In the mid-1990s, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were just emerging as a perennial playoff team, the team's defense took the forefront. The Buccaneers found varying levels of success on offense from 1997-2002, a period that culminated in victory in Super Bowl XXXVII, but the defense was almost always strong enough to keep the team in the hunt.
At the time, Warren Sapp famously said, "Give me 17 points and we'll make it stick." Sapp, one of the pillars on which that sublime defense was built, was more than comfortable with the responsibility of his crew being the difference between winning and losing.
It's 2012 now, 10 years after that Super Bowl victory, and the Buccaneers are trying to build another team that will contend year after year. And if the team needs an individual or a particular unit to take the lead this time around, to be the group everyone else counts on, Carl Nicks says look no further than himself and the offensive line.
"It all starts up front with the line," said Nicks after the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Tuesday morning, with a steady rain beating down on his broad shoulders. "We're going to be the leaders of this team, I believe and we're going to win and lose games off our backs. That's how I take it and that's how the whole offensive line has got to take it."
Nicks isn't the same sort of brash lightning rod of attention that Sapp was during his Buccaneers heyday (few are), but when he speaks on such matters he does so with a quiet intensity. After emerging as perhaps the NFL's best offensive guard in the middle of its most prolific offense in New Orleans in recent years, Nicks has unshakeable confidence in his abilities and he sees a similar level of talent all along the Bucs' offensive front. If Sapp's Buccaneers would guarantee you a win with 17 points, Nicks' crew will make sure you get as many points as you need.
"If you protect the quarterback and you can run the ball, why should you lose?" Nicks asked. "If they score 70, you've got to score 71. I put it on my back and I think the whole offensive line does, too."
Obviously, Nicks comes from an offense that had little trouble putting up points in New Orleans, one that featured the best passing game in the league (but also ranked sixth on the ground). The Buccaneers are intent on constructing an offense around a power rushing attack, and that is music to Nicks' ears. The aggressive style of attack an offensive lineman gets to employ when blocking for a running play falls right in with Nicks' desire to be the team's tempo-setter.
"First thing, [run-blocking] gets the defensive line tired," he said. "You can wear them down, and that helps your pass protection. The other thing is knocking a guy down and watching him get up, just seeing the tiredness and the hurt in his eyes…you just thrive off that. If I can maul somebody on every play, that's what I'm going to do. Then in pass protection, they're going to be tired and I'm going to be fresh off of mauling them."
In addition to the apparent talent level on paper (three Pro Bowlers among the team's five starters), the offensive line is also the team's most experienced position. While Tampa Bay is counting on rising youth at such spots as linebacker, running back, defensive line and wide receiver, the O-Line features five proven starters. It's easy for the young players on the team to look to the front line to lead the way, particularly the running backs.
"It's lovely," enthused rookie Doug Martin. "It's very lovely to have those guys up there. They're big guys who are able to move, too. It definitely gives a running back a lot of confidence being behind that line."
Sapp and his fellow defensive stars were determined to erase the ESPN-fed image of Tampa Bay as "The Yucks." Nicks is just as determined to prove that the current Buccaneers are ready to compete immediately in Schiano's first season at the helm.
"This is not a rebuilding year; we're trying to win," said Nicks. "We're trying to shock some teams, kind of like Detroit did after a few years of not being very good, and now San Francisco shocks the world. We're trying to do something like that. Bringing in veteran guys, skill guys, Pro Bowlers – it's going to be fun to see what we do out there."
QB Impressed by TE Tandem
Quarterback Dan Orlovsky spent just one year in Indianapolis, where Dallas Clark reigned as one of the league's most prolific tight ends for much of the second half of the last decade. The two appeared in just four games together in 2011 and hooked up on a total of six shared completions.
