New Buccaneers QB Byron Leftwich is starting to feel more comfortable in Jeff Jagodzinski's attack
There was a time in the National Football League when the first day of training camp was the beginning of the season. Players used camp to get into football shape; coaches used it to get their schemes installed.
Those days are long gone.
In the modern NFL era, any team that doesn't hit training camp with an established foundation and a locker room full of toned athletes is well behind the rest. This, obviously, is the purpose of mini-camps and March weight-room sessions and May "organized team activity days," as well as the reason there are established rules limiting offseason contact and the amount of mandatory work a team can compel its players to do.
Thus, the NFL has become a nearly year-round occupation for players and coaches, the vast majority of whom are extremely dedicated to their craft. In turn, it also draws 24/7/12 media attention and constant assessments of the relative strengths of each team. In the absence of the black-and-white judgment of the standings, offseasons evaluations are far more open to interpretation.
On the practice field at One Buccaneer Place, however, there are no "power polls" or playoff predictions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers know they are on equal ground with the league's other 31 franchise at this point on the calendar, and that is all the encouragement they need to push themselves to the limit on a hot morning four months removed from the start of the season.
"I don't care how bad a team is rated coming into the season, nobody is going to give you a win in this league, period," said wide receiver Antonio Bryant after the Buccaneers' 'organized team activity day' (OTA) practice on Wednesday. "Everybody's starting off at zero. A win is a win. No matter how we get those wins, we get them. The goal is to win as many as you can to get to that second tier. The second tier is the playoffs, and then you continue from there."
The Buccaneers have 14 allotted OTA days to use during the offseason, all of which will be spent over the next five weeks. The team used two of those OTAs this week, and will polish the other 12 off, three per week, over the next month. It is clear that Bryant is dedicated to the work the team will be doing on those 14 increasingly sweltering days, as is virtually the entire roster. Head Coach Raheem Morris had 62 players on the field Wednesday and will get 18 more back in the fold when the rookies are allowed to return next week. Morris was pleased with how focused those 62 men were during the first week of OTAs.
"Today was a good day," he said at the end of Wednesday's workout. "We had a spirited practice. I got my coaches involved; they got a little spirited there, working with the guys, starting to compete. I'm starting to like the way things are coming together.
"What I'm feeling, the vibe from the players, what I'm feeling inside the team room, what I'm feeling in the meetings, what I feel when I come out to the practice field…I'm really starting to like everything that's happening."
During OTA days, teams are allowed to hold full-scale, full-speed practices as well as classroom meetings. Those practices may include periods pitting entire offensive and defensive units, but they may not include contact between the players. The participants wear helmets, practice jerseys and shorts but no pads.
With contact prohibited until training camp, the players work on understanding the schemes and executing their assignments with timing and precision. This is particularly important for the quarterbacks, all of whom are learning a new offense under Jeff Jagodzinski and all of whom are locked in a wide-open battle for the starting job.
On Wednesday, Josh Johnson, Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown alternated throws. First-round pick Josh Freeman will join in the competition next week. Though this week brought the first full-scale practices for the veterans since April 2 (and Leftwich just joined the team on April 13), Morris could clearly see the progress all three have made.
"They're out here working," said the coach. "They're out here competing every day. They're getting better. The one thing I'll say about the quarterbacks is that you're seeing all of them gaining more confidence. They're really starting to understand the system, and that's all part of it. You're seeing the guys starting to get better and better every week, and that's what you look for."
Setback for Storer
Fullback Byron Storer, an undrafted free agent in 2007, was looking forward to continuing the impressive climb of his NFL career after losing the last 10 games of the 2008 season to a knee injury.
Unfortunately, it now appears that Storer will be back on the shelf for some time. During Tuesday morning's OTA practice, the gritty back suffered what Morris describes as a "major setback" in his recovery from that 2008 injury.
"He probably won't dress for OTA days," said Morris, indicating that the new injury would keep Storer out for much longer than the next four weeks. "I don't know what the immediate future is and I don't know how far it's going to go down the line, but he's the one significant injury. "He won't be out here for a significant amount of time."
Storer impressed during the 2007 training camp but began his rookie season on Tampa Bay's practice squad. After being promoted to the active roster in October, he appeared in the last nine games of the season and quickly established himself as a top-notch special teams player. He was also surprisingly effective as a lead blocker as the season progressed, eventually starting three games in 2007, and another three last year after an injury to starter B.J. Askew.
The Buccaneers believed Storer could provide quality depth in the backfield and continue to excel on special teams in 2009. It is not yet clear whether this latest setback endangers Storer's chances of playing this fall.
A few other Buccaneers were held out of practice on Wednesday due to minor injuries, including cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end Stylez G. White, but Morris indicated that Storer was the only new injury of much concern.
On the flip side, linebacker Angelo Crowell, a former Buffalo Bill signed in March, is steadily recovering from the knee injury that cost him all of last season. Crowell was not quite ready to take the field when the Buccaneers held a voluntary mini-camp two weeks after his signing, but he has been participating in practice this week.
"Crowell's going in a couple drills," said Morris. "He's limited in some deals. We hold him out of some stuff but he's been out there in indies [individual drills], he's been out there working out in some team periods. He's coming along great and I can't wait to see what he's going to do as we progress here."
Receiving Corps Gains One
The Bucs used their one open roster spot on Wednesday to sign wide receiver Joel Filani, a 2007 draft pick of the Tennessee Titans.
Filani, who racked up 91 catches for 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior at Texas Tech in 2006, spent the 2007 season on Minnesota's practice squad after he was released by the Titans following training camp. Tennessee selected Filani in the sixth round, with the 188th pick overall.
The 6-2, 216-pound pass-catcher hails from Tempe, Arizona. He played in 50 games at Tech, starting 25 and amassing 175 receptions for 2,667 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was a first-team All-Big 12 selection in each of his last two seasons.
Bucs Add New Director of Football Administration
The Buccaneers announced Wednesday that Digger Daley has been named the team's director of football administration.
In this newly-created post, Daley will assist with player contract negotiations and salary cap management. His primary responsibilities will also include managing the football operations budget.
Most recently a commercial real estate broker with Colliers International in Ohio, Daley has significant experience negotiating and managing multi-million dollar contracts. Prior to joining Colliers in 2004, he was an account manager at Viacom Communications in Cincinnati. He is a 1995 graduate of the University of Cincinnati with a BS in Criminal Justice and Business Administration.