As fifth-year wide receiver Maurice Stovall noted on Friday, the beginning of training camp marks when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers transition from preparation to competition. Eighty players use the offseason to prepare themselves mentally and physically for training camp, where they will then battle for 53 jobs.
Knowing this, the goal of the Buccaneers' coaches and football staff is to peak, in terms of readiness, on the first day of camp. Ideally, all 80 candidates on day one will be fully healthy, fully focused and fully versed on the playbook.
The Buccaneers held their first practices of Training Camp 2010 on Saturday. Thanks in part to some 11th-hour deals, it seemed pretty close to ideal.
The morning practice on Day One began with 78 players in pads and unfettered, with nobody held out due to injuries. A handful of players who had been treated carefully in May and June - Brian Price, Dekoda Watson, Xavier Fulton, Kellen Winslow, Myron Lewis, Erik Lorig and a few others - were cleared for full-go. Injuries, hopefully minor, will be unavoidable over the next three weeks, but as the first practice began, the Buccaneers were very happily at full strength.
Well, nearly full strength.
Two of the Bucs' 80 were not on the field at 10:20 for the opening stretch thanks to contract situations. Restricted free agent Donald Penn and first-round defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had yet to sign as Saturday dawned, but both deals were soon finalized. Penn signed in time to throw on his pads and join his teammates; McCoy's contract was done soon after and he was expected to join the team for the afternoon session.
Those last two developments, which erased the leading possible causes for consternation as camp began, only served to bolster the already pervasive feeling of optimism at One Buccaneer Place. Josh Freeman is the unquestioned starter at quarterback. The coaching staff is solid and confident. The 2010 draft class looks ready to make an impact. And Penn and McCoy are in and ready to go on Day One.
"Right now we've got more direction because of the steadiness at quarterback," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We've got more direction because of the stability at offensive coordinator and our offensive staff having the offseason to be together the whole time. We have more direction because our defensive staff was able to be together the whole offseason. So of course I feel better as a head coach about it. Of course I feel better that my left tackle is signed to a long-term deal. Of course I feel better that my three-technique has agreed to terms and is going to be here shortly. Of course I feel better that Brian Price is now healthy and he went out there and almost ruined practice today.
"We had a very exciting practice the first time out there in pads for a couple different exciting reasons today. We're very excited to get this training camp under way, fully intact, no issues. We're just building it with the young guys and the chemistry, a promising young group and nothing but optimism ahead."
It was almost to make the players forget the unrelenting heat, with heat index readings already in triple digits. Almost.
"The first practice coming back to training camp, there's always a tiny adjustment phase for the heat, but I feel like the guys fought through it well today," said Freeman. "We had a lot of guys do a lot of positive things, make some plays. I'm excited to come back this afternoon and get better."
The morning practice itself was a typical camp opener. A handful of big passing plays pleased the hundreds of fans in attendance, but there were also some sloppy moments. The defense, as usual, looked a little bit ahead of the offense at the onset of camp. Morris said the occasional botched plays were to be expected on Day One, though he didn't plan to share that feeling with his players in the afternoon meeting. Players on both sides of the ball felt as if they got off to a reasonably good start.
"It feels great," said fullback Earnest Graham. "I'm very excited about it. The team got a chance to look at a lot of these young guys and they looked good in pads. It was the first day so of course we've got some things we need to clean up but everything is good as of now."
Indeed, on an opening day marked by two very important pieces of business, it was all good.
Second-year man Demar Dotson continued to run with the first-team offensive line at left tackle on Saturday morning, as he had throughout a very useful offseason. Penn suited up and hit the field after signing his deal but wasn't thrown immediately into the drills. That should change in the afternoon. Obviously, the Buccaneers plan for Penn to protect Freeman's blind side for a long time.
After practice, Penn disclosed that he had put in a call to his agent several weeks ago, urging him to find a way to resolve the contract situation in time for training camp. Penn said he had too much pride in his game to risk heading into the season without the proper amount of preparation. Obviously, he missed potential practice time during the offseason, but the Bucs believe that camp will be sufficient to get him ready. In a way, the situation is no different than that of a player coming off an injury or a recent signee like former Carolina Panthers guard Keydrick Vincent.
"We'll deal with it accordingly," said Morris. "He hasn't been here for our whole offseason, so we'll get him back up to speed to where he needs to be. We have to talk about that with all our vets, whether it's Kellen Winslow or whether it's Ronde Barber or whether it's Keydrick Vincent who just got here. We'll deal with those guys accordingly in order to get them ready to go, healthy and prepared to be at tip-top shape at the beginning of the season."
On this day, Penn's teammates were just happy to see him back in the mix.
"When he ran onto the field, I was happy," said Graham. "Left tackles in this league, good ones, are hard to come by so it's great to have him out here, especially on the first day out. Now we can just move forward as far as getting down to business."
Added starting center Jeff Faine: "It's good to have him back. It gets your line solid. We know what we've got and we have the opportunity to stay on track and not have to catch up once he gets in. So having him back on the first day is huge and it's time to move forward and build on what we've got. He looks great. He's in great shape, came in real light compared to where he's been in the past. We're expecting big things out of him this year."
Though the signings of Penn and McCoy rightfully dominated the camp storylines on Day One, Morris and his players touched on several other topics.
Morris on having fans watching practice, as only occurs during camp:
"They're a part of it. It's important for us to have these public practices - you don't have many of them - to make those guys feel a part of it, to make our fans want to be a part of it. The guys that come out here, these are our true-blue Buccaneers fans, these are the guys that love Buccaneer football. They were with us through tough times, they were with us through great times. These guys love to see it. They love to see the young players, they're excited about the stuff that's happening and they're here to see us have success."
Freeman on how the fans change the feeling of practice:
"It definitely amps up the energy. Nobody wants to get caught off-guard or embarrassed in front of the fans. It's definitely cool to have the fans out here. I think it's great for us to give back to them and let them see what we're doing right now."
CB Ronde Barber on how eager the fans are for the new season:
"I think everybody's ready for football. I got a bunch of text messages and e-mails this week [saying] it's about time football's here. I think they all feel that same way. We love them as much as they love us. I think they'll support us through whatever we're going through right now and they'll be happy for it in the end."
Rookie WR Mike Williams, a Buffalo native, on dealing with Tampa's heat and humidity:
"That's the big thing here. The heat is crazy. You've got hydrate after every play. It's not like Syracuse where I was, where I could take a whole practice without drinking anything. This is every play. That's one of the big things I've got to adjust to."
Morris on Williams' opening-day performance:
"He's been doing it all offseason. He's been impressive. The young man came in here with some questions around him and he's done nothing but the right things for us. We're just trying to keep him on that same path."
Freeman on his comfort level as his second NFL camp begins:
"I feel really comfortable and I'm getting more reps. It's a little bit different when you're the number-one guy getting the majority of the reps, getting in there with the ones rather than getting maybe two a period like I was last year. I definitely feel like I'm getting more work. I have a lot better understanding of the offense. I'm really excited to see where this thing goes."