There isn’t a team in the NFL getting more out of its rookie class than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and there isn’t another team even trying to do as much with young talent.
The young Bucs don’t know any better, but in mid-November they’re in the thick of the NFC playoff picture with a 6-3 record and an imminently winnable game at San Francisco on Sunday. It’s not that it will be an easy trip for the Bucs – they’re not good enough to just show up and roll over anyone – but it’s a key game for Tampa considering the schedule down the stretch.
The job the Bucs are doing is remarkable in a future-is-now approach. Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman is developing more quickly than anyone could have imagined under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Freeman completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s victory over the Carolina Panthers.
It’s the maturation of Freeman that is allowing the offense to break in rookie wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, the kind of task that veteran quarterbacks struggle with. It’s well documented in the NFL how difficult it is for rookie wide receivers to make an impact, and the Bucs are excelling with two starting for them. Preston Parker, another rookie, has been elevated to the third receiver role because of injuries, and Olson’s offense doesn’t miss a beat.
The team still lists veteran Cadillac Williams, who has shown professionalism amidst the youth movement, as the starter but the Bucs are effectively starting rookie LeGarrette Blount, a shrewd addition by general manager Mark Dominik. He rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown in the victory, and Olson is finding ways to make Cadillac Williams productive as a third-down back.
Those are not the only rookies. On offense, the Bucs are starting Ted Larsen at left guard and Erik Lorig, a converted defensive lineman, has stepped in as the starting fullback. It’s challenged Olson to develop young players while creating a gameplan that maximizes the team’s chances every week. He’s slowly feeding the young roster more and they’re absorbing it, something reflected in no better place than the team’s recod.
Flip to the defensive side where Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 pick from the draft, hasn’t exactly created a splash. He’s certainly not making an impact like Ndamukong Suh is in Detroit, but McCoy might have enjoyed his best game of the season vs. the Panthers when he made five tackles and was credited with a forced fumble. Safety Cody Grimm is another starter on defense.
It’s hard to say if the Bucs will be able to maintain their winning ways in the very competitive NFC South. It could take 10 victories to score a wild-card spot in the NFC and that doesn’t give them a lot of room for error in the final seven weeks. But who figured the Bucs for six wins over the course of the entire season?
Olson, a holdover from Jon Gruden’s staff who wasn’t given the coordinator job until after Jeff Jagodzinski was abruptly run off, is doing fine work that’s being largely overlooked outside of the Tampa area. It’s not like he’s working with all high draft picks on offense. If the Bucs continue to develop and turn into a playoff contender, he’s the kind of play caller who could become a hot name in another year or two. Previously, Olson has called plays and worked with quarterbacks in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. Finally surrounded with some young players, he's showing the kind of teaching prowess that puts coaches on short lists.
Keep an eye on how Tampa performs Sunday. It’s not a make or break game, but a win Sunday would go a long way toward positioning the Bucs for a real shot at experience come January.
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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune