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Finally, youth is conserved

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2002

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- I saw it with my own eyes, officer. He was strange, and he was alien.

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- I saw it with my own eyes, officer. He was strange, and he was alien.

Don't look at me like that. I know what I'm saying. I know it sounds like I've been sipping the potato bug juice again.

He came over yonder, right in the middle of that field. He ran to his left, then he turned, and he lit out that way like something out of this world. I know what you're thinking. Another sighting, another crackpot.

But I swear, officer. I'm telling the truth.

It was right here, in the middle of Camp Chucky.

I saw a rookie.

I know, I know. From everything you hear these days, you weren't even sure there were rookies at Bucs training camp. No one sees them. No one hears them. No one talks about them. Most important, no one counts on them. Camp has never been hotter, but you can't feel a draft.

It's the darndest thing. For most of their history, Bucs training camps have starred rookies. The names changed, from Broderick to Keith to Charles to Kenyatta, but the expectations didn't. Don't just play a role; play the lead.

Every day was about the new kid. Is he still holding out? Is he looking good? What is the coach saying? And does it mean anything that he tends to fall asleep in the huddle? Every year, it was the same. Heck, the Bucs knew the old guys couldn't play. At least with the new guys, you could hope.

These days, this is an older kids' camp. Those without experience need not apply. Marquise Walker could get into a sword fight with Travis Stephens on the 50, and the only question anyone would ask would be: Hey, who is No. 4?

The Bucs have grown up. Also, older. The new faces in camp are the mercenaries, the veterans plucked from this team or that one. Hey, the villagers in The Magnificent Seven didn't count on rookies, did they? No, they signed free agents.

For Tampa Bay, the philosophy has changed with the arrival of Jon Gruden, who is evidently a huge fan of long teeth. The guy likes a little grizzle in his lineup. So the Bucs hit the free-agent market this offseason with the uncommon gusto of a shopper during a blue-light special. (Rule of thumb: You have to be this tall to get on this ride. Also, you have to be older than Lomas Brown's kids.)

"It didn't bother me to play Charles Woodson as a rookie," Gruden said. "Or Mo Collins, or Sebastian Janikowski. It depends on what position you're talking about, and who the player is and how well he's playing.

"But the nature of pro football is that it's a production league. A lot of people couldn't tell you who New England's No. 1 draft pick was last year, and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. The same with the Ravens. They brought in a bunch of guys who had played around the league, and they won. You have to do both. But if you have 2-3 rookies starting, the reality is that you probably aren't very good."

Let's face it. Part of the reason no one is talking about the Bucs' rookies is that the highest-graded 85 of them went elsewhere. Because of trading its first two picks for the rights to Gruden, the Bucs didn't pick until the third round, and not even the Bucs of the mid 80s talked about third-rounders. The depth chart doesn't list a drafted player higher than third team.

But ask yourself. Was there anyone, anyone, in last year's draft who would be a focal point of this year's training camp?

"I don't think so," general manager Rich McKay said. "With Jon's offense, with all the motion and what he expects, he wanted some veterans. I don't think every year will be like this, because it does cause some discomfort with the salary cap, but we really needed some people who could catch on quickly."

Still, it isn't all circumstance. Take Kenyatta Walker, for instance. In his second year, Walker has a much better safety net than he did 17 starts ago.

"What we asked of Kenyatta wasn't fair to him," McKay said, "and it wasn't fair to us."

For years, however, the Bucs have asked their rookies to pick up the ball and to throw between the safety and the linebacker. It's unfair, really, to ask boys to dominate men. What has usually happened was the team took the players potential and threw it on the bonfire.

Every year, it happened. Lee Roy Selmon. Ricky Bell. Doug Williams. Ray Snell. Hugh Green. Rookie after rookie was thrown into the fire. Ron Holmes. Rod Jones. Paul Gruber. Vinny Testaverde. Broderick Thomas. Keith McCants. Charles McRae. Eric Curry.

In all, the Bucs have signed 23 first-round draft picks. Nineteen started most of their first seasons. Many never got any better.

"It was a recipe for failure," McKay said. "In the early days, we were a franchise that had to rely on the star power of the young players. We were asking these guys to lead the parade.

"Then we got to be a better team, and we wanted to play these guys, but give them enough help so we weren't counting on them to make us win. Now we're an established team, and we want to win. But a good team needs both rookies and free agents."

It might surprise you, but McKay still thinks in the right situation, with the right team, that most of the Bucs' famous failures could have made it. If they could have gotten the right coaching. The right scheme. The right help. In other words, you know all those things McCants and McRae are telling their buddies? McKay agrees!

Such are yesterday's alibis. The Bucs are now into waiting for tomorrow for their rookies.

Oh, there is help here. The Bucs like Marquise Walker, but his ceiling seems to be as the fourth receiver. Stephens has an extra gear, but he'll help mostly on third down. Jermaine Phillips looks good, but he won't even crack the nickel or dime defense. Maybe if the Bucs play a 37-cent defense, he's in.

Mostly, however, the rookies wait. It's a simple change, really.

For most of Tampa Bay's history, it was the rare rookie who didn't get into the lineup.

From now on, it will be the rare rookie who does.

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