Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came out of their bye week and went on a tear, winning their next eight games, including Super Bowl LV. Those defending champions got their first break from training camp 2021 on Thursday and their return to action afterwards was, well, not quite so impressive.
Actually, it wasn't good at all, according to a visibly displeased Head Coach Bruce Arians after Friday's fifth practice of camp. Fortunately, one practice pales in importance compared to eight games and the Buccaneers have plenty of time to rebound from Friday's misstep. They will put on pads for the first time in 2021 on Saturday, which in and of itself should raise the energy level.
"I'm really not pleased," said Arians, unprompted, just minutes after the final horn sounded. "I thought we were really, really sluggish. We talked about it before we left and took the day off. We came out…I don't know if our receivers caught a pass. Same thing defensively – we didn't stop anything over third-and-nine. It was just a horse** practice. Hopefully we'll get better in pads tomorrow."
Dropped passes was just the first thing on Arians' list of subpar results on Friday morning. Quarterback Tom Brady also pointed to issues with communication, execution, off-target throws and missed reads.
"The whole practice," said Arians in response to what he didn't like about the effort. "Guys walking around…it wasn't what our standard is."
Arians included essentially the whole team in his assessment of practice, including quarterback Tom Brady. Speaking with the press for the first time in camp, Brady seemed just as frustrated as his coach by Friday's practice.
"Yeah, it was not our best day," said Brady. "We've got to watch the film and correct it. I think that the important is we realize we're starting at the bottom with everybody else and we've got to climb our way up. We're going to have our challenges. It's going to be an entirely different challenge this season than last year. We've got to put the work in. It's training camp, it's a grind, you've got to grind through it. We're going to have bad days, we're going to have good days. We've got to come out tomorrow and get the job done."
The Buccaneers will get that chance on what the NFL is calling "Back Together Saturday," when all 32 teams will be in action on the practice field. An NFL Network crew will be on hand to provide in-depth coverage of the two-hour session and they'll get their first glimpse at what looks like real football thanks to the long-awaited addition of pads and the increased contact it will bring.
Arians emphasized that fact in his (likely quite fiery) post-practice speech to the team.
"Coach said a good thing today," said Brady. "He said, 'You know, soccer practice is over after today,' which means we really haven't played any football. There's no pads, no tackling, no run force, no run fits, no breaking tackles, no play-action response. Things will change quite a bit tomorrow.
"We all have to get on the same page and do a better job."
Obviously, the point of a coach expressing his displeasure over a poor practice is to make sure it doesn't happen again, or at least not often. The Buccaneers can still finish their first week of camp with an overall positive feeling, particularly if the first day in pads goes well.
"I think it's been a good start for us," said wide receiver Scotty Miller. "Today, as you guys have probably heard, wasn't our best day. We didn't have the best energy coming out. Everything was a little off. We just have to find a way to be better. But so far I think camp's been good. We're competing. I think we all realize that it's a new year and we can't rely on what we did last year. That means nothing at this point. Just come and try to compete at a high level every single day."
* There was some good news on Friday morning. It had less to do with how the Bucs practiced and more to do with who practiced.
Most notably, fifth-year tight end O.J. Howard practiced for the first time in camp, or in the 2021 offseason at all. Howard had a lengthy recovery period from an Achilles tendon injury suffered in the fourth week of last season. He didn't immediately jump into a starter's share of reps on Friday but he should see increasing action in the days to come.
"He looks good," said Arians. "He's ready to roll."
Wide receiver Antonio Brown didn't do much earlier in the first week of camp but has seen increased snaps the last couple days. He stood out in a drill Friday morning that saw the offense working from the 30-yard line in when he turned a young defensive back around with a double-move and popped wide open for an easy touchdown. (So, there was apparently at least one pass caught by a receiver on the day.)
"That's like stealing, double move," said Arians. "Yeah, he's coming along good. He's getting in shape."
Notably, Howard and Brown have yet to play a snap in a game together. The Buccaneers signed Brown exactly three weeks after Howard was placed on injured reserve last fall. Howard was off to a good start before his injury, leading all Bucs tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns at the time of his injury. Brown later added another significant threat to the Bucs' loaded offense, catching 45 passes for 483 yards and four touchdowns over the second half of the regular season.
Wide receiver Chris Godwin had also missed some practice time and tight end Cameron Brate remains on the active/PUP list and on the sideline during practices. The man responsible for distributing the ball to all of those players – not to mention Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski – is looking forward to getting the whole group together at some point. Godwin was back in practice on Friday along with Howard.
"I love having him back," said Brady of Howard. "Saw A.B. back a few days ago. We'd love to have Cam back at some point, kind of see when everyone comes together what we can make of it."
* Defensive lineman Khalil Davis says he is "trying to make big strides in Year Two" after what he referred to as a "redshirt season" in 2020. He'd like to play quite a bit more than the 55 defensive snaps he got last year but he's also navigating through a crowded group at his position.
"That first year was pretty much a redshirt [season]," said Davis, a sixth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2020. "The coaches let me know. You rarely don't get that in the NFL. They told me that I need to work on the things that I wasn't good at last year and that's really all I've been doing this camp. Showing off that I made those strides to work on those things and so far I've been doing a pretty good job with that."
The Buccaneers had three defensive linemen hit free agency this spring – Ndamukong Suh, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon – and managed to re-sign all of them. They are hoping to get a full season in 2021 out of rising star Vita Vea, who missed 13 contests in 2020 due to an ankle injury. Also returning is stalwart D-Line presence Will Gholston as well as Jeremiah Ledbetter, Patrick O'Connor and Benning Potoa'e.
That's a lot of competitors for what will probably be either six or seven spots on the 53-man roster. But Arians has praised Davis's interior-line pass-rush skills several times and that is not an asset that is easy to find in the NFL. Davis never really got a shot to show those skills off last year, particularly due to the COVID-related cancellation of all preseason games. This time around, he will have that chance to audition in August.
"I'm very excited about those preseason games," he said. "I wish I could have gotten those last year. I felt like it really would have helped me, but I'm really excited for those games. Just to be able to show what I could do before the season starts so it can give the coaches something to look at or get feedback back from."