2011 NFL executive of the year: Scott Pioli, GM, Kansas City. Narrowly over the Bucs' Mark Dominik, whose team played 13 rookies in winning games at season's end. But Pioli's draft (strong character players and impact rookies) … gave him the edge.
— Peter King, Sports Illustrated
INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Dominik is tired of what he believes is a growing perception that the Bucs won last season by riding the talent of two players with character issues — wide receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount.
Williams, a fourth-round pick from Syracuse, led all NFL rookies with 964 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns. Blount, the former Oregon star who was claimed off waivers from the Tennessee Titans, led first-year players in rushing with 1,007 yards and six touchdowns.
Most NFL teams had taken both players off their draft boards. Williams had been suspended twice for missing curfew and quit the Orange football team with three games remaining. Blount was suspended after punching a Boise State player in the 2009 season opener.
"I don't believe we have taken shortcuts on character," Dominik said Friday from the NFL scouting combine, where Bucs officials are again conducting player interviews that will influence their draft-day decisions.
"I would say that, yes, character does matter. And in Tampa … we are certainly going to exhaust every means possible to dig into a guy that can help us."
Exactly one year ago, in Room 102 at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in downtown Indianapolis, Dominik, coach Raheem Morris and college scouting director Dennis Hickey met with a contrite Williams.
"You had to dig into his story of what occurred that evening," Dominik said. "There were enough question marks in his story that you said, 'Okay, I need to dig more from both aspects.' But at the same point, here's a guy you felt really loved playing football, you felt had a real passion about the game. … You could tell how much he missed the game."
Several weeks earlier, at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the Bucs interviewed Blount and made him one of the 30 allotted players invited to their training facility before the draft.
At the time, Dominik believed the backfield was too crowded and did not try to sign Blount as an undrafted free agent. But the team targeted Blount as a player to follow closely throughout the preseason, and the Bucs jumped at the chance to claim him off waivers after they cut Derrick Ward in the preseason.
Those interviews, like the ones Dominik and his staff are conducting this week in the same hotel room in Indianapolis, lay the foundation for decisions that will continue to shape the youngest team in the league.
"That's where it started the process and, through that interview, opened up that door for us to say, 'Let's continue to explore. Let's continue to work on it,' " Dominik said.
"Just like with LeGarrette, we spent over an hour with (him) at the Senior Bowl. We said, 'Let's continue to explore instead of just take the perception outside, the media's perception of the guy.' "
Speaking of perceptions, Sports Illustrated's King said Friday that he credits Dominik and the Bucs for finding such value in Williams and Blount.
"I actually feel like in taking Mike Williams in the fourth round and in taking LeGarrette Blount off waivers and getting the production out of them, I totally applaud them," King said.
"That's one of the reasons I almost gave (Dominik) executive of the year. If he had taken Mike Williams in the bottom of the first round or top of the second, I would've said, 'It is too dangerous.' "
Last year, the Bucs staff drew fire for being too aggressive with players during their interviews. Hickey was criticized for asking Florida State defensive back Myron Rolle if he felt he abandoned the Seminoles by leaving to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Dominik doesn't mind that scrutiny. He said the Bucs will continue to dig deep into players' backgrounds, hoping to find another Williams or Blount.
As for character, he points to players such as Cody Grimm, E.J. Biggers, Erik Lorig and Sammie Stroughter, who were all taken in the seventh round the past two years.
Aside from a decision by Williams in October to drive after drinking alcohol (he was arrested on suspicion of DUI, but the charges were later dropped) and staying out too late, Dominik believes the Bucs' two prized rookies conducted themselves well on and off the field.
"At the same time, you have to have a balance of what is acceptable and what you think is good for your football team and what you want to bring into your building," Dominik said. "We're going to continue to do the process the same way."