Friday, May 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Then and now: Five Tampa Bay Buccaneers who need a turnaround

For every action in the NFL, there is usually a corresponding reaction. • Coming off a disappointing season for a team that appeared to lack structure and accountability, the Bucs hired no-nonsense Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, an organized disciplinarian with a square jaw, buzz cut and barrel chest right out of central casting. • The little problems that metastasized into big ones last season have been addressed. • But the transformation is far from complete, and for a handful of players who will be asked to play huge roles again this season, big changes in a short period of time will be in order.

1. RB LeGARRETTE BLOUNT

THEN: His lack of commitment was startling to coaches from the day he was claimed off waivers from the Titans an undrafted rookie in 2010. For the first two weeks after being acquired by Tampa Bay, Blount, who was suspended at Oregon for punching a Boise State player, never made it to work on time and compiled fines of more than $15,000. Exasperated, then-coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik ordered him to hire a car service with a driver to wake him up in the morning and transport him less than 3 miles from his apartment to One Buc Place. After a few weeks, they canceled the car service for one day. And Blount was late. He continued to need a driver to get to work in 2011. But his poor preparation habits also spread to the meeting room, where coaches said he would sometimes fall asleep. On the field, Blount struggled to hold onto the football. He has fumbled nine times in two years, losing six, and rarely played on passing downs. A knee injury at San Francisco prevented Blount from playing in two games last season, and he finished with 781 yards (4.2 per rush average) and five touchdowns.

NOW: Blount will have to compete to keep his starting job. The Bucs traded for an extra first-round pick in this year's draft to take Boise State running back Doug Martin, whom Schiano says reminds him of Ravens and former Rutgers running back Ray Rice. Martin is a more complete back who can play on all three downs as a good route runner and pass protector. Blount, 25, dropped some weight in the offseason and has worked hard to improve his blocking and route running. He also has learned to carry the football high and tight to his body. "It's become a habit," he said. "I don't even notice that I do it most of the time now. Holding the ball down (low) is kind of uncomfortable now. … If that's all you do every time you are at practice with a ball in your hand, you can't help but make it a habit."

WR MIKE WILLIAMS

THEN: Williams, left, led all rookies in receiving with 964 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010. But he suffered through a sophomore slump and was among the league leaders in dropped passes last year.

The 6-foot-1, 212-pound receiver, who relies on his strength more than speed to get separation, packed on some weight during the NFL lockout last summer. There's some debate as to how much he gained, but coaches insist regardless of where he tipped the scales in August, he lost 15 pounds during the season, and his lack of production would indicate he wore down.

In the final month of the season, he had trouble getting off the line of scrimmage in bump-and-run coverage and averaged two catches for 26.25 yards per game. He finished the season with 65 catches for 771 yards and only three touchdowns.

"Nobody is making excuses for him," GM Mark Dominik said. "He's got to catch the ball more consistently. But I didn't feel a guy who was shutting it down and didn't want to play. He was still competitive, and I like that about Mike."

NOW: The Bucs were aggressive in landing arguably the top free agent wide receiver available, former Charger Vincent Jackson. The 6-5, 230-pound Jackson, above, signed a five-year, $55.55 million deal and gives quarterback Josh Freeman a proven No. 1 wideout.

That means Williams, 25, will be the second option, which could mean more single coverage and better production. Williams worked hard in the offseason and should begin training camp in much better shape. He is also learning more positions so he can be moved around and should be more difficult to bottle up.

LT DONALD PENN

THEN: In many ways, the most important job for the Bucs is protecting their franchise quarterback. And in that regard, Penn is imperative.

He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010, the year he signed a six-year, $43 million contract. When he's in shape, he can be great. But he has struggled with his conditioning, which is why GM Mark Dominik tied $1 million over the length of the contract to a weight clause.

At least three times during the season and once in the offseason, Penn has to submit to weigh-ins tied to a $200,000 per year bonus. Once the games start, he has to be no more than 330 pounds to receive his money.

Coaches say he ballooned to 360 pounds at times last season, his sixth in the league. Mindful of an upcoming weigh-in, he would wear a rubber shirt under his jersey during practice. Some claimed the routine made him irritable and dehydrated and likely affected his performance on Sunday.

It's unclear if or how many times he failed to reach his weight limit. By agreement, he doesn't have to step on a scale the final month of the season. Not coincidentally, that's when he played his worst football in 2011.

