The afternoon practice on Wednesday proved to be the team's last outdoor work of camp, yet another development that pleased the players during an upbeat three weeks in Central Florida
Jon Gruden led the break himself, ending training camp with the one word his 89 players most wanted to hear. The collective clap was still echoing off the gym bleachers as the first players hit the door.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers put the finishing touches on their 2006 training camp on Thursday morning, moving practice indoors for a final walk-through in the Milk House gymnasium at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex. They had spent much the previous three weeks outside on the nearby grass fields, sweating under intense heat and forging a more unified team.
Simeon Rice won the race to the gym door, followed closely by Brian Kelly and Jermaine Phillips. The last player out, rookie Davin Joseph, was gone before Gruden was finished with his post-practice interview. It's safe to say the Buccaneer players are eager to get out of town. But it's also safe to say their three weeks in Central Florida were productive and essential to the team's future success.
A necessary evil, if you will.
"Although a lot of people want to get rid of the preseason games, you've got to have training camp," said Gruden. "There are fundamentals to football, there are techniques, there are certain things you've got to work on. You've got to bring your team together. At some point, these guys have got to get on a first-name basis. They've got to get coordinated with their calls and whatnot. It's been a heck of a camp but it guarantees us nothing.
"We're happy, obviously, to get a chance to go home. We're very pleased with training camp. We had a very good camp and we're ready to go. Next step in the season."
Though it's been well-documented, it's worth repeating: This year's training camp was rarely derailed by injuries, weather or any other common interruptions. That's part of the reason the Bucs were indoors at the end of it all on Thursday. The coaches had no problem getting through their list of goals for camp and could afford to convert the last full practice into a half-speed walk-through on hardwood.
"It was a great camp," said Gruden. "We didn't have injuries, we didn't have practices interrupted by rain, we didn't have any controversies or anything negative so far. But I don't put a lot of stock in what's happened. The water's under the bridge, man. We've got a lot things yet to improve on and we have a lot of goals that we'd like to accomplish. But it was a great camp and our players are in shape and they got a lot of reps. We ran a lot of plays, more than any training camp I've ever been in. For that, we're pleased."
It's too early to determine how these three weeks in Lake Buena Vista and Celebration will affect the team's fortunes in the regular season. Gruden can only hope the team has laid the foundation for success in 2006, though he certainly can see signs of that.
"How can you measure growth?" he asked. "You can't see it until the games start. We do like the progress that we made. We've got some new coaches here and they got a chance to get acclimated quickly and did a good job. We're together, we're in shape and we do see strides being made. How much, I don't know."
The shorter practice gave the players a quicker exit to I-4, which will take them back to Tampa and towards the team's brand new facility, opening for work on Sunday. It also allowed Gruden a chance to get home to his family sooner on a special day. Thursday is his 43rd birthday.
"I'm going to go home," he declared. "I'm just going to go home and see my kids and probably hit a few golf balls. We're trying to become better golfers, all of us. I'm just happy to have made it to 43."
And what does the ball coach want for his birthday?
"I just want these players to be great, that's all," he said. "That's all a coach wants. You want the best for your players. I want these guys to have great seasons, and I want us to have a team where we're all accountable to one another. If we can get that and I can keep having a little fun at this, that's great."
Gruden may have helped wrap that gift himself with his team's three weeks of high productivity in Central Florida. It was a great camp, and now it's over. That's a present for everybody on the team.