Da'Quan Bowers' first game in the NFL took place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers won 25-0. Bowers' second game brought him to Raymond James Stadium as a pro for the first time; the Bucs lost that contest, 31-14, to the New England Patriots.
The results of those two contests, for all practical purposes, have already been forgotten. All 32 teams have seen their records reset to 0-0 for the start of the 2011 regular season. For Bowers, however, they were important steps in his professional career, and he won't be forgetting them any time soon.
Those moments proved so memorable for him, in fact, that he can't quite imagine what his first regular-season NFL game is going to feel like.
"Nothing could ever recapture that first moment," said Bowers. "My first preseason game, I was in total shock. Now I'm looking forward to what Raymond James Stadium has to offer for this first regular-season game versus Detroit."
He won't have to wait long. The Buccaneers are just four days away from opening their 2011 quest for the playoffs, and Bowers isn't the only one who can feel the excitement growing. Tampa Bay is once again relying on a very youthful cast – they went 10-6 a year ago despite fielding the youngest roster in the NFL – and that means the enthusiasm is bubbling over on the practice field and in the locker room.
On Wednesday, midway through the team's preparations for Sunday's visit from the Lions, Head Coach Raheem Morris saw a team that was focused between the lines and loose and ready away from the field. After delivering some solid hits in the morning – the Bucs held their one padded practice of the week on Monday – the players went straight to the locker room and began blasting some even louder beats.
"We're always noisy," said Morris with a laugh. "We're the youngest football team in the National Football League, I believe, and we have fun when we are in our locker room. Our guys, when they are working in their atmosphere, they are business-like; when they're together, they have fun. They are excited about football. They haven't had to face an opponent. This is a fun game, man. We will not play quiet because that is not our style. It's what you love about this football team, they're fun."
The young Bucs are eager to prove themselves, and that's true of Bowers in particular. He is just a few months removed from an uncomfortable slide to the second round in the 2011 draft. Once considered a possibility at the first overall pick, Bowers lasted to #51 due to concerns over the knee surgery he underwent following his 15.5-sack campaign last fall at Clemson. Bowers has already proved some of the doubters wrong by playing in the 2011 preseason and being cleared to start the regular season on time. Now it's time to move on to more important pursuits, for him and the team.
He can hardly wait.
"It's a dream, to finally get a chance to do this, with a very young and talented D-Line and team," said Bowers, who says he feels better than he has in a long time. "I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to make some plays to help my team fulfill our goals, the Race to 10 and the Super Bowl."
The Buccaneers released their first injury report of the season on Wednesday and, indeed, Bowers was not on it. There were, in fact, only three names on Tampa Bay's list, and only one who did not practice on Wednesday.
That one player is second-year cornerback Myron Lewis, who is recovering from an ankle injury that followed hard on the heels of a hamstring tweak that kept him out of the preseason opener. NFL injury reports no longer include game-day status designations (questionable, probable, etc.) until Friday, but Morris thought Lewis might be the only player considered questionable by week's end.
Staring left guard Ted Larsen, who is also recovering from an ankle injury, returned to full participation in Wednesday's practice. Linebacker Dekoda Watson took part in practice on a limited basis as he recovers from his hamstring ailment.
Detroit's first injury report of the week was a little longer than the Bucs' and included three linemen who did not practice Wednesday: defensive tackle Nick Fairley (foot), defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (not injury related) and offensive tackle Jason Fox (foot).
Cornerback Alphonso Smith also has a foot ailment and was limited in practice on Wednesday. Two others – defensive tackle Andre Fluellen and running back Maurice Morris – were listed on Detroit's injury report due to hand injuries but were able to practice fully.
On October 25, 1998, Ronde Barber made his first NFL start as the Buccaneers took on the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. Barber took over for an injured Donnie Abraham at left cornerback and contributed seven tackles. A week later, in his second start, he helped the Bucs upset the previously undefeated Minnesota Vikings, 27-24, with eight tackles and a sack of quarterback Randall Cunningham. However, Abraham returned to the lineup two games later and Barber's starts streak ended at three.
On November 22, after one more game in a reserve role, Barber returned to the starting lineup against the Detroit Lions, this time at right cornerback. Even when the original starter at that position, Anthony Parker, returned from injury, Barber remained in the lineup, and he would hold onto the spot to open the 1999 campaign as well. A streak of 14 consecutive starts would end midway through that game when he only subbed in against Kansas City in Week Nine.
One more time, on November 14, 1999, Barber would start a new streak of consecutive starts, and this one would last just a little bit longer than the first two.
In fact, as Barber and the Buccaneers prepare for another visit from the Lions – 13 years later – the streak is still alive. Remarkably, Barber's ironman run is now at 183 consecutive starts, which last year passed Dick LeBeau's all-time NFL record for cornerbacks. On Sunday, he'll add one more to that number, which in and of itself won't be a milestone. He already owns the second-longest streak in team history by a long shot, and he's got a ways to go to catch Derrick Brooks' incredible mark of 208. But simply by making that 184 start, Barber will move to the top of another impressive list.
On Wednesday, the Indianapolis Colts officially declared quarterback Peyton Manning out for Sunday's season opener against Houston. Manning, who through the first 13 games of his NFL career never missed a single game or start, currently owns the longest active starts streak in the NFL at 208. Obviously, that streak will come to an end on Sunday. Second on the list is Ronde Barber.
