Are the Bucs moving in the right direction?

Two years ago, the Buccaneers appeared destined for another playoff run after amassing a 9-3 record behind veteran players like Derrick Brooks, Jeff Garcia, Stylez G. White, Barrett Ruud, Kevin Carter and Antonio Bryant.

But the team faded down the stretch, losing all four of its remaining games (including an embarrassing defeat to the hapless Raiders in the final week of the year) to miss the playoffs entirely. Following the season, both head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were fired and replaced by the experienced Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, respectively.

Last year was a disaster for Morris and the Bucs, who finished 3-13 and statistically had one of the worst offenses in the league. Until Morris took over the play calling duties midway through the season, the once proud Tampa Bay defense also took a significant step back from what it was earlier in the decade under former coordinator Monte Kiffin (who left the team following the ’08 season to coach with his son at the University of Tennessee).

But one of the main reasons the Glazers fired Gruden and Allen was because of the pair’s desire to rely mostly on veteran players. There was a lot of turnover from year to year under Gruden and Allen and the Glazers felt as though the two weren’t building a young core that could compete for many years, not just one.

While the tag team of Morris and Dominik still has a long way to go in order to prove itself, the Bucs are finally starting to build through the draft and formulate a young core. Quarterback Josh Freeman suffered growing pains as a rookie last season, but the team is encouraged by his development. Kellen Winslow Jr. was acquired via trade last offseason and there’s no doubt that he was the Bucs’ most consistent playmaker last season. The defense also has some budding young talent in cornerback Aqib Talib, safety Tanard Jackson and 2010 first round pick Gerald McCoy, to go along with steady veterans like White and Ruud.

Now, there’s no guarantee that Freeman and McCoy will develop into Pro Bowlers or that Winslow will stay healthy. The offensive line (which was supposed to be the team’s strength last season) has to raise its level of production as well and the team still has to find Freeman more weapons to throw to in the passing game. (The hope is that youngsters Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn will develop quickly, but they’re only rookies.)

But considering Morris and Freeman have a season under their belts, it stands to reason that the Bucs will show a lot of improvement this year. That’s not to say that they’ll contend for a playoff spot or even have a winning season, but at least in theory, it appears as though this team is moving forward again.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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