Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers need magnificent seven for franchise turnaround

It was back in the old days when the old coach was talking about an old formula.

Even then, it started with greatness.

At the time, Sam Wyche was the latest coach who was trying to mop up the mess that was the Tampa Bay Bucs. It was, you might say, a chore. The franchise was the Dysfunction Junction of the NFL, and the losing streak was harder to stop than a runaway train.

So it was that, one day, Wyche was talking about how many impact players it took for a franchise to turn it around.

"Seven," he said without hesitation. "Seven guys can change everything."

Granted, Wyche never found the right seven in his stay in Tampa Bay. But he had coached the Bengals to a Super Bowl, and he was part of Bill Walsh's staff in San Francisco.

The theory was this: Enough special players can affect the rest of the roster. They can turn an average player into a good one and a good one into a very good one and a wretched team into one worth talking about.

Which brings us to the latest measurement for the current Bucs.

How close are they to being good again?

These days, Wyche has changed his math somewhat. Now, he talks about five players. Of course, they have to be the right five.

"I may have changed the answer on you," Wyche says now. "I think you need five. You need a Pro Bowl-level quarterback, one who is smart and accurate. It helps if he has a rifle arm, but that doesn't do him any good if he isn't accurate.

"You need a go-to guy. That can be a receiver, a running back, even a tight end. You need a tackle to protect the quarterback's blind side. You need a pass-rushing end who affects the other team's blocking schemes. And you need a shutdown corner. Back then, I was probably thinking about a center. Maybe a safety. Maybe a great punter to get to seven.''

In other places, other NFL offices use other formulas, but the concept remains the same. Put together a core of excellence, surround that with a roster of better-than-average players, and it can carry a team for a long way.

So, you ask, just who are the seven players who have to be magnificent before the Bucs can matter again?

1. Josh Freeman

QUARTERBACK

No surprise here. These days, the Bucs' fortunes always start with Freeman. If he isn't significantly better, then his team won't be, either.

This time last year, no one doubted Freeman. But for Freeman, last season was all about backing up, making fewer plays and more mistakes. You could argue that it all wasn't Freeman's mistakes, but face it, you could say the same for Vinny Testaverde or Trent Dilfer.

For Freeman, his fourth season will say a lot about the direction of his team. His franchise, too.

One cause for hope? The Bucs play only one game against a team that finished last year in the top 10 in the defensive yardage rankings (the Eagles, who were eighth). There are nine games against defenses that ranked 20th or worse.

2. Vincent Jackson

WIDE RECEIVER

For all of the deserved criticism of Freeman last year, it wasn't like a lot of receivers were streaking open downfield.

Jackson should change that. He's a big, tough receiver who has caught passes for more than 1,000 yards in three of the past four seasons in San Diego. He's going to change the way opponents cover the Bucs, which should create a lot of openings for teammates, too.

3. Adrian Clayborn

DEFENSIVE END

Glance at the schedule and what you see are quarterbacks. Cam Newton (twice). Drew Brees (twice). Matt Ryan (twice). Also Peyton Manning and Tony Romo and Philip Rivers and Michael Vick and Sam Bradford and Robert Griffin III.

Ask yourself: Who is going to put heat on those guys? The answer starts with Clayborn, a high-effort guy coming off a good rookie season. It doesn't help that Da'Quan Bowers was injured.

4. Gerald McCoy

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Going into his third year, McCoy still has to prove he can be an impact player. That said, the run defense certainly was better before he was injured (again) last season.

Here's something to remember: In the best days of the Bucs defense, Simeon Rice flourished largely because he played next to Warren Sapp. The Bucs would like for a similar partnership from McCoy and Clayborn.

First, McCoy has to prove he can withstand injury.

5. Mark Barron

SAFETY

Even as a rookie, Barron should make the Bucs a tougher team. The first-round pick should also make them better tacklers. That's why they preferred taking him in the draft to LSU corner Morris Claiborne.

6. Donald Penn

TACKLE

Certainly, you could argue Carl Nicks, the powerful free agent guard signed by the Bucs, is the most crucial element of the offensive line. The Bucs obviously need for Nicks to be worth his contract.

On the other hand, left tackle remains the most important position on the offensive line. Consider this: Four players in the NFL last year had 16½ sacks or more; the Bucs play against all of them. In all, the Bucs play against 13 of the 25 players in the league who had nine sacks or more.

In other words, Penn has to keep the pain away from Freeman.

7. Aqib Talib

CORNERBACK

I know, I know. Right now, it's still up in the air if Talib will be here. He goes to trial in late June, and he may go to the commissioner's office shortly afterward.

That said, the Bucs could use all of the coverage skills they can get. For instance, they play against eight receivers who caught 80 or more passes, and 14 who caught passes for 900 or more yards.

If Talib is here, he better be good.

There are others. Between rookie Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount, the Bucs need to be very good at running back. They could use a young linebacker — Mason Foster or Lavonte David — to be a player. If he's a safety or a cornerback, the Bucs need Ronde Barber to be as big a deal as ever. The new coaching staff needs to mesh quickly.

It starts with seven, as in days of the week, as in blocks of granite, as in wonders of the world.

Put it another way: The closer the Bucs get to seven players, the more likely they are to win more than seven games.

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