When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finish a specific period during one of their training camp practices, they are immediately urged to hustle to where the next drill will begin. Even if the next slot on the schedule is a cool-down period, the players are expected to jog across the sideline; Head Coach Greg Schiano says it is with such habits that the team gets an edge in conditioning.
Schiano often runs with them, especially if he has a message he wants to deliver about the just-finished period. After the first full-team drill of Monday morning's practice, the Bucs' coach kept pace with the crowd, making sure they heard what he had to say.
The message on this particular occasion: Good job.
Raw thoughts are likely common among NFL coaches whose teams are three or four days into training camp. With 90 players in camp, some of them brand new to the NFL and all of them just days removed from a lengthy break from football, mental errors and the occasional loaf are almost inevitable. But, of course, mistakes can't be tolerated, lest they be repeated, so coaches sometimes have to yell.
Schiano had to raise his voice a few times during the Buccaneers' third camp practice, on Sunday morning, for what he later characterized as "sloppy" play. On Monday, he had occasion to shout, too, but this time it was often with praise or encouragement. Simply put, the Buccaneers had their best day of camp yet to start the new week, and that allowed them to take a step forward in their preparations for the upcoming games.
"I thought the effort was outstanding," said Schiano. "Probably the best we've worked in the four days [of camp so far], the hardest. We cleaned some things up but there are still some things we have to work on. We got into some situational football which is good and we'll start to get into more of that each day now."
The Bucs are focusing more and more on game situations – red zone, blitzes, nickel and dime, etc. – because the actual games are just around the corner. Tampa Bay will practice just nine more times before their first live action in the August 10 preseason opener at Miami. Neither team will be in anything close to midseason form on that evening, but the opportunity to evaluate the full roster will be greater if the Bucs are sharp and efficient. Getting to that place depends upon practices such as the one the team put together on Monday.
The mistakes during Sunday's practice were a mixed bag. Schiano was most perturbed by a fumble by one of his running backs, and he made a "teaching moment" out of a holding call that erased what had been a good play by the offense. On defense, the biggest issue when things go wrong is missed assignments. Sometimes that can come from insufficient knowledge of the playbook, and sometimes it can come from a player attempting to go outside of his specific assignment.
"The whole thing is doing your job and one of the things you can't do as a defensive player is try to do too much," said Schiano. "Because what happens is you'll try to do that and it will open up and then it's a big play and then guys will start to lose confidence in what they are doing. We've just got to do our job and do it consistently."
Apparently, the Buccaneers did their jobs on Monday, better than they had in any of the previous three days of camp. They aren't anywhere near the finish line yet, but they've made a useful step in the right direction.
"As we get into this thing and hit our stride, we have to be able to clean up our football and play smart football," said Schiano. "But that's a little bit down the road before we start looking like that."
Bucs Not Forcing It in Backfield Battle
In fantasy football, the unchallenged feature back is the gold standard. In the modern NFL, it's just one way of doing business.
Last year, only 18 running backs in the NFL finished with 200 or more carries. Only half of those – Maurice Jones-Drew, Michael Turner, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson, Shonn Greene, Willis McGahee and Beanie Wells – were on teams that did not also feature another running back with at least 100 carries. Running-back-by-committee hasn't completely taken over the NFL (and fantasy football), and surely will not as long as there are talented runners like Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson around, but plenty of teams are favoring depth at the position over a single 300-carry workhorse.
Splitting of carries is sometimes the result of an injury; Peterson probably would have joined those nine backs above, and not ceded 109 carries to (the very capable) Toby Gerhart had he not been hurt. Sometimes, however, it's a matter of utilizing various weapons, as New Orleans did in posting the league's sixth-best rushing attack without a single runner getting more than 562 yards.
The point is, there is more than one way to build a powerful rushing attack in the NFL these days. And the question is, which way will the Buccaneers go in 2012?
The Buccaneers planned a committee attack in 2009 when they signed Derrick Ward from the Giants and worked on a rotation with him, Earnest Graham and Cadillac Williams. However, Williams returned from his 2008 injury better than expected and ended up as the primary ballcarrier. The best examples of shared backfield duty for the Buccaneers – and some of them were very good – was the five years in which Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn overlapped.
Tampa Bay appears to be in a somewhat similar situation heading into 2012, with first-round pick Doug Martin joining incumbent starter LeGarrette Blount. The team also has some intriguing speed options in Michael Smith and Mossis Madu. Schiano wants to center his offense around a potent rushing attack, and the best-case scenario is strong seasons from at least Blount and Martin, and maybe even a third runner.
However, it's too early to predict how evenly the carries will be split in the Bucs' backfield, or whether one runner will emerge strongly enough to be a primary feature back all season. The important thing, Schiano said on Monday, is not to force it.
"At running back I almost think at this day and age it is a necessity [to have several options]; one guy can't take all the carries with as big and strong and violent as the defensive players are," he said. "If that happens then certainly you let it happen, but you don't make it happen. I think that's where you make a mistake – you've got to let it happen, it's going to play its way out."
Schiano says that the Bucs need to let it play out by amassing good players – that part is accomplished, one hopes, with Blount, Martin and the others on hand – and then continuing to give all of them opportunities, presumably throughout camp, the preseason and the beginning of the regular season. Speaking of fantasy football, there are many participants out there who would like to know before their upcoming drafts how the Bucs are going to split their carries, but that answer likely isn't coming anytime soon. Tampa Bay's ballcarriers will get plenty of opportunities to prove they deserve the football over the next several months.
"As I've said all along, whether it's receivers or running backs, it doesn't matter who it is, they'll earn those touches in the game because those touches are limited," said Schiano.
Buc Players Get First Day Off
Even without two-a-days, the Buccaneers have worked extremely hard during the first four days of their 2012 training camp. The first break from practice, scheduled for Tuesday, will certainly be welcome.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are allowed just one full-speed practice in any given day, and they may work at that pace for up to three hours. They are given a total of four total hours of field time a day; any time left over after the full-speed practice must be utilized as a walk-through.
The Bucs have essentially used the same schedule every day of camp so far, practicing for approximately two-and-a-half hours every morning and then using the remainder of their field time during evening walk-throughs. The last two days have included practices in pads, with the first real contact of 2012.
The players' day off is also mandated by the new CBA, but a break is certainly warranted in the nearly non-stop schedule leading up to the first preseason game. After Tuesday's rest, the Bucs will practice in seven of the next eight days, leading up to the Miami travel day on Thursday, August 9. The players will also be off on Sunday, August 5 and the following Sunday, following the preseason opener on Friday and an evening workout on Saturday.