QB Chris Simms helped the offense have a good day of practice on Tuesday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers break training camp at about noon on Thursday, right after a final two-hour practice in the morning. By combining the calculations of Head Coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Chris Simms, we believe that date to be about 17 weeks after camp first opened in sunny Central Florida.
"It seems like we've had three straight training camps combined," said Gruden, sodden with sweat, as usual, at the end of Tuesday morning's practice. "We've worked hard and gotten some work done. We've got a long way to go but I'm pleased with where we are. We got a lot of things done."
Three camps would be approximately nine weeks, but that apparently doesn't even get the team close to the end.
"Two days of camp is like eight weeks, so I can't even go there yet," said Simms of eyeing the light at the end of the tunnel. "But it will be nice to go home and sleep in my own bed again."
If it's dawning on you that camp isn't an NFL player or coach's favorite swatch of the annual schedule, well, wait until you see the Lemans start to the drive back to Tampa on Thursday afternoon, as the players race to their cars to get out of town. The Bucs may have the best training camp surroundings in all of football, but nothing matches the comforts of home.
So with that departure just 48 hours ahead – or is it eight weeks? – you might expect the team to mail it in over the last two sets of two-a-days. With few distractions, injuries or weather interruptions, the Bucs have managed to get in an enormous amount of work in three weeks at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, so what difference would a few days of sleepwalking through drills make?
Something else appeared to be happening on Tuesday morning, however. Perhaps the Bucs have collectively decided to run harder toward that light at the end of the tunnel, because their field work on Tuesday was one of its sharpest showings in days.
"We've had some good practices here," said Gruden. "We haven't had a lot of practices where we've come out here and wasted time. But I did like this morning; I liked it a lot."
Added Simms: "We were definitely much sharper. Little things are usually the difference between a good practice and a bad one, and today we were pretty sharp. We've definitely got some things to work on, but overall we did pretty good today."
Simms might be thinking of a successful deep ball to WR Edell Shepherd during one drill or any number of precise throws he made throughout the morning. However, there were good moments on both sides of the ball on Tuesday, most of them made at full speed, the result of one unit excelling rather than the other one stumbling. Safety Blue Adams, for instance, turned in two stellar interceptions on well-thrown deep balls during the second half of the morning practice.
Adams, who has converted from cornerback to safety, is a good example of a player who is fighting hard for a roster spot as the days dwindle to the cut-down days a few weeks hence. Perhaps it is also the efforts of such roster hopefuls that is keeping practice sharp in the fourth quarter of training camp.
Linebacker Jamie Winborn had one interception and nearly another one in the morning, too, and young linebacker Anthony Trucks was on the receiving end of several earfuls of praise from the coaches. Even with veteran leaders Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles getting the day off and watching from the sideline, the defense practiced with passion on Tuesday and denied several things the offense tried to accomplish.
Still, Simms felt good about what his crew was able to do, given the circumstances.
"Yeah, we feel really good offensively," he said. "It's tough out here in practice just because our defense is getting to the point now where they've seen pretty much all of our plays a few times. It gets tough, because guys cheat a little bit in practice. But at the same time, we're very confident offensively. We know we can run the ball, we know we can throw it, so we should be good to go."
That's the plan. That's where the Bucs need to be when training camp breaks. And since that departure day is so close, even if it doesn't feel that way to the players, a particularly good practice on Tuesday morning was quite encouraging.
Working the Seams
Second-year tight end Alex Smith had one of the better moments in the offense's sharp outing on Tuesday, a twisting, leaping catch in the last drill that would have been good for a big gain in a live game.
On the play, Smith sprinted down the right seam, into a converging crowd of defenders. He might have been able to run under Simms' hard pass, but the arriving red shirts led him to believe the pass would never get there. So, instead, Smith turned in mid-run and leaped high to snatch the ball out of the air, then fell backward to the ground, hard.
"That's something I've been wanting to do," he said. "I've had a couple opportunities in the past and I kind of waited on the ball. My coach said, 'Whenever that ball's in the air, it's yours. Go get it.' It hurt a little bit but at least I got it."
