The most attention-grabbing thing Mark Dominik said when he spoke with the media earlier this week was a single word: "More."
That was part of a short but direct statement by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' general manager: "We will be more active in free agency than we were last year."
The statement wasn't actually news; Dominik had essentially said the same thing during a press briefing shortly after the 2011 season. It was, however, confirmation that the Buccaneers were not backing away from that initial statement, and by saying the team would be "more active" Dominik specifically differentiated what will happen in 2012 from the strategies of the past few years. He also confirmed, without divulging what the exact numbers are, that the team had acted on the opportunity to "roll over" all of its remaining cap space from 2011 to 2012, increasing at least the opportunity to spend this spring.
The "more active" sentence was certainly the first one to blaze to Twitter, but Dominik touched on a number of other topics of interest to Buccaneer fans during his informal chat with a few members of the media. One was the pace at which the team is taking the process of forming new Head Coach Greg Schiano's first staff. The common perception that the Buccaneers are racing the clock to have the entire group in place in time for the NFL Scouting Combine is not accurate.
"In working with Coach Schiano and putting together his staff, one of the things that has made him so successful is that he's detailed and organized," said Dominik. "He's doing that with the staff, making sure that anybody that comes in this door is somebody he has extreme confidence in. Sometimes when you do that, things may not happen as fast from a fan's perspective. But from a football perspective it's important. Seeing the guys that he's bringing in this building, you can understand why he's taking his time. I think it's going to pay off for this football team in the short and the long run."
The Buccaneers certainly aren't dragging their feet on the issue, and whatever percentage of the coaching staff that is in place by the middle of next week will certainly make the trip to Indianapolis for the Combine. Dominik will continue to have his coaching staff involved in the draft process, and that includes evaluating prospects over the next several months. But that won't push the team to make any decisions before it is ready. The beginning of free agency in mid-March and the subsequent start to the offseason training program are more obvious target dates to have the entire staff in place and ready to implement Schiano's and Dominik's plans.
The Buccaneers have also not been surprised or discouraged by the instances in which they have been denied the option to talk to other team's coaches. Assistant coaches who are still under contract must get permission from their existing clubs in order to interview with another team, even if it involves an apparent promotion from position coach to coordinator. Only a head coaching opportunity trumps that NFL rule. Thus, teams that are building staffs are going to be seeking interviewing permissions fairly frequently, and not all of them will be granted. That comes as no surprise to Dominik and Schiano.
"That's the National Football League," said Dominik. "There are a lot of clubs that have policies in place or they have coaches [they want to keep]. In a way, it's a compliment to not only Coach Schiano and the guy's he's going to uncover and talk to, but it's a compliment to those coaches on those staffs. They're talented coaches that [teams] don't want to let go. That happens everywhere in the National Football League. Teams have their policies and it's not individualized to whatever team they're talking to."
So far, the Bucs have found their offensive coordinator in former New York Giants Quarterbacks Coach Mike Sullivan and added highly experienced aides in Butch Davis (special assistant to the head coach) and Jimmy Raye (senior offensive assistant). There have been reports, as yet not officially confirmed by the team, of several other coaches in the mix, fleshing out the staff. All together, it is a level of progress with which Dominik is comfortable
"I like the blend that Coach [Schiano] is putting together of young coaches, older coaches, experienced coaches in different aspects of the game," he said. "It's a very healthy staff that has come together so far."
Schiano, Freeman Big Draws for Sullivan
When the Buccaneers approached Sullivan about interviewing for their vacant offensive coordinator position, New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin was initially hesitant to give his quarterbacks coach permission to talk to his new suitors from Florida. Considering how the situation worked out in the end, it was a career-affirming moment for Sullivan: He got a clear indication of how highly he was valued in New York, and he still got the go-ahead to interview.
And he got the job, of course. The Buccaneers introduced Sullivan as their new offensive architect on Friday, February 10, just five days after he had helped the Giants win Super Bowl XLVI. Sullivan leaves New York with very fond feelings for the man who gave him his first opportunity in the NFL, while in Jacksonville.
"Words can't describe the amount of respect that I have for him as a person, as a leader, as a coach," said Sullivan of Coughlin. "I think it's a testament to his character, his loyalty, that ultimately he decided to support me and to allow this to happen. As he's often said to the team, when one gets to the top of the mountain, you realize there's still one more mountain to climb. I'm very appreciative and grateful and always will be for his support. Those were difficult conversations."
