Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Now, It Begins For Real
TAMPA - The Bucs are running around out there on the green, green grass of Raymond James Stadium and they are winning. And, pssst, it doesn't matter! They are playing the Houston Texans in the final make-believe game before the regular-season begins. Luke McCown looks like a modern-day Dan Fouts, throwing the ball all over the yard for lots of yards and points. The Bucs fell behind by two touchdowns but as of this writing have come back to take the lead. The paying customers seem to be enjoying themselves.It was a little disconcerting watching Houston backup QB Sage Rosenfels drive his lads 71 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. It was even worse to watch McCown fumble on the next series and have the Texans run it back for a touchdown. "An awful way to start a football game," Jon Gruden said. But even that doesn't matter. That's because we know what we know. We know the Bucs are shark chum if Jeff Garcia gets hurt. We know we'll only be seeing McCown if that happens. We know Cadillac Williams better gain 1,000 yards this season because this is the last day of August and the jig is up for Earnest Graham. We know Cato June better be the second coming of Derrick Brooks, and Derrick Brooks better be the first coming of, that's right, Derrick Brooks. We know Brian Kelly needs to be healthy, and stay healthy, at right cornerback. We're a little concerned that despite all the effort last winter to replace Jermaine Phillips and/or Will Allen at safeties, the starting safeties against Seattle for the regular-season opener will likely be Phillips and Allen. Jump To Conclusions We know that rookie Gaines Adams better make people forget Simeon Rice. We know it's ridiculous to consider keeping four quarterbacks on a 53-man roster, which is why Chris Simms needs to start walking with a limp so the Bucs can put him on injured reserve. I mean, you never know - the next coach might actually want a young, left-handed quarterback who once led the Bucs to a division championship. Did I actually say "next" coach? Well, yeah, because we know that the current coach needs to win a whole lot more than he did last year. And he needs to bring stability to a suddenly restless organization. Remember, Tony Dungy was fired after a season where he took the Bucs to the playoffs. Need we say more? So knowing that, it's hard to put much stock in McCown's performance this summer, outstanding as it has been. Why, I haven't seen a Bucs' quarterback look this good since Bruce Gradkowski did last August, when he completed 73.8 percent of his passes. And McCown's good showing is as relevant now as Gradkowski's was then. "You see his mobility," Gruden said. "He has a quick, accurate stroke, he's got good command." But just in case, if you know any prayers for Garcia's health, say them now. And if you know the whereabouts of Jake Plummer, send him the address of Ray-Jay and a link to Yahoo! maps. Improved, But How Much? So how good can these lads be? Best guess: they'll be better than 4-12, but not so much better that you'll need to budget money for playoff tickets. Too many things need to fall into place for this team to be playoff caliber. Garcia and Caddy need to stay healthy. The defense that looked so old last year needs to play younger. Michael Clayton doesn't need to catch 80 passes, like he did as a rookie in 2004, but he needs to be more productive than his 55 total catches of the last two seasons combined. The Bucs lost their first four games last season and were 2-6 at the midpoint. We know what happened after that. Can't have a repeat of that start, can we? Well, we could. They'll be an underdog in the opener Sept. 9 at Seattle. The home opener in Week 2 is against New Orleans; the Saints beat them twice last season. St. Louis in Week 3 will be a major test for this defense, and that will be followed by road trips to Carolina and Indianapolis. So now it begins for real. No more McCown - barring a catastrophe. No more Earnest. Whatever has happened up until now no longer matters - as if it ever really did. It matters now though. A lot. At last.