Bucs still looking for their next Lynch at safety

by Gary Shelton on September 5, 2017 · 6 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

Even now, you can hear the sound his shoulder pads made as they snapped into a tight end.

Even now, you can see him tackling Barry Sanders in the open field.

Even now, you can feel the enthusiam of John Lynch as he and his Tampa Bay Bucs teammates dominated the Raiders in the Super Bowl.

He looked like a safety. He sounded like a safety. To a receiver who dared to cross the middle, yes, he felt like a safety. He was smart, and he was tough, and he tended to get ticked when the questioners bragged too much on the opposing offense. Hey, he'd say, his defensive teammates were pretty good, too.

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Ah, it has been a long time since John Lynch ruled the middle of the field for the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Finally, could they be ready to replace him?

That was the first thing that many of us thought when the Bucs fell on ex-Broncos safety T.J. Ward like a fumble. Could they finally have an impact safety again? Could they have a difference maker?

Ward eased in the door Monday, trying to fit into a room full of strangers.

“I'm getting ready for week one vs the Miami Dolphins as a member of Tampa Bay Bucs,"Ward said. "I'm going to do everything I can to help this team win. That's my only goal. To be the best player I can be this year. To bring some all-pro play to the game. To help us win a championship."

Granted, you don't normally find an impact player on the waiver wire. But Ward's availability was partially because the Broncos didn't want to pay him. And judging from the quickness with which the Bucs acted, they have no doubt that Ward can still play.

The Broncos' players growled mightily at Ward's release. They acted as if part of the heart of the defense had been ripped out, and perhaps it had. The Bucs, evidently, don't see this as a marginal upgrade. They immediately shipped backup J.J. Wilcox out of town in order to sign Ward. That indicates it wasn't a close call for the Bucs.

Look, players know. When the Bucs finally got around to dumping Josh Freeman, the quarterback, I was stunned that not one player spoke in his behalf. Not one. Players know if a guy can still play.

“He's a good football player, and as we've said many times, I haven't been on that team yet that has too many good football players," Bucs' coach Dirk Koetter said.

“It's different with every single player (as far as when Ward might be able to play). I think the fact that he's a veteran, he's been with two different teams (helps). We did our homework on him – he's a very sharp guy, gets football. This guy is like a coach on the field is what the people who have had him before (said). But every single player's different."

Oh, Ward won't sit long. He'll try to rebuild the “No Fly Zone” he built in Denver. Eventually, perhaps draft pick Justin Evans joins him.

“This all happened quickly,” Koetter said. “When he's ready, it all works itself out. That stuff all works itself out. It doesn't matter how you do it, eventually the cream always rises to the top. It always does."

If the cream is rising, it means other stuff is sinking, of course.

Just think of the safeties the Bucs have trotted out since Lynch left town. There was Jermaine Phillips, whose bones were made of balsa wood. There was Dwight Smith, whose head didn't match his talent. There was Sabby Piscitelli, who chased receivers across the goal. There was Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, who were pretty much the same guy. Neither of them made plays.

It's an underrated position, safety. Not many of them get into the Hall of Fame, but a great secondary usually has at least one of them. He can take a tight end out of the game. He can sneak into the box and be another linebacker. He can play centerfield and make life easier for cornerbacks.

Finally, could the Bucs have another one?

One of the worst personel decisions the Bucs ever made was dumping Lynch. He wanted to come back, and he had told his agent "just make it happen." But the team wanted to give the position to someone else. Big mistake. Lynch made the Pro Bowl for years with Denver.

If you remember a year ago, the Bucs' safeties got much better over the second half of the season. Keith Tandy came off the bench and showed nice instincts. Chris Conti made the play of the year in Kansas City. And still, the Bucs wanted an upgrade in the position.

Frankly, safety has often been a problem for the Bucs, who keep trying to steal one from somewhere else. Usually, it doesn't work. There was Mark Robinson (the analyst for USF games) from Kansas City, and Harry Hamilton from the Jets, and Goldson from the 49ers, and Barney Bussey from Cincinnati and Ivory Sully from the Rams and William Frizzell from the Eagles.

If you are a longtime Bucs' fan, you probably have heartaches named after most of them.

Now comes Ward, and higher expectations. You hope the Broncos made a mistake. You hope they rushed to release a weapon.

"I expect to come in and try to learn the playbook as quickly as possible," Ward said. "After I do that, I do expect to start. That's just my mindset. I don't want to jump in and put my imprint on the team that I don't even know yet."

You know the funny thing about Lynch? In the early days, the Bucs didn't know what they had. They thought Lynch might be a linebacker in the nickel, but not much else. In the first season of Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffen and Herm Edwards – defensive minds, all of them, Lynch was watching some guy named Todd Scott start at safety.

That didn't last long. Lynch showed what dominance in the third level can do, especially when he had Warren Sapp at the first level and Derrick Brooks at the second. He was solid, and he was superb, and he played safety like no one else had around here.

It is time there was another.

We all await for the impact of T.J. Ward. If he still has the smarts, if he still has the speed, well, the Bucs are hiring.

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