The atmosphere at the Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers temporary home in the U.K., has been described as collegiate, perhaps due to the fall foliage around the practice field and the ivy climbing the resort walls. In terms of how the Buccaneers feel about their stay at Pennyhill, however, the better comparison might be to an age-old NFL institution: training camp.
The Buccaneers chose to move their operations to the London area for the entire week leading up to their International Series game against the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium on Sunday. The main impetus was to allow the players to become acclimated to their surroundings and a five-hour time difference, and to arrive at Wembley on Sunday feeling just as they normally would on a game day.
However, a perhaps-unforeseen additional advantage has been discovered over the last three days at Pennyhill. Both General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris, the young leaders of the NFL's youngest team, have commented on how much the experience has felt like a training camp.
The Bucs aren't working as heavily as they would during a normal training camp (or at least as heavily as they have in previous camps before the new rules of the new CBA) but they have been spending a similar amount of time together. Holing up for a week in a hotel, or a pair of hotels as the Bucs will move into London proper on Friday afternoon, has brought the players together in a way they don't normally get when they scatter from One Buccaneer Place for their various homes.
"We've started to get acclimated as the days have gone and that's really good for us," said Morris. "This has been a great trip for us to focus on our family of football, our brotherhood of men, so to speak. Watching these guys bond around the hotel, here at the Pennyhill, has been phenomenal. Watching these guys be around each other, be around their coaching staff and really be forced to do it here among all our friends has been great. That's been awesome for us, as well as the football."
Players roam the halls of Pennyhill Park and its unorthodox layout, passing fireplaces and snack stations and converted meeting rooms. When they have free time, they spend it together at the hotel, or get in whatever sight-seeing will fit into the break. On Wednesday night, a desire for some familiar comfort food prompted one player to call the local Domino's Pizza, and soon the place was delivering dozens of pies to the Pennyhill lobby. On Thursday afternoon, with practice over and a the schedule showing a long break in between meetings, a group of young defensive linemen rounded up a shuttle bus for some quick tourism. And on the practice field both Wednesday and Thursday, an already loose team was even more animated and upbeat than usual.
"Practice has been just like at home," said Morris. "We're kind of a fun team to watch practice. There's a lot of trash talk, there's a lot of speed, there's a lot of tempo. These guys are young and they love to compete. So it's been awesome. It's been just like at home. It's been no different in our preparations.
"Our team's getting better. You can see the energy in the morning, see everything that's happened."
Morris referred to Thursday's practice, the one during the week where pads are worn and the tempo really picks up, as "phenomenal." In fact, he stressed the word to the point that it might deserve all caps. Of course, he might have missed a play or two because the crisp and cloudless morning was a bit too scenic at the Bucs' tree-hidden pitch.
"The weather's been awesome," said Morris. "It was a little chilly this morning [before practice] but after that we got it going. The sun came out and it's a beautiful day. I caught myself at practice looking around at how beautiful the facilities we were. I had to refocus, because I hadn't seen the changing of the leaves in awhile."
The Buccaneers came to London two years ago but didn't arrive until Friday and barely had time to get settled before the game was played and they were winging back to Tampa. This year's schedule has produced an atmosphere that has served the team well, in terms of both acclimating to the surroundings and coming together as a team.
"We've come over and got a chance to get acclimated with everybody here, got a chance to really settle in," said Morris. "We got a chance to really be around each other, be around family."
Bucs Run Into Saints Again
Tampa Bay took over a share of first place in the NFC South last Sunday when it defeated division rival New Orleans, 26-20, to push each team's record to 4-2. The Saints will get their chance for revenge soon, as the Bucs head to New Orleans after their Week Eight bye to rekindle the rivalry.
On Thursday in Surrey, the Bucs found themselves matched up against a different group of Saints, but one that looked just as imposing. That's because the Northampton Saints of the AVIVA Premiership visited practice to take in a little American football and show their U.S. cousins a thing or two about their sport.
That would be rugby, a rugged sport with more than a few things common with football. One of those things, however, is not pads. The Saints and their opponents slam into each other with abandon during a game with little apparent regard for their own well-being. Pierre Berbizier, a French rugby coach, once famously responded to accusations of foul play in a game by saying, "If you can't take a punch, you should play table tennis."
Of course, the Buccaneers play one of the most hard-hitting sports in the world, and are extraordinarily tough men in their own right. The hitting in the NFL might not be equaled in any rugby union. But they also wear pads, and tackle Donald Penn wouldn't want it any other way.
"I have tremendous respect for them," said Penn of the rugby players and their unpadded sport. "I can't imagine it, don't even want to try it. I do have tremendous respect for those guys – it's a big, physical sport. You've got to have a strong mentality to play that rugby. I can't imagine playing without pads. I'd tap out quick."
The Northampton Saints, in partnership with Gatorade, came to the Bucs' practice site to promote their sport. After practice, they interacted with the Bucs' offensive line, as well as quarterback Josh Freeman, and tried to pass on the feel of their game. The two squads took pictures together and then finished up with what proved to be a humorous demonstration of an inbounds pass.
Rugby teams often contest an inbounds pass by using several players to lift another one in the air to catch a very high throw. For the demonstration, a group of Saints lifted one of their players while three of Jeremy Zuttah's teammates hoisted him into the air. On the first try, Zuttah came up well short of the lifted Saint as his jersey and shoulder pads slipped over his head. The Bucs' linemen took a second crack at it and did a better job of lifting Zuttah, but the canny Saints had slid their pyramid back a few yard and the inbounds pass easily sailed over the Bucs' heads.
Penn enjoyed the demonstration but had no interest in replacing Zuttah at the top of the lift.
"I'm too big," said the 310-pound tackle. "They couldn't pick me up. I wouldn't even let them. They would break their backs."
Hall of Fame Breaks Down Bucs-Bears
Each week, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's web site – a deep and rich source of information on all NFL history, not just its elected members – chooses one of the league's contests as its "Throwback Game of the Week." This week, the selected game is Buccaneers-vs.-Bears.
Fans looking for another take on Sunday's meeting of two old NFC Central foes – one with interesting new angles and little-known facts – should take a minute to visit profootballhof.com and check out this weekly feature.
The Throwback Game analysis looks at the history of the Bucs-Bears series and of course explores any connections to the Hall of Fame. The page is also peppered with more unusual notes, including "Oddities" and "If Twitter were around in…" Here's an excerpt from a note entitled, "Not Happening This Week."
"While the Bucs will rely on QB Josh Freeman this weekend, don't look for him to throw 67 passes on Sunday. But, that's the total that Bucs' QB Brian Griese attempted the last time these two teams met. Only four quarterbacks in the history of the NFL have attempted more passes in a game than Griese's total against the Bears on Sept. 21, 2008."