The last phase of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 offseason work will come to a conclusion this week with perhaps the three most important days of the entire program.
Like the rest of the NFL, the Buccaneers are completing "Phase III" of the new-CBA-regulated offseason, and they've saved their three-day full-team mini-camp for last. Like almost all of the rest of the allotted offseason work, this mini-camp is mandatory for all players, so one should expect 90 players at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. (Rookie safety Mark Barron is the only one of those 90 players currently unsigned, but he is allowed to take part in the mini-camp, as he has been for all of the team's activities since the draft.)
There is still no pads or contact allowed in this phase of the offseason, so the actual hitting will have to wait until training camp in late July. However, the Buccaneers will practice in the morning of each of those days, looking to determine how far the players have progressed over the preceding three months in terms of absorbing the new offensive and defensive schemes.
Given the extraordinary amount of change the team has gone through since the end of a 4-12 campaign in 2011 – from a completely new coaching staff to a shocking free agency haul and even to those brand new CBA rules – every hour of the offseason program has been important. New Head Coach Greg Schiano has been pleased with the progress he has been season, though he understands there is still much work to be done.
"As a coach, you always have a vision of what you want it to look like," he said with a smile after one of last week's OTA practices. "Very rarely does it ever look like that. Every once in awhile you get a game and you say, 'Wow, we were actually pretty good today.' But usually it doesn't meet your expectations, but that's good. You set the bar high and that's what keeps you working and coming back for more. I do know this: The guys are giving great effort. They're really focused on trying to do what we ask them to do. As long as we continue to do that, we're going to get better. As I said all along, time's our enemy. We've got to get better faster. That's kind of the key right now."
After the final mini-camp practice on Thursday, June 14, Buccaneer players will essentially be in a rest period until the start of training camp late next month. The rookies will still have the NFL Rookie Symposium to attend at the end of June, but that will conclude their offseason program, as well.
In addition to getting the new playbook installed, the Buccaneers also have some lineup decisions to make before the start of the 2012 campaign. The secondary will have a new look, for instance, with at least two new starters at safety, and the linebacker lineup is still being determined. Even where the new starters seem fairly obvious – such as Vincent Jackson at wide receiver and Dallas Clark at tight end – there is still the matter of developing offensive chemistry with quarterback Josh Freeman.
"It's coming," said another newcomer to offense, guard Carl Nicks. "Any time you install a whole new offense to a whole new group of guys it's going to take a little while. But progressively, day to day, we're getting better."
With such issues to iron out and roughly six weeks of inactivity looming, the Buccaneers' final mini-camp feels particularly important.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers under Schiano have shown an ability to wring the most out of what time they are allowed to work together. They've been at it since April 2 and both the overall attendance at voluntary workouts and the players' assimilation to the coaching staff's up-tempo approach have been encouraging.
"He's a great motivator," said cornerback E.J. Biggers of his new head coach. "He gets you ready to go each and every day. That's all you want in a coach. Every coach is a great motivator, but I guess he has that 'it.' When he's on the field, he's business. He has a good time with us, but on the field he's just a great motivator. We have a great staff here and everybody's buying in and we're going to help this team do everything we can."