Against Jacksonville Dec. 11, he allowed a first-half sack to Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey that resulted in a Josh Freeman fumble, which was recovered for a touchdown in a 41-14 loss. Freeman was harassed all day, sacked three times, and threw two interceptions as the Bucs turned the ball over seven times.

NOW: Coach Greg Schiano has challenged Penn and other veterans on the offensive line to be better leaders. Penn, 29, will benefit from left guard Jeremy Zuttah moving to center, and should love playing alongside Saints free agent guard Carl Nicks.

The team also hired former Wisconsin offensive line coach Bob Bostad to direct the most veteran unit on the team.

"We've got to keep No. 5 (Freeman) upright," Schiano said. "He got hit way too many times last year."

CB AQIB TALIB

THEN: A year ago, he began the season in the office of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Suspended for the first game in 2009 for punching a St. Petersburg cab driver, Talib was indicted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon stemming from a incident in Garland, Texas, on March 11, 2011. Goodell let him remain eligible for the season, saying he would monitor the case.

On the field Talib, right, struggled. He was flagged for a critical unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a loss to the Bears. On his way to the locker room after the game, he berated the official who flagged him with a profanity-laced tirade.

It was not dissimilar from the time he exploded on NFL side judge Boris Cheek following a loss at Baltimore in 2010. The league became involved in the matter with Cheek. But officials decided not to report Talib's abuse of an official following the game in England.

A hamstring injury slowed him during the second half of the season, and he was placed on injured reserve with two games remaining. He finished his fourth NFL season with only two interceptions.

NOW: The Bucs were so uncertain of Talib's status heading into a trial scheduled for this offseason, they signed Lions free agent cornerback Eric Wright, left, to a five-year, $37 million contract. But last month, the case against Talib was dismissed. Coach Greg Schiano has said Talib, 26, has a clean slate. He was a fixture at One Buc Place in the offseason. The hamstring injury appears to be behind him. With Ronde Barber moving to safety, Talib will pair with Wright at cornerback and should help improve a secondary that allowed 30 touchdown passes last season.

"It got a little loose last year where people got a little too loose around the building," Talib said in a radio interview recently. "So Schiano definitely came in and brought that order back to the building."

QB JOSH FREEMAN

THEN: Freeman struggled last season, throwing 22 interceptions and only 16 touchdowns. The third-year quarterback missed one game with a sore throwing shoulder but played through several other injuries, at least one of which the team attempted to conceal.

He was injured on his final play in London, striking the thumb of his right (throwing) hand on the helmet of Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Because the Bucs had a bye week, Freeman did not have to practice and the team wasn't required to file an injury report with the NFL.

A week later, still recovering from the sprained thumb, he spent part of a day off at a local gun range. But the weapon he was firing recoiled and gave him what shooters call a slide bite, a deep laceration on his right thumb.

There was debate about how many stitches he received, with reports ranging from a few to double digits. The day after the accident, GM Mark Dominik summoned Freeman to his office and told him the organization was not going to talk about the gunplay.

He was limited in practice when the team returned to work that week in preparation for a game at New Orleans, but the thumb issue did not appear on the injury report.

When Saints team officials saw Freeman being interviewed on NFL Network later that night with a heavy wrap on his right thumb, they asked the league to make sure the Bucs included him on the next injury report. The team complied, listing only a sprained thumb. Freeman followed Dominik's gag order. He played well against the Saints, going 27-of-37 passing for 281 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions. But the Bucs lost 27-16 and Freeman missed two wide open receivers for likely touchdowns.

In the four weeks after the thumb injuries, he passed for five touchdowns and six interceptions while losing four straight games. Three weeks after the gun range accident, word leaked out about the cut thumb. He apologized for his poor judgment.

NOW: Freeman, 24, dropped 20 pounds in the offseason, down to 235. Coaches talk about his rededication. He has spent a lot of time with new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and quarterbacks coach Ron Turner trying to improve his fundamentals and footwork.

In fact, most of the offseason was designed to get him back on track and surround him with more talent: the free agent signings of receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks, drafting running backs Doug Martin and Michael Smith.

Coach Greg Schiano believes Freeman put too much pressure on himself.

"I think (he's) a guy that's putting the brunt of the blame on his own shoulders," Schiano said. "There were a lot of breakdowns, things that he had no control over. At the end of the day, we're going to start from scratch.

"We have a new system, new coaches, new people, and we're just going to try to build from ground zero, build it up and see where we can go with it."

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