Coincidence or not, the Bucs reacted to the shakeup with a big win.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2001
TAMPA -- Something had been missing from the Bucs defense for five games. But it wasn't until somebody was missing from the starting lineup that players finally got the message.
Intentional or not, the benching of Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham in favor of fourth-year reserve Brian Kelly against the Vikings on Sunday shook up more than the lineup.
It rattled the defense and sent a clear message that coach Tony Dungy would spare nothing and nobody for a chance at victory.
"When you look at a coach shaking up things, it's good," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "I like when a coach shakes up things. That's just me. I've always been around coaches that if things aren't going well and players aren't playing well, they sit his a-- down. To not just send a message, but let them know this thing is serious. You're playing with everybody's livelihood."
Whatever the reason, the lineup change caught the attention of more than a few players.
Maybe it's coincidence, but Tampa Bay played with a vengeance against the Vikings.
Despite entering the game last in the NFL in third-down defense with a 51-plus percent conversion rate, the Bucs did not allow a first down to Minnesota until the third quarter.
"I don't know whether or not that was the intent," safety John Lynch said. "I guess to a certain extent, it does let players know that no one is immune to it when you do it to a guy who's been as good of a player and as productive as Donnie has been.
"Sure, it opens everyone's eyes. Whether it was necessary or not, I think we would've played that type of football game had that not happened. You just have to trust that they're making decisions for the right reasons."
According to Dungy, the lineup change said more about Kelly's performance than Abraham's.
For three seasons, Kelly has been used mostly as a nickel back but also alternates with cornerback Ronde Barber and Abraham. But he has been outstanding since training camp. And his tackle of running back Emmitt Smith near the goal line undoubtedly saved the day for the Bucs in their season-opening win over the Cowboys.
"He's playing pretty good technique football and he's a very physical guy," Dungy said of the 5-foot-11, 193-pound Kelly. "Our tackling is one area we hadn't been great. Brian is a tough guy. He brought that and does bring it when he's on the field.
"I think you reward players who play well and that's the way we've always done it. It was more saying, "Hey, Brian Kelly's playing well and he deserves a chance to start.' "
Lineup changes are nothing new for the Bucs defense, but they rarely come during the season.
Two years ago, defensive end Steve White replaced first-round pick Regan Upshaw in the starting lineup at the end of training camp. The same was true of Shelton Quarles, who took over at strong-side linebacker from Jeff Gooch.
Last season, White was on the other end of the stick, losing his starting job in training camp to Marcus Jones, who responded with 13 sacks.
"For one, it lets you know that they don't play favorites," White said. "If you're not performing up to the standard that is around here, you will be replaced. So that gives the young guys a lot of energy. They know, look, if I go out here every day and do what I'm supposed to do, there will be an opportunity waiting for me if somebody falters.
"For the older guys, once again it gives us energy because we know we have to do what we have to do in order to keep our position. Nobody is guaranteed a position around here, from the top to the bottom. So basically, at this point, you have a whole team of guys trying to either keep or take your position. That's good. It always makes you better."
Abraham's demotion may have a bigger impact on his future with the Bucs. He'll have one year remaining on a five-year, $17.5-million contract he signed in 1998.
With Barber already under contract for three seasons and rookie Dwight Smith in the fold, the Bucs might opt to go with a younger, more affordable player and trade Abraham's rights.
Of course, it's hard to find a more productive player on the Bucs defense over the past few years. A third-round pick from tiny East Tennessee State, Abraham emerged as a starter the fifth game of his rookie year. His 26 career interceptions are among the most in the NFL over the past five seasons.
But coaches apparently weren't satisfied with his tackling, which is odd, since he has been among the top five leaders in tackles almost every season as a pro.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin insisted no message was sent by Abraham's demotion.
"You've got to trust me, I'm not going to pick out a guy to use as a scapegoat," Kiffin said. "It's all about production and who's playing better at that time. It doesn't mean that Donnie Abraham won't come back and play well, which we expect him to. When you make that lineup change, you don't ever say it's for ever and ever. You give a good player a chance to come back."
Whatever the reason, there's no disputing the results. Kelly and Abraham played well. Kelly had four tackles, including a sack. Abraham had three tackles and a pass defense.
"I think you can always relay the message back to yourself," said Brooks. "To be honest, you want to take it to heart. When they made the move, I went to Donnie and talked to him and he responded well. In typical Donnie style he took it in stride and I'm pretty sure you'll keep seeing him back there."
- Staff writer Roger Mills contributed to this report.