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Tampa Bay Bucs add emphasis to big-play passing

TAMPA — Luke McCown's past athletic feats include 88 touchdown passes at Louisiana Tech, a figure that remains among the best in NCAA history.

But the Buccaneers quarterback can boast of a basketball background that includes making the All-East Texas team at Jacksonville High.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise the most appropriate way for McCown to describe the Bucs' new attitude about throwing deep was to put it vividly in basketball terms.

"When you see that lane open up or somebody's got his back or his head turned and you have a free drive down the lane, dunk all over them," McCown said. "That's the kind of mind-set you have to have as an opportunistic offense. If they're going to give us one-on-one (coverage) with some of our big receivers, we have to give our guys a chance to be successful."

If the Bucs have established nothing else through their first three training camp practices, they have made it clear they will not hesitate to go down the field when the opportunity presents itself. Balls have been flying through the air from each of the big-armed quarterbacks: McCown, Byron Leftwich and rookie Josh Freeman.

It's a departure from the style employed under former coach Jon Gruden, whose version of the West Coast offense utilized mostly slants and short routes in an attempt to set up the occasional deep ball.

That's not to say the Bucs will be a fastbreak team. They will remain run-first under new coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. But the emphasis on taking advantage of the ability to go deep is a reflection of Jagodzinski, who coaches with a swagger more often exhibited by players.

"Coaches who coach to win, they take a lot of what we feel onto the field with them and listen to it and adjust to it," McCown said. "We're the guys who have to go out and make their vision happen. What's great about Jags is he'll take our input and say, 'We can win with this.' "

The players certainly believe that. But this is about more than just attitude and opportunity. The Bucs are trying to take advantage of personnel they believe is suited to stretching the field as well as what they envision to be effective play-action.

They lack the prototype speed burners at receiver associated with teams that throw deep, but the Bucs have a wealth of sizable targets — Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton and Kellen Winslow to name a few — who can compete for jump balls. It's also important the Bucs have quarterbacks for whom throwing downfield is a strength. That was not the case last season with Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese.

"Unlike in the past, a guy can be 50 yards down the field and they can still get the ball there," said Clayton, who frequently went downfield over the weekend.

Leftwich has his flaws, but he possesses, arguably, the strongest arm of any of the quarterbacks. And he was right in his element in Saturday evening's practice at Raymond James Stadium when on a rollout to his right, he launched a ball nearly 60 yards, hitting Maurice Stovall for a touchdown. Leftwich, whose feet weren't planted, used little more than his arm to fling the ball.

But the key to it all might be Tampa Bay's deep backfield that will do the bulk of the work in the new offense, theoretically luring opponents closer to the line of scrimmage.

"They have to pay when they make mistakes," Leftwich said. "In this league, you get six or seven opportunities a game for that. If you miss just one, that can be the difference between winning a football game and losing a football game."

Said coach Raheem Morris: "If you get a nice little gash in there, you get (running back) Derrick Ward coming in there with a full head of steam on your safeties. Then you can exploit them with (Bryant)."

In Tampa Bay, where defense has for years reigned supreme, no one is easily convinced when it comes to offensive potential. But for now, at least, it all sounds like a slam dunk.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Bucs add emphasis to big-play passing 08/02/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 2, 2009 11:59pm]
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