The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't block, tackle or punt on Thursday. They didn't throw a single pass or hit a single sled, as the first actual practice of Training Camp 2012 falls on Friday morning.
Oh, but they ran.
Head Coach Greg Schiano began his first Buccaneer training camp with an activity (to put it euphemistically) that, while not uncommon in football, hasn't been seen much in Tampa in recent years: the conditioning test.
This was no pop quiz. Schiano informed his players early and repeatedly during the offseason that they would have to pass this test in order to participate in practice once training camp began. The hope, of course, is that every player on the roster would arrive at camp in condition to pass the test, but it was certainly no surprise when that failed to happen on Thursday.
"You need to put it in context," said Schiano, who reported early Thursday afternoon, without yet passing on the specifics, that a few players had failed the test. "Any team that has a conditioning test, very rarely do they show up and [right away] everybody passes it. There will be years that we will have that and there will be years where one or two guys didn't pass it. We're not there yet. So am I disappointed? Sure. But it's all about learning the way that we do things now, and I think guys will learn that that's it. It's non-negotiable, that's it, and we'll get it. This is not the first time I've done this, introduced it to a group, not had perfect compliance and then sooner or later they get it. So we'll get it."
Schiano described the conditioning test as "not easy" but "not impossible." Guard Davin Joseph called it "rough, but necessary." Cornerback Ronde Barber said it was "not a surprise" to anybody on the roster. Here's exactly what it entailed: a 110-yard sprint, repeated 16 times, with a rest of 45 seconds between each run.
"I think we all know what is expected," said Barber. "He was very clear on wanting guys to be able to pass this test, and he talked about it every single day. During the offseason, during our Phase II days, we ran through it. I don't think anybody was surprised it was coming.
"Any conditioning test is difficult. You leave the building for, what, five weeks, whatever time we've been away, and you need some way to make sure guys have stayed on it during those weeks away. This was Coach Schiano's way of doing that, and I think we did well. It wasn't easy. Thank God we did it in the morning, because it was tough. We'll find out how guys are prepared for this season after that."
Indeed, in addition to setting a baseline expectation for physical fitness, the test also gave Schiano and his staff an idea of which players are ready to succeed during the most grueling parts of an actual football game in the regular season.
"The principle behind it is being able to mock the 16-play drive," said Joseph. "It's tough – 16-play drives, no matter what part of the season is, are rough. The conditioning test is supposed to mock that, and it did."
Added Schiano: "It's a test that allows us to get a clear measure of cardiovascular conditioning. You have to train for it or you're not going to pass it. We have a minimum standard that we set, and if it's not met then there are consequences."
Schiano did not delve into the specifics of those consequences, but the basic idea is improvement, not punishment. Passing the test, as most of the Buccaneers did on Thursday morning, means practice starts as usual on Friday. For those yet to pass, some of their focus now shifts to what is necessary to get over that hurdle. That, obviously, can be considered a disadvantage when it comes to competing for jobs for the players in question.
"Really what it does is that it makes training camp harder on those guys," said Schiano. "There are additional things they have to do, there's conditioning things they have to do. Training camp's hard enough. Really, there's only a limited amount of energy and effort that guys can supply, so when some of it goes to this extra conditioning or supplemental conditioning then it's not going to football."
In subsequent years, Schiano expects the percentage of players who fail the conditioning test at the start of camp to dwindle, eventually, to zero. The test isn't going away, however, because it's important.
"I think our guys understand," he said. "The only reason I do anything is if it helps us win games. There's no other ulterior motive. Is this going to help us win games and be the organization we want to be? If not, then that's fluff, there's no need to have it. But the stuff I do think helps win games we're going to emphasize and, again, those are non-negotiable things. That's the DNA of who we are."
This year, the Buccaneers fell short of 100% success in the test…on Day One, at least. The situation could improve measurably in a matter of days. In fact, Joseph is certain it will.
"It will be up to those guys to pass in the next few coming days, to participate in camp, and I'm pretty sure they're going to get it done," said the Pro Bowl lineman. "We need everybody, and that's exactly why I know they're going to be able to pass in the next coming days.
