The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 offseason training program began on April 2, with a limited amount of meeting time and conditioning work. It ended nearly 11 weeks later exactly the way you would expect: With 305-pound offensive tackle Donald Penn settling under a punted football.
Well, maybe that last bit was a little unexpected, but it was the last official piece of on-field work the Buccaneers will do before the opening of training camp in late July. Penn successfully meeting the challenge of catching a punt (he even took off on something of a "return," making liberal use of the stiff-arm move) concluded the three-day mandatory mini-camp that Head Coach Greg Schiano had saved for last week of the program.
Schiano cut the last practice of mini-camp short by about an hour, but only because Penn was able to back up his words. After hearing more than a few tales of Penn's all-sports talent, Schiano singled him out on Thursday and hinged the prospect of an early exit to vacation time on the big linemen's hands and agility.
"The rumors, they abound!" joked Schiano. "All-state basketball, all that stuff. But he proved himself under pressure. He stepped up."
Penn's 80-plus teammates were a little nervous as he backed up 40 yards to prepare for the shot out of the Jugs gun, but the veteran tackle later pointed out that he had already proved his hands with a nifty touchdown catch in San Francisco in 2010.
"I was joking around with Coach about what a good athlete I am, and he threw that up there," laughed Penn afterward. "And I did a good job! I know I can catch. If I would have dropped it, we would have had to continue practicing. Since I caught it, we ended practice early, which is great. We've been working hard, real hard. We've put in a lot of work. For him to do that, it just shows how much we've put in, shows we've been doing a good job for coach to give us the day off. I like those challenges."
Penn never expected to fail, but he was particularly happy to have come through for his teammates because he felt as if they deserved it. All offseason, Schiano had demanded a certain level of tempo and intensity out of his players, and that was particularly true during the first two-and-a-half practices of the final mini-camp. With a new coaching staff in place, and with it the need to install brand new offensive and defensive schemes, the Bucs had a lot of ground to cover over those 11 weeks. Penn believes the players, to a man, made the most of their pre-training camp time. He even had to hand it to some players he would usually think of as the opposition.
"The intensity – Coach asked for it to be here, and it stayed there all two days," said Penn, holding his hand up above his head. "It didn't drop, really. That's the one big thing that you've got to take into these couple weeks off and look forward to that in camp. I mean, we were competing out there. We had a big intensity level. A couple of times, a defensive guy made a play and I had to go congratulate him because it was such a good play he made. I'm playing offense and we're battling each other, but I had to go congratulate him."
Schiano agreed that his players did a fine job of meeting his expectations for intensity and tempo, particularly once they had established the practice etiquette needed to comply with the stricter rules put in place by the new collective bargaining agreement.
"Throughout the spring, it did [stay high]," said the coach. "It's a very fine line, because there are certain rules of what you can and cannot do. So our intensity was more about speed and hustle, and I think they were very smart with the way they practiced.
"They worked extremely hard and, really, that's all you can ask. They had a great attitude and they worked hard. Sure, there was some feeling-out process. We're feeling each other out – what do we expect, what do they expect? But I thought as time went on that became better and better. It almost become a non-issue and they worked very hard. It was fun to give them a shortened day and let them get started with their six weeks before training camp.
The efficacy of those new offseason practice rules – and the Bucs' adherence to them – was perhaps reflected in how many players were still on the field on Thursday for the last day of the offseason program. With the one very big exception of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers' fluky Achilles tendon tear, the Buccaneers had very few new injuries to deal with in May and June. Nearly the entire 90-man roster was in action during the final week.
"Other than [Bowers], we maintained relative health, which is critical, to be able to learn a system and go the way they did but be smart about it," said Schiano. "Stay on their feet, all those things; keep their shoulders out of it. We have to learn that; that's the way you practice in this league. You get 14 padded practices [during the regular season], so we need to learn to practice with a high speed and a high efficiency without banging each other around, and I think we got better at doing that."
What Tampa Bay players need to maintain now, as they enjoy their well-deserved last break before the non-stop demands of the season, is the physical fitness they worked hard to establish this spring. Training camp and the preseason will be the players' opportunity to get in peak condition for the start of the regular-season, and that will be much easier to accomplish if they start camp in good shape.
"Obviously you want to take a little rest for a short amount of time," said wide receiver Vincent Jackson. "But the biggest thing is just to stay on top of things. You don't want to lose what we've built here. There are some things we'll be able to keep with us, the notes that we've taken, to keep things fresh in your mind so that when you come back it's not like we're starting with a blank slate. That's the biggest thing, keep yourself in physical shape, be ready to go conditioning-wise and mentally stay in it."
Players will also be required to pass a conditioning test when they return. This is a common concept among NFL teams and it won't be anything ridiculous, but it should be enough to hold the players accountable. Schiano called it "demanding but fair" and "not over the top."
"I think these next six weeks are going to be critical for them, to get themselves to a level of conditioning, number one, to pass our conditioning test, and then number two to be able to get into real in-season shape when we get into training camp," he said. "We don't want to peak when we report to camp by any means, but you need to be at a certain level that we expect."
Schiano can rest assured that his players are eager to make sure that all of their hard work over the past 11 weeks – almost all of it on a voluntary basis – does not go to waste.
"It's been a great spring, a great beginning to the summer, and I think we accomplished quite a bit," said Jackson. "We've been getting into this thing pretty deep, putting in a lot of man-hours, a lot of hours in the meeting room as well, so I think we're going to go into this training camp very well prepared."