WR Michael Clayton says the Bucs have been anticipating Sunday's game for a long time
Brian Griese had one distinct feeling as he watched the first game of the NFL's 2005 season Thursday night, and it wasn't awe at New England's efficiency or the desire to throw a fly pattern to Randy Moss.
No, Griese's sensation came from a simpler place. What the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback felt was envy.
The season is already underway for New England and Oakland. It's real; it's in progress. The Pats and Raiders have taken that first hit, thrown that first perfect spiral, found the end zone for the first time. Griese's debut, in contrast, is still 48 hours away, and the disjointed feeling of the preseason is still clinging to his heels. Griese needs his 60 minutes of real football, the sooner the better.
"I wish we were playing on Thursday," said Griese before the NFL's special kickoff. "I'm jealous of [those] teams…but we're all very excited. This has been a long wait for the first game of the year, through four preseason games, and training camp and the offseason. We've been working hard, doing a lot of work, investing a lot of time and energy. We're looking forward to getting out there and actually playing."
There is a great deal of optimism in the Buccaneers' locker room heading into Sunday's season opener. Of course, that's the case at just about every team facility in the NFL and, obviously, everybody can't be right. The Bucs think they are poised for a return to the playoffs; outside analysts, most of whom have modest predictions for Tampa Bay, will need to see a lot more evidence before they're convinced of that. No matter. The Buccaneers spent the last five months drawing tighter together as a team, building chemistry and accountability to one another, and they're not terribly concerned with analysts' opinions at this point.
"I definitely feel that we are ready," said second-year wide receiver Michael Clayton. "It was a long time getting here, a long time waiting. We have been anticipating this season, and it's finally here. We have bonded and the way we connected while we were in training camp, we have a good feeling. I'm excited."
Clayton's offseason also included minor knee surgery, the ensuing rehab and early-camp struggles to get back into his top playing shape. All of that was motivated by his desire to prove his 80-catch, 1,191-yard rookie season no fluke. There are always individual motivations within the overarching team goal, and the desire to begin acting on those motivations has increased the Bucs' eagerness for the opener.
For instance, second-year tackle Anthony Davis is probably anticipating Sunday's contest as much as any game in his life. After being passed over in the 2003 NFL Draft, Davis has spent the past three years proving himself, improving himself and getting to this point in his career, where he is the opening-day starter at left tackle. His rise from relative obscurity to this crucial position has been one of the Bucs' better stories of the last 13 months, but in reality that story is just getting started.
"I am so excited," Davis admitted. "I am just ready to take it to the yard and show that I can play in this league. I have put in all the hard work and as far as my career goes, I really haven't done anything so I am just ready to prove that I can play."
Rookie Cadillac Williams, on the other hand, was only passed up for about an hour on draft weekend before the Bucs made him the fifth overall pick, in the process turning his 2005 campaign into one of the most anticipated rookie seasons in franchise history. Forget any kind of slow immersion into the league for this rookie; Williams will be in the starting lineup on Sunday and will be given every opportunity to make an immediate impact.
That's obviously enough to make it hard for Williams to go to sleep on Saturday night.
"I am so excited, I just can't wait," he said. "It is so different just to know that it counts. We are going in there trying to win a ball game and this is for real."
Some players, it seems, get hyped for the opener just thinking about what could be, the things they might accomplish this year, or the places the team may go. Defensive end Simeon Rice, who legitimately goes into each season with the possibility of breaking NFL records, is this type of big-picture thinker. He often talks in grand terms and recognizes the drama in what is about to take place.
"We want to kick this season off in a big way," he said. "And what better way than to go play in the dome in hostile territory."
Then, too, there seem to be players who simply long for the game again, the contact, the jarring collisions. They talk about the opportunity to subject themselves to 16 weeks of physical abuse as a present about to be unwrapped.
"I am like a little kid at Christmas time," said safety Jermaine Phillips. "I'm just ready for it to get started. After missing seven games last year it feels like I have been out of football for a year or two, so I am definitely looking forward to strapping it up."
If the game is Christmas then, as any kid knows, these last few days are the longest ones of the year. That's why Griese was envious of the Patriots and Raiders. Their wait is over.