Time to Heal Eases Penn Concern
The first injury report of Training Camp 2012 stems from an incident that actually occurred several days ago.
As reported during Thursday's flurry of roster moves, starting left tackle Donald Penn will open camp on the active/non-football-injury list due to a calf injury suffered during a workout in California. Schiano said he expected Penn's downtime to be counted in weeks, rather than days.
Still, even that isn't a crushing blow for the Buccaneers, as the first regular-season game is still 44 days away. An absence of several weeks would obviously put Penn in doubt for the first preseason game on August 10, but veteran starters usually play only sparingly in that contest anyway. The common approach to the preseason is to play starters for the longest amount of time in the third preseason game, and for the Buccaneers that falls on August 24, four weeks from the start of camp.
Joseph, one of Penn's fellow Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, said he isn't worried about Penn's status for the season.
"Nah, I'm pretty sure Donald's going to come back as fast as he can," said the Bucs' starting right guard. "He's going to rehab the right way. He's going to get in shape while he's not able to participate. He's going to come in and he's going to be just fine."
In the meantime, Penn's injury reduces the Bucs' overall number of available offensive linemen in training camp by one but doesn't create a numbers problem just yet. The Bucs have a couple of veteran options to step in for Penn at left tackle during his absence, as well as a number of inexperienced players to get a look at. Fourth-year man Demar Dotson is the first in line on the depth chart, followed by 2012 free agent pick-up Jamon Meredith.
"Well, Dot is there, and then we have Meredith, and then we have the young kids," said Schiano. "We originally were at 15 linemen coming into camp; now we're at 14 linemen until Donald comes back."
LeGrand: "I'm Still Going to be Around"
Defensive tackle Eric LeGrand announced his retirement on Thursday morning and, as Schiano pointed out later, it was a move that clearly had to be made at some point. LeGrand pushed for it to happen at the start of camp so that his team could begin work with a full 90-man roster.
"I knew from the beginning that I had to retire once I joined the team, because I wanted to be able to have my team at full strength, with 90 people on the roster," he said. "I don't want to take up that spot for somebody that can really help the team out. Every person counts on the team. Since I'm unable to play football right now, why take that away from someone else who can really help the team?
However, the move did nothing to change LeGrand's plans, in regards to the Buccaneers, for the weeks, months or years ahead. As he said in his retirement announcement, he considers himself a "Buc for Life."
Most immediately, LeGrand plans to make his second trip down to Tampa in the middle of August to attend the Buccaneers' preseason home opener against the Tennessee Titans on the 17th. Since his signing in May, LeGrand has inspired both Buccaneer players and fans, and he's hoping to be surrounded by both when he visits Raymond James Stadium.
"I would tell the fans to continue to support our program that's going on down there, continue to support Coach Schiano and all the players," he said. "I can't wait to be down there on the 17th for the first preseason game. Just because I've retired doesn't mean I'm not going to be around. I'm still going to be around the whole organization. I'm coming down for the opening game on the 17th and I'll be at the game when they play the Giants up here. So I'm really excited. I would just tell the fans to be ready."
LeGrand won't be attending the Bucs' training camp, but there's a striking parallel in the work he'll be putting in at the same time. Tampa Bay players will spend roughly three hours every day on the practice field in full-speed work (plus a walk-through in the evening). LeGrand battles through four hours of intense physical therapy every day in his mission to walk again. The Bucs will also spend a lot of time during camp in the classroom; LeGrand, an aspiring broadcast journalist, is working his way through 12 credit hours this summer in pursuit of his college degree. LeGrand's fight will obviously stretch long past the three weeks of the Bucs' training camp, but he can't help but think of the ways his path may cross with the team in the future.
"Right now, therapy is every day, Monday through Friday for four hours each day," he said. "That takes up a big chunk of my day, but I'm also finishing up school. I have two summer classes and I just got done taking two summer classes in the first half. I'm taking 12 credits this summer, so I've got to get done by next year so I can really get into the broadcasting business, which maybe I'll be doing with Tampa Bay one day. I just retired as a player, not with the whole organization."