The addition of DT Chris Hovan was a key factor in the enormous improvement of the Bucs' run defense in 2005
There was no doubt about it. Chris Hovan's helmet was a goner after he spiked it with enough force to send it three-hopping past the sideline and off the field, pieces flying. An equipment manager was required to make the adjustments to the gladiatorial headwear, but there was no adjusting Hovan – he was furious, mostly with himself.
The big defensive tackle had just been stoned during one of the various drills between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive and defensive linemen – and to Hovan, that was simply unacceptable. Forget that Hovan has been on the winning end of those battle more times than not. Forget that fact that he is considered a vital cog to the Bucs' defense. Forget the fact that nobody's perfect – Chris Hovan wants to be.
Though he no longer sports the hair that screams fire (he's chosen to shave it off), his actions scream it even louder. They simmer with passion. They boil over with intensity. In fact, that's what his coaches love about him. Even after signing a contract extension this past year, Hovan is still hungry, so hungry that he's been compared by Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin to a rookie desperate to catch the coaching staff's collective eye.
"If you put it on tape enough times then people will take notice," Hovan said. "But you have to put it on tape. You can't go out there and say you're going to do this and that. You go out there, work hard with the guys, put it on tape, and I think you'll be alright. That was the kind of approach I took last year and this year."
And his approach paid off.
Originally signed by the Buccaneers in 2005 to a one-year deal that was close to the league minimum for a player with his experience, Hovan not only resurrected his career, he helped resurrect a Buccaneer run defense that had given up an average of 123.3 rushing yards per game the prior year. With Hovan anchoring the defensive line, the Bucs' run defense improved from the 19th in the league to sixth, giving up a much more respectable 94.7 rushing yards per game. Overall, the defense ranked as the best in the National Football League, and Kiffin's scheme seemed to suit Hovan well. His 64 tackles last year were more than he had in his previous two years combined.
"I'm not the biggest defensive tackle in the league," Hovan said. "I'm 310 [pounds] and I'm not built like other guys, but I can play fast. I was afforded the opportunity to produce within the defense. The defense was going to be great under Monte Kiffin before I got here, and it's going to be great long after I leave. I'm just glad I got the opportunity to produce within a defense."
Yes, those are the words of the same man once known for the black war paint he'd slather on his face each Sunday and his flowing red locks that seemed to burn even brighter as he barked at Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre during epic battles between the Packers and Vikings, Hovan's former team. In those days, he was closer to a WWE character than the reticent man he is today. In those days, he was a man who had fallen so far out of favor with his ball club that he was deactivated for the team's two playoff games in 2004. In part, it was due to a new scheme that didn't utilize his strengths and, in part, it was due to a lack of production – something Hovan readily admits.
"It's well documented throughout the media what I went through in Minnesota," said Hovan, a former first-round selection of the Vikings. "I knew I had to start from scratch coming down here. I had to come out and I had to prove myself. And the best way to get the respect of the men on this team is to go out and bleed and sweat and keep your mouth shut."
Over the past few years, Hovan's look has changed, his approach has changed and his uniform has changed – life in the NFL can do that. But the one thing that hasn't changed is Hovan's penchant for pillaging and plundering quarterbacks and running backs – even his own.
Just this week at training camp, Hovan hit running back Earnest Graham so hard that the back's body went one way and the football was propelled in the opposite direction. Hovan alertly recovered the fumble and ran the distance for what would have been a touchdown. It was nothing less than the perfect defensive play, and at least for that moment, his helmet breathed a sigh of relief.