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Tampa Bay Buccaneers have even tougher task to stay on upward arc

TAMPA

By now, you should appreciate the man's vision.

After all, isn't he the one who spotted LeGarrette Blount on waivers when the Titans tried to sneak him onto a practice squad? And isn't he the one who found Mike Williams at the bottom of a college bargain bin? And didn't he have the foresight to trade up and grab a franchise quarterback in his very first draft as an NFL general manager?

So don't you want to know what Mark Dominik went looking for when he got to One Buc Place on Monday?

"I went down to find Coach (Raheem) Morris," Dominik said. "I wanted to make sure he hadn't crawled under some table or desk feeling miserable."

Fittingly, this is the way you begin a bittersweet offseason. With a shrug and a laugh. At 10-6, the Bucs feel good about where they are. And awful about where they are not.

No Tampa Bay team has ever traveled so far so quickly, yet the Bucs somehow fell short of their postseason aim. It's like losing 50 pounds and still not fitting into that new pair of jeans.

Realistically, the Bucs have every reason to feel good about where they stand today. Their general manager, head coach and quarterback were each among the best in the NFL in 2010, and that's not a bad starting spot for the future.

The team is young, the depth chart appears strong, and the possibilities seem intriguing. Tell 31 other GMs they can swap their roster for Tampa Bay's, and I'm guessing the phone lines would be jammed.

Still, history says the chore is not complete. Plenty of teams have had dramatic turnarounds from one season to the next. Maintaining that momentum into a third season is the tricky part.

In the past decade, 17 teams had turnarounds of six victories or more. And 14 of those fell backward the following season. We have even seen it in Tampa Bay. The Bucs went from worst to first and back to worst in consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2006.

Why does it happen?

It could be complacency. Or schedule changes. Or misfortune. It could be any number of reasons, but the key is that it happens often, and so nothing should be taken for granted in 2011.

"It's going to be the offseason. It's going to be the work ethic of this football team. It's a young group of players, and it's going to be the time they put in inside this building when they're allowed," Dominik said. "It's a matter of them tasting success but not being comfortable with it."

And, to some degree, it is going to be Dominik trying to build on the success he has had in the past two offseasons. Already, the roster has been virtually remade from the end of 2008. Only a half-dozen starters remain from the Jon Gruden era, and several of them are potential free agents, pending changes in the collective bargaining agreement.

Dominik has put together the youngest team in the NFL and has long-term building blocks with Josh Freeman, Williams, Blount, Gerald McCoy and Aqib Talib, but it is not a stretch to say this roster remains flawed.

The defensive ends do not mount enough of a pass rush. The middle of the defense is not terribly nasty when it comes to slowing running backs. And the offensive line could still do a better job of protecting Freeman.

Dominik has been shrewd when it comes to finding value in younger players cut loose elsewhere. He has not fallen into the trap of becoming too enamored with his players, and he has been quick to recognize his mistakes.

So what will his strategy be this offseason?

Oh, Dominik's not going to say. He can't say. First of all, he would run the risk of ticking off some players in his own locker room. And who announces to the world where they plan to mine for gold?

But it would make sense if Tampa Bay's main focus is finding a pass rusher, either at defensive end or outside linebacker. A pass rusher is probably the most valuable component on defense, and so it wouldn't be a shock if Dominik was willing to trade up in the draft to get one.

There might be changes elsewhere. The Bucs have devoted a lot of money and draft picks on the offensive line, but the reality is there was very little difference between the starters and the reserves as the season went on.

Jeremy Trueblood is a free agent and probably won't return. Davin Joseph is a free agent and could end up elsewhere if his price gets too high. Jeff Faine has a high salary and a recent history of getting banged up.

What's clear is the hard part has been accomplished. Dominik has proved he can find talent. Morris has proved he can coach. More than anything, Freeman has proved he is a franchise quarterback.

The teams that best hold their ground after a big turnaround are the ones that have an elite quarterback. Pittsburgh did it with Ben Roethlisberger. And Atlanta did it with Matt Ryan.

"That's been the most rewarding thing. Watching the plan develop and unfold," Dominik said. "From the moment we traded up to get Freeman … the bottom line is when Coach and I got the opportunity, we knew that for long-term success you have to have a quarterback. It all starts there. Knowing we had that piece in place last year, especially with what we saw at the end of the season, gave me that much more confidence to say, 'Okay, now we have to get him some weapons and figure out where to go with the defense.' "

Two years ago, Dominik and Morris began with a plan to take this franchise in a new direction. Thus far, it has worked about as well as could be expected. They have just a little bit farther to go.

This offseason, the journey continues.

.Fast facts

Tough act to follow

In the past decade, seven teams have had a turnaround of seven victories or more from one season to the next. In all seven cases, the team immediately took a step backward. That's not entirely surprising because it's hard to build on 12- or 13- or 15-win seasons, but more than half of those teams actually reverted to losing records.

Team Year 1 Year 2 Year 3

Chicago 2000 (5-11) 2001 (13-3) 2002 (4-12)

Pittsburgh 2003 (6-10) 2004 (15-1) 2005 (11-5)

San Diego 2003 (4-12) 2004 (12-4) 2005 (9-7)

Baltimore 2005 (6-10) 2006 (13-3) 2007 (5-11)

New Orleans 2005 (3-13) 2006 (10-6) 2007 (7-9)

Atlanta 2007 (4-12) 2008 (11-5) 2009 (9-7)

Miami 2007 (1-15) 2008 (11-5) 2009 (7-9)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers have even tougher task to stay on upward arc 01/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:55am]
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