The beginning of the regular season is now so close the Bucs can almost touch it
The Labor Day weekend was a busy one at One Buccaneer Place, with each day bringing another task necessary to bring the 2009 preseason to an end.
On Friday evening, it was Tampa Bay Buccaneers against Houston Texans as both teams took one long last look at the bottom halves of their rosters. On Saturday, the Bucs joined the rest of the league in paring their roster down to at least the league-mandated level of 53 men. On Sunday, Tampa Bay worked the resulting waiver wire for two new additions and the beginnings of a practice squad. And on Monday, as the players rested, the coaches set the depth chart and prepared for the new week.
And on Tuesday, as citizens across the country put their long weekend behind them and returned to work, the tonal shift at One Buc Place was just as great. While there were surely some folks not so thrilled to be back at the grind Tuesday, the atmosphere at Buccaneer headquarters was palpably charged.
The regular season is here.
The Buccaneers took to the practice field on Tuesday afternoon for what could be considered the official beginning of regular-season work. The weekly schedule is skewed forward a day — Tuesday was like a normal Wednesday and the team will in essence have a pair of Friday-type review sessions on both Thursday and Friday — but it's still a recognizable in-season procession.
The players, now occupying a much less crowded locker room, were ready to get down to business.
"I could feel it in the team meeting this morning," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You can see it in their eyes. You can see it in the way they bounce around in the meetings, they way they bounce around at practice, the people wanting to be on details, everybody wanting to repeat the play if they messed it up. It was good, it was good. You can definitely see it in the team, you can see it in their eyes, you can see it within the quarterback and the leaders of this team."
There was more to the regular-season shift than mood, of course. Preseason opponents don't generate much specific game planning, but the Buccaneers have been eyeing the Dallas Cowboys since the NFL schedule came out in April. Morris himself made a significant shift this week, from evaluation mode to preparation mode.
"Today wasn't just general coaching points; today was specific, it was detailed with what we need to do to try to win this game," said Morris. "Those guys were locked in, they were listening. Everybody knows what they've got to do. When you go into your normal situation, your normal game plan mode, your practice reflects it, your game plan reflects it. All that stuff will be reflected in this week's game plan."
The Bucs spent time Tuesday morning in meetings and Tuesday afternoon on the practice field planning ways to stifle Marion Barber and the Cowboys' power rushing attack. They devised plans to put pressure on quarterback Tony Romo and to keep DeMarcus Ware from doing the same thing to Byron Leftwich. They studied the subtle changes their zone-blocking running scheme will have to make against the 3-4 front the Cowboys utilize.
And they realized that their studies would be over in just a few short days and they would be on the field playing a game that counts, with a new head coach, a new offense and a new defense. Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, a new starter, thinks the Bucs are ready to face any opponent.
"I think everyone is really confident with it," said Wilkerson. "We are just so anxious to get out there and play a whole game."
Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, last year's breakout star, may be more anxious than most after missing all four preseason games following arthroscopic knee surgery in early August. One might consider the opening game something of a proving ground for Bryant, a chance to prove not only that he's ready to return to action but that his incredible 2008 comeback season was no fluke.
Bryant, however, sees Sunday's game as the beginning of a great opportunity for the entire team, which is not generating much optimism among national pundits.
"It's not just about me proving something," said Bryant. "It's about all these guys understanding where we stand amongst ourselves, and then in the eyes of other people how they feel about us and trying to turn it into something we can aim towards, change a lot of these opinions and go out and win these games. We were a nine-win team last year, so if doing better than that is not the goal, I don't know what it is."
Ready to Roll
Clayton played only marginally more than Bryant during the preseason because he was nursing his own mild hamstring injury. In both cases, the Buccaneers took a cautious approach in order to ensure that their starting wideouts would be on the field against Dallas.
First, though, they would need to be on the field to start the week of practice, and indeed they were. There will be no official injury report until Wednesday, but Morris did confirm that both receivers practiced without incident to open the week.
"They looked good," said Morris. "Those two looked good today. They came out and executed a couple plays today, executed all the stuff they had to get executed. The thought process was there, the meeting time was there, the practice time was there. They looked fresh, looked like they had a little bounce. You could see it in their eyes that they want it. I'm fired up about how they looked and how they practiced today."
More from Coach Morris
The Buccaneers' head coach touched on a variety of other topics after practice on Tuesday.
On if he's concerned at all that QB Byron Leftwich and WR Antonio Bryant didn't have an opportunity to work together in the preseason: "Not at all. You talk about 'no excuses.' That's not an excuse for us, that's not valuable. To be honest with you, Dallas doesn't care if they threw a pass to each other or not. They've got to go do it. In order to win this game, you've got to give yourself an opportunity. You've got to go do it for the first time when live bullets are being shot and we've got to go deal."
On the transition to Greg Olson as offensive coordinator: "Greg Olson, this guy's a well-prepared guy, first of all. Whenever you're a position coach you sit back — it doesn't matter whether you're a position coach or not — you always have a plan, you always have an idea of what you want to do. He's got great help within his coaching staff. Pete Mangurian's been a great help. Richard Mann, he's going to be leaning on heavily. Tim Berbenich, one of our young quality control assistant coaches, he just assists everything. He's really titled a wide receivers coach, but he knows it all. Coach [Steve] Logan, being here to keep us all going with the familiar system that we put in. These guys are all working well together. The workload for all of them has increased but they've embraced it. They've embraced the challenge, they've been embraced that they've been given, they've embraced everything that's been received and I think they're going to go out and perform here."
On if he gets involved in calling the plays: "No, I wouldn't say I get too involved in calling any plays. I have ideas, I have concepts, I have theories. I throw things at them. I like to sit in those meeting rooms and get all the knowledge, suck it all up, throw in my two cents from a defensive perspective. They love that. We get a lot out of that. It's awesome. It's really good."
On if Kellen Winslow not catching many preseason passes was intentional: "It's never intentional. You just don't see a lot of Kellen, period, in a preseason game. You don't see a lot of Jerramy [Stevens], you don't see a lot of any of those guys really, to be honest with you, except for the offensive line because they played a little bit for those quarterbacks so we could get that competition out of the way. But we see a lot of those guys at practice, we see a lot of those guys in some live stuff at our facilities, so we're looking forward to that. Here we go man, it's the real deal."
On Antonio Bryant will still be a centerpiece in the offense with all the new weapons: "I think it goes from week to week to be honest with you. Antonio got hot down the stretch really last year. He had about a six-week tear there where he really tore it up. So I guess at that point of time in our offense he was the centerpoint. I don't know if he came in at the beginning of the season as a centerpoint. I didn't see him being a centerpoint at the beginning of the season; I don't think anybody did. He was the comeback player of the year. I think as the season went on, he became a centerpiece, he became a weapon. When you're talking now and you look at our roster and you look at the dynamics of our team, you've got to say he's one of the centerpieces if not the centerpiece. So you'll see a lot of AB, you'll see a lot of 82 [Winslow], you'll see a lot of all those guys. We do have some weapons, as you mentioned: 86 [Stevens], 24 [Cadillac Williams]…all of those guys have their own different dynamics within this game and we just look forward to using them all."