Rookie TE James Whalen warms up before the first of 14 summer workouts, which drew the entire Buccaneer roster
It hit 78 on the Bucs' practice field on Tuesday.
No, we're not obsessing about the climbing Florida heat (not yet, anyway). While temperatures actually ranged up into the low 80s by mid-morning, the figure above refers to the number of Tampa Bay Buccaneers to appear at the first of 14 NFL-sanctioned summer practices.
Tuesday's session was actually what the NFL terms 'organized football activity', with the look and feel of a practice but none of the pads, contact or mandatory attendance of a mini-camp. In a testament to how seriously the team is taking the 2000 season, however, it boasted near perfect attendance. In fact, not a single player was an unexpected or disappointing no-show.
There are currently 82 players under contract on the Tampa Bay roster, with another four unsigned restricted free agents – CBs Ronde Barber and Floyd Young, C/G Kevin Dogins and TE Patrick Hape – plus unrestricted free agent LB Don Davis. The latter five all signed waivers in order to attend the camp while not yet re-signed.
That means only nine of a possible 87 players were not at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday for the first summer warm-up. Of those nine, six are currently playing overseas in the NFL Europe League; that list includes RB Aaron Stecker, the NFLEL's leading rusher, plus QB Scott Milanovich, LBs Shawn Stuckey and Bobbie Howard, CB DeShone Mallard and TE Jason Freeman. Another rostered Buc, G Ken Blackman, is continuing a rehab program on his left knee, an injury that has kept him off the field since 1998. That leaves only rookie defensive ends Mawuko Tugbenyoh and Aaron Humphrey, neither of which were permitted to join their NFL team by Tuesday because their respective schools had not yet finished their spring sessions. Tugbenyoh will arrive in Tampa on Wednesday and Humphrey will make his first appearance on Monday, May 22, the start of the second week of workouts.
"It's good to get back out here and have a little fun," said Head Coach Tony Dungy, who directed his team through a crisp, one-hour workout. "This is a big help for the young guys. It's their second time through it now and they have a better idea of what they're supposed to do. With the veteran guys, we're just trying to build habits so that they do things right every time."
One of those veterans who might have felt a little bit like a rookie was fifth-year tackle Jason Odom. Though he took it in stride, Tuesday's workout was a big step for the three-year starter who had not fully practiced since last October. All but three games of Odom's 1999 season were wiped out by a lower back injury, and he has spent much of 2000 recovering from corrective surgery. Furthermore, he is lining up as the starting left tackle instead of his familiar rightside spot, at least until incumbent veteran Paul Gruber determines whether he will retire or return for the upcoming campaign.
"It's been a long time since I've been out here," said Odom. "I felt a little rusty with the position change and all, but it's coming around. It's getting better, and I should be good for training camp. (His recovery) is very close, if not all the way there. I was officially released from the rehab regimen. I had good results today…it could have been better, but you can't expect to come out and conquer the world your first day back."
But, while Odom preaches patience, the 18 rookies on hand Tuesday viewed the workout as another chance to impress the coaching staff. Among the most visible first-year players on the field Tuesday were QB Joe Hamilton, WR Chris Daniels, TE James Whalen and LB Nate Webster.
Under the intensely organized direction of new Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel, the Bucs cycled rapidly through drills, units and offensive sets, but Hamilton got a long look and showed touch on his passes. Daniels, an undrafted free agent out of Purdue with impressive size (6-3, 219), made a nice reaching catch early in team drills and had the good fortune to do so right in front of Dungy, who offered quick praise. Whalen, a prolific pass-catcher at Kentucky last year, hauled in several passes over the middle. Webster, the team's third-round draft pick last April, played with both the first and second linebacker units during team drills as the Bucs tried a variety of lineups with their deep corps of 'backers.
A handful of Bucs didn't practice, though they dressed and remained on the field throughout the workout. That group included TE Dave Moore, who had a right ankle scope two weeks ago, G Frank Middleton, who underwent a scope on his right shoulder at roughly the same time and LB Alshermond Singleton, who is still recovering from right ankle surgery necessitated by a fracture suffered in the team's 14-13 playoff win over Washington on January 15. Also not participating on Tuesday were DE John McLaughlin (lower back strain) and TE Patrick Hape (right foot fracture suffered six weeks ago), but both are expected to hit the field next week.
While that group represents some of the Buccaneers' core players, Dungy is satisfied that his team will be back to almost complete health by the time training camp opens on July 23. That date is once again one of the later camp kickoffs in the NFL, but Dungy feels that the Bucs' quality work during mini-camp and these summer workouts allows the team to come to training camp more prepared. These workouts, then, are the groundwork for an intense, focused and productive camp, and a chance for Dungy to stress an attention to detail.
"I enjoy this time of year because you really can work on little things," said Dungy, "the fine points that are the difference between winning and losing. You're not game-planning, preparing for an opponent. You're just really talking football and teaching football, and that's fun."