It didn't take long for Joey Galloway's big-play abilities to shine through during mini-camp
On the last snap of the second-to-last full-team drill of Tuesday morning's practice, wide receiver Joey Galloway ran a very sudden route right up the left sideline. Quarterback Brad Johnson took a quick, three step drop and fired a pass 30 yards downfield, hitting Galloway in stride, behind the defense.
Yes, it was just a June mini-camp workout and no, the pass rush wasn't fully switched on. Still, it was a fine thing to see on a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice field. Galloway obviously felt the moment, spiking the ball to the ground in celebration as the players started heading to the next drill.
Head Coach Jon Gruden was definitely feeling it, too, that and a number of other long completions on the day. Near the end of a seven-on-seven period just before the aforementioned drill, Galloway shot out of the pack on a deep post and caught a Brian Griese bomb at least 50 yards downfield. Only the end zone lay ahead.
"I'm excited; I don't know how you don't get excited," said Gruden, minutes after the team's two-hour morning practice came to an end. "We made more big plays today in the passing game than we've made around here in last couple of years. (Joey) Galloway gives us something that is very unique. We're very pleased with our rookie, (Michael) Clayton, and we're making strides on offense. We are very fast on defense. For that, we're very encouraged. We've got a long way to go, but I really like the speed of this football team and, hopefully, I think we're much more together than we've been."
Wide receiver Keenan McCardell stayed away, hard-luck flanker Sylvester Morris went down with a mid-practice injury and running back Michael Pittman relayed news of his three-game suspension (see below for more on all three), but the most important development of the start of mini-camp was the players who were on the field, in full dress and full health.
Around such stalwarts as Johnson, linebacker Derrick Brooks, center John Wade, cornerback Ronde Barber and defensive end Simeon Rice, the Bucs welcomed two groups of players to their only full-time mandatory mini-camp of the offseason: those returning from injuries (think Brian Kelly and Mike Alstott) and those wearing the pewter and red for the first time (think Galloway and Charlie Garner).
After several months of organized team activity days and offseason training program workouts (all optional but well-attended), the Bucs blended their new and old parts very well on Tuesday morning.
"We've got a lot of guys who have been around here," said Gruden. "I keep hearing about all the new guys. We've got eight or nine starters back on defense and we've got a number of guys who have played here and played a lot. Charles Lee's still here, (Joe) Jurevicius is still here, (Mike) Alstott's back, we've got the same group of (offensive) linemen except for Roman Oben. Cosey Coleman, obviously, is on the mend right now. But it's exciting to have some new faces to work with, some guys we think will make plays for us."
Among those is linebacker Ian Gold, who actually falls into both groups. Gold, signed just after draft weekend as an unrestricted free agent, is in the final stages of recovery from 2003 knee surgery. On Tuesday, for the first time this year, Gold participated in full-team drills. He was seen playing on both the first and second-team units, filling in at both strongside and weakside linebacker.
Other players who missed significant portions of the 2003 season due to injuries or were slowed this spring by offseason surgery included Alstott, Coleman, Kelly, cornerback Torrie Cox, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, and guards Matt O'Dwyer and Jason Whittle.
Alstott, Kelly, Gold, O'Dwyer and Whittle practiced without restraints on Tuesday morning. Jurevicius went through all of the individual periods and is progressing well. Coleman and Cox worked out in the weight room during practice, along with cornerback Mario Edwards, who is being held out with a minor lower-back problem but is not seriously hurt.
Having players like Alstott and Kelly in their expected spots was encouraging not only to the coaches but to the players who have become accustomed to seeing their brothers-in-arms in the middle of the action.
"It's just good to be out there together, look in each other's eyes, see each other's faces and know that we're all in here in the huddle and out working together," said Kelly. "Everybody's where they're supposed to be right now, so that's a good thing."
Gruden certainly enjoyed having most of his options at the ready at the start of the three-day mini-camp.
"It's something we're enthused about," he said. "Getting Ian Gold back today in the team work was something we're charged up about. We're encouraged by Joe Jurevicius's rehab, where he is now and what he brings to this football team. He and Galloway and certain Michael Clayton have given us a lot of the juice that we lacked last season."
In an uncomfortable replay of last spring's mandatory mini-camp, the Buccaneers had to take a player off the field on a cart during the very first workout.
That player was Morris, who went down in the middle of the field after apparently injuring his left leg. Morris was taken to the training for evaluation, but the extent of his injury was not fully determined by the end of practice.
"We'll know something probably (Wednesday) or later tonight," said Gruden. "Obviously, it's something of concern.
"I think he got his foot caught in the turf. Again, we'll update his status when we get some information."
Morris, who had an outstanding rookie season after the Kansas City Chiefs made him a first-round pick in 2000, has not played since that year due to a run of injuries. He tore the ACL and several other ligaments in his right knee during an offseason workout in 2001, an injury that eventually cost him the next two seasons. During camp with the Chiefs last year, Morris sustained a hip injury and landed on injured reserve again.
The Buccaneers signed Morris as a free agent on February 26.
Three-Game Suspension for Pittman
On Tuesday, the National Football League suspended Michael Pittman for the first three games of the 2004 regular season. The suspension will begin on Sunday, September 5; he will be eligible to return to the Bucs' active roster on Monday, September 27, after Tampa Bay's game at Oakland on September 26. During Pittman's suspension, he will not count against the team's 53-man roster limit.
"Obviously, it's a blow to our football team," said Gruden. "Michael Pittman's going to get an opportunity to serve this suspension and come back, hopefully, a much better man. Hopefully our whole football team, including Michael, will learn from this situation and the incident that did occur. We'll miss his playmaking, obviously, but there are certain acts in society that are intolerable. I do believe he can come back as a much better person, and hopefully he and his wife can form a great relationship and move forward with their lives."
Pittman is eager to get past the suspension.
"I accepted it and my coaches accepted it," he said. "My teammates, my players and my wife – everybody is standing by me. I'm just looking forward to getting those three games behind me, and when the fourth game comes around, I'll be right back ready to play."
Pittman may remain with the team through camp and up to the beginning of his suspension, and he is eligible to play in the Bucs' four preseason games. During the suspension, he may not practice with the team nor visit the Bucs' facility. Pittman plans to work out in Bradenton, Florida during the three weeks, and Gruden is not particularly concerned with Pittman's work ethic during that time.
"He's going to go through training camp and conditioning has never been an issue with Michael," said the coach. "I'm confident that he'll maintain his speed and his strength over the time that he's gone. But he'll miss three games."
McCardell, the 13th-year veteran who led the Bucs in receiving last year, was one of only four players on the roster who was not at the team's facility on Tuesday. The other three, guard Kevin Breedlove, defensive tackle Damian Gregory and tackle Chris Ziemann, are all returning NFL Europe players who are currently rehabbing NFLEL injuries in Birmingham, Alabama.
Gruden, focused on the approximately 90 players who were at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday, had little to say on McCardell's absence.
"He's not here," said Gruden. "He's obviously got some contract issues. In the meantime, we'll continue to work with the players we've got here. We're very excited with the men who are here working. Hopefully, this situation will resolve itself, but Keenan has to answer those questions."