If you've read enough of my stuff, it's obvious that I am a huge Michael Bennett fan. During the regular season, I admitted there probably isn't a defensive lineman I enjoy watching more than Bennett, besides J.J. Watt. I am sure some of you stat sheet watchers out there may be confused by my infatuation with Bennett. After all, he has had decent, not great, statistics so far in his career.
Allow me to explain!
It's true that in six seasons as a pro, Bennett has never had double-digit sacks. His 30.5 career sacks aren't exactly earth shattering. However, I've seen the growth of Bennett from a guy who the Seahawks signed as a rookie free agent in 2009 and then cut, to a starter and defensive leader on a Seahawks team looking to win its second Lombardi in as many years. There's also the fact that his arrival in Tampa in 2009, having been picked up on waivers by the Bucs, also coincided with the beginning of my sports blogging career.
More important than all of that: Seeing how Bennett got screwed four separate times here in Tampa, and having my own experience with being seen as a "backup" no matter how well you play, makes me genuinely proud to see what he has become in Seattle.
Oh, I know people don't like to talk about all the times the Buccaneers screwed over -- or at least attempted to screw over --Michael Bennett, but they should. I remember them all vividly. I saw a lot of potential in Bennett from the start and wrote as much, but for whatever reason, the Bucs didn't see the same things I did.
Actually, that's only part of it.
I like and respect former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik. Much like Bennett, I saw Dominik's growth from the lowest, and I do mean lowest, man on the totem pole all the way up to running the whole operation as general manager. Having said that, I hope that we never end up discussing Bennett, because it is the one topic from his tenure as general manager that I just can't forgive him for.
Yes, I would readily forgive him for hiring the Napoleon-like Greg Schiano, which set the franchise back several years. I'd even forgive the bizarre exit of up-to-that-point possible franchise quarterback Josh Freeman. I'd literally forgive him for every other mistake he made as general manager of my beloved Bucs before I could forgive Dominik for letting Bennett walk without so much as offering him a decent contract after the 2012 season, and for how he and two different coaching staffs wronged the guy repeatedly while he was giving them everything he had on the field every week.
See, when Bennett first got to Tampa, they had just drafted another defensive end, Kyle Moore, in the fourth round that same year. Even though Bennett showed more flash their first year together in 2009. Moore continued to get more reps. Then in 2009, rather than let Moore and Bennett fight it out to see who would start at left end, the Bucs stuck Bennett behind incumbent starting right end Stylez G. White (no relation) knowing there was almost no chance that he would be able to unseat him. It was a transparent attempt to "give" Moore the starting job due to his draft status. As someone who had to earn every game rep back when I played, that really pissed me off.
No matter -- the cream always rises to the top and at the end of the day. Bennett ended up out-playing Moore anyway and found a way to start two games by the time the season was over. Near the end of the season, the Bucs had an opportunity to replace injured rookie first-round pick defensive tackle Gerald MCoy with Bennett. They instead went with a 360-pound defensive tackle Frank Okam, which I guess helped shore up the run, but left them with little to no pass rush inside.
Give me a break.
This was the first of several times when the Bucs declined to use Bennett to his potential.
OK, so Bennett played well enough to make Moore expendable. Surely he would get a legit chance to start all of 2011, right? Wrong. WRONG!
The Bucs decided to double up at defensive end in the first two rounds of the draft in the spring of 2011, selecting Iowa's Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, who had at one point been projected as a top-10 pick before a knee injury knocked him down everyone's draft board, in the second round. Clayborn was going to start regardless after the Bucs didn't even attempt to re-sign White. Bowers, however, started off slow while recovering from that knee injury which gave Bennett the opportunity to show what he could do as a starter.
Well, for a while anyway.
Even though Bennett would go on to start 14 games that season, he ended up missing a couple of games due to injury, and in that time, the Bucs somehow decided that Bowers should be the starter over him. The normal protocol in the NFL is that a starter doesn't lose his job due to injury, especially a guy who was playing well. The rules, however, don't tend to cover guys who start off as rookie free agents.
Nah, they slid Bowers into the lineup while Bennett was out and then just left him in there even when Bennett came back.
The Bucs had yet another opportunity to see what Bennett could do as an inside rusher during that season after McCoy went out for the year with an injury again after the sixth game of the season. This time, instead of doing something that would have allowed them to insert Bowers into the starting lineup while still rewarding Bennett for his play to that point, the Bucs decided to sign Albert Haynesworth (!) to start in McCoy's place.
I won't say that signing Haynesworth is the only reason the Bucs lost their final 10 games and got the coaching staff fired, but it sure didn't help.(Also, the day they signed Haynesworth, I predicted Coach Morris would get fired at the end of the year. So, yeah)
To literally add insult to injury for Bennett heading into the offseason, Bowers was absolutely handed the starting left defensive end job rather than Schiano's coaching staff deciding both guys fight it out and let the best man win. I have to remind people of this fact a lot when discussing Bennett's tenure here because attention spans are so short, but the truth is, Bennett's story would likely be much different right now, and not in a good way, had Bowers not torn his Achilles that off-season.
