Last year, Kellen Winslow caught 77 passes for 884 yards in his first season as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, setting the single-season franchise records for tight ends in both categories. Winslow surpassed marks set in 1995 by Jackie Harris and 1981 by Jimmie Giles, respectively.
Of course, somebody has to be the top pass-catching tight end in each franchise's annals. What is remarkable about Winslow's career is that he actually is that man for two different franchises.
Before he came to the Buccaneers in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2009, Winslow spent five years in Cleveland and, in a total of 44 games caught 219 passes for 2,461 yards and 16 touchdowns. In 2006 he caught 89 passes to tie Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome's single-season Browns record (set in both 1983 and 1984) and in 2007 he turned his 82 grabs into 1,106 yards, the most ever by a Cleveland tight end.
In fact, those 89 catches are still tied for the most in a season by any Browns player, and his 1,106 yards rank third overall. Counting his one season with the Buccaneers, Winslow has played in 60 NFL games and averaged 4.9 catches and 55.8 yards per outing. As points of comparison, the great Tony Gonzalez has averaged 4.8 catches and 57.3 yards per game and the brilliant Antonio Gates has averaged 4.4 and 57.1.
Of course, Winslow has 49 fewer games played than Gates and 146 fewer than Gonzalez, and that too has been part of the story in Winslow's career. Injuries cost him all but two games in his first two seasons in Cleveland, and he missed six more outings in 2008. However, Winslow played all 16 games in his first year and Tampa and, thanks to his own tireless work and the Buccaneers' willingness to craft an altered practice schedule, he intends to do the same in 2010.
Starting on Sunday with those Cleveland Browns.
Winslow is practicing without limitations this week as the Bucs prepare to play the Browns in their 2010 season opener, and he is not listed on the team's injury report. He played very sparingly during the preseason, but again, that was intentional. The Buccaneers saw the same approach work a year ago.
"He had limited preseason action last year and all he did was go out and be our all-time leading tight end, our all-time leading guy in receptions," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He took down a long-standing record. He was very productive. He was everything that this town wanted. He's been everything that we wanted since he's been here."
Like any coach, Morris would prefer to have 53 men participating in every practice, but he says that is not realistic with some of his players, such as Winslow and 14th-year veteran Ronde Barber. But Morris knows how important the game of football is to his fiery tight end and that he can count on him to be ready.
Winslow is definitely ready to get started after his largely inactive preseason.
"I'm just excited to be back," he said. "The game of football means so much to me. Being back with the team means a lot to me. Just being out here playing with [Josh Freeman], that's what fires me up. All of us are just doing our jobs and trying to get this first win.
"It's just special to play this game. It's a privilege to play this game. It's all about the fans. That's what motivates us to play and that's where the support comes from."
Winslow says that the Buccaneers "ride for Raheem," and he clearly enjoys a special bond with his head coach in Tampa. Winslow has been thrilled with his second NFL landing spot but he still considers his years in Cleveland as part of that privileged time in the game of football. As such, he is feeling no special emotions about the Buccaneers' Week One opponent.
"It's going to be good," said Winslow. "It's really just another team. It's a blessing to be here and it's where I want to be. I'm fortunate. Everything that went on up there with Cleveland was a growing process for me. I really grew up and matured. It was hard up there because we weren't winning a lot and it was just frustrating at times. But I'm here now and I'm having fun. I'm glad I'm with Raheem."
Freeman Rests Hand
Morris gave starting quarterback Josh Freeman a day off from throwing and handling snaps on Wednesday, but that is not considered a step back from Freeman's successful work on the practice field on Tuesday.
Tuesday marked Freeman's return to full practice activity after he spent several weeks recovering from a fracture to the tip of his right thumb. He sustained that injury in the first quarter of Tampa Bay's August 21 preseason game against Kansas City, and the prognosis at the time was that he would be back in action for the regular-season opener against Cleveland. That remained the Bucs' belief as the week of practice for the Browns began on Tuesday, and the plan remained unchanged after Wednesday.
Freeman felt some soreness in his right hand after Tuesday's practice, which was not unexpected. After his day off Wednesday, he is expected to return to full-speed work on Thursday. The Buccaneers have a bonus fourth day in their practice schedule this week, as they were able to begin on Tuesday instead of Wednesday.
