Watch: Brian Leonard on learning the Bucs' offensive playbook
On Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium, Brian Leonard set the cannons off, prompted the zebras to raise their arms and even got the obligatory flying side-bump from teammate Vincent Jackson in the end zone…all of which seemed like indisputable evidence that he had just scored a practice-field "touchdown" at the end of a 32-yard run.
However, upon further review…
The touchdown stood on Saturday at the widely popular Night Practice in the Bucs' home stadium, in front of tens of thousands of fans, capping an impressive two-minute drill that really only required a field goal to get the offense a win. On Sunday, after a quick-turnaround two-hour practice in the morning back at team headquarters, Head Coach Greg Schiano conceded that the coaches may have been a bit hasty in giving that call to the offense.
There is no actual tackling in 99% of the work done on an NFL practice field, so there's always some room for interpretation. To the casual observer, Leonard did indeed appear to hit a hole over left tackle and then bounce untouched to the sideline to outrun the rest of the defense. Had this play occurred in a live game, however, Leonard might have had to win a violent collision with All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson to stay upright and continue on his way to the end zone.
"I've got to set the book straight because Goldson was not real happy with our call that that was a touchdown," said Schiano, laughing. "Dashon made an incredible open-field approach and then 'tagged off' the way he was supposed to, and he comes up to me and says, 'Coach, what's up with that?' I think we would have played some more football in that situation."
Schiano obviously wanted to give some belated credit to his defense for that play, especially after reviewing the practice tape Saturday night. That did not, however, take away from his positive assessment of Leonard's work. Whether or not that particular play would have gone for six points, Leonard still displayed speed and some quick moves in making the most of the opportunity. Schiano, who coached the former St. Louis Ram and Cincinnati Bengal in college, was not surprised to see that talent on display.
"Brian Leonard is a tremendous athlete," said Schiano. "For whatever reason, people might not see that all the time, and he hasn't had that much exposure. But I had a chance to see him as a high school kid playing basketball, football, every sport, and he is an incredible athlete. He can jump, he can run, do all that stuff. The good thing is, he is a little bit older but he hasn't played so much that he's taken that many cumulative hits."
Leonard's NFL exposure so far has consisted of two seasons in St. Louis and four in Cincinnati, with eight starts, 174 rushes for 646 yards and 113 receptions for 814 yards. His 303 carries and 30 receptions for the Rams as a rookie in 2007 remain his single-season high-water mark. Now he's part of a very interesting mix of candidates to round out the Buccaneers' backfield behind clear number-one Doug Martin. After trading LeGarrette Blount to the New England Patriots on draft weekend, the Buccaneers are now sorting through a group that includes Leonard, 2012 draftee Michael Smith, 2013 sixth-rounder Mike James and recent signee Peyton Hillis. All of those backs are trying to make a strong impression on the coaching staff, and the first step is absorbing Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan's system.
"To be honest, it's one of the tougher playbooks I've learned in my career," said Leonard on Sunday. "It's not difficult, it's just complex. You've just got to learn it – a lot of shifts and motions, stuff like that. It's pretty tough, but once you learn it, it's a great offense to be in. I'm excited about it. I'm still learning new stuff every day, and some of the younger guys are helping me out. Usually I'm the older guy and I'm helping other people out, but Doug's helping me out and some of the other guys are helping me and I'm getting it.
"It's great competition out there and it's making us all better. We've got to fight for jobs out here. No one's guaranteed a job. I've got to go out there and fight every day and make this team."
Like Hillis, Leonard has had some experience at both fullback and tailback and can be plugged into the offense in a lot of different ways. After Martin won the starting job over Blount last summer, the Buccaneers did not find much for their former starter to do during the regular season. The new backfield promises to be more well-rounded, even if Martin still gets roughly the same share of the overall touches. If Leonard can be an option for occasional carries as the primary runner as well as a receiver and a strong pass-blocker, he'll have a better chance to make the team and get on the field this fall.
"I'm hopeful that he can come in here and contribute, just with his versatility," said Schiano. "[When] he's in there, well you don't know if we're going to run, if we're going to pass, is he going to pass-protect. That's good when you have a role player that they can't kind of pigeon-hole into a role, if that makes sense."
Of all those aspects to his game, Leonard would most like to develop the most basic one further – what he does after taking a handoff.
"I'd like to improve my running game," he said. I feel like I could do better than what I've done in the past, how I've run the ball. This year, I'm healthy, I feel great, no surgeries in the offseason. So I feel like that's one of the main things I can improve."
Leonard looked just fine in that regard on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium. And even if there is some second-day second-guessing going as to the validity of the cannons going off at the end of his biggest run of the evening, it still was a nice boost for him as he battles for a spot on the depth chart.
"It felt good," said Leonard. "It was great blocking by the O-Line and it was just nice to get into the end zone. I feel good. I feel healthy this year and I'm ready to go."