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Sunday Football notes

This Buccaneer willing to do a little plundering

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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So this is the burgeoning NFL renegade, huh?

Honestly, Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, sitting in Raymond James Stadium about 30 minutes before his team got served humble pie by the Patriots Thursday night, looked more like the 12th member of the Republican slate of presidential candidates.

Sharp suit and red tie. Fresh haircut. Nice tan. The only thing missing on the 40-year-old Minnesotan was an American flag lapel pin.

Oh, and Dominik can work a room as well as any politician, too. It’s one of his strengths, part of an epiphany he had waiting tables in college at the University of Kansas. Dominik didn’t want life to pass him by. So he decided he was going to get to know people and - gasp - be completely open and honest with them.

Dominik might look like he’s straight from Central Casting for “The American President II,’’ but he’s pure football to the core.

Dominik is in his third season running the football side of the Buccaneers. He started out, fresh from college in 1993, working in the college and pro departments for the Chiefs under Carl Peterson.

For the past 16 years, he has been with the Bucs, rising steadily through the ranks from personnel assistant to director of pro personnel before the Glazer family handed him the keys to their American football team.

The rise of the Buccaneers under Dominik’s watch has been just as sure - only much faster. They went 3-13 in his first season in 2009, and nearly made the playoffs last year at 10-6 with a roster as green as a Central Florida sugar cane field.

That’s where the renegade part comes in.

Should we expect any less? The man works in a building with a pirate ship, for Pete’s sake.

Going back to 2001, when he was named director of pro personnel, Dominik has made targeting the castoffs and practice squads of other teams one of the bedrocks of his team building. Not many teams are as brazen as the Buccaneers.

When Dominik gets a chance to strike, he does it.

“In terms of finding guys that we think can help us long-term, we’re going to continue to be aggressive in that area,’’ he said.

Some teams have had a few choice words about Dominik’s methods. One example is the Bengals and coach Marvin Lewis.

Last October, the Bengals released receiver Dezmon Briscoe, their sixth-round pick, and planned to sign him to the practice squad.

But Dominik swooped in and offered Briscoe $325,000 - then the minimum salary for rookies on the active roster - to sign onto the Buccaneers’ practice squad. Players on that eight-man squad usually make about $200,000 less.

“When you overpay a guy on the practice squad, you create a problem for teams,’’ said an angry Lewis at the time. “I don’t know that teams want to set that precedent, and they did with Dez.’’

Bill Belichick probably didn’t have a big hug for Dominik on Thursday night, either.

The Patriots, who also aren’t afraid to pay more than the minimum to retain players, probably thought Dominik played some role in linebacker Tyrone McKenzie asking for his release from the team’s practice squad in November.

McKenzie was making $188,000 on the Patriots’ practice squad at the time, one of the highest rates in the league. But he signed to the Buccaneers’ practice squad days later to have a better shot at playing.

Dominik doesn’t appear to be losing any sleep over any feathers he may have ruffled.

“I’ll be honest, I care what happens in Tampa and for our football team, No. 1 - that’s my most important goal,’’ he said. “No. 2 is I stay within the rules on everything. And the bottom line is there’s the ability to make things happen that might not be a part of the norm.

“But it’s our Pewter Plan, our Buccaneer Way, however you want to say it. But that’s how we do things here in Tampa and we’ll continue to do it that way.

“Maybe raiding practice squads isn’t the most popular thing, but there’s clubs that I’ve seen do that before.’’

Trolling taxi squads is just one of the unconventional ways in which Dominik has built the Buccaneers into an up-and-coming team (their inability to run, pass, or tackle against the Patriots notwithstanding).

Tampa Bay ended 2010 with 24 players on the roster who entered the league as undrafted free agents. They have totaled 460 games and 121 starts combined.

The current two-deep depth chart has 19 players who were either poached off waivers or were on a practice squad at one time.

That includes starters Donald Penn (left tackle), Ted Larsen (left guard), LeGarrette Blount and Earnest Graham (running back), Michael Bennett (left end), and Connor Barth (kicker), and key backups Briscoe (receiver), Tim Crowder (right end), and Larry Asante (safety).

