The first nine days of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 training camp were split right down the middle by a players' day off last Tuesday. Before and after that break, the players practiced hard for four straight days, so it would stand to reason that the team's overall energy would be starting to wane by the fourth day of each set. That might have been especially true of the second quartet of practice days, given that all four of those were conducted in pads.
All of which means it was particularly good timing for the Buccaneers that Saturday's field session – the last of the second set of four – happened to be the team's annual Night Practice at Raymond James Stadium. With a packed house and an enthusiastic, gameday-like atmosphere, the Bucs' little trip next door was a natural power boost.
"It was good work for us," said Head Coach Greg Schiano, after his players left the field but before the fireworks show that capped the night. "It's for the players. It's the second fourth-straight day we've done in a row, and I didn't have to bring the energy. The fans did, and that was good. They had a lot of fun tonight."
There definitely was a different feel to Saturday's practice, in part thanks to a passing thunderstorm that interrupted work for about 40 minutes, but notably didn't drive away much of the crowd. (It did produce a rather spectacular double-rainbow.)
More than 30,000 fans visited Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, many of whom stayed until the end despite the rain and lightning, making it the largest free public event in franchise history. In order to end the night at roughly the originally-scheduled time, Schiano deleted several individual-position periods in the middle of the practice, meaning a good portion of the work was full-team, game-like drills. The team even finished the night with a live scrimmage featuring mostly reserves on both sides of the ball, with tackling allowed.
The scrimmage work was essentially three drives, separated by a couple special teams plays, and there were no 50-yard runs or leaping interceptions to serve as major highlights. Quarterback Brett Ratliff ran the offense and had his most notable completions to Greg Ellingson, Ed Gant and Landon Cox. Rookie LB Najee Goode had the hardest hit of the scrimmage, dropping running back De'Anthony Curtis after a short pass. Still, Schiano thought it was useful work, particularly with the team's first preseason game just six days in the future.
"I think it was pretty good," he said. "I think we got out of it with no major injuries – that was one of my concerns. We got the young kids an opportunity to actually play live football in front of some people, so Friday night won't be there first time playing in an NFL stadium and actually playing."
The team's more recognizable players got plenty of work in front of the fans, too, during a series of move-the-ball drills run at full-speed, if not with live tackling. Tight end Dallas Clark turned in several big plays that drew big reactions from the crowd, as did wide receiver Mike Williams. Quarterback Josh Freeman finished one particularly nice drive with a third-down touchdown pass to Williams in the back of the end zone. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerbacks Myron Lewis and Eric Wright were particularly visible throughout the evening with a string of pass break-ups, and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and George Johnson appeared to put significant pressure on the quarterback.
The crowd cheered much of the action as if it was a live game, and that produced an atmosphere that Schiano thinks helped get the most out of his players.
"There were some [defensive] plays, and there were some offense plays put on us, too," said Schiano. "So I think that's good. As a head coach, I like that, that it went both ways. Even though it doesn't count it is a different setting. You're in front of a crowd, in the stadium, and certain guys have that [look]…the lights go on and they go at it."
Schiano also used the night to test out communication between the coaches in a game-day, stadium setting. The coaches wore headsets, and some of them sat in an upper-level booth as they will during a game. Plays were sent in to both the offense and defense using helmet radios, and for the most part the communication went smoothly. There were some glitches along the way, but that was the point of testing it out.
"It was good for us coaches to be on the headset, going through game-like situations," said Schiano. "Although some of us have been together in other places, the unique chemistry when you put it all together is good work for us. The communication? It was [good], but I have a bunch of notes and I'm glad we did it. I'm sure every preseason game we'll have more. I tried to really just listen and not say much, listen and see where we had things. That's why you do it."
The players left the field after the last set of scrimmage downs, but they didn't head directly for the buses in the stadium tunnel. Instead, they grabbed Sharpies from a bucket and headed over to the stands to sign autographs while everyone waited for the fireworks to begin. That was just the final element in a day filled with fan-player interaction.
In fact, this particular Night Practice had the added element of a FanFest-like session in the afternoon. The entire roster was at the stadium from 4:00-6:00 p.m. to sign autographs during the free event. Fans could also get autographs from Buccaneer alumni and Bucs Cheerleaders and take a picture with the Lombardi Trophy. The concession stands served discounted refreshments, including $1 hot dogs and soft drinks, throughout the evening. A "Buc-lympics" event involving fans and Cheerleaders entertained the crowd before practice began, and assistant coaches explained the various practice drills on the stadium videoboards during the workout.
The Buccaneers even used the raucous crowd to get an added jolt of energy just before starting practice. Schiano called his players into a huddle on the middle of the field and gave them what appeared to be a typical pre-practice speech. However, rather than moving from that into a drill, the players suddenly broke the huddle and sprinted over to the stands, jumping to slap hands with fans all around the stadium bowl.
Then came a night of real and important work, even if it was conducted in front of 30,000 fans and followed by fireworks. The players will get their second day off during training camp on Saturday, but they apparently earned it, as they have all throughout camp.
"The biggest thing that I like is that they are trying to do what we're asking them to do," said Schiano. "And a lot of the stuff we're asking them to do is very hard, physically and technique-wise. As long as they'll keep trying and we'll keep working them, we'll get there eventually."