This is what they've been waiting for. This is what they've been working for.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 regular season begins on Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium with a visit from the Carolina Panthers. A mile away, in the team's locker room at One Buccaneer Place, the enormous nine-digit clock will finally run down to zero. That clock has been ticking away for months as the Buccaneers toiled in Greg Schiano's high-tempo, full-accountability environment, pointing towards the day the effort would pay off.
That day has arrived.
"We've worked awfully hard since we got together, and you do it all for one reason, to play in these games," said Schiano, who will walk the sidelines in his first real game as an NFL Head Coach this weekend. "On Sunday, that's the joy of playing, the competition. I know these guys are champing at the bit to go play someone and have it count."
The specific matchup is an intriguing one with which to open the season, as it is a rare intra-division matchup in Week One. Moreover, it is an immediate test for a rebuilt Buccaneers defense that expects much better results after the import of Mark Barron and Lavonte David, the installation of a new system and the return of several injured players. That new defense under Schiano and Coordinator Bill Sheridan must deal with 2011 rookie sensation Cam Newton, the dual-threat quarterback who excelled in two games against the Bucs last year. Schiano said the challenges don't end there.
"He's a third running back only when he wants to be," said the Bucs' coach. "The issue is, he's also a great quarterback, and that's the pain in the rear end. Then you look at the other issues: two really good backs [and] you have Steve Smith out there who just plays at a different level. He's one of the most intense competitors I've ever seen. It's a challenge – pick your poison, so to speak. We're just going to try to contain them, play Bucs defense and see if we can't get the ball back to our offense."
One of those running backs, Jonathan Stewart will be inactive for the opener thanks to an ankle injury. That puts more of the rushing load on the very capable DeAngelo Williams, though one also has to figure Newton into Carolina's rushing plans.
The Bucs had several injury issues of their own on offense that affected today's lineup and inactives. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn, who recently returned to the field after missing roughly a month due to a knee injury, had a promising series of practices at One Buccaneer Place but will be kept out for at least one more week.
"It's one of those deals – is he ready to go in this competitive environment?" said Schiano, who is clearly working on the best approach to work one of his very important offensive players back into the mix.
The Buccaneers also had to make a final lineup decision on the offensive line after losing Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph to a season-ending knee injury in the third week of the preseason. The team thoroughly examined several different options and in the end chose to go with a man with experience at the job, third-year lineman Ted Larsen.
"Ted Larsen will start at the right guard, and I think he's going to do fine," said Schiano. "He's started there before. He's been a quality backup for us who's been waiting for his chance. That's really what happens – when guys go down, what is one man's and a team's loss is another man's opportunity. I've always told our players, 'Take advantage of the opportunity,' and I have no doubt Ted will do that."
Ronde Barber didn't give any other young defensive backs an opportunity at right cornerback for the last 14 years or so. He's the team's starting free safety now, but on Sunday he will make his 200th consecutive start, reaching an incredible milestone. He already owns the longest consecutive starts streak for a cornerback in NFL history, and the numbers just continue to pile up. Schiano is thrilled that his own NFL debut coincides with another reminder of Barber's unbelievable longevity.
"I wouldn't trade him for anyone," said Schiano. "I tell you, he is the class of this National Football League. The way he carries himself, the way he prepares, he's a great example to our players. When you count up the captains votes, there's no wonder who the leader is, either. He does it in a quiet, unassuming way, but he does it by example. I sure am glad he's on our team."
In addition to Benn, the Buccaneers also declared these six players inactive: CB Myron Lewis, CB Anthony Gaitor, CB E.J. Biggers, LB Najee Goode, T Jamon Meredith and DE Wallace Gilberry. Gaitor and Biggers were also out due to injuries.
The Panthers declared these seven players inactive: Stewart, QB Jimmy Clausen, S D.J. Campbell, G/C Jeff Byers, T Bruce Campbell, DT Sione Fua and DE Thomas Keiser. Stewart and Byers are out due to injury.
The Bucs will open the regular season Sunday against the Panthers, with kickoff at 4:25 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Visit Buccaneers.com again at halftime and after the game for further reports on the evening's action, including coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.