As they reported to camp at their own year-round home on Friday, Buccaneer players like QB Luke McCown expressed confidence about the season ahead
Mark Dominik was asked on Friday afternoon, shortly after 80 Tampa Bay Buccaneers players reported for the start of training camp, who he expected to emerge as new leaders in the locker room. He ticked off a list of names – Earnest Graham, Barrett Ruud, etc. – but didn't mention 10th-year defensive tackle Chris Hovan.
There was a good reason for this, as the Buccaneers' general manager explained when he was reminded of Hovan's presence.
"Oh, he's not a new leader," said Dominik, the Buccaneers' general manager. "I already considered him one of the leaders on this team."
Hovan, who reported for his fifth camp as a Buccaneer a bit earlier in the afternoon and then took a few minutes to address the assembled press, had already explained his take on locker-room leadership. He wouldn't be a rah-rah teammate, he said, but one who would unfailingly lead by example.
Funny, then, that Hovan's brief chat with the press might have been the most inspiring part of the Buccaneers' first day at Training Camp 2009. (Of course, it's safe to say that Head Coach Raheem Morris' address to the team at 6:35 p.m. was a pulse-quickener, but that one was family business, off limits to the media.)
Most notably, Hovan took exception to even the notion that the players who showed up for camp at One Buccaneer Place on Friday were on the cusp of a rebuilding season. In fact, it would be safer to simply not use that word around Hovan.
"The mentality is that we want to go to the playoffs," said Hovan, revving up. "People are going to say, 'This guy's full of it,' but if my mentality is not derived on going to the playoffs, what am I playing for? I'm not playing just to get by, I'm not playing to get a top-10 draft pick right now. I'm not throwing my body on the line for that right now. If certain guys are thinking like that, please tell me. I want to sit down and talk to them, because that's not my mentality.
"Rebuilding? That's just an excuse to fail, in my opinion. I don't care who's saying it, but I'm not here to rebuild, I'm not here to fail right now. I'm going on the field every Sunday and I'm trying to win games because this is what the city deserves, this is what this organization deserves. The fans deserve a championship in this city, and I'm not going out there to rebuild."
The "R" word tends to attach itself to the 2009 Buccaneers because of the events of the past six months, beginning with the elevation of Morris and Dominik to their respective posts. Not long after, a clutch of long-time Buc veterans were released – among them the man Hovan credits for turning him into the focused leader and player he is today – and the team aggressively reworked the offense through free agency and the draft. There's a quarterback competition about to take place in training camp, and a front seven that could have as many as four new starters.
When it comes to the inexact science of predicting the outcomes for 32 NFL teams – a discipline that is almost impossible to nail and yet wildly entertaining for football fans – that type of change and uncertainty is a ticket to the bottom of the anticipated standings. Safe to say, these Buccaneers have fewer outside expectations than the ones from a year ago that were coming off an NFC South Championship.
That's no problem for these Bucs, as long as outside perception doesn't become inside reality.
"It is what it is," said obviously unconcerned center Jeff Faine, who was part of an out-of-nowhere winner with the Saints in 2006. "We're unproven. We don't know what we've got yet, either. We're just trying to find our own identity, but it can be beneficial in a season for us, being able to sneak up on some guys. It's very reminiscent for me of that first season with me in New Orleans, when we went back to New Orleans. No one knew what we had and we didn't know what we had either. It's a similar situation; hopefully there are some similar results."
Faine's answer when his friends ask him how the Buccaneers are going to fare this year: 'I don't know.' That's not a lack of optimism or drive, simply an acknowledgment that things have changed. The Bucs seek to prove that they have changed for the better, and step one was getting camp off to a good start. Practice won't start until Saturday – that's the real barometer, says Faine – but a reporting day almost completely devoid of issues or distractions is a fine way to begin.
The Buccaneers had 81 players on the offseason roster and 80 reported; guard Arron Sears did not, as expected, and has been placed on the Reserve/Did Not Report list. Sears is dealing with a personal matter on which team management does not care to elaborate.
No players were late, no holdouts were expected after the late-Thursday signing of first-round quarterback Josh Freeman, and the surprise running test at 4:00 p.m. went well. The Bucs are even in good shape in terms of injuries. Only one player, defensive tackle Greg Peterson, will not be able to suit up on Saturday morning; Peterson is recovering from a minor knee injury suffered during the offseason workouts and is considered day-to-day. He may be able to return to practice by Monday. Running back Cadillac Williams has been cleared to practice – an outstanding piece of news for the team – though he will probably only work out once a day in the early going.
Williams suffered his second significant knee injury in as many years in the season finale against Oakland last December. That was a sickening afternoon for the team overall, as a fourth straight December defeat improbably knocked the Buccaneers out of the NFC playoff field. But that troubling month from 2008 doesn't define this 2009 team anymore than the concerns about its sudden youth do. As it is every August, this is a fresh start.