“I think 74 of their 90 players are 25 years or younger, so this is a young, fast, aggressive, hungry football team,’’ said Patriots personnel director Nick Caserio.

Expect Dominik and top lieutenants Dennis Hickey and Shelton Quarles to be all over the claims process when roster cutdowns begin at the end of the month.

“For us, we call it the second draft,’’ Dominik said. “The time when the waivers come through, that’s the opportunity you can go back and watch a little bit more tape of the guys now at this level, that you already had conviction on at the college level or you just didn’t have the picks and the ability to acquire them.

“So we tracked those guys pretty heavily and we’re aggressive about it. And that’s how we’re going to build this football team.’’

Some people were surprised that the Buccaneers, with a young team so close to being a contender, didn’t sign a big free agent.

Their free agent class was punter Michael Koenen, and the Buccaneers still have $29 million left in salary cap space, the second-highest amount in the league behind Kansas City.

But instead of a big-name free agent such as cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the Buccaneers decided to add more undrafted free agents. And to retain their own.

“I think last year we struggled, maybe not to the extent Green Bay did, through injuries,’’ Dominik said. “So a lot of our younger players had to play. And I felt like they came in, specifically towards the end of the season, and played well.

“At the end of the day, we started looking at our roster saying we feel like our depth is where we want it to be and these young guys need to grow. At some point, they’ve got to have that opportunity.

“Last year, this young football team won 10 games, and I’m looking forward to their development and keeping them out there.’’

And Dominik will keep making the moves he deems necessary to build his team, whether the rest of the league likes it or not.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD
HGH issue is agreed on but not settled You didn’t think the NFL and the players’ union were just going to quit fighting cold turkey, did you?

After finally putting the collective bargaining agreement to bed, the combatants had a cooling-off period for a few weeks. But now they’re back at it, with HGH testing the new battleground.

The issue was thought to be settled in the CBA, which reads, “The parties confirm that the Program on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances will include both annual blood testing and random blood testing for human growth hormone, with discipline for positive tests at the same level as for steroids.’’

However, that was an agreement in principle, with the details to be worked out.

“Over the next several weeks,’’ the CBA reads, “the parties will discuss and develop the specific arrangements . . . with the goal of beginning testing by the first week of the 2011 regular season . . . Pending agreement (the drug policy from the 2010 season) will remain in full force.’’

The sides plan to meet this week with anti-doping experts to hash out the details. And there is much to work out, according to Patriots player representative Matt Light.

“The game-day [testing] thing is still up in the air,’’ said Light. “I don’t think that’s been finalized. I sure as heck haven’t heard the final verdict on how that’s all going to roll out.

“I think at the end of the day there are two big concerns every guy has. No. 1 is, is it a good process? I mean, is the testing method really able to do what it says it’s going to do?

“I don’t think anybody really truly knows that - it hasn’t been around long enough. The data, I guess, is there in some degree, but in other ways, it could be flawed. So that’s always a question mark.

“And then, secondly, guys don’t want to get stuck by needles, repeatedly.

“You take both those things into consideration and there’s obviously some room to grow, we’ll put it that way. But both sides are working it out.

“At the end of the day, there’s one clear, simple message that the owners and the league and everybody involved wants - to make sure that this game is played on a level playing field. And all that other junk that’s out there, that they address it and they make sure that it doesn’t ever affect our game.

“I’m sure we’re going to have to flex a little bit on our end, they’re going to flex a little on their end, and we’ll come to an agreement in the middle. Just making sure we’re doing what’s best for the guys and what’s best for the league.’’

