame trios

Triplicated success isn't as rare as you might think. There are five sets of triplets where all three players are in the Hall.

Cleveland Browns, 1946-1955

Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli

Baltimore Colts, 1956-1967

Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry

Dallas Cowboys, 1990-1999

Troy Aikman. Emmitt Smith Michael Irvin

Miami Dolphins 1958-1974

Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield.

Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-1982

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann (or John Stallworth)

The Best of the Triplets

1. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Dallas Cowboys (1990-1999): Three Hall of Famers who won three Super Bowls in their 10 seasons together. Smith had nine straight 1,000-yard seasons.

2. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, San Francisco 49ers: (1985-1990): If Craig gets into the Hall of Fame this year, this trio will jump to number one. Rice is acknowledged as the best receiver in history, and Montana is in the conversation as the best quarterback. Together, they won three Super Bowls in six seasons.

3. Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-1982): All three made the Hall of Fame (as did the other receiver John Stallworth), and together, they won four Super Bowls. Harris had six straight 1,000 yard seasons when the three were together.

4. John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Baltimore Colts (1956-1967): All three are in the Hall of Fame. Together, they won two NFL championships. They were 23 when they met and became the offense of their era. Moore was as much a receiver as a running back.

5. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Buffalo Bills (1988-1996): Another trio who could climb in voters elect Reed to the Hall with his teammates. Together, the three made it to four straight Super Bowls.

6. Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, Miami Dolphins ( 1958-1974): Another group all in the Hall of Fame, even though Griese didn't throw the ball a lot. Who knows how good they might have been if Csonka and Warfield had not jumped to the WFL after the '74 season.

7. Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis Colts (2999-2005): None are in the Hall of Fame...yet. Manning and Harrison seem like sure things. It will be interesting to see what voters think of James.

8. Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli (Cleveland Browns, 1946-1955): It was a different era for offenses, but who else had a quarterback, a running back and a receiver in the Hall?

9. Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce (St. Louis Rams, 1999-2003): They weren't together long, but the Greatest Show on Turf was impressive enough to all get discussion for the Hall. If they had won more than one title, it would have helped.

10. John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith (Denver Broncos, 1995-2001): Some tend to think of Elway as a one-man team, but he never won a Super Bowl until Davis came along. Smith was the best receiver he ever had.

. NFL playoffs

Who to root for

Okay, you all are doing it, so here it is. Assuming a Bucs victory Sunday, here's who Bucs fans should pull for in Week 16 to move closer to a playoff berth. Remember, any Bucs loss and they're out of the chase:

Giants at Packers, Sunday; Saints at Falcons, Monday

Go Giants and Falcons. Yes, a little risky since a Saints win Monday eliminates the Bucs if Giants also win. But this is the least-cluttered path to the playoffs and doesn't involve a strength-of-victory tiebreaker, something the Bucs lose in nearly every scenario. Here it is, again assuming a Bucs win Sunday:

* Giants win, clinch one of two wild-card spots at 10-5, and eliminate Packers at 8-7.

* Saints lose, fall to 10-5. This then sets up the following week's Bucs-Saints game as a winner-take-all. Bucs win that finale and they win the tiebreaker over the Saints due to the third tiebreaker from teams in same division (best won-lost percentage in common games).

Do Tampa Bay Buccaneers have NFL's latest version of triplets 12/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 27, 2010 3:25pm]
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