"This league's all about proving yourself," said Hovan. "I don't care if you're a general manager, a player, a scout or whatnot. Every year, every individual gets to go out there and prove yourself. This is what's so great about the National Football League. Some teams get overlooked, some teams get a lot of hype, but in the end you have to play on Sundays and prove yourself. It's all a game of production."
The Comforts of Home
Anyone whose dad has ever set up a tent in the backyard for the gang knows the benefits of going camping without really leaving the house. Even when you're "roughing it," all the amenities of home are just a few feet away.
Tampa Bay players used to driving 70 miles up I-4 every summer got a break on Friday, simply stopping by the team hotel to drop off a few things and then heading over to the building they've been visiting all year. Training camp is at One Buccaneer Place this year, and the operative word on Friday appeared to be "comfortable."
"It's comfortable," said Faine (see?). "Beyond playing here in front of our own fans, it's comfortable with our surroundings. You're sitting at your own locker, you're going into your own training room, you're in your own weight room. There's nothing makeshift. Just the comfort level is better."
The Bucs had spent the past seven years at the Celebration Hotel and Disney's Wide World of Sports in Central Florida. In terms of comfort, facilities and equipment, it was an obvious upgrade over their previous home at the University of Tampa. But there's no place like home, someone once said, and that's apparently true of training camp, too.
"It's a different mindset," said Hovan of staying home to train. "But I think the way the league has evolved, you have multi, multi-million dollar facilities and why not take advantage of what we have right here? Why go to Orlando? Nothing against Orlando. The Milk House [at Wide World of Sports] has been great for us, Orlando has been great for us with the fans and everything, but we have to utilize what we have right here. It's a shame not to use this complex to our advantage."
Of course, One Buccaneer Place had to be remade in order to accommodate the crowds that camp would bring, both in terms of the bloated roster and the thousands of anticipated fans. That has occurred, and One Buc Place, Home of Training Camp, is an impressive sight.
"It looks like they just picked up Celebration and moved it over here," said Morris. "That is the kind of facility we built. That is credit to our ownership and everybody and everything we have going on here."
On Time, On Point
Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman was the one Buccaneer without a contract when 12:01 a.m. arrived on Friday. At that point, the possibility of an incomplete roster for the start of training camp still existed.
Of course, Freeman and the Buccaneers were close to finalizing their negotiations at midnight, and in fact a deal was in place by 1:30 a.m. ET. The rookie first-rounder was thus able to report to camp on time Friday afternoon, which he eagerly did. Freeman admitted that his desire to avoid a camp absence of any significant length factored into the negotiating process.
"That definitely weighed heavily on the time frame we were in," he said. "I expressed to my agent that that's one of my main goals, to become a starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the best way to do that was to be in camp on time. That was definitely something that was maybe a little compromise, but it ended up working out. Obviously, we probably would have liked a little more, they probably would have liked a little less. But we all wanted to be in camp on time. That was the main focus and it's a great deal."
Freeman agreed to a five-year deal, and he hopes to be the Bucs' starting quarterback for as much of those five years as possible. He will compete with Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson for the opening-day job this year, and he knows that contract issues could have set him behind in that competition.
"Honestly, I'm just worried about playing football right now. The contract for me was just getting it out of the way so I could try to be here today. I was just staying in my normal, daily routine, coming up here, running and throwing every day and just getting some work with the guys in the playbook, not really worrying about it. I've got great confidence in my agent and all my people to handle that, and Mark Dominik to get me in here on time. I was pretty much relaxed."
The Bucs' last first-round quarterback also led to their last extended rookie holdout in training camp, when Trent Dilfer missed some time in 1994. Dilfer ended up with two starts later in his rookie season but was the starter on opening day 1995. Shaun King was a second-round pick in 1999 and he too was the starter in his second campaign after a strong finish to his rookie season.
Bruce Gradkowski, a sixth-round pick in 2006, started 10 games as a rookie but that was essentially out of necessity after Tampa Bay's quarterback position was hit with a rash of injuries. Before Dilfer, the only other quarterbacks taken in the first round by Tampa Bay were Vinny Testaverde in 1987 and Doug Williams in 1978. Testaverde started four games as a rookie, Williams 10. No Buccaneer rookie quarterback has ever started all 16 games, as Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco did for the Falcons and Ravens, respectively, last year.
Freeman doesn't know if he'll follow a Matt Ryan type of path, but he hopes to make it hard for the Bucs to keep him off the field.
"Honestly, I couldn't tell you," said Freeman of his immediate future as a starter. "That's all the coaches' decision. I'm just going to come in and try to give them every reason I can to start me."