Here's the top five as it stands heading into 2011 (teams with which the streak occurred):
- QB Peyton Manning (Indianapolis)…208
- CB Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay)…183
- LB London Fletcher (St. Louis, Buffalo, Washington)
- T Jeff Backus (Detroit)…160
- C Casey Wiegmann (Kansas City, Denver)…159
Raheem Morris was a defensive backs coach at Cornell when Barber's current streak began, just two years removed from his own playing days at Hofstra. When he joined the Buccaneers' staff as a quality control coach in 2002, Barber was almost 40 starts into that run. Barber is 17 months older than his head coach, but Morris likes to jokingly add a decade to the veteran cornerback's age. It does seem like Barber has been putting on a Bucs uniform forever.
The streak is just another reason for Morris to be impressed by his most veteran player. As a fan of the game, he'd rather see Manning continue his own run, but he doesn't mind attention being called to Barber's amazing career.
"Ronde is phenomenal," said Morris. "I'm not hoping that Peyton doesn't play so that Ronde gets that title. You never want to see anybody not be able to play, especially when you're talking about a great player like Peyton Manning. But Ronde is already legendary in my eyes anyway. You're talking about the cornerback position, playing that long. That is certainly difficult. He's 46 years old, he's still going out there playing corner. He's older than his coach, his GM, everybody in this organization. He's one of our elder statesman who we respect, we love and he plays the game fearlessly, relentlessly and like it's supposed to be played. That's something he can certainly be proud of. Even at 46."
Usually, with a milestone game still several days away, one would add a disclaimer along the lines of, "…assuming nothing occurs in the interim to keep him from playing." With Barber, however, that seems almost inconceivable. He hasn't even missed a game since opening day of 1998, and he has never been held out of a contest due to injury. Last year, 13 players finished the season on injured reserve for Tampa Bay; Barber, wonderfully, has never spent a day on that list.
Good fortune? Perhaps, but Morris has seen what Barber has done to be available for his team every single Sunday, and he doesn't think it has much to do with luck at all.
"You know, I think it's all Ronde, the way he prepares himself; the way he takes care of his body; all of those things," said the coach. "Ronde Barber has certainly been on very few injury reports by his choice. He forces his will on his body and he forces his will on his opponent, which every week he has to do. He's one of the toughest guys I've ever been around. I've watched him finish the season with a torn knee ligament and I've watched him play through broken thumbs. He's certainly earned his ironman status. It's the reason his picture's in our training room right now, blown up and big. That's because he doesn't go in there."
It's telling that the second-longest active starts streak on the Buccaneers' roster is "only" 60, held by Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn. That seems like quite an accomplishment, too, especially when Penn was the only one of the Bucs' opening-day offensive line last year to make it through the entire season without suffering an injury and being replaced. And it is an accomplishment, but it's still shy of one-third of Barber's own streak. The third player on the Bucs' list is, surprisingly, quarterback Josh Freeman and his 25 starts.
All three will up their totals by one start on Sunday when the Bucs' open their 2011 season, Barber's 15th in the league. Only Barber's however will stand out as the longest in the entire NFL.
Buccaneers to Attend Selmon Service on Friday
The Buccaneers, as a team, will join the rest of the Bay area in celebrating the life and mourning the loss of Lee Roy Selmon on Friday morning.
Selmon, the Hall of Fame former Buccaneer and beloved community figure, passed away on Sunday after suffering a stroke on Friday. A service will be held for Selmon at Idlewild Baptist Church on Friday, beginning at 10:00 a.m., and the entire Buccaneers organization – players, coaches and staff – will be on hand to pay their respects. The team will bus from One Buccaneer Place to the church on Friday morning before returning after the service to continue preparations for Sunday's game against the Lions.
(The service is also open to the public, as is Thursday's viewing at a different location; click here for more information.)
Selmon's playing days ended more than two decades ago, but he was a popular figure among the Buccaneers' current players. Veterans such as tackle Donald Penn had multiple opportunities to get to know Selmon and discover why he was so universally loved. Penn, like the rest of his teammates, was pleased the team altered its preparation schedule in order to attend Friday's service.
"I'm very glad we're going to be able to make the funeral on Friday and show our support, because Lee Roy's a big part of this Buccaneer family," said Penn. "I remember the first time meeting Lee Roy. He didn't know who he is. He saw me out there practicing and he came up to me and told me how good of feet I had. I didn't know who he was until later on. The guy didn't even know me and he just came up and gave me a compliment. That's a little token of what kind of guy he is. It's very sad. My prayers go out to the family."
It was an easy decision for Morris to take his team to the service, of course. In addition to giving his players an opportunity to pay their respects to the Selmon family, he also knows they will get a telling look at how much impact a man in their position can have on the lives of others.
"He's the pillar of our community," said Morris of Selmon. "A guy that I love being around our football team because I want all of our guys to be like him one day when they retire. To have that kind of people-skills savvy and to be able to touch this community, to be able to be in it with charity, to be able to be in it with business, to live here, have your family here, have the following that he had…I wish nothing but the best for my players and to have a life like Lee Roy Selmon did."