It was that injury that forced the Bucs to ride with Bennett as their starting left defensive end in 2012. Now that he finally was granted the opportunity that I feel he had actually earned at least two years prior, Bennett proceeded to go out and make the most of it.
After notching only six sacks in his first three seasons combined, Bennett shined as both an outside rusher on early downs and an inside rusher on passing downs in 2012. He ended up come home with a total of nine sacks, three forced fumbles and two pass breakups that season after starting all 16 games. The Bucs had a decent showing in Schiano's first season, going 7-9, and it looked like they finally had the makings of a dominant defensive line. With Bennett and a finally-healthy McCoy balling out of control all season and the prospect of Clayborn coming back off injury after notching 7.5 sacks his first season in 2011 as the starting right defensive end the future looked bright for the Bucs up front.
That's precisely when the Bucs decided to screw Bennett over for the fourth and final time.
Rather than offer the man a decent long-term contract, which he had obviously earned with his play that season, if not prior to that, the Bucs and Dominik decided they didn't need him.
I kid you not.
Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Even though Bowers had yet to go through a full season healthy, the Bucs decided to hitch their wagon 100 percent to him over a guy in Bennett who had fought his ass off for four seasons for them through some pretty lean times. According to Bennett, back then, the Bucs didn't ever even offer him a contract at all before he signed with the Seahawks on a one-year deal.
It was bad then, it's bad now and that situation will always be bad. What maybe made me even more pissed off was that I was one of the only ones who saw what the Bucs were trying to do, so when Bennett ended up signing with Seattle, a lot of fans blamed him and not the Bucs for his departure. Oh and then they also tried to make him look bad after he signed with Seattle by leaking information that supposedly his shoulder was jacked up and that's why they didn't want to resign him.
I'm no doctor, but his shoulder has looked pretty dang good to me the last two seasons.
Unless you are a Bucs fan, you probably haven't paid much attention to that team over the last two seasons, but they're still trying to find a defensive end to replace Bennett. All they had to do was re-sign him in the first place! Bowers came in out of shape last season after being absolutely gifted the starting job and ended up only actually starting two games and notching only one single solitary sack. Great job with that decision, guys!
So lacking was the pass rush in 2012 that the new regime under head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht decided to go out and break the bank to sign Michael Johnson from the Bengals this past offseason. They were rewarded with a measly four sacks from Johnson, who suffered through an injury marred season which not coincidentally saw the Bucs go 2-14, the worst record in the league.
Did I mention Bennett is going to be starting his second Superbowl in a row this Sunday?
Yeah, Bennett hasn't hit double digits in sacks the last two seasons, but that is more of a testament to his versatility than anything else. He literally plays every where along the defensive line for the Seahawks, and he plays every position well. If the Seahawks left Bennett strictly at under tackle (three technique defensive tackle) or left defensive end, he likely would easily have double digits from either spot. The problem is, he wouldn't be able to have the same kind of impact overall on the game if they put him in just one spot.
Impact like most* of us saw in the NFC Championship game when he made or forced all three tackles on Packers running back Eddie Lacy to force a punt after Russell Wilson's final interception of the game. You know, just the series that got them right back in the game.
I want you to understand that the kind of position versatility Bennett has shown and the level he has played all those positions at is not normal. Even for the few guys that can pull it off like Watt, they are usually freaks of nature in terms of height, weight and athletic ability.
Bennett, on the other hand, is a fairly average sized defensive end at 6'4 and 274 pounds or so. It is just extremely rare to see a guy his size be able to dominate inside and outside along the defensive line. It is his attitude as much as his great technique which allows him to pull it off in my estimation. It doesn't matter if he is actually built like King Kong as long as he believes he's King Kong and believe me, watching film, you can tell he does. He is able to make the same kind of plays King Kong would make.
That inside/outside versatility that the Bucs were loathe to allow Bennett to show at first, now allows Bennett to make as much of an impact against the run as he does against the pass every week. Let me say this, too: I love that he plays with an edge. I firmly believe you have to have somebody on your defense that doesn't take shit off nobody. Whether you call him an enforcer or an asshole, a strong defense needs at least one guy that always has to get the last punch in.
A guy who stands over his vanquished opponent and celebrates.
A guy who plays every play through the whistle and has no problem getting in the face of the opposition or his own teammates if the situation calls for it.
That guy for the Seahawks, or at least one of them, is Bennett. He has shown, in signing with the Seahawks, that you can go back home. In 2013, he decided to return to the first NFL team to sign him and subsequently tell him he wasn't good enough on a one year deal to prove that was no longer the case. Not only did he accomplish that mission which finally allowed him to sign that decent contract he earned a couple years earlier with the Bucs, he also ended up developing into one of the cornerstones of one of the best defenses in the entire NFL.
He is the man for the Seahawks defensive line this season and that much is clear.
It just kills me that he could and should have been the man for my Bucs instead, but they refused to recognize what he had become.
Instead, we head into another offseason looking for his replacement yet again.
Thanks Mark Dominik ... for nothing.
*I really hope Ira was just taking a bathroom break during that series.