Every NFL training camp – well, at least every camp south of, say, the 35° latitude line – has a day like this. At some point a week or two into the schedule, when players have begun to feel the cumulative fatigue of long daily practices, when a nice breezy morning or a lighter workload would be nice, the opposite happens. Mother Nature cranks the heat and humidity up another few notches and the coaching staff refuses to relent.
A team can do one of two things on a day like this: It can wilt, or it can dip into the crucible and come out even tougher to break.
That day arrived for the Buccaneers on Tuesday, as they conducted their last full-speed practice before the preseason opener against Baltimore on Thursday night. The players were on the field for approximately two-and-a-half hours, and during that time the heat seemed to climb steadily, notch by notch. There are, of course, few cool days at a Buccaneer training camp – this year's first practice being a noticeable exception – but Tuesday was more brutal than most.
"I've got to believe that was the hottest day we’ve had, that and the combination of where we are [on the camp schedule]," said Head Coach Greg Schiano about 20 minutes after the workout ended. He admitted that the resulting practice wasn't particularly clean, but that didn't lessen his appreciation for what his players had accomplished. Schiano knew his team was in for a test before practice even began on Tuesday, and he urged the team's leaders to step up and help their teammates meet that challenge.
“No, it wasn’t sharp, but boy, oh boy did they work," said Schiano. "I told them before we started this thing, leadership will carry this practice, and leadership did carry the practice. There’s a lot of guys that would’ve liked to find a place to hide and they weren’t allowed to not be me. I thought, today, our leaders drove the football team. There were a couple guys in particular that I kind of kept a close eye on, but it’s not easy."
Of course, the coaching and training staffs took even more precautions than usual to avoid any heat-related health problems, and there were more water breaks built into the schedule than normal. The point wasn't to exhaust or endanger the players but to see if they could exhibit a certain level of mental resilience.
"We go through the pain together, and I was aware of it," said Schiano. "Those guys fought, and like I said, the execution…we've got a lot of stuff [installed] right now. When you go into a game you don’t nearly go into a game with as much offense, defense, and kicking game as we have in practice right now, because the whole thing’s installed. That’s going to make it sloppy. Fatigue’s going to make it sloppy, but the fact that they gave great effort and pushed through the entire practice was, I think, big.”
The players understood that it wasn't just a matter of willpower and making it to the final snap, but of keeping the fatigue from ruining their concentration. That kind of success on the practice field will translate to sharper play in the fourth quarter of a close game during the regular season.
“Today, really, was a stepping stone," said linebacker