WR Michael Clayton is excited by the level of aggression the offense is showing on the practice field this spring
Michael Clayton can tell that offseason practices are different this year at One Buccaneer place because the post-practice tape-viewing sessions are different.
Clayton spent his first five NFL seasons in the offense run by Jon Gruden and his staff. Clayton had a near-historic 80-catch season as a rookie and was coming on strong down the stretch for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. He had his share of success in Gruden's offense and still believes his former head coach is, as he said on Wednesday, a "genius when it comes to putting together offenses."
Obviously, however, the Buccaneers system is different in 2009, with Raheem Morris now at the helm and Jeff Jagodzinski arriving as the offensive coordinator. And so far, it is different in a way that is energizing Clayton, who said (with no animosity) that he sometimes had a limited role in practices and thus didn't show up much on those post-practice tapes. Now he's finding the football in his hands a lot during practice, and more importantly, so is everybody else in the Bucs' receiving corps.
"It just brings a whole lot more camaraderie in the meeting room, because everybody wants to watch themselves and everybody is getting an opportunity," said Clayton. "We have that much more focus. Having success is allowing us an opportunity to learn from each other, which is also why I think the young guys will do well here."
Clayton and the Buccaneers practiced again on Wednesday morning, conducting the fourth of their 14 allotted "organized team activity days," or OTAs. Jagodzinski and the Bucs' offensive staff are using these OTAs, spread out over five weeks and preceding the one mandatory full-team mini-camp of the offseason, to install the new system. Obviously, the team is still in the beginning stages of that task, but it already looks extremely promising to Clayton.
"Everybody's making plays," he said. "The thing is, now, I really feel that the quarterbacks are given the opportunity to be more aggressive and throw more balls down the field. When you have that feeling, and you can actually take a break, come on the sideline and watch the next group of guys go in and get balls down the field, you know that this thing is not going to stop.
"It's a different mentality, I can tell you that. The mentality that we have is that we are going to score points. They're utilizing the receivers. I'm happy for that, happy to be in this opportunity as a five-year veteran going into my sixth year."
The Buccaneers have been a defensively-dominated team for a long time, and there have been times when that side of the ball was clearly in control during practice. Perhaps things will be more even in 2009 and in the years to come; that thought is another reason why practice and post-practice meetings are more enjoyable for Clayton and his crew this year.
"The one-on-ones that we take every day, killing the cornerbacks…" he said with a big smile. "It's a great feeling to be able to go out and know that the coach has confidence in his receivers, as well as the tight ends, to get everybody involved."
Of course, the Buccaneers need to throw a lot of passes on the practice field if they are to determine which of their quarterbacks is the best choice to lead the offense this fall. Luke McCown is the holdover with the most Buccaneer experience, one of the backups to Jeff Garcia last year. Josh Freeman is the first-round draft pick who is considered the quarterback of the future, however soon that future may arrive. Second-year man Josh Johnson is learning on the job. And Byron Leftwich, a mid-April signee, is the key to the situation, says Clayton, whether or not he wins the job in the end.
"I think the steps that they've taken by bringing Byron in…he won a championship last year," said Clayton. "He played a big part in them winning, having to step in and play a big role on that team. You can tell by his demeanor that he's been there, his confidence, and I think that alone will push everybody else to be great quarterbacks. Even with Josh Freeman, who knows if it's going to be his time this year. But he's still a baby and he has the time to grow. Being able to grow under that situation will allow him to be the quarterback of the future and it will give him a better opportunity. And it will definitely push Luke to be the best quarterback that he can be. I think it's a great situation for all [the] quarterbacks."
Smith Getting His Shot
Clayton was told he would have a big role on the team, both on and off the field, and he is already seeing that develop. All of the quarterbacks were told that the competition for the starting job in 2009 is wide open, and they've seen no evidence to the contrary. Ryan Sims was told he would get the first crack at the open defensive tackle spot if he remained a Buccaneer, and he is currently lining up alongside Chris Hovan in the starting front four.
Tampa Bay's new management is following through with its promises to provide opportunities to a large number of players hungry for exactly that. Second-year running back Clifton Smith is another perfect example.
Last year, Smith made a stunning rise from rookie tryout player to Pro Bowl return man. He is utterly proven in that role and is expected to be a force on special teams once again in 2009. But that might not be all Smith is asked to do this fall. After the new offensive staff was put together under Morris and Jagodzinski, Smith was informed that the team would give him a chance to prove he could be a threat out of the backfield, too.
"I was excited about that," Smith admitted. "Now not only do people look at me as a special teams threat, they definitely have to look at me on the offensive side of the ball, too, [even] being a decoy sometimes and setting other people to be successful.
Fast-forward to this month's OTAs, and Smith is finding the coaching staff to be true to its collective word. There are times during practice when he is splitting carries almost evenly with presumptive lead runners Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward. Either Smith will or will not be a credible running back in the NFL and in Tampa Bay's system; the Bucs intend to find out, one way or the other. Smith thinks he knows what the answer will be.
"I'm definitely confident that if they need me to go in on offense and get something done I can get it done," he said, simply.
Smith had 630 rushing yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry during his career at Fresno State, but almost all of that came during his senior year. He was such an unknown commodity that he wasn't immediately signed by any NFL team after the draft concluded. The Buccaneers invited him to their rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract and that was the foothold he needed. He earned a contract with a strong camp, found his way onto the practice squad to start the season and eventually cracked the active roster. Still, his opportunities on offense were limited, which came as no surprise to Smith.
"Coming in last year, I had so many great athletes in front of me with Warrick Dunn, Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham," said Smith. "I couldn't really be 'overlooked' because I had so many great football players in front of me."
The Buccaneers still have a lot of backfield talent, especially after the signing of Ward. Still, Smith won't be overlooked on offense in 2009. He'll have every opportunity to prove he belongs.
Leftwich Headed to the White House
Leftwich is going to miss the Buccaneers' third OTA of the week on Thursday, but he has a very good reason.
For one afternoon, he is going to be a Pittsburgh Steeler again…at least in spirit.
The veteran quarterback left the Bucs' practice field on Wednesday and headed almost immediately to the airport, striving to catch a 1:30 flight to Washington D.C. On Thursday, Leftwich will join the rest of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers — champions of Super Bowl XLIII — for a tour of the White House and an audience with the president.
The trip is a homecoming for Leftwich, and at the same time a chance to go somewhere he's never been before.
"I'm excited to get a chance to meet Mr. Barack Obama, President Obama, and at the same time get a chance to go inside the White House," said Leftwich as he walked off the field Wednesday. "I grew up in D.C. and I've only seen the outside of the White House, so it's going to be special for me to get the opportunity to see the inside."
A long-time starter with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Leftwich was a reserve quarterback for the Steelers last year, appearing in five games. Though he did not play in the Super Bowl, he was a valuable backup to Ben Roethlisberger, compiling a 104.3 passer rating in his five appearances and helping lead the Steelers to a Week Nine win over, coincidentally, the Washington Redskins.
Leftwich signed with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent on April 13 and is competing for the team's starting job in 2009. That will not keep him from enjoying a brief reunion with his 2008 teammates on Thursday, however.
"Those are friends that I'll have for the rest of my life," said Leftwich. "Those are friends that I've got a special bond with. We went all the way to the mountaintop, and I'll never forgot those guys. They gave me the opportunity to have that experience."