Last year at this time, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris was openly talking about his team winning 10 games, and most often meeting with polite skepticism. The Buccaneers were coming off a three-win season in Morris' first year at the helm, and they were clearly going to be relying on a lot of very young players in 2010.
Even those who could see the positive end game in the Buccaneers' rebuilding vision under Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik didn't necessarily believe it would come together that quickly. But before the 2010 Bucs won their season opener, and then won four of their first six, and then stayed right in the playoff race until the very last hours of the campaign, Morris found at least one sympathetic audience.
It's no wonder Morris was eager to interact with that same crowd – or at least a very similarly-motivated one – on Friday night.
To cap a long, eventful and ultimately very fulfilling day, Morris and a large group of prominent Buccaneer players headed down to Jannus Live on in downtown St. Petersburg on Friday evening for the team's 2011 Official Season Kickoff Party Presented by Miller Lite. There, once again, they encountered a Buc-crazy crowd buzzing with enthusiasm, anticipation and, yes, belief.
Early in the evening, Morris took the stage to welcome the Kickoff Party visitors and tell them how important they were to the Buccaneers' goals for 2011.
"Last year we were down here talking about our plans for the season," said Morris. "Nobody believed we could do the 'Race to 10'…except for the people here at Jannus Live! Now we have only one goal for this season: Win a championship."
That was just what the predominantly jersey-clad crowd wanted to hear. Folks with Mike Alstott and Warren Sapp jerseys stood next to others with newly-minted Mike Williams and Josh Freeman shirts, and that visual said as much about the team's future plans as anything Morris could tell them. The Buccaneers built a championship from within not long ago, and the current regime was planning to do it again, with the same blueprint.
Thus it was fitting that the 2011 Kickoff Party was a platform for the team's young, homegrown talent, the rising stars who will form the core of a successful franchise for years to come. Gerald McCoy and Cody Grimm. Mike Williams and Adrian Clayborn. Geno Hayes and Adam Hayward. Arrelious Benn and Da'Quan Bowers. Williams, who was one of the first players to take the stage after his head coach, clearly enjoyed wielding the microphone and engaging the crowd in a series of chants. He and McCoy made a very effective hype team as their rookie teammate, Adrian Clayborn, tossed t-shirts and beads into the crowd.
Williams knew what the fans at Jannus Live wanted.
"We gave them a little taste of 10-6 last year but really didn't get into the playoffs," he said. "So now it's very important for us to get into the playoffs for all the fans like the ones who came out here tonight. Their support is incredible and we want to show them how much it means to us."
Added Morris: "It's always fun to come out and see your fans and see the ones who are most excited for you to win a championship. Our goal is to win a championship and we want to get these people here thinking about the same thing and believing it. I've enjoyed this party both times we've had it here at Jannus Live, and these are the people that are going to be genuinely interested in everything the Bucs do no matter what. You can tell these guys love us as a team, and we love them too."
Of course, even amid such a party atmosphere, the players and their fans still couldn't quite keep their minds from turning to Lee Roy Selmon, the Hall of Fame Buccaneer who passed away on Sunday after suffering a stroke. The Buccaneers actually began Friday by attending a long and emotional funeral service for Selmon before returning to team headquarters to practice and then, for some, heading out to Jannus Live.
That might have seemed like a roller coaster of emotions, but Morris could see how the whole day added up to a very appropriate sendoff into the 2011 season, which begins Sunday at Raymond James Stadium against the Detroit Lions.
"For us, it meant a lot to be able to pay our respects to the original legendary Buccaneer, and then to be able to go to practice and do what he would want us to do, to execute and prepare," said the coach. "And then to come here and celebrate the start of the season, and also remember what he has done for us, that's a great way to end the day."
Selmon's service in the morning was as much a celebration as a farewell and McCoy, who is following in the Hall of Famer's footsteps as a former Oklahoma Sooner first-rounder, was definitely feeling celebratory on Friday night. He told the crowd that he had a new motivation for the 2011 season, then swapped out his red-and-pewter Buccaneers hat for an orange Throwback version to honor Selmon.
"Last year, I had my reasons for playing, but this year I have a new one," said McCoy as he switched hats. "Let's give it up for the greatest Buccaneer of all time."
That drew one of the biggest cheers of the night, and the McCoy-Williams-Clayborn trio then left the stage to be followed a little later by Grimm and the others. In between, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders performed several times for a very appreciative crowd, and when the Bucs' turn on stage was over the crowd was entertained by hit band nonpoint and DJ Z-Trip.
The whole evening reminded Clayborn, the one rookie in attendance, of college season kickoff events at the University of Iowa, where the passion for football also runs high. Like Williams, who attended last year's event as a rookie, Clayborn will probably be back in 2012 to get another reminder of how passionate his new team's fans can be.
"It's fun to see the fans and how excited they are," he said. "I'm glad I got a chance to be involved. It's definitely good to let the fans know they're appreciated, sign stuff for them and just have a fun time together. We're just out here hanging out with the fans, letting them know they're appreciated. It's not asking much for us to come out here for a few hours and meet the fans. We can just sit back and relax here after a long day."