The firing of Jon Gruden and G.M. Bruce Allen in Tampa after a four-game losing streak to end 2008 was sensible and dangerous at the same time.
There was understandable frustration that Gruden and Allen relied too much on veterans in their never-ending quest to win now, even if it came at the expense of developing talent. On the other hand, Gruden and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin coached up rather mediocre rosters to winning records in three of the last four years.
The Bucs may find out how good they used to have it under new coach Raheem Morris, because this team may have to get worse before it gets better.
Tampa is making huge schematic changes on both sides of the ball. The team will employ a zone-blocking running attack under new coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.
The young offensive line may be the strength of the team, and Morris will lean heavily on their solid backfield: Free agent acquisition Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham, and possibly Cadillac Williams.
Byron Leftwich looks like the pick at quarterback, but he has his work cut out for him with a lame wideout group after injured number one Antonio Bryant. The Bucs placed a risky bet on tight end Kellen Winslow, giving up draft picks and big money for the injury-prone former Brown.
So much for building for the future.
On defense, the Bucs will move away from their “Tampa Two” scheme. The team dropped a number of aging starters like Derrick Brooks, but it’s debatable how well the roster fits coordinator Jim Bates’ scheme. They will need linebacker Barrett Ruud and defensive end Gaines Adams to develop into stars. The front seven looks especially thin.
The Bucs still appear to have a muddled, mediocre roster.
Without Gruden and Kiffin around to coach them up, this looks like a team that learns the hard way that drastic change can be painful.
Key Player: Ruud. The linebacker group is shaky looking around him (Quincy Black, Geno Hayes, Angelo Crowell, converted safety Jermaine Phillips), so Ruud will have to hold together a run defense that could be a huge liability.
Rookie to watch: Josh Freeman. The Bucs don’t want to rush their future starting quarterback, but it would be a surprise if the athletic Kansas State product wasn’t playing in December.
Best veteran acquisition: Ward. He gets to run behind another great offensive line. With power, blocking, and receiving skills, Ward is the complete package.
Key game: Week Seven, vs. Patriots in London. Tampa’s eighth home game is really a neutral site affair against one of the best teams in the league. That makes a tough schedule that includes the NFC East even more challenging.