Bucs find strength in (WR) numbers
Goal now is to watch a few with greatest number of strengths emerge.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002
TAMPA -- It did not take Jon Gruden long to realize the Bucs needed help on offense, and it took less time to pinpoint one of the major reasons.
|[Times photo: James Borchuck]
The addition of Keenan McCardell, right, should take pressure off Keyshawn Johnson.
It is not that Keyshawn Johnson did not have a Pro Bowl season and was not among the elite receivers in the league. He was. But for most of the past two seasons, the Bucs receiving corps has been a one-man show.
In passing situations, the play calling went something like this: Throw the ball to Keyshawn, then throw the ball to Keyshawn and if that doesn't work, throw the ball to Keyshawn one more time.
Gruden is determined to change that.
Since he has taken over, the Bucs have signed veterans Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius and E.G. Green, added projects Milton Wynn and Frank Murphy, re-signed Karl Williams, one of the more consistent players last season, and added free-agent receivers Jermale Kelly, Eddie Hardaway, Darryl Daniel and Keith Poole. They drafted Marquise Walker and Aaron Lockett.
Get the picture?
"As a receiving corps, we really haven't been producing," Williams said. "Whether it was the offense itself, the receivers or the combination of both, whatever. This year it's going to be different. Everybody that's playing receiver knows that. You're going to have to bring your A game every day or you're going to have problems."
Therein lies Gruden's point: There is little hope for excellence without competition. In training camp this summer, receivers will redefine competition.
"Competition is going to be there wherever you go," Williams said. "They have to bring guys in to make the team better, to try and find the right combination of players. All you can do is try to get better every day and let (Coach) know you can fit into whatever combination they're looking for and be a versatile player."
While the influx of new faces is a mandatory offseason maneuver, what the Bucs have done appears unprecedented. They not only increased the competition but got, in McCardell, arguably the best free-agent receiver available.
"I've never had a Pro Bowl character receiver opposite me that would draw attention and demand respect from the defense," Johnson said. "This guy comes in with that (reputation) pretty much with him and he's going to demand their respect, and it should free up the other guys a bit more."
The arrival of McCardell and Jurevicius, who had his best season last year with the Giants, fills three of the usual five receiver spots on a roster. If the season started today, Johnson and McCardell would start, and Jurevicius would be first off the bench.
"To me, I've got three guys that can play, and a pack of guys, some of them have been in the league, but I don't really know them," said receivers coach Richard Mann, who replaced Charlie Williams in the coaching staff overhaul. "What we're trying to do is get everyone to understand the system so that everybody knows what to do. When we get to camp, we're going to let them compete."
Many have one or two characteristics that interest Gruden. Williams and Green have solid hands and veteran savvy. Lockett has blinding speed. Walker (6-2, 219 pounds), Murphy (6-0, 206) and Wynn (6-2, 207) have height and body strength that enable them to get separation.
"There's ways to get separation, there's ways to get past people, and that's what I've been pushing," Mann said. "I think Coach Gruden has an excellent system and it'll take care of itself, but it's the little things you do to get off the line, to get separation from people, to get past people, those are the things that we're working on. If we can keep pushing those techniques and those fundamentals, I don't see why we couldn't be successful."
In some ways, the focus has been on Walker, the team's first draft pick after a highly productive college career at Michigan.
"At times he rides me but it's part of it," Walker said of Gruden. "They do expect for me to come out and do more and learn. I have to take that pressure on. That's part of the rookie thing. Some of the stupid mistakes that I might have made, he points them out and I can't use the rookie thing as an excuse."
An early pick like Walker might feature prominently in a team's offensive plan. But with the addition of some veterans, Walker will have to be patient.
"As far as I'm concerned, the more and more veterans around the more and more they can push me and I can learn from them," Walker said. "They've been playing in the league for five or more years. So I have to learn from them. It's about knowledge.
"I know I have to go in there and do my thing when my job calls for it, and I'm going to do it. But right now, I'm watching them and seeing how they work the line of scrimmage, work the defensive backs and see how I can get better."
Green, a former Florida State standout who played four seasons with the Colts, said it's hard to resist looking at the numbers.
"We're human, so I think we are going to look at the numbers and say, 'I wish I was in a better situation,' " Green said. "But the bottom line is we have an opportunity the other receivers don't. All we can do is take advantage of our opportunities. I feel like I've been blessed just to be here."
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