There's not much difference in practice in home and away weeks, but C John Wade likes the end of the week better for a home game
Chris Hovan likes it for the adrenaline blast. John Wade likes it for the naps.
It's like night and day, their opinions of the best home-game perk. Or one year and the next…which, literally, it will be this weekend.
Hovan and Wade, like virtually all NFL players, prefer home games to travel weeks. The bonuses range from more time to rest to more positive energy from the crowd. Wade will get his extra nap time this week on Saturday, December 31st. On the first day of the new year, Sunday, January 1, Hovan will get his home crowd boost when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints in the regular-season finale.
All 53 Bucs will enjoy the naps, the roar of the crowd and, most importantly, the home field advantage that will aid in the team's question for the NFC South division title. Tampa Bay will win that title if it beats New Orleans, and will also run its 2005 home record to a very nice 6-2.
After winning just seven of 16 home games over the last two seasons, some of them in bizarre and memorable fashion, the Bucs have gone 5-2 so far this fall at Raymond James Stadium. One more win will allow the team to match the 6-2 home mark it ran up on the way to the Super Bowl in 2002. The Bucs started the season with a goal of re-establishing home field advantage – basically a must to fulfill playoff aspirations – but that obviously presupposed an overall improvement in the team's play.
"We just put an emphasis on getting better, period," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Obviously, teams that win in this league usually have a better record at home than they do on the road. So, yeah, it's been a point of emphasis, but at the same time before you can win games at home you've got to improve your football team. We have made some strides."
Of the seven teams still in the NFC playoff hunt, six may finish with home records of 6-2 or better (the Bucs and Cowboys are 5-2 heading into the weekend). Only Carolina is 5-3, and their two recent home losses to Tampa Bay and Dallas are what have made the difference for them between fighting for a first-round bye and fighting for their playoff lives.
The Bucs, on the other hand, kept their division title hopes alive by winning two out of three on a brutal three-game December road swing. Once that dangerous part of the schedule was past, the Bucs were able to finish with two at home. That makes a difference.
"It's your turf," said Hovan. "It's your people out there and they're cheering for your team. It just gives you an adrenaline rush before playing. Tampa's got one of the best home crowds."
The week of preparation is more enjoyable, too. Most of it is the same, actually, but there is no Friday night packing or Saturday afternoon flying to endure. Wade much prefers the way he gets to spend the weekend when there's a home game on tap.
"It's just nice to be here, knowing you've got your Saturday to relax instead of traveling," he said. "It is nice, especially late in the year, when you can get home and take a nap versus getting on a plane. I mean, you can take a nap on the plane but it's not quite as comfortable as your own bed. For me, [the good part] is the end of the week, being at home instead of leaving after the walk-through on Saturday, and having the day to rest and relax, especially late in December."
Of course, for Buccaneer fans the good part is Sunday afternoon, when they have a chance to help their team to victory by creating a loud and intimidating atmosphere. Hovan, a Minnesota Viking until this season, said that Raymond James Stadium is one of the tougher places in the league for opposing teams to visit, and the vociferous support has helped in several very close games this season.
This particular home game, of course, will be the first Buccaneer game ever played on January 1, long the province of big-time college bowl games. For some, it will be the extension of their New Year's celebrations. Defensive end Simeon Rice hopes the Bucs can provide a good cap to that party.
"Hopefully [they will experience] bliss," said Rice. "Hopefully they bring the noise. Hopefully they're a little on edge, a little crazed. We need a crazed crowd. We're begging for a crazed crowd. I'm begging for a crazed crowd. Hopefully it's sold out and you can't even hear yourself think. Forget about talking, I'm talking about just thinking. We want a crazed atmosphere. When the other team feels that, they feel like they're going to lose right out of the gate."
There were no changes to the Buccaneers' injury report on Thursday, though defensive tackle Anthony McFarland did return to work after sitting out Wednesday's workout. McFarland is battling through a strained hamstring, but he is considered probable for Sunday's game after playing through the same ailment last Saturday against Atlanta.
Wide receiver Michael Clayton has already been ruled out due to a turf toe injury. Five other Bucs are questionable: tight end Anthony Becht (ankle), center Scott Jackson (appendix), wide receiver Mark Jones (foot), safety Jermaine Phillips (knee) and tackle Kenyatta Walker (ankle).
Becht and Jackson practiced on Thursday but Jones, Phillips and Walker did not. All are hopeful of playing on Sunday.
Jones, for instance, would like to finish out the season as the only player to return a punt for the Bucs this season. Claimed off waivers when he was cut by the New York Giants this summer, Jones has filled that role nicely, as the Bucs expected he would when they drafted him in the seventh round in 2004. Tampa Bay tried to start Jones on the practice squad as a rookie but he was snapped up by the Giants and made their primary punt returner.
Now back with the Bucs, he has averaged 9.6 yards per return this season, a fine mark that still doesn't reflect how explosive he has been at times this year, particularly in the last month. Jones has had two long returns called back on penalties, including one that went for a touchdown at New England, and had a potential 90-yarder cut short when the punter clipped his heel in Carolina. After a 54-yard return was erased against the Falcons, Jones turned in his most important runback of the year in overtime when he got 28 yards to midfield, setting up the game-winning field goal.
Jones is particularly interested in finishing this season strong, though he remained a question mark for the finale on Thursday.
"We've got one more game left and then the playoffs," he said. "I wanted to improve from last year, when I averaged 6.7 yards and was a little down on myself. My longest was, I think, 28 yards, and I didn't really get a chance to show the Giants what I could do. By midseason, I was already past my numbers from last year, so I was definitely pleased with that, but I know we're going to try to get better and outdo ourselves from the previous week."
Penalties on long punt returns can be particularly cruel to the return man because he is running with his back to the offending flag, often thinking he is about to finish the play of his career. Generally, though, the returner figures out what's going on before getting too excited. The key: crowd reaction. Jones said the New England fans were already taunting him and pointing back upfield when he reached the end zone in that game.
Jones handled that disappointment well. He is a very even-keeled young man who leans heavily on his faith and doesn't let his emotions overwhelm him. The series of near-misses in recent weeks haven't really knocked him off-kilter.
"I wouldn't call it a rollercoaster, I would just call it an experience," he said. "It's definitely been an experience. You've just got to take whatever you're given and make the most of it. Whether there's a flag and it gets called back, I'm still showing my coaches I can make big plays. Hey, when I get up I hate to see a yellow flag on the ground, but when that happens I've got to work on the next one."