ETC.
Umenyiora situation is a Giant mess The contract disagreement between the Giants and defensive end Osi Umenyiora (above) has to be one of the strangest in some time. The two-time All-Pro, unhappy at making $7.1 million in salary the next two seasons combined, was given permission to find a trade. When there were no takers, the Giants rescinded that permission and Umenyiora returned to the team. After telling the Associated Press Monday that the Giants’ new offer of contract incentives was unacceptable and showed “they don’t really respect the fact I sacrifice my health for the franchise,’’ Umenyiora decided to have knee surgery Friday. That was eight days after a specialist agreed with team doctors that surgery wasn’t needed right away. It’s an injury that Umenyiora has dealt with since college and probably could have been managed with extra days off. The Giants gave him plenty of those last year to deal with an injured hip. The team is saying the recovery time should be 3-4 weeks. Umenyiora’s camp is saying 4-6 weeks. This is a distraction the Giants could have averted long ago. And it shouldn’t be news to them. In the past three years, Umenyiora, among other things, has talked about retirement twice and called general manager Jerry Reese a liar in a leaked court affidavit. Umenyiora will be 30 in November and is making $3.1 million this season. He’s grossly underpaid and the Giants should have rectified that or gotten rid of the problem. Now they have a mess to clean up.

Nickel package 1. First Eli Manning suggests that he’s in the same category of quarterback as Tom Brady. Then Jets coach Rex Ryan says Mark Sanchez, he of the 54 percent completion rate and 75.3 passer rating last year, is an “elite’’ quarterback. Where was the “Lowering the Bar on NFL Quarterbacking’’ seminar held in New Jersey last week?

2. Everybody needs to back off Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. His every move up and down the depth chart doesn’t need to be documented. The man was a tremendous college football player, but he was going to need a lot of work to become a legit NFL passer. This is not news. He was an option quarterback at Florida. He will need two to three years, like Aaron Rodgers with the Packers, to transform himself into a pro quarterback.

3. The Chiefs and team president Scott Pioli raised eyebrows when they picked a few character risks in this year’s draft. It took all of three weeks before first-rounder Jonathan Baldwin was reportedly injured in an off-field fight with veteran running back Thomas Jones. Baldwin carried a prima donna label at the University of Pittsburgh. Teams make these character assessments for a reason.

4. Speaking of the Chiefs, coach Todd Haley really needs to stop worrying about what other people do with their teams. Last year, he refused to shake the hand of former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels because he thought Denver ran up the score. Now Haley is taking issue with the Ravens scoring late in a preseason game. Haley should just worry about his own team tackling people.

5. The Patriots-produced telecast of their exhibition game against the Buccaneers was sloppy at best. From missing plays to the names of Patriots players being mispronounced, it just wasn’t good. Former quarterback Scott Zolak has been the treasure in the trash, with several spot-on observations. Zolak also is sharp in his day job as midday cohost on 98.5 The Sports Hub with Andy Gresh.

Short yardage Remember how under the old CBA, teams would sign players on the bottom of their roster to weird contracts in order to push remaining salary cap space to the next year? Those contracts are no longer needed under the new CBA. Now teams can transfer any remaining cap space to next year simply by “submitting notice in writing signed by the owner to the NFL no later than 14 days prior to the start of the new league year.’’ So the Chiefs, with $33 million in cap space, could push whatever remains by the end of February to their 2012 cap and beyond . . . Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik on former Patriot Ted Larsen, Tampa Bay’s starting left guard who struggled against his old team: “Larsen has been on coach [Raheem] Morris’s Rosetta Stone of learning. When we claimed him last year, it took him about four weeks to work himself into the starting lineup, and he’s been our starting left guard the last 12 weeks. And he’s been everything we hoped he’d be, what we wanted him to be in terms of a left guard. He’s tough, smart, a consistent football player. We’re very excited about him. I see him as a long-term answer, hopefully, for us at the left guard spot.’’ The Bucs are also excited about linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, another former Patriot. “Tyrone came in here and is battling for the Mike position with Mason Foster, a rookie, and another rookie behind him, Derrell Smith,’’ said Dominik. “So it’s open competition. I’m sure Tyrone is excited to play the Patriots, but he’s more excited about his opportunity here, which we’ve given him. And those two guys have brought the right demeanor into our locker room. Very serious guys about their craft, and that kind of speaks to the way the Patriots draft.’’ . . . The NFL informed teams that the first roster cutdown will need to be down to only 80 players, not the original 75. Guess the league office has noticed the toll of injuries post-lockout.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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