At one point during the final full-team period of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' OTA practice on Wednesday morning, running back Derrick Ward ran a "wheel route" out of the backfield and headed up the left sideline. Rookie cornerback Myron Lewis sniffed it out in time and rushed off in pursuit, but Ward still had a small step on him and the quarterback launched a deep pass in their direction.
Using all of his impressive reach, the 6-2 Lewis managed to stretch one hand far enough out to deflect an on-target pass at the last moment. Fellow rookie Rico McCoy, a linebacker, arrived a second later and gave Lewis an appreciative pat on the helmet.
Nice play for the newcomer, right? Well, yes, but let's not get too excited.
That's paraphrasing Head Coach Raheem Morris, who can certainly appreciate a deflected pass but, ultimately, wants his players to shoot for more. A PBU is undeniably a good thing, at least in comparison to a 40-yard completion, but it is not quite worthy of a celebration.
"I kind of gave them stuff today on defense [because] we celebrate knocked-down passes now," explained Morris after the two-hour morning practice. "Where'd that start? Why are we doing that? It's a missed opp[ortunity]. We want to pick it off. That was the ultimate goal for everybody. Ronde Barber didn't become a great player here in Tampa by knocking down passes. He picked them off and he scored, and he became known for that. He's unbelievable for that, and that's great. That's what you want to be known for, re-establishing those types of things."
The Buccaneers are trying to establish and re-establish quite a few things here in the middle of May. From a purely nuts-and-bolts standpoint, they're trying to drill their terminology into the heads of all the newcomers and upload every page of the playbook into about 89 brains. They are also, as Morris said on Wednesday, working on timing and precision when it comes to all phases of the game, from a quarterback's connection with his receivers to the footwork of the linemen. They're trying to use the building Tampa heat and humidity to pound the players into shape.
And, perhaps most significantly in the end, they are trying to re-establish the sort of aggressive mindset that has characterized the best Buccaneer teams, especially on defense.
"A lot of people thought when we were really good on defense that our idea was to lead the league in yardage, which we know is how you become the number-one defense in the league," said Morris. "We really didn't care about those stats; I know I didn't. The thing we did was try to score or get the ball back for our offense. That's what's going to be determine if we're going to be good. In 2002, I think we led the league in turnovers. I know we did on [defensive] touchdowns. If I ask anybody on defense, 'What's your job this year?' they'll say, 'Score and get the ball back.' That's what we're establishing. Every time I ask them that question, that should be the standard response."
That starts on the practice field, and these early days are critical. The Bucs are trying to establish one standard for a large group of players who have just arrived from different backgrounds, different teams or different schools. The roster overall is young but talented, and if there is a lack of experience in playing under a certain standard, there is a malleability of youth and an enthusiasm among the newcomers that makes change more possible. One of the things that pleased Morris the most about the first week of OTA practices was how hard the players worked.
"In order to get better, in order to be better, in order to have that hunger and commitment that we want, we've got to practice better," said the coach. "We want to re-establish our practice habits. The hunger and commitment of these guys is letting us know that we're going to have a chance."
The Bucs will now spend a week back in their basic offseason program, focusing on strength and conditioning, before starting up another round of OTAs after Memorial Day. The nuts and bolts are still being put into place and so is the full measure of that hunger and commitment, to be honest. But the first three OTAs proved to be a sizeable step in that direction.
"Really fired-up week, really exciting week," summarized Morris. "It was nice to see all the new toys running around from the draft, especially with the vets and some of the guys coming into their second year. When you have that kind of experience starting to jell together, people starting to bond together, it really looked good. We had a nice competitive edge. To build that lasting contender is what we're trying to do around here and these guys are letting us know why we did it."