TAMPA — The old guy remembers those long ago days. Those forgotten faces.
He remembers a time when the locker room was ruled by hardened men, and when the names above the lockers seemed to have been carved during some bygone era. Back then, he was 27. Barely a baby in a room of elders.
Yes, the years have passed quickly.
Well, technically, one year.
But a handful of months, too.
"Looking around the locker room, it's crazy," Bucs center Jeff Faine said. "From when I first signed here and how veteran-laden we were, and how much change has happened since then."
Faine is 29 now, and one of the oldest players at One Buc Place. Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Jeff Garcia and Joey Galloway are long gone. In the past year, Michael Clayton, Chris Hovan, Jermaine Phillips and Antonio Bryant have departed, too.
With the 2010 season opener four days away, the Buccaneers are worlds removed from the team that finished the 2008 season. There are 29 players on the current 53-man roster who never played for Jon Gruden. That's a 55 percent turnover in about 20 months.
The average age in the Tampa Bay locker room has shrunk to 25.58. Since the Packers were the youngest team in the NFL last season at 25.70, you can safely assume the Bucs are at least among the youngest teams in 2010, if not the youngest.
And the front office is not through with the reverse aging process.
Just in the past few days, the Bucs signed two young running backs, a rookie punter and a rookie center. At this rate, they'll probably bring up Jake McGee before the Rays do.
"We are organically building this franchise. We've got a lot of players with a lot of natural ability at a bargain price," Faine said. "I think they've built a pretty good core on the team surrounded by a few veteran leaders. We're building for the future. Now whether the future is tomorrow or the future is whenever, who knows? But that's what we're building for."
This is exactly what the Glazers wanted. And, to some degree, it is what was needed.
The Bucs had become a team that was continually in a recycling phase. This is why they were occasionally good from 2003-08, but never quite good enough. They didn't give enough young players a chance to develop, and so there was constant turnover.
What general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris have done is accelerate that process. They got rid of players with limited futures, and replaced them with players of limited pasts. It doesn't do much for the present, but it increases the odds for the future.
Which is how a team can go from 9-7 to 3-13 in a heartbeat.
By their very nature, young players are risky. You don't know how their potential will play out on the field, and you don't know how their personalities will develop off the field.
You have to worry if speed will translate into production. You have to wonder if strength will turn into performance. And you have to wait to see if a player is dedicated enough to put in the time necessary in the video and weight rooms.
"Those are the things you have to remind guys. This is your career, it isn't a hobby," Faine said. "The atmosphere and the mentality here is definitely changing in that direction. Coach Morris has done a great job of instilling that into the younger guys."
Still, there are no guarantees. Every rookie has potential, but very few pay off in the end. When he was managing a horrible Mets team, Casey Stengel was once asked about that sort of thing.
"I got a kid, Greg Goossen, he's 19 years old," Stengel said, "and in 10 years he's got a chance to be 29."
You can bet the Bucs have quite of few players who fall in that category.
Of those 29 new faces brought to Tampa Bay since 2009, nearly half of them were either waived, released or undrafted free agents. In other words, a bunch of other teams had already looked at them and did not see a ton of potential.
That doesn't mean the Bucs won't find a gem or two, but it probably explains why they are always at the refund counter. If you're not spending a lot of money, you have to sift through an awful lot of merchandise before finding a bargain worth keeping.
In the end, this was a necessary strategy. The Bucs had to blow up the roster before they could rebuild it.
The question is where Tampa Bay goes from here.
Have they found enough young players? Is Morris the right coach? Is Dominik the right GM? When the time is right, will the Glazers ever spend again the way they did from 1999-2002?
Yes, the Bucs have gotten younger.
Eventually, we'll know if they've gotten better.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]