There wasn't any one specific entrance players were required to use when they reported to One Buccaneer Place for the start of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp on Friday. However, the breezeway between the main building and the weight room, though ill-named on this still and humid day, was the obvious choice as it was right across from the players' parking lot.
It was into this stone walkway that fifth-year wide receiver Maurice Stovall walked a little after 2:00 p.m. on Friday, his stride purposeful but unhurried. Stovall made the rounds of the team employees standing nearby, shaking every hand firmly, then turned to the assembled media and asked, "So, are you ready for training camp 2010?"
Well, it was clear that he was.
It would be hard to convincingly claim that any player, even one as drawn to hard work as Stovall famously is, actually looks forward to training camp. It's tough to return to any job after a month-long vacation, and this particular job involves running around in stifling heat, absorbing the yells of coaches and fighting off waves of newcomers looking to take over your duties. And there is no easing into it - the first two-a-day starts the next morning at 10.
But players in general, and clearly Stovall in particular, do look forward to a new season, and as difficult as training camp is it is effectively the start of that season. This is when players find out if all there hard work over the offseason will produce the results they desire.
It would also be hard to convince the players on any team that those desired results are not a near-certainty. Since camp headquarters and the team hotel are no longer the same place, as they were for years in Celebration, Florida, players no longer have to lug all their luggage and personal belongings in with them as they report. But those players did all arrive carrying one thing in common: Serious optimism.
What is worth noting about the Bucs' reporting day is not that the players have that optimism - again, you can find it in abundance any camp at this time of the year - but that to a man they seem to feel that things are specifically better than they were a year ago. This is a confident bunch, regardless of what the pundits may predict, and the players feel as if their optimism is rooted in solid ground.
"I think...well, I know that our vibe is a lot better, a lot more confident," said Stovall. "As far as the quarterback position, you have Josh Freeman who got a lot of experience last year when he was thrown into the fire. This offseason he's matured in a lot of areas, whether it's mechanics; knowing the plays; being more of a leader in the huddle, on the field, off the field and in the meeting rooms. Our communication has gotten better also, from an offensive standpoint."
It's the same story on defense, according to one of the primary team leaders on that side of the ball.
"We didn't really know what to expect on defense [last year] and a lot of us didn't know exactly how to approach a game, how we were going to do once the season began," said middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. "This year I think we've had success. We put the defense in on the fly last year for about six games and I think this offseason the confidence has really been high around here. I think we're going to be a lot better on defense this year.
"I think once we get going in training camp a little bit we'll pick right up where left off in OTAs. Guys know their roles, know what they're supposed to be doing and I think their confidence is a lot higher than it was a year ago."
Stability has obviously done wonders for the attitude at One Buccaneer Place. As Stovall indicates, it helps as well that the team believes it has a leader and potential difference-maker under center. A very well-regarded 2010 draft class injected even more excitement into the mix and some of the young players who got their first real chance to play in 2009 think that experience will lead to significant personal improvements this fall.
"I'm better prepared than I was last year," said defensive end Kyle Moore, a fourth-round pick in 2009 who saw the light go on in the final month last year. "We had a new defense last year, I was a rookie, I didn't know how things were going to go. This year I'm way better prepared than I was last year.
"We spent a lot more time together this year. A lot of guys were here during the offseason workouts and most of us were here during the OTAs, too. So we got to jell and mesh together. I feel like it's more of a team atmosphere this year than everybody all over the place like it was last year. The chemistry on this team is a whole lot better compared to what it was last year."
The Bucs will be looking for greater contributions from players like Moore in their efforts to double or triple or quadruple their win total in 2010. Tampa Bay is a very young team with a lot of new pieces put in place since General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris took over early in 2009. It didn't all work in the first year of the process, but all those pieces are still in place and hopefully ready to flourish. That's Derrick Ward's plan in his second year with the Buccaneers.
"I'm coming back with a new mentality this year," said Ward, the former Giants running back who intends to become a team leader in Tampa 2010. "It's just going to be a fun time at camp. I'm happier. I'm more excited. I'm just glad to be around my teammates. I know everybody now. Last year I didn't know anybody. I was the new guy, the new kid on the block. But now I've got a year of experience with this organization, and it's a great organization. I'm just ready to have some fun."
The good feelings were so pervasive on reporting day at One Buc Place that Stovall even claimed to be looking forward to the conditioning test each player would be required to complete later in the afternoon. It remained to be seen if a grueling run in the heat would tamp down that enthusiasm a bit, but it seems clear that nothing is going to smother the Bucs hopes for the 2010 season.
"I have high expectations, honestly," said Ruud. "I expect us to contend for the playoffs. Three-and-13, that was a bitter, bitter year. I think everybody has a lot more confidence going into this year."