On Friday, eight days into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 training camp, tackle James Lee joined his teammates on the practice field for the first time. Afterward, he was asked about the speed of the workout, and the play of the defenders across the line from him. Lee singled out one player who had been a particular thorn in his side: Michael Bennett.
Of course, that happened to be Bennett's first practice of training camp, too. Lee didn't even have the benefit of fresh legs over his opponent!
The first camp practice for the Buccaneers was a week earlier, the previous Friday. However, because the new league year didn't officially begin until the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified on August 4, any players who signed new contracts – whether switching teams or staying home – couldn't practice until late that afternoon. Tampa Bay held a special teams-only practice on Thursday, so Friday's afternoon session was the first opportunity for Lee, Bennett and company to get a piece of the action.
The Buccaneers had a whopping 15 players in that category: unrestricted free agents Quincy Black, Tim Crowder, Adam Hayward, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood; restricted free agents Lee, Connor Barth, Corey Lynch, Elbert Mack, Frank Okam and Micheal Spurlock; and exclusive rights free agents Bennett, Rudy Carpenter and Demar Dotson. Among the unrestricted free agents, Koenen, a former Atlanta Falcon was the only newcomer. Crowder was an also in a category of his own, in a way – he only re-signed with the team earlier on Friday afternoon.
Needless to say, an already competitive training camp saw the intensity rise even further on Friday when men such as Black, Joseph and Spurlock added their talents to the mix. Head Coach Raheem Morris thought the players who had to wait an extra week might start out a little off the pace, but he was impressed with how they handled the two-hour workout on a steamy afternoon.
"They looked good," said Morris. "They were fired up. I'd have to look at the tape, obviously, to tell you how they looked as far as technique and all that stuff. I watched them bouncing off the field, and the thing I was concerned about was their shape, obviously, putting on pads for the first day and going out there in that sun. But I watched Davin walk off the field and give me a little wink. I got a chance to see those guys run around and bounce around a bunch. Michael Bennett made a couple splash plays as usual. I was fired to have those guys back out there. Hayward made a couple plays. Tim Crowder, signed and back on the field the same day. It was fun."
Lee was clearly impressed with Bennett, but he thought all of the first-time practice participants held their own.
"Everybody came out today and worked," he said. "I thought everybody was in good shape and everybody played hard."
Joseph had a rough duty for his return going up against a group of defensive tackles that had spent the first week of practice turning heads. Gerald McCoy has been a regular visitor to the offense's backfield, Roy Miller has at times looked like an immovable object in the middle and young players such as E.J. Wilson and Al Woods have come on strong. That group wasn't about to slow down while the newcomers got acclimated to practice, but that proved to be a good way for Joseph to shake off the cobwebs.
"Knocking the rust off," he said. "Me and Trueblood back again, working together. Throwing James Lee in there for us; Dotson looked great today. I think that was his best practice since he's been here. It was awesome seeing Tim Crowder come out today. I didn't know he was back but he surprised us. His tempo was great today. It was just good getting some positive energy out there, working hard, taking advantage of every snap since we don't have the two-a-day type camp anymore. We don't have as many on-field sessions and some of the vets are getting back late, so I thought we did a good job of just focusing in and really trying to work hard."
Getting the Rules Straight
As practice days begin to blur into each other and the craziness of the first week of post-CBA action recedes into the distance, the rhythms of training camp have begun to return.
One constant in every training camp is the visit from a group of NFL game officials. Every year, the league sends officials to each team's camp site in order to explain and clarify any rules that have been changed during the offseason, or that will be particular points of emphasis in the season to come.
On Friday, a team of officials led by referee Alberto Riveron, an eight-year league veteran, visited One Buccaneer Place to bring Tampa Bay players into the loop. Riveron and his group also held a session with the local media so that the men and women covering the team could be fully versed on the rulebook as well.
There was a relatively small number of rule changes this year, but several of them will be points of conversation all year. The most significant changes fall into two categories, with some overlap: player safety precautions and new kickoff conditions.
Riveron began his presentation by showing a film featuring former Tennessee Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher, which every player in the league will see. Fisher councils the players that it is their job to understand and respect the rules of the game, and that the league's emphasis in rule-making is on player safety.
Under this category, the most impactful rule change is a new article in Rule 12 which expands the definition of "defenseless" players and more clearly specifies what cannot be done to them. Defenseless players still include quarterbacks in the act or just after the act of throwing, and receivers in the act of catching the ball, but they now have company. Other players/situations considered defenseless are runners in the grasp whose forward momentum has stopped, quarterbacks after a change of possession, receivers who have finished the catch but haven't had a chance to protect themselves yet, and kickers and punters after the kick.
Recognizing that defenders have been known to seek out quarterbacks after an interception to deliver a crushing "block," the league extended its protection to that situation. Riveron, however, stated that "all bets are off" regarding the quarterback if he makes an attempt to participate in the remainder of the play.
While some defenders may grumble about these rule changes, there was one under this category that seems to be an answer to one of their complaints. While quarterbacks are still protected from blows to the head, incidental strikes from an arm or a hand will no longer be considered a penalty.
The new kickoff rules are actually in the same category of player safety, according to Riveron and his crew. The kickoff line has been moved to the 35, and cover men can start no farther than five yards behind the ball before it is kicked.
Riveron also discussed a less-publicized rule change regarding replay review and coaches' challenges. From now on, any play that results in a score will be automatically reviewed by the replay official in the booth. Coaches are not allowed to challenge these plays, and in fact an attempt to do so will result in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Plays near the end zone that are ruled as not being scored must still be challenged by coaches in order to be reviewed, except in the last two minutes of either half. Also if a team commits a foul in order to stop the clock in hopes of providing time for instant replay, both the team's coach and the replay official in the booth will be prohibited from reviewing that play.
Riveron also touched on several "points of emphasis." For instance, the league added some language to the rulebook to further clarify what is defined as a legal catch, both on plays made while standing and while falling. It is interesting to note that, even with those clarifications, the contentious Calvin Johnson play against Chicago last year is still staunchly considered an incompletion by game officials.
McCoy Considered Day-to-Day
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who has been on one of the most impressive performers in training camp so far, ran into a minor speed bump on Friday.
McCoy was in the middle of yet another dominant afternoon when he suddenly left the field due to an apparent arm injury. McCoy went inside to the training room, but then re-emerged on the field a few minutes later. Still obviously in some pain, he participated in a few more snaps before calling it a day.
Afterward, Morris revealed that McCoy has a mild sprain to his right rotator cuff, an injury that is considered day-to-day. Morris downplayed the injury, saying that it is likely McCoy would be able to play if the Buccaneers had a game on Sunday.