The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started the week with 80 players on the roster and had a deep round of cuts as their most pressing concern. By Thursday, they were a streamlined crew of 53, plus a practice squad, with their eyes trained sharply on the Dallas Cowboys.
"Really good to get started with the 2021 Bucs," said Head Coach Bruce Arians, once again drawing a clear delineation between the 2020 Super Bowl team and the one that just took shape this week. "You got all those guys fighting for jobs and now we're all here. Really good start to the week. I like where we're at and where we're heading."
That good start was something of a "bonus practice," a little over an hour of work that unlike the last month of training camp, was aimed at preparing for a specific opponent. The Buccaneers and Cowboys will square off in the NFL's 2021 Kickoff Game next Thursday night, September 9. After the tedious repetition of camp, Thursday's practice had a more charged atmosphere.
"[It's] totally different. Yeah, totally different," said Arians. "The intensity of the practice, the communication – it's game week. We do have the two extra days, but rather than going against ourselves – we've had enough going against ourselves – we just went ahead and started on Dallas. The coaches have had the plan for a long time so we've had plenty of time to digest it and see what we like and what we don't like."
The newly-condensed preseason, with three games instead of four, has created a different sort of lead-up to the regular season. After the Buccaneers won their preseason finale in Houston – game highlighted by two touchdown drives of 90-plus yards led by Tom Brady – the players enjoyed something of a mini-bye week, with the league mandating four consecutive days off. During that time, NFL teams cut their rosters to 53, four days earlier than they would have in previous years. Before the new schedule, teams would make their cuts on the Saturday before Labor Day and then flow into a regular-season schedule after the weekend. Now, teams have a bit more time to tinker with their rosters and eye their Week One opponents, though not quite as much for the Bucs and Cowboys since they play on Thursday.
The Buccaneers hit the ground running on Thursday because they had accomplished what they needed to get done before the regular season over the previous two weeks. That included two very competitive and useful joint practices with the Tennessee Titans and an encouraging stint of action by the starters in Houston. In between was a somewhat listless preseason loss to those Titans, but that game was played almost exclusively by reserves, many of whom are no longer on the active roster. The Bucs begin their question to be the first repeat Super Bowl champions in nearly two decades next Thursday, and Arians is confident they're ready.
"Yeah, I was very, very pleased with the effort against Houston and what they've shown on the practice field, especially those two good days against Tennessee," he said. "We were at game speed where we needed to be for Houston and I like where we're at."
The Buccaneers were also closer to full strength after incumbent kicker Ryan Succop was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list in time to join the team for Thursday's practice. The Bucs still have three players on that list – Ndamukong Suh, Nick Leverett and Earl Watford – and some more roster moves to make in the days ahead, but the team should be set by the time the actual game week begins.
"Yeah, everybody's got a timetable," said Arians. "Ryan's back – he kicked well today and looked good. We'll have everybody back by Monday."
That is exactly what the timing of the Bucs' transactions last week had suggested. Leverett and Watford went on the COVID list three days after Succop and Suh was added one day after that. Suh should be the last of the four activated next Monday.
The four positive cases late in the preseason were harbingers of what could be another season significantly affected by the pandemic. Prior to their successful chase for the Lombardi Trophy last season, Arians told his players that the team that beat the virus would be in position to win the Super Bowl, and indeed Tampa Bay handled the situation well. The Bucs may very well have to deal with these issues from time to time, but at least they have done what they can to keep them at bay.
"We're 100% vaccinated, our entire organization, all the players, all the coaches, everybody," Arians announced on Thursday.
The Buccaneers will hold a very similar bonus practice on Friday before the players get another day off on Saturday. Three more practices will follow on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and then the real thing will arrive – for the Bucs and Cowboys and the NFL as a whole – on Thursday night at a sold-out Raymond James Stadium.
"It's awesome to have it back," said Arians not just of football but of football with fans. "That's what we do it for and who we do it for. We really look forward to it. You should be able to feel it when you're walking to the stadium – not in it, walking to it. That's what this game's all about."