National Football League
Work stoppage could stunt Bucs' growth
National Football League

Work stoppage could stunt Bucs' growth

Published Mar. 8, 2011 12:00 a.m. ET

In 2009, there was talk that Raheem Morris wouldn’t make it to 2010. He was struggling as a rookie head coach. What saved him was his contract.

The Bucs were in the middle of an austerity program and they had no interest in paying big money to someone like Bill Cowher, hoping to sell a few more tickets. Besides, they were still paying off Jon Gruden at over $5 million a year.

It was one of the best moves any NFL team made last season. Morris deserved more attention as Coach of the Year, leading the youngest team in the league to a 10-6 season at the age of 34 in a division with two playoff teams.

Morris and general manager Mark Dominik, who just turned 40, are the two best bargains in the NFL when it comes to running a franchise. You want to give the Glazer family credit for being ahead of the curve, but I think they simply caught some luck after firing Bruce Allen and Gruden.


If the owners and the Players Association can’t come to an agreement this week or next, a prolonged lockout will be worrisome for the young team and a young coach like Morris. The players tend to feed off of Morris’ energy and there is no questioning it’s a group in constant search of direction.

The Bucs started 10 rookies last season and franchise quarterback Josh Freeman may be heading into his third NFL season — if there is one — but he’s only 23 years old.

They have had off-the-field problems: One of their best players, safety Tanard Jackson, was suspended for the entire season for a failed banned substance test; they’ve had a few DUIs; plus, their top skill players — running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Mike Williams — were rookies last season.

Dominik had Williams high on his draft board last season, but the kid fell to the fourth round because of questions about his character. He was suspended twice at Syracuse and finally left the school with three games remaining in his final season. Williams had 11 touchdown receptions last season, the most by a rookie since Randy Moss in 1998. Blount, who rushed for 1,007 yards and six touchdowns, was the former Oregon star who was suspended for punching a Boise State after an opening-game loss in 2009.

The Bucs claimed him off waivers from the Tennessee Titans early last season.

If the NFL locks out the players for months, it could severely damage the chemistry and continuity that Freeman has built in the passing game with Williams and other young receivers like Arrelious Benn and Michael Spurlock.

Conversely, a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, tough-luck losers of the Super Bowl, should be able to comfortably deal with a long-term lockout.

They were one of the oldest teams in the NFL last season and they return 11 starters who are 30 or older. This veteran group has taught well by Mike Tomlin, who demands physical, high-speed practices. They know what it takes to reach a championship game, many of them playing in three Super Bowls in the last six seasons. The league may not have liked the Steelers’ method of tackling at times last season, but no one questions the character of their players and the organization as a whole. This is a first-class franchise.

For example, an extended offseason will allow great Pittsburgh defenders like Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith to heal at their own pace and not worry about scheduled organized team activities or mini-camps. Unlike the Bucs, these players know their defensive responsibilities inside and out. The Steelers are full of natural leaders on both sides of the ball.

Morris, who ended up calling much of Tampa’s defense last season, flexed a lot between a four-man line and a 3-4 look at times. He did so in hopes of generating more of a pass rush — the Bucs managed only 26 sacks on the season and no player even had five — and a pass-rushing defensive end or linebacker is a priority for Dominik in the early rounds of next month’s draft.

An extended lockout would further hurt the Bucs on defense where top draft choices from last season — Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick, and UCLA’s Brian Price, who was taken atop the second round — are coming off injuries. They are two high-priced young players who need to be at the club’s facility and around the team’s training and strength staff on a daily basis. It wouldn’t hurt, either, for them to be talking football with the coaching staff, either, as much as possible.

Where a lot of the key players in Pittsburgh are millionaires who should be well-prepared financially for a long-term lockout, the Bucs had a lot of players playing for minimum salaries or just above those levels last season.

Tampa Bay’s overall payroll was $80 million last season — the Bucs and Kansas City were the two lowest-paying teams last year — and it was a total well below the so-called floor had there been a salary cap in 2010. The salary cap in 2009 was $127 million and its negotiated floor with the union was $112.1 million.

When compared to average Americans, pro players earn a lot of money and are also taxed at the highest rate. For example, Blount earned $320,000 last season and is scheduled to earn $405,000 this season. He’s also hoping that some day that he can strike an even better financial deal by continuing to produce on the field at a high level.

“I’m definitely not going to be one of the guys going around asking for loans, trying to get money from my other teammates and things like that,” Blount said recently. “I want to definitely be one of those guys who saved up their money and whatever happens, happens. I’m going to definitely try to be prepared when this lockout happens. I just hope it doesn’t last long.”

That’s the general sentiment leaguewide. It’s just more problematic with a young team like the Bucs, who had 27 players on their final 53-man with two or fewer seasons of NFL experience.

Like their player rep center Jeff Faine has said numerous times. “I hope the young guys saved their money,” Faine said. “These guys could end up eating Saltines.”


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