WR Keenan McCardell was the Bucs' top big-play maker in 2004
Poolside at the Ihilani Resort is a wonderful place to relax, enjoy the scenery and spend an hour or two trading jokes with men whom you've considered mortal foes for the past five months.
That's the scene this week, at least, at the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa in Kapolei, Hawaii, where the players on the NFC squad for the NFL's Pro Bowl are spending their free time. And there's plenty of free time during Pro Bowl week.
Keenan McCardell, the ageless and prolific wide receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hasn't been a part of Pro Bowl week since 1997, but the scene is virtually unchanged. First voted to represent the AFC as a Jacksonville Jaguar that February, McCardell had many more outstanding seasons in the years between but not another Pro Bowl invite until this winter. He's with the NFC crew this time around, but that's about the only difference.
"It's all the same once you're here," said McCardell, one of four Bucs who were selected for the Pro Bowl and two who will actually play in the game on Sunday. "The whole routine of practice and the week is the same.
"It's pretty much practice to poolside, hanging out with the fellas. It's a tradition, and once you're here, you fall back into it. It's great just sitting by the pool and mingling with guys who are your enemies during the year. There's a real camaraderie among the guys."
On this particular afternoon, McCardell had just finished the NFC's third workout of the week and he was already headed to the Ihilani pool deck. Pro Bowl practices, without pads and usually less than an hour in length, are famously lacking in intensity, so a few hours by the pool is only a slight shift in pace. A walk on the beach could follow, or maybe a sightseeing tour or a shopping trip.
"Everybody's pretty laid back here, even in practice," said McCardell, who led the Bucs with 84 receptions for 1,174 yards and eight touchdowns this season. "You get the system down and then you just let your talents take care of you on Sunday. We're working on a small section of the Eagles' offense, and we should be able to get it down pretty easily."
The two conference squads are led by the coaching staffs of the teams that lost the AFC and NFC Championship games, so that's Andy Reid and the rest of the Philadelphia squad for McCardell's group. That could be a little strange for a Buccaneer, as the Eagles were Tampa Bay's particular stumbling block for so many years, until last year's triumphant trip to Veterans Stadium in the playoffs.
"It's a little strange, but they're great coaches," said McCardell. "We're just going out and having some fun with them."
Plus, the desire to win remains strong even when he's the only Buccaneer on the NFC's offensive unit. Furthermore, like all of the stars assembled in Hawaii this week, he wants to back up his individual success of 2003 with a strong performance in the Pro Bowl.
"You want to look good," said McCardell. "I think that's the reason you're over here. You don't come over here just to lay it down; you want to do the things that got you over here. There's a lot of guys that have to get into the game, so you won't get a lot of opportunities. When you do, you have to make the plays, then put on a cap and head to the sideline."
The Pro Bowl is the perfect place for McCardell to finish what improbably became one of the finest years in his long and successful career. Thought to be the complementary receiver to go-to man Keyshawn Johnson when the 2003 campaign began, McCardell instead grabbed a lead role and produced one of the finest seasons by a pass-catcher in Buccaneer history. He had his second-best single-season yardage mark, set a career high in yards per catch (14.0) and remained productive throughout the year despite a revolving cast of receivers around him. His 74, 75 and 76-yard touchdown catches in 2003 were not only the Bucs' three longest plays of the season but also the three longest receptions of his career.
Still, it would have been easy for McCardell to be overlooked at a position crowded with good players in the NFC. Instead, he will join Torry Holt, Anquan Boldin and Laveranues Coles in catching passes from Daunte Culpepper, Matt Hasselbeck and Marc Bulger on Sunday in Aloha Stadium. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN, beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET.
"It's an honor to be considered one of best players in the NFL," said McCardell. "What it does is make you go out and work even harder for next year so you'll still be considered one of best in league. That's something that every guy over here does; you just keep doing the things that got you here."
McCardell will find out during the week's final practice on Saturday morning how much he is expected to play on Sunday. He and his NFC mates will try to break a three-game Pro Bowl losing streak to their AFC nemeses. In the meantime, McCardell will enjoy the pool some more, accompany his wife on more than a few shopping trips and maybe take a weekend trip to a naval base. As of Thursday, he hadn't hit Hawaii's famous beaches yet, but that was definitely on the agenda.
It took McCardell seven years to get back here; he plans to enjoy it to the fullest.