TAMPA — The Bucs became the first team since the 1970 NFL merger to have 10 rookie starters in a season while posting a winning record.
But it wasn't by chance that it gelled so quickly.
General manager Mark Dominik's vision and eye for talent were key factors. For that, the team on Monday exercised a one-year option in Dominik's contract that solidifies his status for the 2011 season.
Over the weekend, ownership extended coach Raheem Morris by two seasons, locking him up through 2012 at roughly $2 million per season.
The one-year option was part of Dominik's original contract. Morris' original contract contained a two-year option, likely designed to avoid him entering 2011 as a lame duck. This is a departure from the past as former coach and general manager Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen were given contract extensions of identical lengths by the Glazer family after the 2007 season.
Dominik, who has been with the Bucs in numerous capacities since 1995, has teamed with Morris to make difficult and often unpopular decisions that ultimately have been fruitful. After taking the helm in January 2009 after Allen's firing, Dominik released Bucs icons Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and other prominent players.
Dominik was vindicated when the Bucs finished 10-6 and nearly made the playoffs this season, with the youngest roster and the lowest payroll in the NFL.
"The mind-set is you have to do it fast in the National Football League," Dominik said last week. " … You have to win fast in this league. We felt like we had to strip it down a little bit, knowing we had to build back through the draft and the way we wanted to do it in the last two years. It's been good to see the progress happen quickly, but that's been our mentality from the beginning of it."
The Bucs finished 3-13 in 2009, Dominik's first season, but he and Morris didn't waver. The moves of 2010 have positioned the Bucs to be a factor for years.
Receiver Mike Williams is a strong candidate for offensive rookie of the year, setting a club record with 11 receiving touchdowns. The Bucs were the only team to make a waiver claim for running back LeGarrette Blount after his release from the Titans. He led rookie rushers with 1,007 yards. Safety Cody Grimm, receiver Arrelious Benn and cornerback Myron Lewis— all rookies —played key roles.
"I think there's a lot going forward that could be really special about this football team," Dominik said in his postseason news conference. " … When you put all the pieces out there and think about everybody going forward and what we can have, I think it's something to really be excited about as a Tampa Bay fan."
Now, Dominik faces another crucial offseason with a number of players entering free agency. Among them are cornerback Ronde Barber, linebacker Barrett Ruud and guard Davin Joseph. His ideology won't change.
"We have started down the path that we want to continue on," Dominik said. "And I think we're just going to continue to (build) on our plan going forward on how this team was built, how it's being built and what it's going to become."