Yet another late-afternoon rain shower passed over One Buccaneer Place on Friday, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued to dodge a week of stormy weather while preparing for the 2011 regular season opener.
Normally, that rain would have fallen on an empty set of practice fields, as the Bucs' normal in-season practice schedule calls for a late-morning, 90-minute review at the end of the week. On this Friday, however, the players were still on the field at 4:40 p.m., playing under a light drizzle, when lightning flashed just overhead and the team scampered into the building five minutes early.
The Buccaneers held a later practice than usual on Friday for one very good reason: The morning was devoted to the funeral service for Tampa Bay legend Lee Roy Selmon. The Hall of Famer and community icon had passed away on Sunday at age 56 due to a stroke.
Head Coach Raheem Morris took his team en masse to Idlewild Baptist Church about 30 minutes north of team headquarters, bringing players, coaches and many staffers over on buses. As revered as Selmon is within the organization, and as fondly as he is remembered by those who knew him, it's true that many of the current team's youngest players had only met him briefly. Morris knew that Friday's service would demonstrate to those young players how large of an impact an NFL player can have on his community if he conducts his life as Selmon did his.
"No question," said Morris. "There's no doubt about that. Their head coach was born in 1976 when Lee Roy Selmon was being drafted. It was a great experience for me, to know who he was personally. You know all those amazing accomplishments on the football field. You know his accomplishments as a USF director and helping to start that program out there. You know all the things that he's done for our community as far as community work. You know his faith and everything about him as far as that, but to be able to get the in-depth stories from the people closest to him…that speech from Dewey Selmon was unbelievable. It got everybody's attention."
Buccaneer players spent three hours hearing uplifting stories about Selmon's life from those who knew him best, and experiencing the raw emotion caused by his unexpected departure. Dewey Selmon, his brother and also a former Buccaneer, recounted how he was frequently approached in the Bay area by fans who wanted to tell him stories about how well they were treated by Lee Roy. Buccaneers Co-Chairman Bryan Glazer compared Selmon to a real-life George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life in terms of how different the community would have been without him. Former teammate Mark Cotney said Selmon knew how to "walk the walk" without having to "talk the talk." University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft said that Selmon, "set the standard, and now it is our job to carry it forward." USF Athletic Director Doug Woolard contended that the world will be a better place if others attempt to live their lives a little more like Selmon did his.
Amid such outpourings of admiration, the USF representatives also drew a standing ovation when it was announced that the school would rename its athletic center in Selmon's honor. "His name on the building sets a standard our student athletes should constantly strive for.'
As such, Morris said it was an emotional beginning to the day, as the Bucs joined in with thousands of others in saying farewell to Selmon and offering their condolences to his family. Later, however, the team did get back to business, and Morris said they still capped the week with a strong practice…even if lightning erased the last few reps on the play chart.
That leaves the team with just one brief walk-through on Saturday morning, plus some meetings in the evening at the team hotel, before the regular season begins on Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Morris said he can feel the excitement building.
"My anxiety started a little bit before the players probably started," he admitted. "For me its exciting to open up our stadium; to open up after the lockout; to open up here with the 9/11 experience; to open up now with Lee Roy Selmon. It will be a pretty good day, a special day. It's a day that you look forward to playing this game for. It should be fun; it should be a lot of fun. It should be a lot of for our fans and a lot of fun for our players."
As is the case with every regular-season opener – at least the ones played on that first Sunday – the Buccaneers and Lions had a little extra time to prepare for each other. Tampa Bay moved its usual schedule up a day to Tuesday, generally a day off, which gave them time to hold two review practices at the end of the week instead of one. In addition, Buccaneers coaches have been studying the Lions and doing some game-planning ever since the schedule came out in the spring. The Lions have surely been doing the same thing in return.
Essentially, the Bucs and Lions have been focused on each other for at lot longer than one week, but Morris resisted the temptation to overdo it. He says it's possible to overanalyze the other team in this situation, and he wanted to avoid that.
"Yes you can, and that's why I try not to do that," said the Bucs coach. "I kind of try to guard against doing that. I'm an instinctive thinker. If I can go on the field and prepare like I would normally prepare for everybody, get our team prepared and do what we can do to try and win our football game, I think that's the best way you work.
"That's why I think in the preseason or in the offseason you work about yourself. It's about us. You see a lot of good coaches say that. It's about our guys understanding what we want to do, and then going and executing what we want to do against the Detroit Lions. So I don't want to overanalyze. I don't want my guys over-thinking [because] then they play slow. I made that mistake before in coaching and I don't want to do that."
Buc players also want to guard against getting too emotionally worked up over the season's first opponent. Tampa Bay won three of its last four games in 2010 to finish 10-6 and just miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker against the 10-6 Green Bay Packers. The one loss in that span was a 23-20 overtime decision against Detroit in Week 15. As such, Buccaneer players have been questioned repeatedly this week about the revenge factor, and whether they still were feeling the emotional fallout of that loss.
The Bucs couldn't deny that the loss to Detroit last December stung, but they insisted it didn't change how they prepared for the rematch.
"We definitely had a bad taste in our mouths after that game and it just carried over to this year," said defensive tackle Roy Miller. "But when it all comes down to it, you've got to go out there and practice, you've got to go out there and perform. We've still got to do the same things we do week-in and week-out, but in the back of our minds we'll remember that game. It will be just something we remember when we walk out there."
Lewis Ruled Out
The Buccaneers updated their injury report on Friday with gameday status designations, as did the Lions. Not surprisingly, cornerback Myron Lewis was listed as out, as he has not practiced all week due to an ankle injury suffered in the preseason. He is the only player on the Bucs' 53-man roster who will definitely be unavailable for the opener.
Lewis struggled with a hamstring early in his rookie season and has already had to fight hamstring and ankle ailments this summer. Still, he was not a particularly injury-prone player at Vanderbilt before the Bucs drafted him in the third round in 2010. Morris believes the young player has just had a string of bad luck, and that he will still contribute significantly in 2011.
"He had the nagging injury when he got here with the hamstring," said Morris. "[He] got better, he finished the season pretty strong for us. Came to camp this year, caught the hamstring again. When he got back then he got the ankle so he's had a couple of nagging injuries but hopefully as he matures and his body matures he can get that out of his system. We look forward to him coming back here surely and being a contributor."
Linebacker Dekoda Watson practiced on a limited basis for the third straight day and is listed as questionable on the injury report. Watson had 2.5 sacks during the preseason and Morris is looking forward to getting the second-year 'backer in for several dozen plays a game even though he is not one of the three starters.
Starting left guard Ted Larsen was able to practice without limits all week despite an ankle injury. He is considered probable to play on Sunday, and the Bucs would obviously like to be at full strength when they face Ndamukong Suh and the Lions talented defensive front.
Detroit has ruled out three of its players for Sunday's game: defensive tackle Nick Fairley, cornerback Alphonso Smith and tackle Jason Fox, all three with foot injuries. Fairley, the Lions' first-round pick this spring, has not practiced for weeks and Fox was not able to participate at all this week either. However, Smith has been ruled out despite practicing without limits on Thursday and Friday.