During seven years of training at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to miss as few practices as possible. An occasional fast-moving storm would swamp one or two workouts every camp, but if there was time to plan or react the team would find a nearby facility and at least conduct a walk-through indoors. At the end of their stay at Disney, the Bucs even had a bubble to practice under located right next to the main field.
And those camps, under the guidance of the previous collective bargaining agreement, sometimes contained nearly two solid weeks of two-a-days. Since the Bucs opened their 2011 training camp 12 days ago, under the guidelines of the new CBA, they've held a total of eight full-speed practices. That comes on the heels of an offseason with zero OTAs, mini-camps or other organized workouts due to the work stoppage.
Obviously, then, every practice on the schedule is precious this summer. That's why Buc officials spent the better part of Thursday afternoon staring at moving satellite weather images.
Small storms had hit One Buccaneer Place frequently in recent days, but they did little to disrupt the team's practice schedule. On Tuesday, however, storm clouds settled in all over the Bay area and pounded it with rain throughout the morning and afternoon. The Bucs pushed their practice starting time from 2:30 to 3:00, and then later to 4:30, all while watching the radar and looking for a break.
The rain never did stop, but the Bucs stuck to that 4:30 start and managed to get a worthwhile practice in.
"We tried to make the most out of the weather today," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Uncontrollable circumstances. With the limited amount of pad opps you've got to try to get out there when you can and get some work done. So we were able to get out there and get some work done, some Team Run, a little Nickel Blitz, got some Indies done, some fundamentals. I felt good about that. It was a little slippery out there and I got them off the field a little early. We got a little work in, so we were pleased with the progress of that."
The Bucs rearranged their schedule in the afternoon and knocked out some individual-position meetings while they would normally be practicing. Then they took the field and worked through about 60% of the practice schedule before Morris called it a day, reducing the chances of a player slipping and sustaining an injury on the wet field.
"It was a little sloppy," said the coach. "It's not bad. It is what it is. It's Tampa. It's rain time. We were up there watching the cells go through. We had a little window and we went out there and tried to get a little work in, and we did. I'm pleased with it."
The fields behind One Buccaneer Place have a state-of-the-art draining system and, frankly, are in excellent shape thanks to the relative lack of use they've seen. There were no obvious footing problems during the hour or so of practice, and the conditions gave the quarterbacks some wet-ball practice and the receivers some work making cuts on less-than-ideal turf.
And the Bucs were able to camp their practice schedule intact as the first preseason game looms. The team will go into that game with quite a bit fewer practices under their belt than they would have had in previous offseasons, but so will the Kansas City Chiefs, and the other 30 NFL teams making their debuts this weekend.
"I think I'm pretty even with everybody else in the league, and that's all that really matters," said Morris, who has been pleased with the collective work ethic of his young team. "That's all that really matters, you know. These guys are picking it up and they love football. They'll sit in those rooms all day if they can and meet with their coaches. We get as much as we can as often as we can, and they love it."
Loving the Show
Last summer, Josh Freeman threw eight passes during the Buccaneers' four-game preseason. Josh Johnson threw 37 and Rudy Carpenter topped them both with 58. Now the 2011 preseason slate is about to begin and Freeman knows he's going to once again be doing a lot of watching as Johnson and Carpenter show off their skills.
Presumably, the pass total won't be quite as lopsided this year as it was last. Much of that was due to the fact that Freeman missed most of the last three games with a thumb injury; hopefully, there will be no such obstacle this year. Also, Morris has hinted that his starters might see a slight uptick in their playing time this summer due to the lost offseason.
If Morris followed the playing-time progression through the four preseason games that has become the norm in recent years, Freeman and his fellow starters might only play one series in the opener, perhaps two. This year might be a little different.
"I want to try and get him 20 plays or so," said Morris of his starting quarterback. "It's about a quarter, maybe a quarter to half. Play him a little bit more than you normally would."
Morris continued to describe a QB rotation that would likely have Johnson in the game for a quarter and a half and Carpenter for the remainder of the clock time, with rookies Mike Coughlin and Jonathan Crompton not likely to see action. For Freeman, then, that's two-and-a-half to three quarters of being a spectator.
And he's fine with that.
Freeman's only 23, not crusty enough as a veteran yet to want to avoid as many preseason snaps as possible. But when he puts on his baseball cap, Johnson puts on his helmet, and that's a show Freeman very much enjoys.
"J.J.'s a stud," said Freeman. "I love watching them – Josh Johnson and Rudy and we've got two younger guys that we just acquired in this camp. It's certainly fun to watch them go out and play, as well as all the other guys. It's a very exciting time of the year. This year going into the preseason we have more guys than we've ever had before so you're going to see a lot of new faces out there in Bucs uniforms. I'm looking forward to getting out there with the ones and showing what we've got and then sitting back and watching the other guys do their stuff."
The Bucs' first and second-string quarterbacks may be each other's biggest supporters. However, Freeman isn't just hyping up his friend when he talks about watching Johnson play. Johnson might have been Tampa Bay's top performer during last year's preseason.
In three games, including one start, in the summer of 2010 Johnson completed 23 of 37 passes (62.2%) for 307 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He had a passer rating of 95.2, racked up a robust 8.30 yards per pass attempt and, oh by the way, he ran for 45 yards on six carries. The Buccaneers didn't even play him in the preseason finale – a treatment usually reserved for starters – because they didn't feel he had anything more to prove.
"My development was definitely aided by having a guy like Josh Johnson right next to me, knowing he's got my back on everything," said Freeman. "At the same time, if anything happens to me he's going to be able to step up and go out and win football games. That's huge. He's one of the most valuable guys on our team, as far as a locker room guy and a football player. He's got a tremendous arm, a tremendous mind for the game, a knack for finding open guys and making big plays. I'm grateful that we have him."
A Nearly Full Deck
Morris is going to have a lot of players at his disposal in Friday night's preseason opener.
At 90 players, camp roster are 12.5% bigger this year than they have been in recent summers. That doesn't mean Morris will find a way to get all of those players into the action, but he'll certainly have plenty of options. That's even more true given the team's slim injury report 12 days into training camp.
While a handful of players will have their status for the game determined in the next 48 hours – Gerald McCoy, Erik Lorig and Da'Quan Bowers among them – Morris named only two players on Tuesday evening who have already been ruled out: tight end Luke Stocker and wide receiver Raymond Webber.
Both Stocker and Webber are rookies. Stocker, the Bucs' fourth-round draft pick in April, sustained a hip injury on the opening day of camp and has not yet returned to the practice field. Webber went down on Monday with a hamstring injury; on Tuesday, Morris indicated that the undrafted rookie out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff is considered week-to-week.
Of course, the bigger rosters mean fewer snaps to go around for the players on the lower end of the depth chart. And, as mentioned above, Morris intends to extend Freeman a little longer than usual in the preseason opener. When Freeman is in the game, you can be certain that the rest of the first-teamers will be, too, especially on the offensive line. On Tuesday, Morris talked a bit about his decision to extend the starters in Game One.
"You want to get those guys out there running around together, getting used to being back out there, hitting a little bit more and playing together. I've got a young football team – 'youngry.' It's not like I've got a bunch of vets. I've got Ronde [Barber] and a bunch of dudes. You've got Free out there with some receivers and a bunch of new guys. He played with [Dezmon] Briscoe all of two games last year."