The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in Day 11 of their 22-day training camp and have completed roughly half of the practices on their camp schedule. At this point, we know a little bit more about the team than we did before July 26, when 90 players reported for the unofficial beginning of the Bucs' 2012 season
Perhaps "know" is too strong of a word, on the other hand. Head Coach Greg Schiano has been saying since his team's earliest spring practices that it would be unwise to form any solid conclusions until the players are tested in actual games. Friday's preseason opener in Miami will provide us with our best evidence yet, not necessarily in the game's outcome but in the many small battles played out at full speed and with live tackling over 60 minutes.
That doesn't mean, however, that we should ignore what we've seen over the past week-and-a-half at One Buccaneer Place (and, on Saturday night, at Raymond James Stadium). Indeed, what the Buccaneers are doing on the practice field, particularly since the pads went on a week ago, is an important part of the overall picture the coaches are forming as roster cuts inch closer. We may not know anything yet, but we've seen enough to make the following observations about the 2012 Buccaneers.
Training Camp Observations
1. The running game may actually be as good on the field as it appears to be on paper.
Schiano hasn't minced words regarding his offensive philosophy since arriving in Tampa: The Bucs intend to build their attack around a power running game. Several of the team's moves during the offseason clearly seemed to be based on this idea, most notably the signing of All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and the use of a first-round pick on Boise State running back Doug Martin despite the presence of LeGarrette Blount.
Such maneuvers gave birth to one of the most common phrases heard around Buc headquarters this spring and summer: "on paper." On paper, the team seems to have all the makings of a successful run game, despite struggling in that area just last fall. The offensive line features three starters who have recently been to the Pro Bowl in Nicks, guard Davin Joseph and tackle Donald Penn. Right tackle is manned by a player with significant experience and size in Jeremy Trueblood. Former do-everything lineman Jeremy Zuttah has been moved to the starting center spot, which is widely considered his best position, and that would appear to give the Bucs one of the most promising interior lines in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Martin has been one of the early standouts of training camp, showing an impressive burst, sparkling moves in the open field and the ability to run inside or outside. Coach Schiano has also repeatedly praised the work of Blount, who is the incumbent starter and has a two-year NFL average of 4.6 yards per carry. It appears that the Bucs have at least two backs who could easily fill the featured role in an NFL offense, but with nicely contrasting styles that should allow them to work together well.
"I think what allows [Martin] to have a chance is he is a stout guy," said Schiano of the smaller of the two backs. "If he was 5-9, 185 I'd say no, but he's not; he's close to 220 pounds and he's pretty rocked up. So I think the competition is really good at the running back spot. I think LeGarrette has looked good and some of the other guys have looked good so it should be interesting."
Even with pads on, the Buccaneers run most of their drills at "thud" or "tag" speed, meaning the defender is not trying to bring a ballcarrier or pass-catcher to the ground. That means a lot of what appear to be breakaway runs on the practice field, and a running game that seems unbelievably potent. That is obviously misleading, but both the coaches and players have spoken glowingly about how the running game is coming along. Penn has missed all of camp so far, but Nicks and Joseph have gotten rave reviews for their blocking inside. There's every reason to believe, so far, that the Bucs' on-paper potential for a power running attack is going to translate to actual success on game day.
Again, however, those game results will be the key, particularly in later preseason games when the top lines of the depth chart get more action.
"To really evaluate them you look at them in protection, you look at them carrying the ball but until they have to break a tackle or make someone miss in a game when they're getting tackled live, it's awfully hard to evaluate," said Schiano.
2. The young Bucs are up to the challenge of a high-tempo Schiano camp.
Veteran cornerback Aqib Talib pointed out after one recent practice that the amount of running the Buccaneers are doing this summer is more akin to a college camp than the NFL. He didn't say it as a complaint.
The Buccaneers are definitely running more than they have in years, as Schiano has spent the entire offseason and training camp establishing a very high tempo for practices. The Buccaneers had to pass a rugged conditioning test just to be cleared to take part in camp, and every practice is a non-stop high-speed affairs. When a play ends, players are urged to hustle back to the huddle, and when a practice period ends, everyone is expected to jog immediately to the next one.
Talib has eagerly done this and everything the coaching staff has asked of him, as has almost every man on the roster. The fifth-year defender says the youth of the Bucs' roster is a plus when it comes to adapting to and making it through Schiano's style of work. The instances of cramping and other heat/effort related problems has not been any worse than previous Buccaneer camps, and the added conditioning the players are getting is only going to help during hot home games in September and October.
Schiano's approach won't change in subsequent practices and, in fact, the work in that regard is not done yet. As uncomplainingly and effectively as the players have adapted to Schiano's practice demands, they still must prove themselves all over again when the games begin.
"I think now we have to play our way into football shape; there's a big difference between the cardiovascular conditioning needed [for practice] and football shape," said the coach. "That's why we try to push them out there with the tempo. It's always been my philosophy that I wanted things to slow down on Sunday not speed up, so if we can get that it's a good thing."
3. The secondary is deep in talent and set up for fierce competition.
It's startling how the Buccaneers' safety position has, in a short period of time, gone from an area of concern to one of great depth and promise. Obviously, a good portion of that transition was the drafting of Alabama's Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick in April and the ongoing conversion of Ronde Barber from cornerback. Still, it's eye-opening to see Cody Grimm, a starter for the portions of his first two seasons that weren't wiped out by injuries, running with the third group for most of camp.
The Bucs have eight men playing primarily at safety right now, and they have kept them in four discrete units for most practices. After Barron and Barber, the Bucs have taken a long look at Ahmad Black and Larry Asante, that tandem getting a multitude of first-team snaps recently with the first pair getting extra rest. Grimm has been paired up with Keith Tandy, another 2012 draft pick who appears capable of playing either cornerback or safety. Grimm's spot in the rotation does not mean he is looked at less favorably by the new coaching staff than the old.
