WR Charles Lee catches a 'touchdown' pass during a 9-on-7 red zone drill Tuesday
Jon Gruden was the first one through the tunnel, jogging out onto the field at 10:17, through the same entrance the Tampa Bay Buccaneers use on game days.
Hip-hop music blared from the speakers and the scoreboards rotated with familiar home-team graphics. The yard lines and hash marks were fully painted from end to end, the grass betrayed by only a few sandy spots. Buccaneer players in alternating red and white jerseys followed Gruden onto the turf, interspersed with a handful of striped refs.
All that was missing was the crowd, and rookie wide receiver Michael Clayton had no problem filling that part in with his imagination.
"It was my first time going into the stadium," said Clayton, drafted in the first round by Tampa Bay just one month ago. "I just walked out and kind of looked around. I pictured it being full and what it would be like on game day."
That was the idea, to a point. Scheduled to start another run of three 'organized team activity' days at One Buccaneer Place this week, the Bucs decided instead to hold Tuesday's practice at Raymond James Stadium. It was an introduction for Clayton and the many, many new players on the team, and a reminder of the importance of one's home turf to all 80-plus players on the roster.
"We've got a bunch of new guys, so this was good as a transition to get them acclimated to playing in the stadium," said wide receiver Charles Lee, who turned in several big plays in Raymond James Stadium last November and December. "Besides, we just didn't play well at home last year. It was just to get a feel for it and let the guys know that this is our home field and we've got to win here."
Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998 to rave reviews and a quickly developing sense of home pride for Buc players. Tampa Bay went 6-2 at home that season, then 7-1 in 1999 and no worse than 5-3 in their first five seasons there. The Bucs were 6-2 on home turf again in their Super Bowl season of 2002, Gruden's first year at the helm, but stunningly dropped to 3-5 at home last year.
Tuesday's practice was also a taste of the conditions one might expect for the preseason home games in August and the regular season home opener against Seattle on September 19. In a nutshell, very hot and very humid.
And, if nothing else, it was a change of pace, a stimulus for the type of all-out competition Gruden likes to see on the practice field. In this case, Gruden and his staff pitted the offense against the defense in a battle of pride.
"It was real competitive," said Lee. "We had a red zone day today and the cannons were going off. We tried to simulate it as well as possible. It was a lot of fun…guys were excited."
The offense scored a string of 'touchdowns' during the first 9-on-7 drill in the red zone, including several on receptions by Lee. The pirate ship, located just above the end zone the Bucs were driving into, set off its cannons repeatedly to announce each score.
"It was the experience of a lifetime," said Clayton. "We had the cannons going off when we scored, and that's always a good feeling to hear that."
The war of words between the offense and defense picked up after the early barrage of scoring, prompting a series of challenges from ultra-confident safety Dwight Smith. To his credit, the offense failed to score on eight straight plays for which Smith was on the field. Still there were enough small victories on both sides to keep each side happy…and hungry for more.
"The defense had kind of called the offense out before we went out there," said Lee. "They said there weren't going to be any cannons going off. Well, a lot of them went off. That kind of gave us a little boost, but every practice needs to be intense, no matter where we're having it. And that's how it's been since I've been here."