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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young players make Monday Night Football debut

TAMPA — Josh Freeman and all his rowdy friends are finally here on Monday Night Football.

It's significant because despite winning 10 games last season, the Bucs' 23-year-old quarterback and his teammates failed to reach the playoffs and lacked a big-game buzz and prime-time vehicle to garner much national recognition.

For that matter, Bucs players are not household names in the bay area. Tonight's sold-out game against the Colts at Raymond James Stadium breaks a string of 14 local television blackouts.

Cornerback Ronde Barber, 36, is the only active player who participated in the Bucs' last MNF home appearance, against the Giants on Nov. 24, 2003. In their last MNF road appearance, the Bucs played Carolina in 2008, the first of four straight defeats that resulted in the firing of coach Jon Gruden.

NFL fans might be unaware of the extreme makeover of the Bucs' roster, the youngest in the league. They also might not be familiar with Raheem Morris, their fist-pumping, chest-bumping 35-year-old coach.

All that could change by the time Hank Williams Jr. hits the last note on the opening theme.

"We were good back in the '90s. We were good in the early part of this decade," Barber said. "We were pretty well known. We had a lot of name guys, guys who were popular across the league. We've yet to have that kind of exposure to get the guys in this locker room that kind of attention. So this is huge for us.

"We have an identity here. It's just that nobody has recognized it yet. (Local reporters) know we've got great football players on this team, great young players. This is their chance. I think they really are going to embrace it. I think they're all excited about getting this opportunity."

Certainly, the hubbub will be different. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is recovering from his third neck surgery and will not play. Instead, it will be third-year pro Curtis Painter making his first start.

That's a huge break for the Bucs, who allowed Manning to erase a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit and win in overtime on MNF in Tampa in 2003.

Over the past four decades, the nation's Monday night habits have centered around the premier game of the week. Freeman said he has rarely missed watching MNF since his youth in Kansas City, Mo.

"It'll be pretty cool," he said. "But at the same time, I think it'll come down to what we do on the field."

To add some spice to the telecast, Gruden will call the game as an analyst for ESPN alongside Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski. Gruden said he was emotional visiting One Buc Place on Saturday for the first time since being fired after the 2008 season. He is impressed with many of the Bucs' players, including Freeman.

"I'm jealous," Gruden said Saturday.

But the exposure won't just benefit Freeman. NFL fans from Anchorage to Anclote Key will see Mike Williams catch, LeGarrette Blount run, Donald Penn block and Mason Foster tackle.

"It's an honor to get on Monday Night Football being such a young team and having such a young coaching staff," linebacker Adam Hayward said. "You kind of get to see our Tampa Bay swagger and how we do things. And that's what's going to be fun; seeing Freeman, our young No. 5, go to work. People will wonder who is this guy. Now they get to see him and watch him work.

"They haven't seen Raheem get a celebration penalty because he's out there having fun with his guys and all our coaches running up and down the field. They're going to see how energetic it is and fun. We try to bring that fun in football. It's going to be awesome."

Morris has tried to walk a tightrope between telling players to treat it like any another game and reminding them to put on a good show.

"I said that in the locker room," Morris said. "It's an opportunity to show everybody what they've been missing."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' young players make Monday Night Football debut 10/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2011 1:20am]

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