Results can be difficult to interpret when one is watching a football team practice.
Would that complete pass actually have gotten off with a live rush? Would the running back have made it through that hole with real tackling? Should we feel good or bad about those three straight completions?
Some signals, however, are usually pretty obvious. For instance, when a head coach halts practice before it is over, brings the whole team around him in a circle and loudly tells the players to, 'Take a knee,' you can usually assume that he is not pleased.
Raheem Morris, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach, used that exact tactic on Monday afternoon, between the penultimate and last periods of the day's second practice. His tone of voice as he addressed the players was severe, as one would expect. The players were duly attentive.
As it turned out, however, Morris was not upset. He simply believed he had found the right moment to drive home an important lesson.
The Buccaneers began a mandatory mini-camp on Monday as they sprinted to the end of their long offseason training program. The team will hold a pair of two-a-days on Monday and Tuesday, and Morris is determined to use them to emphasize game-type situations. There is still no real contact allowed in any offseason practice and the pads won't go on until training camp, but the change in practice emphasis was the major tonal shift from the OTAs to mini-camp.
Despite his mid-practice huddle, Morris was pleased with how his players responded to that shift.
"[It was] a good day for competition, a great day for chemistry, a really good day about game-like situations, and it was a great lesson today," he said. "We've got to just increase our urgency in practice on how we get on and off the field and those situations. You've got to try to simulate it for yourself. Everybody's got to do it. When you come out of the office and go to practice, you've got to put yourself in a game-like situation. So we've got to increase the urgency doing that tomorrow."
The stern talking-to before the final period was aimed less at what was happening between the whistles and more at the peripherals. In a game, players hustle to the sideline, pay close attention to game situations and seek out input from their coaches at the right times. Morris wanted his players to behave the same way on Monday, to simulate a real game more accurately.
"I wanted to increase the urgency of where we are in a game," he said. "You get in a game situation and they call a penalty on you and it's first-and-20, and then you've got to go out there and execute. I wanted to simulate those types of situations. I wanted to simulate not arguing with the officials because you really don't have time to do that. I wanted to simulate the chirping from the sideline, the coaches getting re-focused, just all the things you need to happen in a game.
"So not at all was I dissatisfied with what happened. When it happens twice, then you get on them. But this was great as a coach because it's a great teaching moment. It's easy to sit in a meeting and say, 'Hey, it's going to be a game-like situation today.' But then you've got to go out and get in your mindset that it's a game-like situation. It's easy right now, especially being a young football like we are, to just go out there and run on the field just like it is an OTA day. That's why I thought it was critical for me to stop the practice to let them know where we are, what's going on, re-focus and then you get the chemistry back. It's easy to get caught up in the mode of a regular practice, of walking off, talking to your coach, being coached every play. You've got to get that out of you when you're talking about game-like situations. That's just not realistic. That's not what happens. You've got to get out there and get your three plays, then you get off to the sideline and then you get coached up."
This week's mini-camp is officially the last leg of the Bucs' long offseason program, leaving a gap of more than five weeks before training camp begins. Those five weeks represent the last opportunity for players and coaches around the league to pursue any sort of vacation before the (hopefully) six-month grind begins.
And, indeed, Buccaneer players will find time to rest and relax, maybe do some traveling, before the end of July. It is even preferable; one doesn't want to cross over the line from dedication into early burnout.
In order not to backtrack from the gains of the past four months, however, most Buccaneer players will weave a healthy amount of work into their relaxation time over the next five weeks. That is certainly the case for hard-driving rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, who has been leading the pack in effort since a month before the offseason program even began. Freeman has been more of a daily presence at One Buccaneer Place than the mailman, and he has made Tampa his home-away-from-home for most of the calendar year.
"I'm here most of the time, getting to know the community and spending time with teammates who are also in town and trying to get set up and ready to go," he said. "Plus, I've got all the research I need here in Tampa, so the more I'm here the more work I can get done."
After the Bucs wrap their camp on Wednesday, Freeman plans to take it easy for a couple days before heading to San Diego for about 10 days of workouts. He'll then swing by Kansas City to spend the Fourth of July holiday with his family, then return to Tampa for some pre-training camp work.
Much has been made of Freeman's burgeoning leadership role on the team as he enters his second NFL season, and his regimented dedication to work is one of the reasons why. Despite his age (Freeman just turned 22 after his rookie season), he is quickly becoming the sort of presence that teammates want to follow.
"Your quarterback is automatically your leader because he's the quarterback, especially if he's a good one," said rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, whose own leadership skills were part of the reason the Bucs targeted him in the draft. "And Free is a good one. He has the makings to be a Pro Bowl quarterback and I truly believe he will be because he has that type of talent and that type of work ethic."
Another Way to Unite
Freeman and his teammates will actually have the opportunity to make a nice and easy transition from the grind of mini-camp into their vacation period. Even though this week's mini-camp is officially three days long, there will be only two days of sweating out on the practice fields at One Buc Place.
The Bucs intend to use Monday and Tuesday to simulate training camp and the preseason to some extent, with a pair of practices on each day and more game-type situations emphasized in the drills. Each practices is a bit shorter than what the players have experienced during OTAs, lasting just over an hour, but they are also intense and fast-paced.
All of which will lead up to a Wednesday the players will find much less taxing. After a team meeting at 8:00 a.m. and a briefing from NFL Security, the Buccaneers will use the rest of the morning to conduct a "team-building" exercise.
Ending mini-camp with such an activity has become something of a tradition, though in years past the coaching staff has tried to keep that Wednesday schedule change something of a secret, at least from the newer players. This year, the players' schedule clearly indicates a non-practice event on Wednesday morning, though the exact nature of that event is not listed.
Previous team-building exercises, including similar days off during training camp, have included bowling outings, trips to the movies and even last year's paintball battle. Morris won't reveal the particulars of Wednesday's outing until the team has successfully completed its two days of hard work.