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Gary Shelton: In preseason opener, Tampa Bay Buccaneers show many good signs


Make of it what you will. Scoff at it if you must. When it comes to one-liners, crack 'em if you got 'em.

After all, it was a preseason game. A glorified practice. A dress rehearsal. After all these years, you know such games are not to be trusted and even the best of moments are not to be remembered.

On the other hand, it could have been worse.

The Tampa Bay Bucs could have looked as wretched as the Kansas City Chiefs.

They did not. The Bucs opened Friday with a tidy, promising little 25-0 victory, which, we can all agree, is better than the other way around. Winning is always better than losing, and playing well is preferable to playing poorly, and youngry is better than yugly.

Like many of you, I have a lot of years invested in poking fun at preseason football, the NFL's version of a rock band's sound check. There have been too many August wonders and too many years when preseason success faded away on the other side of Labor Day.

Still, you could argue that this is one of the most intriguing preseason openers the Bucs have had — and given the circumstances, maybe the most important.

Oh, the first one, back in '76, was probably interesting before the losing began. And the opener in 2003, when the Bucs went to Japan after winning the previous Super Bowl, had everyone tuned in. And every new coach the Bucs have hired probably thought his opener was important, too.

For this team, Friday night's game, preseason or not, had a little bit of weight to it. For one thing, the entire offseason had been squandered, and the Bucs' coaches have a lot of catching up to do. They needed a good first step to help show that last year wasn't a fluke, that Josh Freeman really is ready to sneak onto the list of elite quarterbacks, that the young pass rush holds promise, and that Mason in the Middle is ready to be a linebacker in the NFL. They needed the new kickoff artist/punter to show why he's worth a winning lotto ticket every year. They needed the offensive line to be solid, and the receivers to be flashy, and the defense to be better.

First impressions?

Check. And check, and check and check. Check, check, check. And furthermore, check.

Here's a question:

Did this game help you to buy in? Even a little?

It should have. The Bucs pretty much bass-drummed the Chiefs, who spent much of 2010 being Tampa Bay's mirror image. Last year, the Chiefs followed their second-year coach from four wins to 10. (The Bucs followed theirs from three to 10). They had a young quarterback who improved to a 93.0 rating, largely by reducing his interceptions from 16 to seven. (The Bucs' Freeman improved to a 95.5 rating as he reduced his picks from 18 to six.) The Chiefs' fans wanted a glimmer of hope out of this game, too.

Instead, the Bucs overwhelmed the Chiefs. As they say about Kansas City, everything was up to date.

The checklist?

1. Josh Freeman: Freeman didn't force the issue often, except for one throw that barely missed connecting with Mike Williams in the end zone. He did hit 9 of 13 attempts, including a crisp 14-yard pass to Sammie Stroughter on third and 4. He also ran for a touchdown, which probably took about a year off Raheem Morris' life expectancy.

Want to know the best thing Freeman did? He managed not to get his thumb broken, which he did in last year's preseason opener against Kansas City.

2. Mason Foster: For those used to seeing the Bucs' middle linebacker play every play, it might have looked odd to see Foster leave the field in nickel packages. Nevertheless, Foster always seemed to be moving forward, and he recovered a fumble and had a nice hit on the sideline. He has a ways to go, but you could see what the Bucs see.

3. Adrian Clayborn: He was active all night, and there didn't seem to be a lot of rookie to him. A fine start.

4. The young receivers: Williams didn't do a lot, and Arrelious Benn didn't play. But Dezmon Briscoe turned the game into a bid for the No. 2 wide receiver job. Hint to Benn: Heal quickly, young man.

5. The offensive line: It looked sturdy, which should be a relief to Freeman. And everyone else. On Freeman's 16-yard pass to Briscoe, he had enough time in the pocket to read a book. Maybe enough to write one.

6. Mike Koenen: Is it too soon for this guy to ask for a raise? The kicker had three touchbacks on his first four kicks, and the Chiefs did the Bucs a favor by bringing the other kick out. They were stopped at their 8-yard line.

7. Josh Johnson: Is there any thought to making him the team's third-down scatback? And if not, why not?

At this point, you are allowed to shrug and roll your eyes. No one is suggesting the Bucs clinched the playoffs Friday. In the preseason, however, all a team can do is play well. All it can suggest is that it has the potential to have some holes filled. All it can say is "maybe."

Friday night, the Bucs managed to be interesting.

In a preseason game, what else can you expect?

Gary Shelton: In preseason opener, Tampa Bay Buccaneers show many good signs 08/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 12:22pm]
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