C Jeff Faine proved he was capable of expanding his game while in New Orleans
When Jeff Faine first entered the pro ranks, as a very well-regarded prospect out of Notre Dame in 2003, he found himself severely lacking in one aspect of NFL-level offensive line play.
Be assured Faine was hardly found lacking by the Cleveland Browns, who made him the first center off the board with the 21st overall pick in '03, no doubt due to his impressively physical style with the Fighting Irish. Five years into his NFL career, Faine is still that same every-down warrior, but he is also – in his own estimation – a much more complete player. That, he contends, is due to a focused effort to shore up that one glaring weakness in this game.
"Hand placement – that's the thing I think is very underrated for guys coming out," said Faine, looking back at his own NFL matriculation. "I was terrible in college with my hands. I was just a mauler, that's what I did. But when you get into the NFL you have to learn quickly how to use your hands or else you're just going to get your lunch handed to you."
Now, Faine contends, he is a technician, working tirelessly on the little details that can make the difference in each one-on-one matchup with a defensive lineman. Hand work is critical to that, of course, as are balance, quick feet and recognition of defensive schemes. Faine has become a student of the game, and the result is that, five years after he was the first center drafted, he was the most coveted center in free agency.
"I work my technique to death," said Faine. "That's one thing I pride myself on, that I have really good technique. It's always a work in progress. I won't say that I have perfect technique, but I have really good technique and that's something that gives me an advantage."
That Faine is technically proficient is obviously important to the Buccaneers, who expect him to anchor their young and promising offensive line. How he became proficient is probably even more important.
Faine rounded out his physical game through hard work and natural intelligence. The Buccaneers and Head Coach Jon Gruden will now ask him to do the same thing with one more aspect of center play: line calls.
Faine is coming from a system in which the quarterback – in New Orleans' case, Drew Brees – was the player most responsible for recognizing defensive schemes and changing the blocking calls accordingly. The Buccaneers, in contrast, ask the center to make many of the calls and thereby free up the quarterback to worry about other things.
Faine reacted to that situation the same way he reacted to the realization that his hand skills were inferior in 2003. He was in Tampa as soon as the team's voluntary offseason training program began in March, soaking up whatever time he was given with the team's coaches. The fact that the center position in Tampa was potentially more mentally complex wasn't a deterrent to Faine, it was a challenge.
"They really test the center position here more than other places," said Faine. "A lot more is put on their shoulders here. That is the reason why I'm putting in these hours early.
"I like it. It gives me a little bit more of a sense of control. I can control it and know what's going on before it even gets out of my mouth. I think what [the coaches] are asking of the center is just to be able to let the quarterback go out there and play and not worry about the protections. It's just going to be there. I think that's a great deal. It gives the quarterback an opportunity to look at other things and study other things and not worry about the protections."
Fortunately for Faine – and the Buccaneers – skills such as beating D-linemen in hand-to-hand combat and making accurate blocking calls are (necessary) add-ons to his redoubtable and innate blocking abilities. The Bucs have no doubt that Faine can handle the thinking side of the game, but they targeted him in free agency for the same reason that the Browns originally snapped him up two-thirds of the way through the first round in 2003.
"Gruden doesn't put too much emphasis on the whole mental thing," said Faine. "It's there and there's a lot he's going to put on me. But he's expressed adamantly that he loves the physical play that I bring. He wants me to keep it up."