TAMPA — Coach Jon Gruden made five key decisions in the offseason that have paid off handsomely for the Bucs.
Five personnel transactions that were the most scrutinized, analyzed and criticized. But each has become sanitized by success.
"They are all things that so far have helped us," Gruden said. "I just think it's a long season. We still have some big games left, but we're hanging around."
Two of the moves involved signing free agents with baggage: receiver Antonio Bryant and tight end Jerramy Stevens. While critics warned most clubs wouldn't approach the two, the Bucs' gamble has resulted in Bryant leading the club in receptions and receiving yards and Stevens second among non-wideouts with 11.5 yards per catch.
Warrick Dunn was considered by many to be over the hill at 33, but he is nearly on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Trading for Brian Griese with a logjam at quarterback didn't make sense at first, not even to Griese. And using a first-round pick on cornerback Aqib Talib with so many glaring holes on offense raised eyebrows.
But a funny thing happened when the Bucs rescued some of these players from Nowheresville. Each has made a big contribution to the Bucs' 5-2 start heading into today's game at Dallas.
Chance for Bryant
Bryant's well-documented dustups with coach Bill Parcells in Dallas and Mike Nolan in San Francisco landed him on the couch.
A former second-round pick out of Pittsburgh and Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's best receiver, Bryant started for three NFL teams in a span of four seasons (Dallas in 2003-04, Cleveland in 2004-05 and San Francisco in 2006). He spent the 2007 season out in part because of a league suspension.
"I just think you have to judge people for yourself," Gruden said. "I sat in there and watched 20 films of the guy. I introduced him when I was with the Raiders and he got the Biletnikoff Award. I had dinner with him. I don't remember any of the things that were said or written. … I just think you owe it to yourself to judge people with your own two eyes."
Keyshawn Johnson, a former Buc and Cowboy, remembers the day Bryant went off on then-Cowboys coach Parcells over having to run too many routes in practice without seeing the football. Bryant threw his jersey at Parcells.
"I got between them and said, 'You threw it at him. You have no idea what you did to your career, son,' " Johnson said. "He was young, and he just didn't understand you don't do stuff like that."
It didn't get much better in San Francisco, where Bryant was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy in connection with his arrest on reckless driving.
But even now at 27, Bryant knows this is probably his last chance, and he has made the most of it. He has taken away the split end position from Joey Galloway and has 31 catches for 406 yards and a touchdown.
"They welcomed me," Bryant said of the Bucs. "The organization, the coaches, the teammates. The easy part was just me playing because that's what I enjoy doing. This is a great job to have. All the other stuff, I can't push all those buttons. I don't even know how that happened. But I'm here and I'm very humble and I'm grateful."
At 6 feet 7, Stevens is a big target — on and off the field. His career in Seattle was torpedoed by several alcohol-related driving arrests, and he served a one-game suspension at the start of the 2007 season.
Most figured the Bucs would not attempt to re-sign Stevens this season.
And to make matters worse, just before the start of the free agent period, a Seattle newspaper detailed the lurid circumstances surrounding Stevens' arrest on suspicion of rape while he was at the University of Washington.
Saying the case was nearly 8 years old and the criminal complaint was dismissed, the Bucs and Stevens weathered the storm.
This season, he had to serve a two-game suspension for a DUI conviction in Arizona. But after his return, Stevens has become a weapon for the Bucs again with 12 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown.
"I talked to (Seahawks coach) Mike Holmgren, and he came recommended to me," Gruden said of Stevens. "They don't all come from the same background that you and I come from. It's a credit to some of these guys, really.
"Maybe it's a fault in me; some people say it is. But I saw Irving Fryar turn it around in Philadelphia. He had a lot of problems as a young player in New England. Now he's a minister; he's a very successful guy. He has Hall of Fame numbers. I could go on and on and on."
Griese makes return
The Bucs already had four quarterbacks on the roster when they traded a sixth-round pick to Chicago for Griese one day before he was expected to be released and become a free agent. The move even surprised Griese, who couldn't understand why the Bucs released him in a salary cap move after he sustained a knee injury in 2005.
"Our quarterback play, since he left, wasn't as good as it was when he was here," Gruden said of Griese, who was 5-1 as a starter in '05. "I don't want to be negative or critical of the other guys. He was a good quarterback for us. … He knows something about our offense. I think he flourishes in it. While Jeff (Garcia) was on the mend, I think it was the right thing to do (to play him). I think Brian can play better. He's got some arm issues. But he'll be back, and we'll need him."
Griese, who has not played since suffering elbow and shoulder injuries Oct. 5 at Denver, went 3-1 as a starter despite throwing six interceptions.
Meanwhile, Garcia, who was benched after the season opener, used the time to heal from calf, ankle and finger injuries and now has a lock on the position after back-to-back victories.
"People saw (Garcia) play against Jacksonville. That wasn't him," Gruden said. "They saw him play at New Orleans. That wasn't him, either. They make a big issue about the personal thing. I can't speak for him. I love the guy. As soon as he got here, I got criticized for naming him the starter. You're going to get criticized anyway."
Welcome back, Dunn
At 33 and with more than 10,000 career rushing yards, Dunn might have appeared to be done.
But Gruden never wanted the former Florida State star to leave when he took over in 2002. And he had a sideline seat for the past six seasons watching Dunn play for the Falcons.
"It's good to be part of a team where you can contribute and win games," Dunn said. "Games are exciting; people are looking forward to watching you play. And you have an effect on the outcome of the game. That's good for me that late in my career — I'm able to contribute and help these guys win games. I like that aspect of it. I still think I have some value."
Salary cap concerns prevented the Bucs from retaining Dunn the first time, Gruden said. But he is glad Dunn is with the team now.
With Earnest Graham forced to play more fullback because of injuries, Dunn has rushed for 423 yards and a touchdown on 88 carries.
"Warrick became available, and I wanted to try that. I wanted to be a part of that," Gruden said. "He's got a certain fiber about him that not a lot of guys have."
Talib, the 'Wild Child'
Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris describes Talib, the Bucs' 2008 first-round pick from Kansas, as the "Wild Child."
Talib failed three drug tests while with the Jayhawks and struggled at first to become a pro shortly after being drafted by the Bucs. He was late to meetings, missed the team flight with other Tampa Bay rookies to the Hall of Fame and got into a shoving match with a teammate at the rookie symposium.
But Talib is a quick study, and surrounded by veterans such as Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks and Kevin Carter, he quickly cleaned up his act. On the field, he has been cleaning up as well. He is tied for the NFL rookie lead with three interceptions.
"The dream is just all unfolding," Talib said. "First you come in, meet the guys and stuff. Then you come out here and start winning football games, make a couple plays and give yourself a chance to go home and play against (Cowboys receiver) Terrell Owens. So it's definitely all a dream come true."
Talib brings an energy to the field that was needed, Gruden said.
"And it's a good vibe to have in the locker room," Gruden said. "It's a confident vibe. It's a game where you need that.
"We realize he's referred to as the Wild Child by some. But he's a hell of a player."