Of course, Sullivan and the Buccaneers still had to find common ground before the move could be made. Given his impressive work with Eli Manning and the Giants' receivers over the previous eight seasons, it seems likely that similar opportunities would arise for Sullivan in the coming years, probably as soon as 2013. Even if the Bucs decided Sullivan was their man, he still had to be convinced that Tampa was the correct next step in his career.
Two men in particular sold Sullivan on the opportunity: Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman.
Sullivan, who lists only his God and his family above his commitment to his new job, was immediately impressed with Schiano upon their first meeting. Sullivan realized that, in addition to building a better offense in Tampa, he could also assist Schiano in instilling One Buccaneer Place with an atmosphere of trust and accountability.
"I hadn't had a previous relationship with Coach Schiano," he said. "I had known of him. His reputation was of a man who had instilled great discipline in his teams and he was very organized and very detailed. There's a sense of family and family values. Those types of things come about as you're having dinner with somebody and you're getting to know them. You look them in the eye and you get a sense of what their about and what are the things that are truly important to them. To see how he describes his wife and his children – and to be quite honest with you, the difficulties that he felt he had in leaving so many special people at Rutgers – I felt very similar emotions. Looking at what he was able to accomplish and what his approach is going to be, the type of commitment that he wants to make that he described as "The Buccaneer Way" is something that was very, very attractive to me."
More concretely, Sullivan saw a team that, despite its struggles in 2011, has one of the most difficult-to-acquire assets in the NFL: A franchise quarterback. Freeman had more difficulties than expected this past season after a marvelous breakout campaign in 2010, but Sullivan has seen Manning encounter and overcome some of the same issues. Sullivan didn't want to specifically compare Manning and Freeman, as there are successful quarterbacks of many different varieties in the NFL, but it's clear that he believes there is a similar potential for greatness in the Bucs' field general.
Sullivan's Giants haven't played the Buccaneers since Freeman took over as Tampa Bay's starter midway through the 2009 season (Byron Leftwich was at the helm for the Bucs when the two teams met in Week Three of '09), but that hasn't kept the young passer off Sullivan's radar screen. In fact, in a game between the two teams, Sullivan would be watching tape of Tampa Bay's defense anyway. It is has been during sessions like these, when he has scouted an opposing defense using games they played against the Buccaneers that Sullivan got a good look at the player who will now be directing his offense.
"As everyone knows, this is a quarterback-driven league, no matter how you slice it," said Sullivan. "Ultimately there's 'defenses win championships' and no doubt about it, but you've got to have a quarterback. A lot of the things that you look at with a guy like Josh Freeman, with the skill set he possesses, the youth, the ability, the size, the strength…there's an awful lot there that I'm just champing at the bit to work with. You take into consideration that and the big picture, in terms of a veteran offensive line and some hard-running backs, and you take the chance to get a closer evaluation. I would be misleading if I said that I have a thorough scouting report and I've got everybody evaluated and have a pro grade on and I'm ready to report to Mark Dominik about that.
"But I'll be honest with you, it was the attraction of having the opportunity to work with a special talent like Josh Freeman."
Key Dates Approaching
As mentioned above, the NFL's 2012 free agency period will start in the middle of March, specifically at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the 13th. There are a couple other dates to keep an eye on before that official opening market bell, in terms of both free agency and offseason preparations.
In discussing the Bucs' intentions in free agency, Dominik pointed out that it's difficult to hone those plans too specifically until the "final list" is known. That is, while there is a current list – and a rather star-studded one – of hundreds of players whose contracts are set to expire in March, the actual group of players that hits free agency is sure to have some notable differences.
For instance, no one expects New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to actually hit the open market, and there have been recent suggestions that the Philadelphia Eagles will lock up wide receiver DeSean Jackson before March 13. One way teams can protect their interests in these situations is to apply the franchise tag.
That sort of news will begin surfacing next week as teams head to Indianapolis for the Combine. Monday, February 20, is the first day that teams can apply franchise and transition tags to their pending free agents. Monday, March 5, is the last day they can do so, closing a relatively brief two-week window for this option.
The middle of March is likely to be dominated by free agency maneuvers. However, by early April teams will begin welcoming their players back to their respective headquarters for offseason program work. Under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are allowed 10 organized team activity days (OTAs) this year, down from 14 under the previous CBA. These OTAs are non-mandatory, unlike mini-camps, but they can be structured enough to essentially resemble normal in-season practices.
Other notable dates that lie ahead: March 25-28, the NFL Owners Meetings in Palm Beach; March 30-31, the Super-Regional Combine in Detroit; and April 26-28, the 2012 NFL Draft.