The enormous red flag next to One Buccaneer Place moved in slow, lazy circles on Friday morning, sometimes coming completely to rest. Unfortunately, the 80-plus players toiling in the stagnant heat next door didn't have that option.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' signature battle flag is the largest flying non-U.S. flag in the country, so it takes a decent wind to make it stand at attention. Such a breeze was definitely not in evidence on the first day of the second week of the Bucs' 2012 training camp, nor was their much cloud coverage to speak of it. There was just a sticky mid-90s heat and a team determined to fight through it.
That determination impressed Head Coach Greg Schiano, who has worked hard to establish a high-tempo non-stop environment for Buccaneer practices.
"Today was without a doubt the toughest day physically since we've been here," said Schiano. "You know, that flag didn't move a heck of a lot. It was a good day, I was proud of the way they fought through it. It was pretty, but we fought through it and that was about as tough as I've seen in a while."
Though there have been various instances of cramping throughout the first eight days of camp – as there are in camp every year – the Buccaneers made sure to stay hydrated Friday and almost everyone was still involved when the workout ended with a rapid-fire two-minute drill. Guard Carl Nicks did go inside about halfway through the practice and was described as "a little woozy" by Schiano, but the team obviously takes errs on the side of caution in such situations.
The Bucs were also still without defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Amobi Okoye, while safeties Ronde Barber and Mark Barron watched all of the team drills from the sidelines after taking part in individual-position periods, or "indies." Wide receiver Arrelious Benn (knee) and cornerback E.J. Biggers (foot) are dealing with longer-term injuries from the first day of training camp and tackle Donald Penn (calf, non-football-injury) and defensive end Da'Quan Bowers (Achilles, physically-unable to perform) are on the NFI and PUP lists.
That still left the majority of the roster in action on Friday morning as Schiano confronted them with another set of specific game situations. After a relatively strong day of red zone work on Thursday, the Bucs spent much of Thursday working on situations where scoring isn't necessarily the primary goal.
Early in practice, for instance, the coaches scheduled a "backed-up" drill, where the offense starts near its own goal line and must get at least one first down to get out of serious trouble. This drill was fairly sharp for the offense, and the first and second teams each succeeded in gaining a first down several times. Later, a good portion of the morning was spent on the "four-minute drill," the term NFL coaches use to describe the situation in which the offense has a lead late in the game and simply wants to gain a couple first downs in order to run out the clock.
These particular periods weren't uniformly sharp, but Schiano took that as part of the development process.
"We're learning, staff and players," he said. "We've got to work together as a staff. You can't do enough of that right now. We need to learn to work together as a team, understanding the situations. It takes time, so you know, we work at it very hard in the meeting room, talk about it, go out and create situations, then take the tape back and evaluate it and point out the coaching points.
"I thought they handled it well. Yeah we made our mistakes, so did I, everybody does. Very rarely you go through a whole situation and say, 'Boy that was perfect, I didn't make one error in my calls, I didn't make one error in game management and the players did it all right.' That's what's fun – you're chasing perfection."
Schiano has taken to ending each practice with a game-like move-the-ball drill, with coaches and reserves on the sideline and a different combination of score, timeouts and time left on the clock each day. On Friday, the offense in the two-minute period had to convert a fourth-and-one near midfield in a hurry because on the previous play, cornerback Myron Lewis prevented a third-and-one completion to rookie running back De'Anthony Curtis.
The manner in which Lewis accomplished the pass break-up was jarring. Save for a very few periods, the Buccaneers never fully tackle in any of their camp practices, but many of the drills – including this one – are run at "thud" speed. That means a defender can hit the ballcarrier with his pads, but he's not supposed to wrap-up or bring the other player to the ground. Because Lewis timed his thud on Curtis just as he was trying to catch a pass, it ended up with the running back flying in one direction and the football in another.
It would have been a highlight play in a game, and it was within the bounds of the team's practice rules, but Schiano would rather not see his players absorb that type of hit on the practice field. He would like to see them dish it out when the Bucs finally get into some game action against the Miami Dolphins on August 10.
