Labor Day weekend is the last one that will be without NFL games for a very long time, but there was no lack of football going on at the AdventHealth Training Center on Sunday. That's largely because Sunday was actually Wednesday.
Okay, Sunday was still Sunday, but for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers it was a Wednesday for all practical purposes. The Buccaneers will host the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL's Kickoff Game on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, which means they had to adjust their usual schedule accordingly. Wednesday is typically the first day of practice for a game on Sunday, and that's how you get 'Sunday = Wednesday.'
Of course, this early start also follows a mini-bye that included four straight days off for the players in the absence of a fourth preseason game. And that means the Buccaneers are champing at the bit to get their season started. They held two 'bonus practices' last week, both of which were shorter than usual, without pads and held inside the team's indoor facility. None of that did anything to lessen the intensity and the Bucs had a very physical practice on Friday despite the lack of pads.
That prompted Head Coach Bruce Arians to do something he had never done before: Give the players the option on padding up on Sunday or not.
"First time I've ever asked players, 'Should we put pads on?'" said Arians with a laugh. "And they said yes because of practice the other day. It was like, 'Whoa!' So, it was really, really good to see it. Great speed to the practice and both of our show teams did a hell of a job of giving good pictures."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
The abbreviated preseason schedule and the extra time off have helped the Buccaneers hit the first Week of the regular season in very good shape. Arians said that safety Jordan Whitehead, who has missed several weeks with a hamstring injury, was the only player who did not practice on Sunday.
Arians said Whitehead remains at 'day-to-day' status, which obviously puts his availability for the opener in jeopardy. Whitehead started all 20 games for the Buccaneers in 2020, including the playoffs but the Buccaneers are confident in their depth at the safety position, particularly after cornerback Ross Cockrell learned the job during training camp. Mike Edwards has started in Whitehead's absence, and last season he saw increased playing time on defense in the second half, mostly on obvious passing downs.
Arians said he was "super comfortable" going into Thursday's game with Edwards, Cockrell and Antoine Winfield, Jr. at safety. The team also has a fourth option in Chris Cooper, a special teams ace who was one of the surprise stories in the formation of the 53-man roster.
"Ross has had a hell of a camp and obviously made the transition easily for us," said Arians. "Mike is a ballhawk. So, I'm very, very comfortable with where we're at there."
The Buccaneers will hold another two-hour-plus practice on Monday (really a Thursday) and cap the practice week with a review on Tuesday (read: Friday). The real thing arrives on Thursday, and the Buccaneers are ready. They are expecting the fans to be ready as well, leading to the perfect atmosphere for the NFL to open its 2021 season and for the Bucs to begin their attempted title defense.
"I think it's going to be incredible with having the fans back," said cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. "They bring all the energy, bring all of the excitement. I know bringing winning football back to Tampa Bay is a big thing for us and a big thing for them. Just having them be able to be a part of it in the stadium is a good deal."