On Sunday, Lovie Smith will walk the sidelines of a regular season game for the first time as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach. That would be noteworthy regardless of the opponent or the game's location, but this particular season opener has all the right elements. Not only are the Buccaneers playing the defending division champs in the Carolina Panthers – a team that clearly plays the game in a way Smith admires – but they're doing so at Raymond James Stadium.
One of Smith's primary goals is to re-establish the Buccaneers' home as a place opponents dislike visiting. That won't happen on one afternoon, but Sunday's game can certainly be a starting point.
"It's critical for our fans," said Smith. "It's been a while since they've really been happy with the product that they've seen out at Raymond James. We've been working to do something about that and we hope that they would come out to see. We've talked a lot about what we're going to do, we would hope that they would come out and give us a chance. Once we get our fans in the stands, we've got to play good football, it's as simple as that."
Players generally don't like to emphasize the importance of one game over the next until you truly get into an elimination situation. However, team captain Gerald McCoy didn't shy away from the notion that Sunday's game would set the tone for the season.
"Opening game is always a statement game, regardless of who you play," said McCoy. "If we weren't playing at home and not playing a division opponent, it would still be a statement game. It's a stamp on what this season is going to be like. You always want to start fast and finish faster. So yes, it's definitely a statement game."
Head Coach Lovie Smith
"Everything we've done up until this point has been to put the best possible product on the football field this week. Carolina is here. Guys are excited. It's always exciting for us to get the 53-man roster and of course, the 10 practice squad guys too. So we got a good practice today. Couple of things going on: of course a lot of you and a lot of people have asked about Jeff Tedford and how he's doing. He's getting better [and he] stopped through this weekend. We're taking our time with him. Again, he's getting better each day. When he'll be back here full-time, I don't know. When he'll be available full-time, whether he'll be able to go this week for the game and all those questions, we don't have answered right now. Just know he's getting better and we'll see how that all plays out. In the meantime, the rest of our offensive staff will pick up for Jeff similar to how we did the last week, with all of the guys really kind of pitching in. Beyond that, it's good to get some of our injured players back out on the football field today."
On how important it is having offensive assistant Quinn Tedford and quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo to help during Jeff Tedford's absence:
"It's important, but for all of the staff. Can't put too much on just one person. I'm talking about a coordinator. It's a group effort that we have. Of course Quinn and Marcus and [assistant offensive line coach] Matt Wiegand of course know a lot more about that offense, but it's really our offense now. And all of the coaches have really been there from day one installing it with our players. So things have been going as smoothly as they could without Jeff being here right now."
On who will call plays in Week 1 if Tedford is not available:
"Keep in mind right now, I'm going to give very little information from here on out. We're [in] game week. Anything we say, someone is listening. We're going to show up, we'll have someone calling plays, we feel good about that person calling plays. So I can hit you with that."
On if any of the currently injured players have been ruled out for Week 1:
"We have an injury list. It's game week. I'm not going to talk about injuries right now as you probably know. Guys are getting better and we hope to have as many as possible back out there ready to go."
On the progress Jeff Tedford is making:
"He was here this weekend, so that's saying that since he's had the procedure done, he's been able to come back here. Nowadays, like yesterday – I worked from my home quite a bit yesterday – with modern technology, you don't really have to be here every second to really be getting work done. Jeff is involved in what we're doing right now, having as much input pretty much as he would have if he was here. Any other Jeff, offensive questions? Injury-wise, since we're playing Carolina, once they start telling us who practiced today, who lined up in what formation on punts and different things, once they start doing that, I'll start doing that. Until then, how about some general questions?"
On how guard Logan Mankins looked in practice today:
"Logan is a pro. He's done this quite a few years. [He] picked right up. Our guys, of course, didn't practice this weekend, but Logan put in quite a bit of time around the facility. He hasn't lost much from what I've seen. Of course, this is my first time seeing him up close and personal like this, but pretty good adjustment."
On cornerback Mike Jenkins' return to practice and an update on his injury:
"I'll be able to talk about Mike a lot more Wednesday…I don't plan on talking about injuries much. Wednesday, when we're supposed to, I will then. Until then, our guys are getting better. I think most of you can understand why."
On if it helps that he has had the offseason to prepare for Carolina knowing they would be the team's Week 1 opponent:
"Yes it does help quite a bit. It seemed like every year for me, seemed like we played them in my previous job. I respect what they do. Just going over Carolina with our football team today, defensively, just about every statistical category that you can come up with, they were at the top of the league. Doing it a similar way that we will. So it's pretty impressive what they've done. To start just watching them and seeing how we're going to attack them, but we've been preparing for them for quite a while."
