The 2010 season started in September, but for those in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization, the first glimpse of what was possible came the previous January. That was when precocious franchise cornerstone Josh Freeman first showed up to prep for the fall, while some teams were still playing out the 2009 season.
After a 10-6 campaign and the strong second season that Freeman put in the books, the youthful Tampa Bay brass feels as good about their foundation as ever, even if the visual isn't as clear this time around due to the lockout nearing the one-month mark.
"I remember Tony Dungy's team, back in 1997, when we got off to a 5-0 start and *Sports Illustrated* said, 'Break Up The Bucs,'" said 39-year-old general manager Mark Dominik, who was in his third year as a Tampa personnel assistant back then. "More than that, at that time, there was a lot of internal belief in what we were doing. I think that's the spot we're at again. That's the most encouraging thing to me."
If his youthful roster stays healthy, strong and out of trouble (outside of Aqib Talib), Tampa Bay is a team that could come out of the lockout in decent shape, with the core of its roster intact. Freeman, of course, is the headliner. But it's Dominik's hope that last year's rookie class becomes the foundation for a champion.
The Bucs exited the draft with four starters in defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, as well as receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. Cody Grimm, a seventh-round pick, got nine games of starting experience after the suspension of Tanard Jackson. They scrapped together a virtual "second draft class" with undrafted players and castoffs, including running back LeGarrette Blount and starting guard Ted Larsen in that group.
"You had the 1974 draft for the Steelers, the 1991 draft for the Cowboys, the 1995 draft for the Packers, that defining class, that class that helped the guys that were already there accelerate the process," said Dominik. "You can always find that class with the great championship teams, and I'm optimistic that 2010 is ours."
Without the benefit of having players working at the team facility, Dominik and coach Raheem Morris currently have their attention, like the rest of the football-side people in the league, on the draft. Dominik says they'll be looking for more of a big-play element on defense and more help on offense for Freeman.
While 10-6 and out of the playoffs in year two is hardly "making it" for the new regime, Dominik saw plenty of things to encourage him at the end of the year. And beyond.
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One example was his players' reaction to the news, passed along as the Bucs were flying home from New Orleans after a Week 17 win, that they had been eliminated from the playoffs. Dominik said he saw a focus among the players that carried into the offseason. The GM got a slew of texts after the Super Bowl from players mentioning how the Packers were also 10-6, and how the Bucs might not be that far off from where they need to be.
"I'm really encouraged," said Dominik. "It's exciting, I feel like it's coming together like we'd hoped."
The idea, of course, was to tear down the operation and rebuild with youth. Dominik sees that vision in focus.
"You want to be a team that can win for a long time," said Dominik. "And when you have guys like Mike Williams and LeGarrett Blount, and a quarterback that's younger than both of them, you set the table to have that."