Orlovsky didn't need much time in Indy, however, to gain an appreciation for Clark as a player and a professional. Now the two are together again with the Buccaneers – Orlovsky as the primary backup to Josh Freeman and Clark as the potential starter at tight end – and this time Orlovsky expects to get a front-row view of the tight end who averaged 78 catches for 857 yards and nine touchdowns per season from 2007-09. Clark's output during the last two seasons was much lower due to several injuries, but the Buccaneers are betting he'll be back in 2009 form this fall. Orlovsky says it's a good bet.
"I know how hard he prepares himself, so I think those things are behind him," said Orlovsky. "I know they are for him, and I know he's excited to be here. The team's counting on him to do a lot for us, and I expect him to be as good as advertised."
It may be Freeman that ends up doing the most with Clark once the regular-season begins, but whoever is under center will be glad the veteran tight end is on the field, according to Freeman's fellow passer.
"It's extremely important when you can drop back and know that you have an instant mismatch, more often than not playing against the linebacker, and he's going to be where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there," said Orlovsky. "You know that if you throw it in some vicinity of him, either he's catching it or no one's catching it. That's extremely comforting, especially when bullets are flying and you're getting hit in the mouth. It's great to have him here and he's going to be a big part of what we try to do, on and off the field. To have some guy you know has done it and done it well when it's mattered is extremely comforting."
Clark isn't the only tight end the Buccaneers will be relying on heavily this fall. The team made a point of showing its confidence in second-year man Luke Stocker during this past offseason, and bigger things are expected of the former University of Tennessee standout after a rookie season slowed by a preseason hip injury. Stocker has the potential to be the sort of blocking-receiver double threat that would make him a great complement to Clark in two-TE sets and an eventual NFL starter in his own right.
Orlovsky has liked what he's seen from Stocker so far, too, and thinks the young player has been one of the top beneficiaries of Clark's arrival in Tampa.
"Luke looks great," said Orlovsky. "I think he's at such an advantage having somebody like Dallas around. Dallas has seen a lot of rodeos, played football on its biggest stage and performed well and been around a long time. He's made a great career for himself by doing the little things and being a pro. I think that's great for a guy like Luke who has those same characteristics in him to sit back and watch and learn from him. He looks great. He's doing well, the same as Dallas. Those guys are 1-2 for us right now for a reason. They're going to be a big part of what we do."
Pass-Catching Skills a Product of Hard Work for Rookie Martin
During one of the Buccaneers' full-team drills in practice on Wednesday morning, Doug Martin lined up in the backfield but then darted quickly out to his left to set up for a screen pass. Quick pressure hurried the quarterback on the play and the pass was delivered a little behind Martin's route. No problem – the rookie back simply spun in the air without breaking stride, caught the pass in mid-spin and then darted up the sideline.
It was the sort of smooth play in the passing game that Martin made a habit of at Boise State, the type of moment that led scouts to label him a complete, three-down back. Given his size, speed and silky moves, Martin has been compared in a hopeful manner to the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice. As fantasy football players now, Rice is definitely an all-around threat for the Ravens, with 4,377 rushing yards and 250 receptions through his first four NFL seasons.
Like all rookies who are compared to established NFL stars, the notion is flattering but must be taken with a grain of salt until the young player has proved himself on the professional level. One thing that won't hold Martin back, however, is effort. He'll put in whatever work is needed on his game…and that spinning catch on Wednesday morning is evidence of that.
See, such plays didn't originally come naturally to Martin. In fact, there was a time when he wasn't much of a threat at all in the passing game.
"When I started out in high school, I had no hands," he admitted on Wednesday with a chuckle. "My teammates made fun of me and everything. But over time, I developed my hands, throughout high school and throughout college. That was a main priority that I wanted to take care of."
In his two years as the primary running back for the Broncos, Martin caught 56 passes for 593 yards and four touchdowns, while also rushing for 2,664 yards. He never stopped working on improving his hands, and he still hasn't now that he's made it to the NFL.
"I worked hard on it," said Martin. "I took it seriously because I didn't want to drop any balls."