Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5 key issues Bucs must tackle during camp
TAMPA - It's not that they prefer to live in the past, but some members of the Bucs' hierarchy look at their current team and get the feeling it's 1996 all over again. The reason is simple. Much like the team that will assemble Friday for the start of training camp Saturday, that 1996 Bucs squad was in the middle of a massive rebuilding program. It had as its foundation a young, previously untried coach, a second-year quarterback with a big arm and a defense full of promising talents obtained primarily with high draft picks. That Bucs team grew quickly into an annual playoff participant and eventually a Super Bowl champion. This team hopes to do the same, which brings us to the objectives for this year's training camp.Yes, the Bucs want to win this year, but building a team that will have sustained success is the primary objective. With that in mind, here's a look at five key issues the Bucs must tackle during camp to stay on course. COACH RAHEEM MORRIS: Morris struggled mightily as a rookie head coach last year. He swung and missed badly on his first two coordinator selections, he waffled on his plan for his quarterbacks and he wavered on the systems he wanted his offense and defense to run. His players never quit on him, though, and the difficult decision to dump both coordinators kept the Bucs from falling further behind in its rebuilding program. What Morris has to do now is stick to the program and prove he can run the defense and the team at the same time. It's a tall order, but if he can keep his players interested, intense and on task he should get the chance to mature with his team. QB JOSH FREEMAN: Freeman is the face of the franchise and the unquestioned leader of the offense, but the Bucs have to avoid putting too much on the shoulders of the 22-year-old. They must work to create situations that will make it easier for him to succeed on game day. That means developing a sound running attack, good special teams and a defense that can bail him out of trouble spots. Freeman has done a lot on his own by taking on a leadership role and becoming a gym rat, working hard on the field and in the classroom. He is far from a finished product, however, so the more help he gets from the players around him, the more his confidence and effectiveness will grow. LT DONALD PENN: Penn, who started the past 44 games, has not signed his one-year tender offer and likely won't before camp starts. It's up to Penn, who has been treated no differently than any other restricted free agent on the roster, to decide if and when he wants to play football. The longer he stays away, the more dire the situation becomes. The Bucs haven't sufficiently prepared for Penn's absence. Their top two replacement candidates are Demar Dotson and Xavier Fulton, second-year pros who are still learning to play the position. The Bucs will have to scour the waiver wire or hope someone can play beyond expectations. Either way, they are gambling, which means the safest bet might be to sign Penn. But don't look for that to happen anytime soon. OFFENSIVE IDENTITY: It was hard to tell what the Bucs were trying to be on offense last season. The change in coordinators only 10 days before the start of the season was a big reason for that, but by the end of the year they still hadn't settled on their offensive approach. That can't happen this year. For the sake of QB Josh Freeman, the Bucs have to establish a game plan early and stick with it. They say they want to be a running team, and given their offensive arsenal, that makes sense. They're deep at running back and young and inconsistent at wide receiver, so that would allow them to take advantage of Freeman's strengths and the seemingly budding abilities of the young wideouts. No matter the choice, though, the Bucs must decide on it now, develop it and stick with it. FAN APATHY: Come opening day, the Bucs' brass might not be the only ones getting the feeling it's 1996 all over again. If the stands are half empty and the season opener against Cleveland is blacked out on local television, a lot of fans might feel that way, too. To reduce the possibility of that scenario becoming reality, the team needs to have a successful training camp and preseason. That means winning some of those exhibition games and not just looking competitive but surprisingly strong and entertaining in every one of them. Nothing at this time of year will do more to revive the fan base than an entertaining product fans deem worthy of putting their money down to see when it counts.