Observations on the Bucs at their bye

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

I'm sitting in Tampa International Airport as I write this and looking out at a nice view of Raymond James Stadium.

The Bucs aren't there this weekend because they have their bye, but I'm pondering what they've done in their first nine games. I still don't have a real clear picture of the Bucs and I'm not sure anyone, including Jon Gruden, does.

Are they the team that blew Carolina out of Raymond James Stadium? Or the team that went up to Arrowhead Stadium and needed the biggest comeback in franchise history to scrape past the lowly Chiefs?

I'm not sure. What I do know is Tampa Bay has a great defense and a decent schedule remaining. Those two things alone should keep them in the playoff race through the final seven games. But they're going to need a little more than that to win the division or go anywhere in the playoffs.

I know Tampa Bay's offensive numbers aren't bad, but they're a little misleading. Consistency in both the running and passing games hasn't been there and a lot's been made about the Bucs not coming up with big plays or getting big results in the red zone.

You can bet Gruden has pondered those issues while his players have been off. He's got a decision to make on whether running back Cadillac Williams will return this season and he needs to figure out if receiver Joey Galloway is physically shot or still can play a role in this offense.

Gruden has his critics. But give the guy some credit. He's coached the Bucs to a 6-3 record so far and he'll keep figuring out ways to keep the Bucs in this race.

Some other observations on the Bucs at their bye:

* The best offseason move this team made was bringing in receiver Antonio Bryant, who was out of football last season. Bryant has taken that opportunity and finally played to his potential. He's picked up a lot of the slack from Galloway's injury and been a true No. 1 receiver. The Bucs sometimes take heat for signing players other teams have given up on. But think about where they would be if Bryant wasn't around.

* Another receiver has used Galloway's injury to reinvent himself. That's Michael Clayton, who has spent the last few years in Gruden's doghouse. But Clayton has come on strong this year. He'll be a free agent after the season and may not want to stick in a system where he's been an outcast for a long time. But Clayton's shown enough to get himself a decent contract somewhere.

* Ronde Barber has taken a lot of criticism for his play at cornerback. That's deserved and you have to think the veteran has lost a step. But I don't expect the Bucs to give up on him down the stretch. His experience and presence in the locker room still make him valuable in a playoff run.

* Undrafted rookie Clifton Smith has done a nice job since taking over the return job from second-round pick Dexter Jackson. There's been speculation Jackson could be cut, but I seriously doubt that's going to happen. Jackson may ride the bench the rest of this year, but the Bucs aren't going to whack a second-round pick this early in his career.

* Jeff Garcia has done a nice job reclaiming the starting quarterback job. But you still have to wonder who Tampa Bay's quarterback of the future is. Garcia and backup Brian Griese are old and they're just "guys''. If the Bucs were so sold on Luke McCown, we would have seen him by now. Rookie Josh Johnson is nothing more than a project. Will the Bucs draft a quarterback early in next year's draft? Doubt it. They can't afford to take the possible step back that comes with playing a rookie quarterback. Time will tell, but you've got to think Gruden's roving eye for veteran quarterbacks will be working hard when free agency starts.

* Have to admit I thought the Bucs were in big trouble when they had to cut injured left tackle Luke Petitgout in the preseason. Also, have to admit replacement Donald Penn has been solid. He'll never be a dominant left tackle, but Penn has carved a niche for himself by playing within the system.