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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bear Market

Like many other unsigned players, Damien Robinson is finding the pace of NFL free agency to be surprisingly slow


S Damien Robinson is looking down the road for a step up in free agency activity

Damien Robinson would like to get things moving in the free agency game, but there's a bear blocking his path.

The same animal that is wreaking havoc on a once-bullish Wall Street is creating a whole new landscape for NFL free agents, who are finding their own market inhospitable to sellers.

That's why Robinson, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety who tied for seventh in the league in interceptions last fall, is still without a team for 2001. He is in no way alone in this situation, as many of the league's unrestricted free agents are playing a waiting game, including eight of the ten Bucs in that situation this spring.

"Right now, free agency is slow because of all the salary cap issues and guys being released," said Robinson. "It's kind of like the stock market right now. It's kind of down and we're waiting for it to come back up. That's the most important factor right now."

Robinson was at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday, participating in the team's offseason workout program. Even if they have yet to re-sign with their previous teams, free agents are allowed to work out at that team's facilities and Robinson is one of a large group of veterans participating in the 16-week conditioning program.

After lifting, Robinson spent some time in the team's training room, discussing the Final Four with QB Joe Hamilton and WR Reidel Anthony. It's not as if the free agent experience requires Robinson's attention every waking moment. In fact, it's a much slower process than he had imagined.

"It's a new experience for me," said Robinson. "You think that when you hit the market, it's going to go fast and certain situations will appear, but with the way the market is right now, it's very slow. You've got to be patient."

Though he came to the Bucs from Philadelphia in 1997, this is Robinson's first foray into the open market as a proven commodity. Drafted by the Eagles in the fourth round in '97, he did not make the 53-man roster out of preseason but was instead signed to the team's practice squad. The Buccaneers, who had kept an eye on Robinson, a player they felt could develop into a starter, offered him a spot on their active roster and Robinson quickly signed on.

In the years since, Robinson has proved the Bucs hunch correct by developing into the team's starter at free safety. After being on the inactive list for every game in 1997, he was gaining playing time during the first half of '98 before going down at midseason with a broken arm. The following year, he won the free safety job in camp and has started every game for the past two seasons. Last season, he snared a career-high six interceptions, including a crucial game-ender in Miami, and added 104 tackles.

The friendly Robinson has also become a friend to many in the Bucs' locker room with his laid-back demeanor and easy sense of humor. Even now, discussing the timing that has landed him in the most bearish market since the advent of NFL free agency in 1993, Robinson smiles and takes it all in stride.

"It's crazy, sitting around just waiting to see how it goes," he said with a laugh. "I'm just waiting for an opportunity."

Of course, he could conceivably get that opportunity without ever leaving the area. The Buccaneers and General Manager Rich McKay have declined to discuss the team strategy on free agency and, likewise, Robinson only spoke in general terms on Wednesday. Still, if the possibility of his re-signing with the Bucs comes to pass, Robinson will be happy to return.

"I think that's the first priority, to be back here," he said. "The thing is, you have to just wait and see what goes on. I would love to stay here and play with the guys I've been with. Going into different systems and different types of teams, you don't know what kind of camaraderie they've got, or how much team support they have."

It would also be a gamble in terms of competitiveness for a player who has enjoyed 21 wins and 11 losses in his 32 regular season starts. The same could be true in Tampa, of course, but the team's recent free agent signings of Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice have many believing the Bucs are Super Bowl contenders.

"Even before those moves were made I wanted to come back here," said Robinson. "I've enjoyed my past four years here and the guys that I've played with in my career so far. It's been a great opportunity for me. I just love the family atmosphere here."

Robinson can still enjoy the company of his friends and teammates over the coming weeks during the offseason workout program. Whether he will finish his 2001 training in Tampa or elsewhere is an issue that may not be decided in the next few days or weeks.

"I don't think there's really a timetable," said Robinson. "Teams are making their moves when they decide to make their moves."

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