Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lifting Their Spirits

A crowded weight room the last three weeks is an indication of a determined Buccaneer approach to 2000

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Derrick Brooks' presence has provided valuable leadership during the Bucs' offseason conditioning program

Jeff Christy arrived in Tampa on Monday, so you can finally say the Buccaneers are playing with a full deck.

See, Tampa Bay began its offseason strength and conditioning program three Mondays ago, and a remarkable 81% of Buccaneer players currently on the continent have completed the program each week. That's 51 of 63 possible attendees fully completing their workout cards (seven of the 70 rostered players are playing in the NFL Europe League); Christy's arrival will even the Bucs' deck at exactly 52.

Even more encouraging, the Buccaneers appear to be attacking the offseason with a purpose. Strength and conditioning coach Mark Asanovich, who heads up a staff of seven full and part-time weight room worker, has been pleased not only with the attendance but also the intensity. "It has been very, very good," said Asanovich of the overall team effort in March and April. "I think they realize what position we're in right now, so everybody's working very hard. Overall, the attitude is that we are on the cusp of something here."

Asanovich is referring indirectly to the Bucs' Super Bowl prospects in 2000, which are thought to be strong. Tampa Bay came within a few minutes of defeating St. Louis in the NFC Championship Game in January and believes it remains one of the top contenders for next year's game, to be played in Tampa Bay's Raymond James Stadium. To that end, General Manager Rich McKay has brought on new Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel and bolstered Steckel's offensive line with the signings of Christy and G Randall McDaniel. Christy and McDaniel have played in a combined 13 Pro Bowls.

Overall, however, there hasn't been a wholesale shakeup of the roster, though this weekend's draft may provide a few more key players. Instead, the focus is on maintaining the productivity the Bucs uncovered last year and increasing the consistency with which it is delivered. In part, that means staying in peak physical condition and avoiding injuries as much as possible. Those are the dual goals of Asanovich's offseason program, and the Bucs appear well on their way to meeting them.

"Well, the strength coach is never totally satisfied until you have 100 percent here," said Asanovich with a smile, "but it has been very encouraging so far. It's also nice to have leadership here, with players like Derrick Brooks (who has spent much of the past few offseasons completing his graduate degree). When you have that type of leadership in the program, it really helps."

The mood in Asanovich's weight room has been aided not only by the vocal leadership of such core players as Brooks and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Warren Sapp, but also the quiet presence of 13th-year veteran tackle Paul Gruber. Gruber has been a daily presence in the Bucs' training and workout rooms as he attempts to rehabilitate a right leg that was broken in Tampa Bay's regular-season finale in Chicago last January. Gruber has not yet made his intentions for the 2000 season known, but he has attacked his rehab with the same dedication that has made him a stalwart on the Bucs' offensive line since 1988. The Bucs' training room confided that Gruber is right on schedule in his recovery and should begin running in June.

At that point, Gruber could rejoin the dozens of players running all over the Bucs' newly-sod practice fields every afternoon, both to complete Asanovich's workouts and to get or remain acquainted with the team's playbook. Though the Bucs cannot hold mandatory practices or organized team drills, players are free to join their position coaches on the field for instructional outings. Many Buccaneers have combined such field work with their daily visits to the team facility and are thus getting early pre-camp work on the mental side of the game. This has been especially useful for the team's offensive players, who soon must learn Steckel's new game plan.

This has also made Asanovich's job trickier, even if the coaches' work is appreciated. "That's what we have to find a balance with," he said. "They're going on the field, and we have these receivers running 20, 30, 40 routes. Then they're going to run with (the strength staff) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, too? So we have to kind of play a balancing act, because ultimately it's (on-field) performance that dictates everything."

And rewards everything, hopefully. Virtually the entire Buccaneer roster is plugging away in April, four months before training camp, and not because Asanovich's sweat room is more inviting than the nearby beaches. April efforts can translate into key December victories, and the Bucs have been very effective in December under Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Hopefully, we're in the process of getting a team that's strong," said Asanovich, "but also a team that's not going to have a lot of injuries."

In other words, this team would like to be playing with a full deck next winter.

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