There was no offense and defense on the field Thursday, and every player ran the same drills
The idea to scrap the expected practice script on Thursday came to Raheem Morris early in the morning as he reflected on the state of his team.
On Wednesday morning a pair of young players, cornerback Aqib Talib and tackle Donald Penn, had engaged in a scuffle on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice field that inadvertently left cornerback Torrie Cox with a cut on his face. Since it happened at the very end of the last full period of practice, the scuffle didn't seriously affect the team's work that day.
However, Morris thought it could linger with the club on Thursday. And so he decided on a different practice format to finish the week of organized team activity (OTA) days, one that would emphasize the concept of unity.
"I felt like I needed something else for our team, for team development, for team growth," said Morris. "We could have gone out there and done Xs and Os today and not gotten better. I feel like we got better as a team today."
So the Buccaneers shelved all of their offensive and defensive and individual-position drills on Thursday and spent the entire session on special teams. Why? The answer is in the Bucs' nickname for that phase of the game: "We-Fense."
"That's what it's about," said Morris. "That's why you have a practice like today. You look them in the face and say, 'We need to get together.' We-fense. That's what it's all about. We can go offense-defense all day. Nobody understands the term 'team' until you have to do it. That's what we tried to develop today.
"We've been having a lot of spirited practices. We have tempo, tempers flare over. Nothing brings you together like 'We-fense.' That's what our practice was today, special teams. We feel really good about that."
Of course, practice field fights are nothing new in the NFL. They can be especially prevalent in the offseason, when rosters are bloated, jobs are on the line and a team is still establishing its modus operandi in shorts and helmets. Morris said disagreements can arise when a team has yet to establish an overall tempo of activities. Still, Wednesday's scuffle left enough of an impression that Morris felt his team needed to turn it into a learning experience.
For the players, that meant a practice session that was shorter in duration but heavier on running. The players didn't simply run wind sprints; all of the drills were designed to teach some aspect of special teams play. However, most of them involved a significant amount of sprinting. Furthermore, they included every player on the team, even those that wouldn't normally be covering a kickoff or blocking a kamikaze tackler. Every player ran the same drill and everyone was on the same side.
Morris knows his players are fighting an emotional battle every day. He wants them to focus on the competition to win jobs, not on squabbles between each other.
"Tempers boil over, actions happen that you don't like," he said. "You take it and handle it in-house. It's a family affair. And then you come out today and you figure out how to change it.
"We've got competition at almost every position; we've got people fighting for their lives, so to speak. They came out today and they fought. They came out yesterday and they fought, the day before that and they fought. And they continue to fight. We got better today. We grew. We learned, as a team. We became a family. We developed something. That's what it's about."
The revised practice was a reaction to Wednesday's event; whether or not there will be any other result of the scuffle will remain an internal team issue. Players and coaches consider such an issue a family affair. And this family was at peace with each other on Thursday.
"We're all brothers out here," said Talib. "Me and Donald, we're perfectly fine today. It's behind us. We're ready to work hard and move on. You have to sit back and look at what you did and make the best of it. You've got to build on it.
"I definitely let my emotions get the best of me. In the heat of the moment, it just happened. I apologized to the team, apologized to Torrie and it's behind us now.
Talib said such team leaders as Jeff Faine and Chris Hovan spoke to him about the scuffle. Morris saw other leaders beginning to emerge as the team figured out the best way to handle this family issue. In that way, he says, the Bucs found a way to improve themselves as a result of the original unwelcome event.
"You really don't want to say anybody's a leader yet but I did see some guys come into those leadership roles yesterday," he said. "I've seen Michael Clayton step up, I've seen [John] Gilmore step up, Jermaine Phillips. You've seen those guys step up and assume some roles and talk to people and calm things down and make the situation a lot easier. A lot of things happen, but it was positive just to see that. The Ronde Barbers, of course you all know. But to see the guys that are kind of outside the box, kind of right there in that gray area, come and step over into a new light was nice."
The Bucs will now have a long weekend to collect themselves and return for another week of OTA practices beginning next Tuesday. Perhaps a more consistent tempo will have begin to emerge in those practices. Perhaps the players will be a little more adept at channeling the emotions of the practice field into improving their games. And perhaps some of the Bucs' younger players will have taken another step in their development. Morris believes that will be the case with Talib.
"Any time you play this violent of a game, you're always going to have some type of controlling-your-emotions issue," said Morris. "That's when the coach steps in and helps him. And he's got to grow from it, he's got to learn. Each individual action that you take, you've got to get something out of it and learn from it, and that's what I think he's doing. That's what we're developing."