"Josh is right on schedule," said Morris. "We had the long week. We had the two long days. You want the young man to be right on schedule to play in this game. It's about Sundays. It's about getting him to Sunday, getting him prepared, getting him acclimated to his team yesterday, him going out there and making every single throw. [It's about] coming out tomorrow in practice and the next day in practice, then going through the walk-through and getting his mental game together. He's a young man who's very locked in, very focused.
"He'll be practicing tomorrow. He'll do the whole bit tomorrow. That was the plan. I'm sure he's sore from yesterday, don't get me wrong, but it's definitely part of the plan. He's a tough kid. He threw a bunch in Houston, we got him to throw a bunch yesterday, we got him to go through his mental reps and progressions yesterday. Today he went through just progressions. He was on a limited basis in the walk-through [at the end of practice] and tomorrow he'll be out there going full-blast again."
The Buccaneers also released their first official injury report of the season on Wednesday, which revealed that Freeman was the only one of the Bucs' 53 players to be limited on the practice field. Three other players – linebacker Niko Koutouvides, defensive tackle Brian Price and wide receiver Maurice Stovall – were listed on the injury report, but all participated fully on Wednesday.
The injury report will not list game-status designations (out, doubtful, questionable, probable) until Friday but the Buccaneers are obviously in good shape heading into the opener. Koutouvides sustained a neck injury in the preseason finale at Houston while Price (hamstring) and Stovall (ankle) are dealing with the last vestiges of injuries that limited them during the preseason.
The Browns' first injury report was a little bit longer, and it included two players who did not participate in practice on Wednesday. LB D'Qwell Jackson has already been ruled out for the game due to a chest injury and safety Nick Sorenson did not practice to start the week due to a head injury. Five other Browns were limited on Wednesday: linebackers Marcus Benard (shoulder) and David Bowens (knee), defensive tackle Shaun Rogers (ankle), tight end Robert Royal (ankle) and guard Floyd Womack (knee). Rogers and Womack are listed as starters on Cleveland's depth chart.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud has a good nickname for the defensive scheme the Buccaneers will employ under Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris this season.
"The Tampa 2.1."
For 13 years under the direction of former Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Buccaneers' defense became synonymous with the Cover Two defensive approach, which had its roots in the Pittsburgh Steelers' schemes of the 1970s. Kiffin's Buccaneer teams executed the system so effectively that the team finished in the top 10 of the league's rankings 11 times in a 12-year period and the defense became more specifically known as the "Tampa Two."
After Kiffin's departure in 2008 and the elevation of Morris to head coach a few weeks later, the team adopted a different approach under newly-hired and well-respected Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates in 2009. The Bucs struggled on defense for the first two-thirds of the season before Morris took over the defensive play-calling for the final six games and instituted a scheme that incorporated more of the basic notions of the Tampa Two. The defense improved significantly in every category over the season's final six games, most notably dropping its points allowed per game from 29.4 to 18.2
Morris elected to hold onto the coordinator duties in 2010, and his players are confident that the improvement that began in November and December will carry over and pick up steam this fall. It is an oversimplification, however, to say the turnaround was the result of a simple return to the Tampa Two.
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who is responsible for directing the action of his teammates on the field, surely understands the Buccaneers' current scheme as well as anyone. He says the major difference between the team's 2010 approach and the Kiffin era is in the variety, and not simply a matter of more blitzing a more aggressive mentality overall.
"I'd say it's a little bit more attacking, but it's a little bit more about versatility," said Ruud. "I think we do a little bit more. Monte's was a little bit more basic: 'This is what we do, there's no gray area,' where with Raheem's there's going to be a little bit more give and take."
Morris and Ruud and the rest of the collaborators in the Bucs' late-season defensive surge in 2009 were essentially installing pieces of the scheme on the fly during those six weeks. Now the whole crew has had an entire offseason to commit it to memory – and has also added some important pieces of personnel – and thus the expectations are higher for 2010. The Bucs want to move back into their familiar top-10 neighborhood, but it won't come easily.
"Some guys are going to have harder jobs on certain defenses but hopefully we can get them by calling the right calls some time," said Ruud. "It's a little more aggressive but it's a lot of the same principles. The Tampa 2.1 is a good nickname for it."