"I think when I arrived here and the staff arrived here he was still coming back from that injury," said Schiano of the knee ailment that cost Grimm 13 games last fall. "He's definitely a different player right now than he was in the spring time. I think Cody's strength is when you get into game situations, because he'll put his face in there and he'll go get you. I think he's an intelligent football player. I'm anxious to see him play in games, special teams and defense."
The depth at cornerback took a hit on the first day of camp when E.J. Biggers, penciled in first at the nickel back spot, suffered a foot injury that will probably sideline him for most of the month. However, several other young corners have since stepped up, only serving to make the team feel better about how deep that group can be. Second-year player Anthony Gaitor was the first to make a splash, grabbing a good portion of Biggers' reps, and lately third-year man Myron Lewis has been particularly visible in practice. Lewis and undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson both made several notable plays during Saturday's night practice, and Derrick Roberson also recently rejoined the fray after coming back from a a hamstring strain. When Biggers returns, it may be difficult to figure out exactly how to stack the depth chart.
Fortunately, that chart looks quite solid at the top, because Talib has looked as if he's intent on having his best season yet.
"I think the biggest thing is that he has been consistent," said Schiano. "That's how he's going to be the great player he's capable of being, is just work, work, work; keep preparing, preparing, preparing. He's got gifts and when those gifts meet his preparation he can be special."
The Bucs may have more difficulty arranging the roster and depth chart in the secondary than at any other spot at the end of this month, but that's obviously a good problem to have. Again, the upcoming games will go a long way towards showing the coaches how deep the safety and cornerback positions really are and how many they'll want to keep among the final 53.
" I've coached the position since before I became a head coach so I'm probably biased, but you have to cover the best athletes in the game and they know where they're going and we don't," said Schiano. "As a secondary, that's the position that takes the longest to gel, but they're working their tails off and every day making improvements so if we keep doing that we'll get there."
4. The new CBA rules have definitely affected training camp culture.
For better or worse – and you'll get different opinions from different people in the business – the NFL training camp is not what it used to be.
The game is always evolving, of course, and even before the new collective bargaining agreement that was reached last summer NFL teams had changed the way they train. Modern training camps are about half as long as they used to be, with more offseason work filling in the gaps. Hydration and safety issues are much more at the forefront. Teams are far more likely to train at their own homes rather than travel to Wisconsin or some other cooler front.
Still, the new CBA produced some very concrete and immediate changes. There simply is no such thing as a "two-a-day" anymore, and that may be where coaches and players diverge in their feelings about the new system. Teams can work in pads and at full-speed for up to three hours a day, but all of that must come at one practice; any leftover time can be used in a walk-through. In addition, players must have at least one day off every five days of camp. It's now almost hard to believe that, during their days at Disney's Wide World of Complex, the Buccaneers generally started camp with 13 straight two-a-days, practicing once in the morning and once in the heat of the afternoon.
The rules, of course, apply to all 32 teams equally, so there should be no preparation advantage or disadvantage in the new guidelines. Some coaches may feel that two-a-days are a better option because they can split up the hardest work and not drive their plays for three straight hours. Some players may like the newer approach in that they don't have to gear up, wind down and then gear up again in a matter of hours. Personal preferences are irrelevant, however; the rules are in place and all teams are adapting to them.
It's possible, though we shouldn't jump to any conclusions just yet, that the death of two-a-days has led to fewer nagging camp injuries. The Buccaneers can't be too displeased with their injury situation here in the first week of August. Penn (calf) and defensive end Da'Quan Bowers (Achilles) came to camp with pre-existing challenges and are on the NFI and PUP lists, respectively, at the moment. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye had offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and has been somewhat limited during the first half of camp. Barron, defensive end Michael Bennett, tight end Collin Franklin and tackle Mike Ingersoll have missed some practice time with minor issues. Still, with 90-man rosters to begin with – another new camp innovations – the Buccaneers have routinely taken the field with 80-85 full participants in this year's camp.
Both Biggers and wide receiver Arrelious Benn (knee) suffered injuries on the first day of camp that will cause them to miss a significant part of the preseason, at least. That type of news has been rare in the nine days that have followed. Again, this may or may not be a product, in part, of the new practice regulations, but there's no denying that training camp is a different animal since the new CBA was put in place.
5. The Buccaneers – and the Bay area – are obviously ready for some football.
More people showed up at Saturday's Night Practice at Raymond James Stadium than have ever come out for that event before, and they were ready to make some noise. The Bucs' training camp practices at One Buc Place have drawn big crowds, too, even during the work week, and the attendees have gotten great pleasure out of cheering for every notable play made by such newcomers as Vincent Jackson, Doug Martin and Lavonte David.
The Bucs never pulled out of their nosedive last season, leading to a disappointing finish after a promising 2010 campaign and a good start to 2011. Obviously, that led to some radical changes at One Buccaneer Place, most notably the arrival of Schiano and company and a very aggressive approach to free agency. Every offseason in every NFL city is a period of optimism, but there are some very solid reasons to hope for a turnaround in Tampa.
The fans seem to feel the same way, and are eager to see if the results will be there on game day. The Bay area wants another chance to cheer for a winner, and they're ready to do it right now. The Buccaneers fully believe they can be that winner in 2012; as Carl Nicks said when he chose Tampa in free agency, he didn't come to be part of a lengthy rebuilding process. The Bucs intend to win right now, and Tampa Bay fans clearly can't wait to be a part of it.