The Tampa Bay Buccaneers believe the 2012 season will be much better than 2011. However, veteran center Jeff Faine wants his teammates to understand that – no matter who's wearing the coaching hat and what changes are made to the roster – improvement won't just come with the flip of the calendar. One thing will get the Buccaneers where they want to go in 2012: Work.
"My message after the [last] game was: There's not going to be any magic," said Faine, recalling what he told his mostly younger teammates after the season-ending loss at Atlanta. "We're not going to be able to flip the switch, just hit the reset button and all of a sudden it's better. A lot needs to be invested, a lot of time needs to be invested, a lot of hours, a lot of work, a lot of mental work. We've got to get out there on the grass for OTAs and get some of this exposure, expose a lot of these young players to big concepts.
"It's dedication in the offseason. There was no offseason last year. The rededication – this has to got to be the most important thing in everybody's lives when it comes to the offseason."
Faine wasn't the only Buccaneer veteran to deliver that message as a disappointing season came to an end on New Year's Day. The players on the team who have experienced successful NFL seasons, playoff seasons, know what it takes to produce that success, and they don't want to see anything less than what is necessary in the coming months.
"We'll find out a lot about guys in the offseason, which guys attend and which guys won't," said Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, regarding organized team activity days (OTAs) and other offseason programs. "We'll see. Naturally, there are going to be changes on any team – winning or losing, Super Bowl or worst record, it doesn't matter, there are going to be some changes. But one thing we've got to improve on is the way we work, the dedication.
"We're going to see how many guys really care about this organization in the offseason. It will be interesting to see."
Neither Faine nor Joseph were criticizing their teammates for their efforts in the previous offseason, and there's an obvious reason why. There was no offseason in 2011 thanks to the protracted work stoppage while a new collective bargaining agreement was pursued. Or rather, there was an offseason, just without any of the elements that make it actually useful to players. That was the case for every team in the NFL, so it doesn't excuse the Buccaneers slide from 10-6 the year before, but it does leave a very youthful team a little unsure as to what to expect.
Faine and company will be happy to lead the way.
"It's not a young team anymore," he said. "That season's over. This offseason, whatever happens, there's a lot of work that goes into it and a lot of people have to grow up.
"It's guys being where they're supposed to be an everybody being on the same page. This offseason, we've got OTAs. Those are things that make the entire offense work. It's about concepts. For the big picture, the thing has to be executed in a certain way and everybody has to be on the same page. It's very, very easy to put it on paper but not to go out there and execute it on the field. You do that with actual repetition and that's going to come with OTAs. We've all got to put the work in."
Joseph has made it clear that he will be participating in the offseason program, and that he holds himself accountable and expects all of his teammates to do the same. Like Faine, he sees offseason work as critically important in putting together successful offensive and defensive systems.
"We've got to regroup and get back to the fundamentals this season, get back to understanding the concepts of the things the coaches are trying to install," said Joseph. "We have to wipe our slate clean and really focus on next year. We still have a lot of development to do on our team. We're very young, and the lockout hurt us. I look forward to the opportunity to see some guys develop. That's really what I look forward to this offseason, so I'll be here to help as much as I can, and develop and continue to grow myself."
Cornerback Elbert Mack is not one of the Bucs' greenest players, having just finished his fourth season, but he is only 25 and he still takes his leadership from players with more experience. He heard the postseason message loud and clear and hopes his teammates find a way to follow it. Mack is a pending unrestricted free agent but he doesn't plan to just sit around until that situation is resolved.
"That's what people talked about [in the team meeting]: Offseason. Gotta start now. Give yourself a week or two, sit back and reflect and then get right back on it. It all starts today, however you start preparing for the offseason, getting ready for the following season. Everybody's got to grow up and fight their individual demons, whatever it is that's keeping from learning or keeping them from training. You've got to go out and do it and get it done and be ready for training camp next year."
The weeks immediately following the end of the season are valuable for players in terms of rest, but some Buccaneers may also use the time to reflect on what happened in 2011. Tackle Donald Penn says that sort of reflection will serve as motivation to get started on the 2012 offseason program.
"I never thought this would happen when we were 4-2," said tackle Donald Penn. "But it's something that happened, you've got to learn from it, take it as a learning process. We've got to get better. This is going to be an important offseason. We're going to have to get everybody here and have all hands on deck this offseason, because we're a way better team than we showed. You can't do some of the things that we did and win games."