DT Chris Hovan knows that the work doesn't end when the offseason program gives way to one last pre-training camp break
You can be skeptical if you like, but Chris Hovan calls this "a critical stage in the season."
Note that he says "in the season," despite the fact that this particular six-week stretch on the calendar is technically the last part of the offseason for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their 31 NFL rivals. It's clear that in-season or offseason, preseason or postseason, preparing for an executing a successful NFL campaign takes a year-round commitment.
And that is essentially Hovan's point. Though his admonition falls on mostly sympathetic ears, the veteran defensive tackle means this: The next six weeks may be the Buccaneers' last vacation before the start of training camp, but it's hardly time to forget about football. The smart player will find a way to balance relaxation and preparation between now and training camp.
"This last month going into training camp is going to be the most important," said Hovan. "A lot of guys take two weeks off or three weeks off and they're a little tight, they're a little out of shape. I think the onus has to be that the conditioning has got to go up, the way you treat your body has got to be right."
The Buccaneers spent 14 weeks working on conditioning, strength, playbook knowledge and fundamentals between mid-March and mid-June. Much of it was weight-room sessions and endurance-building runs; some of it was organized team work, mostly voluntary practices that focused on the team's new offensive and defensive systems and the Bucs' underlying core beliefs. The whole program came to an end last week, with two days of practices and a camaraderie-building trip to a local paintball park.
As the players left the paintball park one by one on Thursday, they were heading out on their own. Many of them will find time to stop by Buc headquarters to get in a weightlifting session or a few minutes in the film room, but none of them are required to do so. The coming weeks are easily the biggest lull on the NFL calendar.
"You're not around them every day," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You don't know what they're doing. You just trust those guys that they're going to go home and train and put themselves in the best position to come back and be ready to compete for a championship."
Depending upon when they exit the playoffs, or if they qualify for them at all, NFL teams have most of January and February off. However, that is still a very active period for the league, as teams juggle free agency and salary cap concerns. The mid-summer lull is different; at this point, most training camp rosters are 99% set.
Still, that doesn't mean those players headed to training camp are promised anything. When the practices begin, the competition for jobs and roster spots will rise to a fever pitch, and any player who reports to camp out of shape will find himself in a difficult position.
"They give you that time off but nobody really takes it off," said Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph. "Maybe a week or two, but you see a lot of guys back here right after the Fourth of July, working out, watching film, doing the same stuff. It's just that you get in the habit at this time of the year. A lot of guys are trying to make the team, a lot of guys are trying to make a difference on the team, there's a lot of different situations so you really have to stay on your Ps and Qs."
Obviously, the Buccaneers coaching staff spoke to its players about the importance of utilizing the next six weeks properly, including some time away from the game. The coaches also tried to lay the foundation for a successful break by stressing certain underlying principles that the players could fall back on when away from their teammates.
"They've got to get back to their fundamental core beliefs on their own," said Morris. "And when they come back, you don't want to start from scratch. You want to start from right here, where you left off.
"Fortunately, we've got some mentally tough guys. We've got some good guys. We've got some skilled guys. We've got guys competing all around this team. So I'm hoping they go home, I'm hoping they get into the weight room, I'm hoping they work out. We can't stay away from this game. This is what we do."