On kicker Patrick Murray and why he chose him to be the team's kicker:
"It really was a competition throughout. And we say that for all of the positions. But for Patrick, from the first day kick, I asked 'Who is this guy?' Didn't know much about him. He performed just about every day that he was on the field. Simple as that. Connor Barth is an excellent kicker in the league. He'll be kicking for someone – we realize that. But for us, it was an open competition. Patrick wanted to know early on 'If I'm the best guy, will I be the kicker?' Point blank asked me that. And I said, 'Yes you will.' And he proceeded to go out and put himself into position to be our kicker and we couldn't be happier to have him here."
On if he likes defensive tackle Gerald McCoy talking about this team being one of the top defenses this year:
"You have to have that talk. As I told our front seven out there today, you talk to anybody in the country, and they're going to talk about Carolina's front seven, their front four. And they should. They had what, 60 sacks? They have great personnel, they play hard every down. I mean, that's what everyone else is saying. For our guys, yes, we want to move in that position. So yes, I want our players talking that way. That's our goal for people to talk about us. If not the best, one of the best."
On if there is any competition for the starting kick and punt returner:
"There's competition always, but we know who we're going to line up with as our returner."
On what his goal is for the defense:
"That's easy: to be the best in the league. That's what you start with. We have potential. First off, I think when you talk about that, you have to have potential. We have that. We have great players. That's common talk at just about every position. But now it's putting it together. New defense coming together. We've seen just gradual progress throughout. We've asked them to do things and they've done it all. So where do I see it? If we're going to play our version of Buc Ball, we need to have dominating defensive play."
On Murray's mental toughness and how it factored into the decision:
"That played a part in it, but Connor Barth is mentally tough guy. Just talking about Patrick, yes he is. He can punt, as he let me know too, if he has to make a tackle, he'll do that and a kicker better be confident and have a short memory. Every once in a while he may miss one, he has to be able to come back. We wouldn't have gone with him unless we thought he could handle all of those situations."
On Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly:
"First off, Carolina as a whole, has done a great job of coaching them. I watched [Kuechly] coming out, special look at the great linebackers coming out and I remember when he came out and I loved him like everybody else did. As we look at linebackers, you have to have a Will linebacker – I'm talking about a guy that can play in space, has good man-to-man coverage and the guys is smart. When you can put him in the middle, it really makes your defense pretty salty, which they have and he can do it all. There was a reason why he was Defensive Player of the Year and it will be a big challenge for our guys. Mason Foster needs to outplay him and it's as simple as that. We go man-to-man, position-to-position and that person has to out play the guy on the other side."
On Carolina being able to keep blockers off of Kuechly and the scheme their defense runs:**
"It's a similar scheme that we do and when you have guys like that, you want them to be position to make of most of the plays. Thomas Davis too, he's an outstanding player also."
On what factored into the release of safety Major Wright:
"We had a group of players and you would like to keep them all. Major Wright is a good football player, has been a good football player. Sometimes you tell a player the numbers kind of got you a little bit and it was no more than that. I have a history with Major, I really believed in him as a player. He'll play good football and help some team win a lot of games this year."
On if he's concerned with having only three healthy safeties going into this weekend's game:
"Concerned? Yes, but as you look at all of the positions, you need starters and you need a backup. Once you have two injuries, you're in trouble at most places really. Most of the time we dress two quarterbacks, most teams in the league dress two quarterbacks – you have one starter and you have your backup and that's what we have at the safety position."
On who the backup is at the center position:
"We have a few guys. We feel real comfortable with the guy who will be our backup snapper this week and once you see him, you'll see why. Right after the game we can talk on him and Monday after you see who it is we can talk on him after that."
On which statistics he uses to measure how good his defense is:
"I believe in stats, but it's [which] stats. Most people say the top defense, what do they go with? Total yards. No, I don't believe in that at all. To me, scoring defense, on third downs, I say scoring defense, how many times did you keep the opponent down? And how many times your defense has scored? And how many takeaways? Those areas right there to me – how do you play defense in the red zone? I didn't mention total defense in there did I? It's just not that important to me. Now rushing defense comes in there after a while, passing defense I don't talk an awful lot about it. We have certain categories that we really monitor, we really go on the Aikman ratings as much as anything. We don't buy the regular [ratings], that doesn't tell you much right there."
On what special message he has given to his team:
"For our team meeting, do you know who is in our team meeting today? Players and coaches only, no one else. This is kind of our group a little bit too. There is a message, believe that and not just today, but a message that we've had all throughout. It's coming to a head right now."
