When you're an athlete recovering from a season-ending injury, as Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Davin Joseph is this summer, much of your progress is measured in the things you don't feel anymore: pain, stiffness, fatigue, anxiety. However, Saturday night – the third day of the Buccaneers' 2013 training camp – was special to Joseph for something he did feel.
The Buccaneers took their camp practice to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday evening, conducting the hugely popular annual night practice in front of a buzzing crowd of Tampa Bay fans. Some combination of the good work on the field, the energy of the crowd and the confidence of the players around him had Joseph believing the Buccaneers are on the verge of their best season in a long time.
"I haven't felt it in a long time…a very, very long time," said Joseph of the shared atmosphere of hope at Raymond James Stadium Saturday night. "It's good to finally get an exciting group of players together, it's exciting to have a coach who really is all about football. The sky is the limit. It's great to have an environment that's going to help our young guys compete. You can see our confidence on the field right now. It's really starting to show."
The Buccaneers started training camp on Thursday and actually had two practices open to the public at team headquarters before Saturday. But the Raymond James lights, the roughly 33,000 fans who passed through the stadium on Saturday and the extra effort made to connect the team with the public ramped up the excitement that has been building around the team throughout a very dramatic offseason.
The Buccaneer buses arrived at 4:00 p.m., in time to spend two hours conducting a full-team autograph session spread out over various air-conditioned spots in the stadium. They then conducted a two-hour practice that interspersed purposeful drills with some fan-friendly competitions between the players, such as a moving-target test for the quarterbacks and a game of "BUC" kickers (think HORSE, as in basketball, but with kicks attempted from crazy angles).
Throughout the practice, Buccaneers Special Assistant to the Head Coach Butch Davis and beloved radio play-by-play man Gene Deckerhoff had open microphones to describe all of the action. Davis' deep understanding of the drills and their purposes and Deckerhoff's bottomless store of Buccaneer knowledge made the pair a perfect choice to keep the fans involved in the action.
The evening at the stadium also included Season Pass Member games on the field with signed Darrelle Revis jerseys as the ultimate prize; on-field interviews with Head Coach Greg Schiano and General Manager Mark Dominik; uplifting visits from the heroes at the nearby James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital; pre-practice entertainment on the BucVision videoboards; cheerleader performances; and, as has become a Night Practice tradition, a thrilling fireworks display at the end of the night. The players enjoyed the amped-up atmosphere.
"I loved it," said second-year running back Doug Martin. "It's nice getting the fans out here. It's nice for them to come out and support us and it was a good practice tonight."
Though he has a reputation for being very businesslike on the practice field, Schiano was fully on-board with the efforts to make Night Practice a different sort of evening for both the teams and the fans. He enjoyed the extra energy the fans poured into some of the more interesting head-to-head drills and he thought the running commentary from Davis and Deckerhoff was a great addition.
"I thought it was awesome," said Schiano. " Our two guys on the mic did a great job. [The fans] were into it – great turnout, a great night. It was good, good for our fans. We got a lot of good work in tonight and I hope the fans enjoyed it. We'll go back now and use this tape to evaluate and make some points, and then go back to fundamentals and get better. That's what we need to do, get better."
Indeed, it was a valuable night of work in its own right, regardless of the entertainment value of the event. The Bucs put on pads for the first time in 2013 and that predictably dialed up the intensity level. The one-on-one drills were hotly contested (Davis declaring a winner and loser after each one probably helped spur the players on) and some of the situational two-minute and red zone drills were very encouraging. In particular, Schiano liked the work of quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Mike Glennon during a pair of practice-ending two-minute drives.
"I think both quarterbacks did a nice job moving the club," said Schiano. "We'll get a lot out of this tape. I thought our quarterbacks, the balls were popping off their hands. There were some good seam routes where the ball got there in a hurry. I thought in the team period, when we were just playing football in the regular situations, it was good. It was great teaching tape."
The goal for every day during training camp is to get better by some degree. In a pure football sense, the Bucs did that on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium. But they made other strides as well, connecting with a large segment of the fan base and sharing the sort of excitement and expectations that Davin Joseph has been waiting years to experience again.
"It was good," said the eighth-year team leader. "I think we're starting to really connect with our community. In more than one way, this is going to help us as men, it's going to help our organization, it's going to help our community."