S Jermaine Phillips expects to be pushed by the efforts of the team's younger players
Jermaine Phillips arrived in the NFL in 2002 as a fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He joined a defensive backs room in Tampa that included such established standouts as John Lynch, Ronde Barber, Dexter Jackson, Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith. Phillips had to work hard just to earn a spot on the Bucs' talented defensive depth chart, and he spent his rookie campaigning toiling on special teams for a crew that would hold up the Lombardi Trophy by season's end.
It is for these reasons that Phillips knows exactly what Raheem Morris means when he implores the Buccaneers' young players to "drive the bus from the bottom up."
Morris is the Bucs' first-year head coach, having been promoted to that position in January after two seasons as the defensive backs coach and about two weeks as the defensive coordinator. But Morris also joined the Buccaneers in 2002, then as a defensive quality control coach. Morris quickly began working with Defensive Backs Coach Mike Tomlin and rose to the position of assistant defensive backs coach by 2004. Morris helped Tomlin spread that message, among others: Drive the bus from the bottom up.
Phillips is now the established veteran, a playmaker for years at safety who just might be the starting weakside linebacker in 2009. Around him, the Bucs' defense has grown considerably younger, less experienced but full of promise. Morris now delivers that bus message to the entire team, and Phillips thinks it is getting through to the potential stars of this year and next year. The proof, he says, is how competitive each practice has been during the team's current run of organized team activity days (OTAs).
"When you come out here for any practice, there's always a competitive spirit," said Phillips. "Right now, from top to bottom, young to old, everybody's competing. I think that's what you need. The young guys have to come in here and push the old guys. The old guys can't get comfortable and they've got to make the young guys strive for more. That's what we're doing, and that's why it looks like things are going so well."
Yes, optimism is an annual product of the spring months. And no, there are no handy scores or standings to easily gauge how well the Buccaneers really are doing in May and June. The team believes it is laying the groundwork for success; that won't be proved true or false until the fall. Still, Phillips genuinely believes he is seeing daily improvement, and it's a little easier to notice levels of progress given that both the offense and the defense are learning brand new systems from the ground up.
"Right now, we've still got a long way to go," said Phillips. "We're nowhere near where we want to be right now. There's a lot of improvement that needs to happen but the positive thing is that we come out here each day and we get better. You look at that, and you look at the execution on offense and you look at us learning a new system on defense and you can see steady progress. If we keep going at this rate, the sky's going to be the limit and we'll be looking forward to the postseason this year."
First, though, they have to be ready for training camp. Morris has stated that these current OTA practices and the mini-camps that bracket the 14-week offseason program are designed to get everything installed as a base. By the time the Bucs hit training camp, says Morris, they should know everything they need to know, and then they will spend the next three weeks repeating it, honing it and applying it to special situations.
There is, then, a pretty specific goal in place for the offseason program as a whole. The deadline is the end of the mini-camp in the third week of June. The Bucs just began June with a Tuesday morning OTA practice and will have two more this week and three more next week. Will they reach that goal by the start of training camp?
Phillips seems to think so.
"Right now we're still putting stuff in and still learning stuff and figuring out what Coach [Jim] Bates wants," said Phillips of the Bucs' defense. "We're just trying to execute the way the coaches want us to on defense, and offensively they've got the same issues. It's different and it takes time to get that chemistry, to mold together and mesh. Like I said, we're on our way but right now we've still got a long way to go. If we took the field right now, we wouldn't be ready. By the time we get to training camp, I think we're going to be ready to go."
A Permanent Spot…For Now
Second-year offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah has been concentrating mostly on one position in recent weeks, playing left guard with the first-team line in the practice-field absence of Arron Sears.
That's a much more narrow assignment than usual for Zuttah, who was quickly pegged as an ultra-versatile asset for the front line after he was drafted out of Rutgers in the third round last year. Zuttah started five games at the two different guard spots last year, trained extensively at center and is also considered a more-than-passable option at tackle.
He's excited by the opportunity at left guard, however, and is approaching it as if the job is there for the taking.
"Probably every position really should be an open competition," he said. "We try to push each other, and that's how you get better."
Regardless of where he ends up — and make no mistake, a reserve and spot starter who can play anywhere on the line is extremely valuable — Zuttah is working to prove he can help the team with its new offense. He has lost seven or eight pounds since last season in order to feel a bit more mobile but has also picked up the pace in the weight room in order to become stronger in his upper body. He's also trying to absorb Jeff Jagodzinski's zone-blocking schemes and says that, as much as he is currently focusing on left guard, he could make it work at center or tackle, too, without losing much time.
"The biggest focus is getting used to the new scheme and trying to get better every day," said Zuttah. "I like [the offense]. One of the keys to the scheme is to have athletic linemen and I feel I fit very well into that."
A Year Later and a Lot Better
Running back Cadillac Williams likes the Buccaneers' new running attack, too. He's just looking forward to the first time he can try it out.
Williams is more than five months removed from the surgery that repaired his torn right ACL, suffered in the Bucs' season finale against Oakland. He has yet to practice with the team and won't through the remainder of the OTAs and the program-ending mini-camp. However, he is running full speed, has begun making cuts and is reporting no problems with his repaired knee. He is light-years ahead of where he was a year ago, when he was just teaching himself to jog again while recovering from a much more serious knee injury.
Williams has set the beginning of training camp as his target for returning to practice.
"It's coming along well," he said on Tuesday. "I've gotten to where I can run and I can do a lot of the football stuff. I'm slowly starting to cut and do different things like that. It's looking very promising. I definitely have [the start of training camp] in my sights. I definitely want to get out there and give it a go, see what happens.
Williams doesn't accompany the team to the practice field right now, using that time to continue his rehabilitation in the training room. But he attends meetings and is trying to get the mental side of the new offense down so that he can hit the ground running in August.
"Right now I'm just doing a lot of classroom work, because once training camp comes I don't want to be behind in that aspect," he said. "I could just pick up the part and play football.
"It's a real upbeat offense. I like every aspect of it. We're going to attack downfield. The guys up front are going to play physical. And the running scheme is more of a zone running scheme where it's a cut here and there and then get your head down. This offense is going to be big for us."