On who were announced as team captains:
The 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Team Captains
"As we vote for captains, this is how we do it. We all get a vote, I got one vote, just like every practice squad guy got one vote and we added it up. I've kept tracked of them too, just in case someone wants to check them. On the offensive side of the ball Josh McCown and Vincent Jackson. We had others, but you can see why [they were chosen]. They're both two professionals that have done it since day one and this about what the players have seen. Of course, all of the offensive guys vote for the offensive guys and on the defensive side it's Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Two easy choices there, even though we had other good choices too. Then our special teams captain – you can go with specialists or you can go with guys that are a part of the core group, but we selected [punter] Mike Koenen. Those will be our five captains for the year and I do lean on them for a lot of things. It's not a democracy, but when they come to me with stuff, we will. When we travel, they can't come and decide that we're going to wear shorts as we travel or anything like that – we'll be in a coat and tie and all of that, but some of the things we will listen to them on. Those are our captains."
G Logan Mankins
On learning the playbook:
"That's the main thing. Today is my first practice, so we'll see how that goes. The guys – Josh [McCown], Evan [Dietrich-Smith] and Anthony [Collins] – my O-line coach [George Warhop] and those guys have really been helping me get up to speed and hopefully I can get it pretty fast."
On if his experience in the league will give him an advantage in learning the playbook:
"It just takes time and that's something that I don't have a lot of. So just using your time efficiently and studying as much as you can, talking to other players as much as you can and then doing it in practice. As long as I put in the work, hopefully I'll be able to catch on."
On what he is looking to accomplish in his first practice with the team:
"I've got to learn where to go and how to do it. Another big part of it is how the guys next to me do it, and we need to get comfortable with each other and we'll start working on that today."
On facing the defensive front for Carolina in Week 1:
"It's a big challenge. Carolina has got a very good defensive front. Good front four, good linebackers. We'll have our hands full so we'll be studying all week trying to get ready for those guys. Fortunately I played them a couple of weeks ago [with the Patriots in the preseason]. I know they'll be really fired up for this game. NFC South defending champions so we've got a big test for us."
DT Gerald McCoy
On the season finally arriving:
"Offseason sucks. Camp sucks. But gameday is lovely. Game week is lovely. You've got to love it. You've got to love everything that goes into preparation because it's here now. The clock is at six days. I remember when that clock had 130-plus days. Coach told us it would go quick. Well it's here now, so there isn't any time to be scared now. You got to love it."
On last year's two losses to Carolina:
"Should I know anything other than we lost? We lost. That's about it. Past that, details aren't really clear, but I do know we didn't have enough up front, I do know that."
On why Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had success against them last year:
"He got comfortable. He's not a guy you want to get comfortable because then he gives you those highlight plays making those Barry Sanders-type cuts, making people look bad. So we don't want him to get comfortable."
On potentially getting triple teamed by the Carolina offensive line:
"I don't care. It is what it is. Buffalo tried the same thing and you saw what happened. So if they want to try it, then go ahead. It is what it is. I'm not trying to play for myself; I play to get triple teamed. I play so I make my teammates better. That's one thing that No. 99 [Warren Sapp] always talks about: are you making the people around you better? That's one thing he did and that's one thing I'm working for. I want everybody around me to be great. It's not about me – it's about everyone around me."
K Patrick Murray
On how surprised he was to learn he had won the Bucs' kicking job:
"I wasn't surprised. I came in here and I believed I was going to be the starter. I believe if you come in thinking a different way it's just not going to happen. Credit to Connor [Barth] – he pushed me every single day. He's a great kicker and I know he's going to land somewhere really soon. But I'm excited to be a part of this organization."
On if he made the team because he's such a versatile kicker:
"It helped, that's for sure, the fact that I can kick field goals, punt and kickoff. It's definitely an asset that not many people have and hopefully I can utilize that to help this team win."
On why he thinks the coaches have confidence in him:
"The fact that I came in from Day One with the same approach, that I was going to win the job and nobody was going to beat me no matter what they threw at me. Coach put me in some difficult situations and I excelled at them, and thankfully I'm a part of this organization."
On beating out a kicker who also had a good preseason:
"Connor kicked tremendously. Again, he pushed me every single day to be the best that I can be, and I thank him for that. I know he's definitely going to land somewhere soon."
On his confidence:
"To be a kicker in this league, you have to have a mental edge. You have to be mentally tough, and that comes from my father [Aidan]. He's a hard-working man from Northern Ireland and we grew up pretty tough ourselves. He wasn't easy on us, that's for sure, so I think that definitely helps and it's going to help me throughout my career."