Raheem Morris, Jermaine Phillips and the Buccaneers enjoy themselves on the practice field during the offseason, but they also work quite hard
The Buccaneers began a string of 14 organized team activity days (OTAs) on Tuesday, a process that former Tampa Bay star Warren Sapp knows is a critical part of any team's preparations for the regular season
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came together on the practice field Tuesday morning, dozens of players running through new offensive schemes and new defensive fronts.
Byron Leftwich, a Buccaneer quarterback for less than a month, threw deep passes down the sideline during full-team drills. Aqib Talib, the new starter at left cornerback, locked down Leftwich's targets. Jermaine Phillips, potentially the Bucs' replacement at weakside linebacker after starting for years in the secondary, broke up a short pass to tight end John Gilmore and got an earful of praise from Defensive Line Coach Todd Wash.
Every Buccaneer gathering on the grass this spring is a study in newness. The team is forging a different direction under first-year Head Coach Raheem Morris and first-year General Manager Mark Dominik, and they are relying on fresh faces to get them there.
This practice, though, this "organized team activity day" as the NFL calls it, is anything but new. Preparing a team for the season has become a year-round calling in the NFL, and there are different rules of work for different times of the season. From now until the end of June, the Buccaneers will be using most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to place more bricks in the foundation of what they are trying to build for September and December and — hopefully — January. It's OTA time in the NFL, and that means a lot of hard work, and voluntary but important dedication from dozens of players at One Buc Place.
OTAs are completely voluntary in the NFL, but the Buccaneers enjoy nearly complete attendance every year. The 2009 offseason is no different. Though the team's rookies cannot return until next week due to league rules, the practice fields behind One Buc were overrun by players and coaches on Tuesday morning as the first of the 14 allowed OTAs was spent.
There was also one former player on the sideline, and one who understood the importance of what was going on. Warren Sapp, the 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a Buccaneer defensive linchpin from 1995-2003, paid a visit, hoping to get a much-needed football fix after weeks of watching his favorite NBA team, the Orlando Magic, fight through the playoffs. Sapp has known Morris since the latter was an assistant coach on the 2002 Super Bowl team, and he wanted to get an up-close look at how Morris is molding the team.
Sapp always showed up at voluntary OTA days during his years in the league, and he thinks that it is critical for today's players to do the same.
"It's the one thing that shows your dedication to the team," he said after the two-hour workout. "Are you ready to forge the foundation that will carry you through the season? That's what OTAs are for."
The Buccaneers were obviously ready on Tuesday. NFL rules do not allow any player-on-player contact during practice until training camp, but the coaching staff still worked the team hard by keeping the tempo high and pressing players to remember their assignments. Leftwich, Luke McCown and Josh Johnson all barked out plays with confidence — and when they didn't break the huddle with enough emphasis, coaches shouted at them to do it over — and they will be joined next week by rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, the Bucs' first-round pick in April's draft.
Of course, there were a few absences. Kellen Winslow, the Pro Bowl tight end acquired in a February trade from Cleveland as one of the team's signature moves of the offseason, was not on hand. However, the coaching staff had spoken with Winslow prior to the beginning of the week and had expected the absence, noting that the veteran pass-catcher had matters to which to attend. Winslow's absence from the voluntary workout was not considered an issue on Tuesday.
Practice broke at 12:30 p.m. ET, and the players headed en masse to the weight room for another important part of the offseason training program. The team will gather for its second OTA on Wednesday, after which Morris will address the media and update the team's progress. Next week, most of the rookies will return and the team will be almost completely intact for three more days of OTAs.
The offseason program will conclude in the penultimate week of June with a three-day mini-camp, the only mandatory work of the offseason for the team's veterans. That will cap a 14-week program that will build the very foundation of which Sapp speaks, putting the Buccaneers in perfect position to make the most of training camp and head full-steam into the 2009 campaign.