Typically, when you're trying to put together a big-ticket deal for one of the most coveted free agents around, that's a task that garners the entire width and breadth of your attention. It's Job 1A…and it's usually 1B and 1C, too.
However, Mark Dominik and the rest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' movers and shakers didn't have the luxury of single-minded focus this past Tuesday and Wednesday, in the hours after the opening bell for the NFL's 2012 free agency period. Getting the aforementioned deal done for one Mr. Vincent Jackson was only part of the Buccaneers' all-out blitz on the open market, and successful fulfillment of the team's strategy required overlapping pursuits of not one but three critical targets.
High-profile free agency acquisitions are landmark events for any franchise. Dominik and the Buccaneers completed three of them in less than 24 hours, turning their pledge to be "more active" in this year's free agency period into the understatement of the year. The fact is, there may never before have been a 24-hour period like this in Tampa Bay franchise annals.
Upon introducing his three prized catches – Jackson, the premier deep-threat wide receiver; massive All-Pro guard Carl Nicks; and ball-hawking cornerback Eric Wright – Dominik called the whirlwind that led up to Wednesday’s press conference "a great day in Buccaneers history." He also called it "a great opportunity," which underscores the fact that so far all Jackson, Nicks and Wright have done is hold up appropriately-numbered red jerseys for their photo opps. Soon, those three will be expected to be key players in a rapid Buccaneer turnaround, the obvious goal after the team pushed all of its chips – almost literally – into the middle of the table.
"We believe in what they have here," said Jackson, speaking for Nicks and Wright as well. "Obviously, we all come from places that have been playing good football. If it wasn't for [Head] Coach [Greg Schiano] and his staff and obviously the Glazer family, them believing in us and giving us the opportunity to go somewhere and be a part of something special…we think there's a lot of good things happening here in this organization and this city and I think we're all very excited to come down here and play in a place like this.
"Obviously, if we didn't believe it could happen here, with the guys that they have here, we probably would have been happy to stay where we're at. I think we're all here hungry to prove something."
Nicks added that – quite the opposite of the cliché of the overly-satisfied player with a big new contract – being part of an incoming group like this one is actually very motivating.
"To be a part of something that's eventually going to be great, it's a good feeling," he said. "To know I was a building block, it's a good feeling. It's humbling and it makes you hungry and it makes you want to work. I look forward to the challenge."
The Buccaneers rose to prominence in the mid to late-'90s after building a long-lasting core through the draft – Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber, Warrick Dunn, Donnie Abraham, etc. At the turn of the century, the team began using free agency to try to add what had become clear were the missing pieces. A trade for WR Keyshawn Johnson actually came first, but the biggest acquisitions came in the form of 2001 free agents Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice. In 2002, with new Head Coach Jon Gruden in place, the team repopulated the offense with a number of mid-level veterans, the likes of Michael Pittman, Joe Jurevicius, Keenan McCardell, Roman Oben and Ken Dilger.
The Bucs' 2002 Super Bowl title was the direct result, and the team spent the next few years trying to keep the roster spackled with additional free agents while shooting for another title or two. It didn't work, and the rest of the decade was a yo-yo between competitive and uncompetitive seasons. In 2009, Dominik took over as general manager and the franchise made a conscious decision to rebuild almost exclusively through the draft.
As such, a new young core is in place. Gerald McCoy, Josh Freeman, Adrian Clayborn and company haven't yet proved they are a match for the Sapp-Brooks generation, but the team believes it has loaded the roster with talent and limitless potential. Now, to help that potential be reached, it is obviously time to augment with free agency once more. The timeline for the current team hasn't followed – and won't follow – exactly that of the one that rose to contender status in the 1990s, but it certainly seems as if the process has reached an attempted takeoff stage again.
And, oh, how dramatically that process moved forward this past week. Johnson and Rice came in together in 2001, but Johnson was picked up in early March right when the market opened and Rice didn't join the team until more than two weeks later, on the 23rd. The only move in between was the signing of, ahem, quarterback Ryan Leaf, so it's safe to say there was no Eric Wright-type acquisition to fill out that potential trio. Most of the other particularly notable free agent signings in Buc history have stood essentially alone in their respective offseasons – Jeff Faine in 2008, Jeff Garcia in 2007, Bert Emanuel in 1998, Alvin Harper in 1995. In the years that the Bucs have had sizeable free agent hauls, in terms of numbers, they have mostly been a collection of mid-level players, a strategy that is not to be scoffed at, either. The aforementioned 2002 group is a good example, or the 1993 class, the first one under the new free agency system – key acquisition Hardy Nickerson augmented by the likes of Martin Mayhew, Vince Workman, Jerry Gray and Barney Bussey.
Never before has there been a Buccaneers free agency class like this one, however. By most accounts, Nicks and Jackson were the best players to hit the market at their positions, both still very much in their prime. Wright didn't garner as much pre-free agency attention as his two new teammates, but he was quietly coveted by multiple teams. In addition, as was universally agreed upon at Wednesday's press conference, all three players left teams that very much wanted to have them back.
"These are all guys that their own football teams desperately wanted to hold onto, and to have them here in Tampa, we're very excited," said new Head Coach Greg Schiano. "One of the things that was asked early on when I came here was, 'Do you feel there's a commitment?' And I said it unequivocally – there's a commitment to being the best. We're sitting next to the best here. I can't wait to coach these guys."
Two waves emanate from a move as dramatic as the ones the Bucs pulled off at the start of free agency. First, there's a growing belief that the team is committed, as Schiano says, to getting better quickly, to returning to a playoff-caliber team. Second, there's a rise in expectations that such a thing will actually happen. These aren't the maneuvers of a team that expects to be picking high in the draft again a year from now.
"We're all looking forward to contributing," said Jackson. "You've got some good things here, a lot of good young players, and we're definitely just looking to fall right into that fold and make this team a contender."
Added Wright: "It's a team that you want to play for and it's an organization you want to be a part of because everybody has one goal, and that's to win. I want to help them win, and I'm here now, so that's exactly what we're going to do.""
As Jackson pointed out during Wednesday's press conference, all three of the new Buccaneers came from teams that had tasted success and could reasonably be considered strong playoff candidates in 2012. The Detroit Lions, Wright's last team, completed a steady three-year rise from the historic 0-16 season of 2008 to the playoffs last year and have the looks of a solidly-built and lasting contender. The Saints, Nicks' only other home, are already exactly that – they averaged just over 11 wins a year during Nicks' four seasons and made the playoffs the last three. Jackson experienced four playoff campaigns and zero losing seasons in his seven years in San Diego.
These are players that are willing to come in on the ground floor, but not in the basement. As long as the foundation of that ground floor is rock solid and the elevator is ready to shoot up to the top floor, they want to be part of the ride. Jackson, Nicks and Wright fully expect that they have joined a team ready to win right now.
"It's all perspective," said Jackson. "If you want to just go off last year's [results], I don't think the team that's going to be starting the season is the same team that was here last year. It already looks different from the outside in. It's a fresh slate, and we're starting right at the same level as the other 31 teams in the league. That's how we feel and that's the way we're going to approach it. We don't feel like we're coming from behind or anything like that. We think we've got a great opportunity in front of us and that's the way we're going to approach it."