At the risk of beating a dead horse – last season was a disappointing one for the Buccaneers. We can just leave it at that. I could go into the team's red zone struggles, the lack of an effective pass rush or the injuries that riddled multiple position groups throughout the year. But, I won't. You know it. I know it. The players and coaches know it.
After ending 2017 on a positive note with a win over the division-rival New Orleans (in a game that would have won them the NFC South should they emerge victorious, no less), the Bucs were eager to build on that success. It was a common sentiment among many of the players following the conclusion of 2017 that they were anxious to get back to work. They were anxious to put the prior season behind them and get to improving for the coming year.
And that's exactly what they've done.
With OTAs came the start of 2018 and therefore a chance to make tangible improvement as a team. Players seizing that opportunity has been evident all around the building. It comes in the form of conditioning on the field (some days, they run ladders as a team at the conclusion of practice… midday… in the dead of the godforsaken Florida heat. Seriously.) but it also comes in the form of building team chemistry off of it. That chemistry is something that has been stressed this offseason and has resulted in multiple (organic) team and position group outings.
Photos from the Buccaneers' OTA practice on June 7.
"That does usually fall on the leaders of the team, on the captains," tight end Cameron Brate said. "Speaking for the offense, we did get together a couple of times this offseason. It was definitely very organized compared to the past and that was spearheaded by Jameis [Winston]. That stuff, that goes such a long way, putting in time in the offseason, getting that head start on the spring training. I really think it has paid dividends so far. You guys aren't out here every day but Jameis' deep ball, I will say, looks pretty special so far this spring. That's just a testament to him and the receivers getting together this offseason."
It translates off the field, too. Walking into the dining hall, you don't see cliques of position groups. Instead, you see a mix of players and coaches, rookies and veterans, first-year guys and seventh-year guys, all sitting together laughing and joking. At practice you see guys dancing as they stretch. But more than that, you see focus in their eyes and the determination each player has is palpable.
It's OTAs, so players aren't allowed to hit each other or go full force. And truth be told, it's getting old for many of the guys. They want real football. They want to show that they're all in. They want to hit somebody. And that should be music to every Bucs' fans ears.
"Coming off of a disappointing year last year, you can definitely sense something different in the facility," Brate said. "Maybe there's a little more sense of urgency. Everybody knows how big this year is for everyone in the building. All of the players can feel it, the coaches feel it. So, I think there is that sense of urgency. It does feel a little bit different this year, for sure."
You can trust Brate. He climbed his way from an undrafted practice squad member in 2014 to landing a six-year contract extension this offseason. He knows where this team has been and to hear him say he feels something different definitely carries weight.
Another guy that's anxious to get on the field and make improvements is defensive end Noah Spence, who has been plagued with a couple major injuries early in his career. Spence went down in game one against the Chicago Bears in 2017 and had shoulder surgery to fully repair a nagging injury he'd been dealing with for the majority of his career. He's now rehabbed and practicing fully – at a healthy 257 pounds, which is an almost 30-pound difference from training camp last year. While he hasn't been out on the field, he's been around the building and in the locker room and echoed Brate's sentiments when asked about the difference he's seen from the team this offseason.
"There's definitely more energy," Spence said. "I feel like everybody knows what's expected now. We feel different. We feel like more of a team, I feel like. We're talking more, everybody's trying to help each other out. I just feel like last season was a blessing for us because it showed us what we didn't want to be anymore. We're just more of a team atmosphere, more of a family now."
Yes, it's still early. We're still (unfortunately) over a month from training camp. But I'd rather hear about a sense of urgency at this point in the year than anything else – wouldn't you?