"You love it because you love hitting but we've just got to protect each other," said the coach. "It's a long year and I'd rather see that one against Miami rather than us."
Schiano Looking Forward to Saturday's Stadium Events
The Bucs are exactly one week from playing that preseason opener in Miami, but they will get a little closer to live action on Saturday night when they head over to their own game-day home. This year, the team's annual Night Practice at Raymond James Stadium will include a full-speed intra-squad scrimmage that should be one of the highlights of training camp.
That's only one part of what Schiano believes will be a very enjoyable evening for the team and its fans. His Buccaneers have settled into a dependable pattern in training camp, starting practice every day at 8:45 a.m. at One Buccaneer Place and finishing the day with a walk-through in the evening, but Schiano doesn't mind breaking from the routine in order to help build excitement for the upcoming season.
In fact, he'll have the entire roster at the stadium several hours early in order to meet with the public during a FanFest-like autograph session.
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow night," he said after Friday's practice. "Number one, [it's] a chance for us to connect with our fans. We're going to be over there at four o'clock to sign autographs for a good two hours, and hopefully everyone will get what they want out of that. Then the guys will go downstairs and get ready to go and in the meantime well have some stuff going on. Then we'll have a practice and it'll be a legitimate practice, a lot like today. We will do situational football, we'll have a little bit of a scrimmage with our younger players where we let them get after it."
Schiano and General Manager Mark Dominik will also stop for interviews on the stadium videoboards before and during practice, and several of the team's assistant coaches will help fans understand the action taking place on the field.
"One of the things I think the fans will enjoy will be the coaches on the big board explaining what the drills are, how this works," said Schiano. "One offensive coach and one defensive coach [will be] describing what we're trying to get accomplished. I think it'll be a really fun, interactive evening for our fans. I'm looking forward it."
As are, surely, thousands of Buccaneer fans. The Night Practice, which is free and open to the public, is annually one of the team's most popular non-game events, and the crowd should give Schiano a taste of what's in store on home Sundays this fall. Schiano has coached teams in Raymond James Stadium before – visiting teams – and he knows what an advantage the crowd can be to the home side.
"I've coached in that place where it was unbearable as an opponent, and we need to get it back to that," he said. "I know our performance will do that and get fans in there but you know, get a [hot] day like today in September, get a packed house and you'll see people crack. There's no doubt about it. We've just got to make were conditioned to handle it and we can take advantage of it."
Buc Favorite Leigh Dittman Visits Camp, Supports Fundraiser
As NFL analysts begin to weigh in on how the 2012 season will unfold, the Buccaneers have received a favorable early forecast from someone who knows the team very well. On Friday, during a visit to her home-away-from-home, One Buc Place, 12-year-old Leigh Dittman predicted a 12-4 season for the Buccaneers in Coach Schiano's first year at the helm.
Dittman has become something of a little sister to many Buccaneer veterans, and she's an inspirational figure for many young people fighting difficult illnesses. Dittman herself has battled osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as Brittle Bone Disease, since birth. She has long had the help of Shriners Hospitals for Children in overcoming her daily challenges, and in return she has become a tireless fundraiser for others.
Dittman's 9th Annual Shriners Charity Fundraiser will take place on Saturday, September 15 at the India Cultural Center (511 Lynn Road, Tampa, FL 33624). She initiated the event at a very early and has since helped raise more than $425,000 for Shriners Hospitals.
Friday was a very welcome social call. Dittman watched most of practice with her family, then came out onto the field at the end and was immediately recognized by many of the Buccaneers, including Josh Freeman, Adam Hayward and Ronde Barber. Most of the team stopped by to chat, giving Dittman her first opportunity to meet Schiano and some of the team's newcomers. The visit will also help with her fundraising efforts, as she took the opportunity to collect auction-ready items, such as footballs signed by Freeman, Barber and Vincent Jackson.
For more information on Dittman's 9th Annual Shriners Charity Fundraiser, please visit www.LeighDittman.com.