TAMPA — Former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden picked the Buccaneers to win the NFC South on Thursday while offering up a passionate endorsement of beleaguered quarterback Josh Freeman.
In an ESPN conference call, the “Monday Night Football’’ analyst lauded the talent on the Bucs’ roster and said Tampa Bay is poised to end a five-year postseason drought.
“I think this is the year for Tampa to win the division and return to the playoffs,’’ Gruden said. “I have a lot of confidence Tampa is going to be a very good football team this year.’’
Gruden coached the 2002 Bucs to a Super Bowl victory in his first season on the Tampa Bay sidelines and posted a 57-55 record over seven years. He was dismissed after the 2008 season when the Bucs posted a second consecutive 9-7 mark,
Gruden still lives in Tampa, where he prepares meticulously for each of his broadcasts by watching reams of game video. The Bucs will play on “MNF” on Nov. 11 against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium, where Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp will enter the franchise’s Ring of Honor.
Freeman is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and he struggled in December as the Bucs finished 7-9 after a 6-4 start. He was ineffective during three preseason games this month, and Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton said last week that he is convinced Freeman “can’t play’’ at the NFL level.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Fran Tarkenton,’’ Gruden said, “but I don’t necessarily agree with his comment on Josh Freeman. I’ve lived in Tampa 13 years, and I have studied Tampa Bay carefully for a lot of reasons. If you don’t think Josh Freeman can play, I think you’re making a huge mistake.
“He broke franchise records (passing yards, touchdown passes), and I’ve seen him do it at a high level. That means he can do it again. Not everyone agrees. I’m accused of being too positive and liking everybody, but I do like Freeman. I wish I had Josh Freeman, I’ll just say it like that.’’
The Bucs have eight players on their roster, all 30 or younger, who have made the Pro Bowl, and Gruden is impressed with the overall talent level.
“They have a quarterback who has played well in this system and they have two great receivers in Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson,’’ Gruden said. “Their offensive line appears to be getting healthy, and if (Carl) Nicks returns, with Davin Joseph, that guard combination is as good as there is in football. The left tackle (Donald Penn) is a Pro Bowler.
“They have a running back (Doug Martin) that no one talks enough about. What a phenomenal rookie year he had. Defensively, I think we were signing defensive backs at the Pepin distributorship when I was coaching the Bucs, but when you bring in Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, you immediately become formidable in the secondary.’’