Josh Freeman stated the obvious on Wednesday when asked what is different around One Buccaneer Place in the new year: Everything.
Clearly, the arrival of an entirely new coaching staff is going to have that effect. There are touchstones of familiarity at Tampa Bay Buccaneers headquarters – the training staff, the player's lounge, perhaps even some of the pages in the playbook – but Greg Schiano and his crew have imported an entirely new culture, as is the case whenever a team undergoes a leadership change.
What is noteworthy about this particularly changeover at One Buc Place is how deeply it has permeated the entire organization, and how quickly and completely it has been embraced by the players. Schiano's influence extends beyond precise demands on the practice field, and Tampa Bay's young roster is welcoming the new structure.
"They're definitely re-establishing order," said third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "You could kind of tell we lost a little discipline and order around here, but he's re-established it very well, and he's made it very clear that there will be order and it's not a game. He believes in the system and he sticks to it. Nobody's exempt…and that's not just players. I'm talking about anybody in the building. This is how it's going to go. We're going to turn this thing around. The whole organization is turning around, not just coaches and players."
McCoy is clearly comfortable with the new order, comparing it favorably to the sort of program Bob Stoops runs at the University of Oklahoma. The 2010 first-round pick is only a few years removed from that program, but even the team's more seasoned veterans expect Schiano's approach to pay quick dividends.
"I love it," said wide receiver Vincent Jackson, new to One Buc Place after seven seasons in San Diego. "Everybody on offense, defense, everybody I've met in this building, everybody on this field is very intelligent. We have very capable coaches and with the talent that we have here, you need the coaching staff to put that energy and enthusiasm in the right direction and we have the guys to do that."
Jackson never expected his veteran status to make him exempt from any of the strict rules of practice or the more strenuous drills meant to build stamina.
"That's fine for me," he said with a wide smile. "I go out here and work like everybody else. It's a breath of fresh air for me. To come out here and have that enthusiasm – I'm trying to have the young guys chase me around. It's exciting and I think that energy is only going to continue to breathe through our team throughout the summer."
Three 150-minute practices, conducted under the somewhat strict offseason rules of the new CBA, are not going to have a team game-ready, especially one that is learning new offensive and defensive systems. Schiano has made it clear that his staff has a long way to go before his playbook and his overall structure is solidly in place. But Buccaneer players have found these early practices to be very productive, which can only them buy into the system.
"It's a big discipline thing," said running back LeGarrette Blount. "It takes a lot of discipline to be a good football player. So far, everything is looking good. We're making progress, a lot of progress within the first two days that we've been out here. We've made a lot of progress since the first meeting. There's nothing to really say but that we've been going uphill since Day One."
On Tuesday, after his first on-field work with his new team, Schiano acknowledged that change, in almost any scenario, is difficult. It would seem to be a challenging situation, then, to have virtually every aspect of your workplace transform in just a few months. By embracing that change, however, Buccaneers players are making it work.
"Everybody's working hard," he said. "[People] saw the intensity out here today. Guys are flying around, making plays. I think everybody's excited to be back and excited to have another opportunity to go out and compete."
Blount Appreciates Fuller Offseason
LeGarrette Blount was one of the NFL's surprise breakout stars in 2010, only the second undrafted rookie in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. Blount's 2011 campaign was less satisfying, as he saw his numbers decline from 1,007 yards and 5.0 yards per carry to 781 and 4.2. Of course, the Buccaneers' 2011 season was unsatisfying in its entirety, and some of Blount's statistical downturn was the product of other forces.
Still, Blount heads into 2012 with extra motivation to restore his significance to Tampa Bay's offense, and he thinks he has one advantage this year that was missing prior to his first two Buc campaigns: An offseason.
As a rookie, Blount arrived in Tampa just prior to the regular season as a waiver claim after spending the four previous months with the Tennessee Titans. As such, he didn't become an integral part in the Buccaneers' offense until roughly a third of the season was gone.
Last spring and summer, Blount missed out on his first opportunity to spend an offseason training with his team, as did every player in the league, due to the labor discord that led to a new CBA in July. A major part of the storyline of his second NFL season was his attempt to master the Bucs' pass-protection schemes in order to increase his time on the field. He likely would have been farther along in those efforts had they started in April.
That's not an issue in 2012, and Blount is appreciating the extra time to learn, particularly since he has another new playbook in his hands.
"It's going well," he said. "With a new system and a full offseason, I'm able to get everything down pat that I want to get down pat. I'm able to take my time to learn the playbook. I'm able to slow down and ask questions of all the coaches. Everything is going well and I'm just taking it one day at a time."
Like every player on the roster, Blount comes into 2012 with a clean slate from the new coaching staff. On Wednesday, Schiano said that he has done all the film study of the 2011 season that he needs to do and has moved on to what he is seeing on the practice field now. Blount has the opportunity this spring to prove what he sought to prove while the season was in progress last fall, that he can be a three-down back. So far, so good.
"LeGarrette has practiced really well two days in a row," said Schiano. "LeGarrette's trying to do everything we ask. That's all I can tell him: 'I love the way you're practicing. Let's keep it up.'"
Freeman on Jackson: "As Advertised"
The dollar value of the contract that Vincent Jackson signed with the Buccaneers in March was expressed in all fives. That surely made Jackson happy, as there were eight of them, but it was structured that way because the team also expected the signing to make Josh Freeman. Freeman, of course, wears jersey #5.
After a few weeks together in the classroom, Freeman and Jackson have now had some time together on the practice field, and so far, the Bucs' field general has not been disappointed.
"He's a stud, everything that he's been advertised as," said Freeman of his new teammate. "He comes in, he's a hard-worker and he's always in the weight room. Then he comes out and he's a physical specimen, very strong hands, a strong runner. He's a great route-runner, precise and extremely explosive."
The prevailing opinion is that Jackson's presence will not only add a valuable target to Freeman's arsenal but also make the other targets in that group more effective by drawing away defensive attention. Even without any games played yet, Freeman can already see the impact Jackson is having on his fellow pass-catchers.
"We'll see, but anytime you add a star, a player of that caliber to any position, it's going to bring the whole group up," said the fourth-year passer.
Meanwhile, Freeman himself has impressed his new head coach, both with his physical tools and his demeanor on the field and in the classroom.
"What I see now is a guy that is incredibly hungry and incredibly focused to do what we're asking him to do," said Schiano. "It's going to take time, but this guy, he wants to be good. That's so much of the battle. He wants to be great. Now, he's learning a new vocabulary, he's learning new plays, yet he's being asked to be the leader. I think he's doing a good job and I think Coach Sullivan would say the same.
"He made a throw [Wednesday] that was fun to watch. That's a big-time quarterback, to put that ball in there. I said, 'You know what? If we protect this guy and we run the football effectively, he can make those throws.' He will."