At that, Smith chuckled, but if such a sight becomes commonplace for the Bucs it will be no laughing matter for opposing defenses. Tampa Bay coaches believe Smith has the speed and talent to exploit the seams like some of the NFL's most dangerous tight ends, but they didn't have much of an opportunity to explore that option last year. That could change in 2006.
"Yeah, that's the plan," said Smith. "Hopefully, our pass protection can hold up a little bit longer and we can hit some deeper routes. I was kind of relegated to the smaller, quick routes [in 2005] but hopefully we can get a little more time this year and I can stretch the field."
Smith ran those shorter routes to 367 yards and two touchdowns on 41 catches last year, ranking second among all rookies, not just tight ends, in receptions. Now he has a more confident and experienced quarterback, a potentially more effective line and a greater understanding of the offense. On the other hand, the Bucs have only added to their arsenal of weapons, signing big-play receiver David Boston and helping Michael Clayton get back to his 2004 form.
Smith doesn't see that as a deterrent to an even better year for him in 2006.
"No, I think it helps us having all these weapons," he said. "Somebody like Cadillac Williams, the defense has to respect him. With Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and David Boston on the outside, who do you focus on? You need somebody to control the middle of the field, and that's what I try to do."
More from Coach Gruden
After Tuesday morning's practice, Gruden commented on the status of defensive tackle Chris Hovan. The Bucs' starting nose tackle, who rarely misses a practice, was not on the field with the team on Monday or Tuesday.
Hovan's absence was due to an infection that affected the healing of a small cut on his leg. He has been receiving treatment for that infection and should be back to work soon.
"We think he's going to be okay," said Gruden. "We think he'll be back with us either tonight or first thing in the morning. Everything seems to be under control, so we're pleased to announce that."
Gruden touched on several additional topics after practice:
On how Kenyatta Walker looked in practice: "I didn't really see a lot of him, until you look at the tape. But it's great having him out here. If you're the right guard, you need to work with the guy you're going to be playing next to, so we're pleased he's back. Torrin Tucker made his return today and he obviously has got to pick it up. He's missed a lot of time."
On if the team might be doing more with Alex Smith this year: "We ran a lot of offense last year. Everybody thinks we kept everybody in and threw one-man routes. You know, we won 11 games. We were pretty balanced on offense, [Joey] Galloway had a great season and Alex had a heck of a rookie camp. We've got some things in there for him and hopefully we can get to some of them."
On his participation in a blitz-protection drill: "Well, I've got to get some exercise here and have some fun at some point too, you know. It's like The Longest Yard when Burt Reynolds jumped in there and played that last play. I just want the players to get their reps and sometimes the coaches can simulate the look. Although we're not the biggest, most athletic guys we can simulate the gaps and the timing in which some of these safeties and linebackers are going to hit these gaps. So we did try to simulate that. We expect a lot of perimeter pressure – corner blitzes and safety blitzes, zone blitzes, all kinds of man-to-man all-out blitzing. When you play a team like this, you'd better work on it relentlessly. Hopefully, our players had some fun getting after the little coach."
On the difficulty of making the move from cornerback to safety, as Adams has done: "Well, there are a lot of corners who are doing it these days. You look at Rod Woodson and the young Charles Woodson. I remember Merton Hanks when I was with the 49ers was a real good corner who was moved inside. Blue has some physical-ness to him. He's a good solid tackler. Dwight Smith did it, obviously, so it's not like it's a novel concept."
On how Simms' ability to throw the deep ball affects the playbook: "Well, if you've got a guy who can throw deep and you've got guys who can go deep, the light bulb goes on once in a while and you say, 'I'm going to try a deep ball.' If you have a guy who doesn't throw deep and you can't run deep, it's a little bit different. You have to manufacture different ways to get the ball down the field in a hurry. There's no disrespect to anybody. We've got a couple of guys who can really run and we've got a guy who can really throw. At the same time, you've got to have the right coverage, you've got to have the right protection called, and those are low-percentage plays. They're hard to hit. We are working on that element a little bit and we have had some degree of success. But this defense isn't willingly one to give up the big play."
On if the presence of Simms makes other teams change their defensive philosophies against the Bucs: "Oh, I don't know. We'll find out. We will find out. People are going to test a young quarterback, they're going to test a young offensive line, they're going to test a young tight end and a young back. They're going to test us. That's why we're out here testing them right now."