G Dan Buenning is a rarity for the Buccaneers: A rookie starter on the offensive line
Usually when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers land at the Appleton airport, about 30 miles out of Green Bay, it's a straight shot from the airport exit to the front door of their accommodations, the sprawling Paper Valley Hotel.
On this Saturday, however, the Bucs' buses are winding through neighborhood streets, past large, fenceless lawns and trees that are already starting to change. They pull up in a back alley behind the Paper Valley Hotel; it's the only option, as the street the hotel fronts, College Avenue, has been shut down for the annual Oktoberfest.
Yes, Oktoberfest, in September. Don't ask us.
That means rookie Dan Buenning and his Buccaneer teammates have to wind through back hallways to get to the elevators up to their rooms. Meanwhile, four members of the Buenning family – the Green Bay Buennings – are waiting up front in the lobby, by a bank of payphones. Though it's safe to assume these people have been rooting for the Packers since, well, forever, one sports a bright red Buccaneer polo shirt.
After a few phone calls, the Buennings find each other and Dan exchanges hugs with his parents, Cindy and Tom. They'll have about two-and-a-half hours to catch up, but that's it. Meetings are due to begin at 7:30 p.m., and they'll go straight into curfew. Buenning will be a bit busy the next day, too.
The Buccaneers are in Green Bay for the first time since 2001. Nobody cares about that year. The number everybody is fixated on – thanks in part to motivational signs hung in the Bucs' locker room all week – is 1989. That's the last time Tampa Bay won in Green Bay.
To most of the Buccaneers, a good number of whom weren't even round in 2001, let alone 1989, that makes Green Bay a challenge to be conquered. It's a place they won't visit often. For Buenning, it's home.
Daniel Robert Buenning was born in Green Bay. He grew up in the shadow of Lambeau Field and developed into a two-way star at Bay Port High School. A first-team all-state choice on both offense and defense, he made the obvious choice and went to the University of Wisconsin to continue his career. Wisconsin was not only the home state choice, but it was well-known for developing NFL-ready offensive linemen.
A starter from his first collegiate game, he eventually earned first-team all-conference and second-team All-America honors. This past spring, he was back in Green Bay for the NFL draft, clearly a player who was going somewhere on draft weekend. And, if Buenning's life was a movie, it would have continued on to one more obvious step: The Packers.
Given the departures of accomplished guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, and the admitted struggles of their replacements so far, the Packers might like to have Buenning on the roster at this point. Instead, the Buccaneers came calling, and they are awfully glad they did.
Buenning was one of two offensive linemen the Bucs took among 12 draftees this spring. They also drafted North Carolina State's Chris Colmer in the third round. Right from the beginning, in the spring practices after the draft, Buenning drew Head Coach Jon Gruden's praise. The Bucs still have high hopes for Colmer, but Buenning was clearly more ready to step right in.
He went into training camp as the second choice at right guard, behind versatile veteran Matt Stinchcomb, who started all 16 games at left guard in 2004. On the left side, it appeared to be Jeb Terry's job to lose, unless Sean Mahan could overcome him. As good as Buenning looked in the early going, the team was also thrilled with the work of Mahan, who looked as if he would be difficult to keep off the field.
Early in training camp, Buenning struggled a bit with a calf injury, missing several days. Of course, other than Mahan it seemed like every Buc O-Lineman was coming down with an injury during camp. Stinchcomb was out for the preseason opener, for instance, and the team responded by moving Mahan to left guard and starting Terry on the right. Terry, unfortunately, sustained a knee injury against the Titans that would keep him out for most of the preseason.
Thus, in the second game, Mahan moved back to the right side and Buenning started at left guard. The lineup hasn't changed since.
Just as Buenning planned it all along, right?
Well, the rookie guard could play that card. We expect our professional athletes to claim eternal confidence, to speak with easy bravado. Instead, with typical Midwestern bluntness, he admits that his day came quicker than he expected.
"Obviously, I didn't plan on this happening," he said. "Things just worked out this way. I'm just doing what I'm told, playing as hard as I can."
And playing well. After the season opener in Minnesota, where the Bucs stunned the Vikings, 24-13, behind 146 rushing yards, Gruden praised Buenning generally for his strong blocking and specifically for a block he threw on the "second level" on Carnell Williams' 71-yard touchdown. At Minnesota, the Bucs came out running a collection of sweeps; against Buffalo, in running for 191 yards, the Bucs more often took it between the tackles. In both cases, they chose the left side more often than not.
The reason? Buenning and first-time left tackle starter Anthony Davis have been opening holes. They have played aggressively and physically, in the style that Gruden has been pushing hard all year. No problem for Buenning; that fits right in with what he's trying to do on the football field.
"That's the kind of play I'm used to," he said. "I just run the plays that are called."
Really, it's not often that rookie offensive linemen have much an impact in Tampa. Current right tackle Kenyatta Walker started at left tackle in his rookie season in 2001, but he was a high first-round draft pick who came in with huge expectations. Before that, the last drafted lineman to start regularly for the Bucs in his first year was Ian Beckles in 1990.
Buenning isn't worrying about history, or what has so far set him apart from it. In discussing it with him, one also gets the feeling that wild horses couldn't drag a self-complimentary statement out of him.
"I can't really say [why he's succeeding so quickly]," said Buenning. "I'm just doing the same thing I've been doing my whole life: working hard and doing the best I can."
The point is, this day, this start in his home town, wasn't likely to come so quickly. When he was drafted, it's likely that his family checked out the Bucs' 2005 schedule thisquick and saw their trip to Green Bay in Week Three. That didn't give young Dan long to work his way into the starting lineup.
But he did. And now he will walk down the damp stairs from the Bucs' locker room at Lambeau Field and through the tunnel that empties into the north end zone. When the Bucs' offense takes the field for the first time, he'll be out there. And when the Lambeau faithful cranks the volume up to painful levels, he'll be out there trying to execute. In the stands, Buenning family and friends will be torn between their allegiances.
It's a special situation. The stolid Buenning barely seems moved.
"Yeah, it's special, just because I get to play in front of all my friends and family," he said. "Other than that it's just a business trip."
So far, business has been good. Let's hope it stays that way for Buenning during his first NFL homecoming.