Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Fennelly: With Seahawks' Michael Bennett comes curse of former Bucs

TAMPA — The Bucs are 5-5, and there's a real, live and big NFL football game this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. Captain Lower Bowl — Dirk Koetter — might get his wish. The joint might be jumping.

Better still, maybe it won't be haunted.

I'm thinking about defensive end Michael Bennett, whom the Bucs all but discovered, claiming him off waivers in 2009. Later, the Bucs chose not to try to keep Bennett. Pure negligence. Bennett had injury issues, but mostly he walked because the Bucs thought they had their answer at pass rusher: Da'Quan Bowers. We'll resume the column when you're done laughing.

You know the story. Michael Bennett is the one that got away. He won a Super Bowl with Seattle. He's one of the best pass rushers in football. The Seahawks will be in Tampa and Bennett might possibly return after minor knee surgery, though Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said it's unlikely Bennett will play Sunday.

Bennett isn't Doug Williams or Steve Young, who also got away.

But Bennett is big. And he's here Sunday, one way or another.

A haunting he will go?

It has happened before.

Too much.

Remember late last month, when former Bucs offensive lineman Donald Penn celebrated in the end zone at Raymond James Stadium after scoring a touchdown for the Oakland Raiders?

Remember early this month, when former Bucs defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn, now with the Atlanta Falcons, splattered Jameis Winston with a sack?

I'm thinking about Aqib Talib, a Bucs first-round draft pick in 2008, whom the Bucs dumped in 2012 for some good reasons, culture change among them … and who has been a star since he left, in New England, in Denver. He's one of the best defensive backs in football. Last month Talib had two picks against the Bucs in his return to Tampa.

I'm thinking of Mark Barron, a Bucs first-round pick in 2012, a safety who had all kinds of issues here, not being able to cover people among them. He was traded in 2014. The Rams found a new position for him, linebacker, and he's doing well. Great blitzer, great tackler at the line of scrimmage. In September, Barron had an interception in his Tampa return.

On a smaller scale, there's Roy Miller, who never hit his stride here in the middle of the Bucs' defensive line but who found a home in Jacksonville as a solid run stuffer until he went down with an injury about a month ago. And there's Clayborn. He has become an effective situation rusher, third downs, lining up inside. Barron, Miller and Clayborn aren't superstars, but we're talking solid contributors for teams that found how to get the most out of them. Imagine.

I guess all NFL teams have a Michael Bennett or two, the ones that got away. But the Bucs' defense, for all its recent signs of life, is ranked 26th in the NFL.

Think any of those names we mentioned could be helping?

It speaks to the acid runoff from constant Bucs upheaval — turnover in coaching regimes, from Raheem Morris to Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith to Koetter, and turnover in general managers, from Mark Dominik to Jason Licht. It speaks to decisions made in the name of all sorts of things, including off-the-field and locker room issues. It speaks to scheme changes and personnel preferences and ideas on culture change.

But maybe things are tracking the right way.

Want to know the surest sign of a turnaround? Last week, when the Bucs beat the Bears, they weren't haunted by former kicker Connor Barth. Even more telling: Bucs safety Chris Conte returned an interception for a touchdown against the Bears — his old team, the one that cut him loose. A Buc haunting someone else. Imagine.

Yes, it's smooth sailing from here on out.

Um, what's the latest injury update on Bennett?

Martin Fennelly is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at mfennelly@tampabay.com.

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