On the first play of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first drive against the Jacksonville Jaguars on August 28, wide receiver Mike Williams beat his man, cornerback Derek Cox, with a quick move off the line.
Cox slipped trying to catch up to the dynamic Buccaneers rookie, meaning Williams was all alone on the sideline when he caught Josh Johnson's pass, a big play in the making in the game's opening minutes. Two pursuing Jacksonville safeties had an angle to cut Williams off on the sideline, so he cut the play back to the middle of the field, crossed the 50 and was eventually tackled by Anthony Smith at the Jaguars' 35. That 53-yard gain provided most of the distance on a field goal drive that tied the game in the first quarter.
After the play, center Jeff Faine caught up to Williams to congratulate his young teammate. Faine also had a few words for Williams, which were meant to both encourage the rookie and make him think.
We have confidence in you to make big plays, Faine told him, but we also have confidence that you can beat that last guy in the open field and make it an even bigger play.
"It's just a matter of instilling confidence in young guys," said Faine, "so they can go out there and do the things they were brought here to do."
It's also the act of a captain.
Not surprisingly, Faine was one of the five players chosen through a vote among the Buccaneer players on Tuesday afternoon to serve as the team's captains in 2010. The players chose Faine and quarterback Josh Freeman on offense, cornerback Ronde Barber and Barrett Ruud on defense and long-snapper Andrew Economos on special teams.
Each of the five will wear a "C" on his jersey during the season, a mark only introduced by the NFL a few years earlier. Each of the five was also quite humbled to have earned such respect from his teammates.
"It's awesome," said Ruud, the starting middle linebacker who has led the team in tackles for three years running. "I've been a captain in high school, in college and now in the pros. When you're a captain on a pro team it means a lot because it's guys from all over the country, a lot of highly-skilled guys who elected you to be a captain for them. It means a lot and I'm pretty proud of it."
Added Faine: "It's a personal honor. It's one of the best things to be voted for something like that by your teammates."
The Buccaneers' captains are a mix of young and old (by NFL standards), experience and enthusiasm, vocal and demonstrative. Barber is the team's longest-tenured player as he heads into his 14th season as a Buccaneer. Freeman is in just his second season but has already impressed his teammates with his maturity and his veteran-like approach to the game. That Freeman was selected over many older and more experienced players is a clear indication that his teammates on offense expect him to grab the reins of leadership.
"A quarterback is so pivotal to a franchise, and what's nice with him is he's always here early, he's always working, he always wants to get better," said Ruud of Freeman. "He's a guy that's a lot of fun to be around, and that's key, too. He doesn't put himself above anybody else. He likes to be one of the guys. He has a work ethic that equals his talent, which is nice to see.
They are a varied group in other ways, too. Ruud is a homegrown draft pick from 2005; Faine was a free agency acquisition in 2008. Ruud and Faine play virtually every snap when their side is on the field. Economos is a former undrafted free agent who does one very specific job for the team but has become an integral part of the Bucs' efforts on fourth downs.
"It's a complete honor," said Economos, who succeeds the departed Will Allen as the Bucs' captain on special teams. "To have your peers vote you in as captain…it was completely unexpected. It's very humbling because I've played a lot of downs with a lot of players in that room and I look up to them. It was definitely a surprise and I'm definitely proud to be their captain."
Like many leaders in the NFL, where every player has already proven to be an elite-level athlete, Economos knows that a big part of his responsibility as a captain is to lead by example.
"Just come to work every day," he said. "Obviously I got voted in by them because they saw something in me as far as my work ethic and what I bring to the table as far as leadership. I don't see myself changing much. I'll just try to help the people that need help and keep the standard high as far as our special teams go."
Still, player captains are an extension of the team's coaching staff, and as such they occasionally find themselves in teaching moments, such as Faine's uplifting conversation with Williams. Ruud says the key can be knowing when to speak up and when to let a teammate take care of business on his own, especially on a team with so much young and rapidly-developing talent.
"It's a little bit of both," said Ruud. "You don't want to go out of your way to give pointers because you might break down somebody's confidence if you do that. One thing, just looking around the team and around practice, we are a young team but we are a somewhat experienced team, too. We've got a lot of guys that are coming back that have played a lot in the last year, even though they're only 22 or 23 years old. They played a lot last year and game experience is experience, no matter how old you are."