Raheem Morris may be the youngest head coach in the NFL by a pretty healthy margin, but the start of training camp on Friday made him feel like an old hand.
Morris is helming his third training camp for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and of course he had participated in six others as an assistant coach on Jon Gruden's staff. He admits to being pretty amped up for his first camp as head coach in 2009, but these days there is much less of that "emotional rollercoaster" he is always cautioning against.
That doesn't mean he is immune to the feelings that the return of football has stirred up, in Tampa and across the nation. With training camp falling hard on the heels of the new CBA agreement – seemingly signed ages ago, just this past Monday – Morris knows that all eyes are on his young team.
The expectations that sprang from the Bucs' 10-6 breakout season last fall, suppressed for months by non-stop labor talks, have sprung suddenly back to the forefront.
"There's certainly a high sense of urgency because football is back in Tampa and it's alive," said Morris. "There's a certain excitement around that we want to show our fans, and I'm sure our fans want to see it. We can't wait to get that going again."
Fans will get their first chance to take a peek on Friday evening, when the Buccaneers conduct their first full-scale practice from 5:15 to 7:15. However, the first full-team gathering on the field took place on Friday morning, when a 90-minute walk-through kicked off the three-week camp.
"It's good to be back to football," said Morris. "It's a lot of fun to see these guys go out there in a walk-through. To get a chance to be around our guys is fun."
The new CBA essentially makes traditional camp two-a-days a thing of the past, but Morris emphasizes that the rules are the same for all 32 teams. Moreover, his previous two camps had already pulled back from the endless stretches of two-a-days in favor of fewer but more intense full-scale workouts. Every team conducts walk-throughs, of course, but the Buccaneers' young players have fully bought into their importance.
"Coach Morris and the whole staff always have a great plan," said McCoy. "I'm sure they're going to devise something great to where it's like we didn't lose any time. What made us so good last year was our walk-throughs. We'd go out there and practice for an hour and 20 minutes, but most people didn't realize we were walking through for an hour and a half earlier in a morning. That walk-through is when you can actually get your fits. You can go back and say, 'Alright, let's learn what we're doing and why.' It helped a lot. We don't have two-a-days now, but we do have walk-throughs. I was mentioning to [rookie linemen Adrian] Clayborn and [Da'Quan] Bowers that they'll do a lot of learning in that time."
The new CBA doesn't allowed padded practices during the first three days of training camp, either. In a way, that will allow teams to ease into the more strenuous and more complicated work, and walk-throughs are an important part of that ramping-up process.
"It's just information – the plays and where we need to be and how we need to get there and who we need to block," said second-year wide receiver Mike Williams. "Basically, we just get the playbook down in these situations here so that when we go full-speed we can just go without thinking."
Of course, some of the Bucs were eager to get right to top speed after a long time away from the game, especially the youngest players. As always, Morris has to spend some time early in camp preaching various points of practice etiquette. On Friday morning, he had to slow a few of the younger players down during the walk-through.
That enthusiasm was a good sign, however. An even better sign: Collectively, the team appeared to be in good shape despite the lack of offseason OTAs and mini-camps and team-guided workouts at the facility.
"It was nice to get them back into the building, and to have them come back in somewhat decent shape," said Morris. "You never know. These guys obviously did a great job by themselves, being together, really staying acclimated to football and loving football. With this young football team you knew they would, but it was nice to see it happen when they got here.
"It's nice to see … the shape that they're in. Wherever they've got to be – 10 pounds less or 10 pounds higher – it really doesn't matter. You knew they were doing some work, you knew they were doing something by themselves."
While the young Bucs obviously abound in fervor and physical fitness, they obviously lack in experience. Some analysts have suggested, in attempt to make sense of a very unusual offseason, that young teams like Tampa Bay will be at a disadvantage due to the lack of time together in the offseason. Morris isn't concerned.
"We've developed a nice little learning curve here the last couple years," he said. "I believe [General Manager] Mark [Dominik] put a little pressure on us the other day when he talked about having four weeks before our first game, but that's just really how we're made up. It's how we're built. It's becoming the town mentality – Rays, Lightning. It's who we are."