The Bucs want to get off to a fast start on Sunday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 11-5 last season, champions of the NFC South and possessors of the game's top-ranked defense. Moreover, they've been to the playoffs six times in the last nine years. Even with the 6-10 record of 1996 included, the Bucs have the NFC's fourth-best record over the last decade.
None of which will earn them a single point on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
In fact, that strong 2005 season hasn't even bought the Bucs much leeway with the prognosticators. Few NFL prediction pieces have Tampa Bay beating out Carolina for the division title this time around.
Of course, few NFL players are bothered by such things, and few teams mind coming into the season as supposed underdogs.
"That's the nature of this game," said defensive end Greg Spires. "It's what have you done lately, and you're going to always have your critics out there, but that's the good thing about it – we have a chance to prove them wrong."
Besides, the Buccaneers know that it takes hard work and good fortune to carry the success of one season into the next. Eight months after winning Super Bowl XXXVII, the Bucs started the 2003 season with a dominant 17-0 win at Philadelphia…only to suffer a string of injuries and narrow losses and fall all the way to 6-10.
From 1997 through 2002, however, Tampa Bay made the playoffs five times in six seasons and only missed entry by one game in 1998. Buccaneer veterans do understand how to follow up one good season with another one, and it's not enough to be just as good. You have to be better.
"It's a new year," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "Every year you have to win new respect, you have to gain new respect. That's how you continue to be one of those teams in the league that's in the playoffs, contending and doing something great. You have to strive to something greater than what you've had. Last year wasn't a Super Bowl. That's always a goal. That was our mission last year. We came close, but weren't good enough. We have to get it done this year. That is the bar."
Rice has always excelled at giving dramatic voice to the big picture. Individually and within the team he is always mindful of the largest goals. However, he and his teammates also understand that their main focus has to stay on the smaller goals at hand.
"Right now, we're taking one game at a time," said wide receiver Michael Clayton. "Everybody can say we're going to win a world title and that can be the big goal. But right now I just want a play one game a time. We're focused on the Baltimore Ravens and we have to make a statement. Especially at our home games. Winning all of our home games is one of our main goals right now. And definitely making the playoffs. Once you get that far, then we'll look on to better things."
Earning new respect wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Sunday's season opener. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
RB Cadillac Williams on being ready for the first game: "I'm so ready. I actually started counting on July 27. I've been going at it for a month now, and really haven't had much live contact. So it's really just getting the opportunity to out there and go hard. It's going to be fun."
S Jermaine Phillips on how ready he is for a regular-season game: "It's good. I've been thinking since camp, 'Man, I'm just ready to play. I'm just ready to hit somebody.' We just went through our preseason but I didn't have a chance to really have any contact. But I'm ready, man. It's going to be good just to come out to Raymond James Stadium and see all the fans."
DE Simeon Rice on what excites him about this season: "Another opportunity of living my dream. My day job is my dream job. It's a good gig, and for me to have another opportunity to do it for another year, even bigger and better than last year, that's always a goal."
WR Maurice Stovall on his first game: "I'm pretty sure it will be very exciting. It will be a great experience, but at the same time we still have to focus on the game plan and realize that it's football and that you're out there to have fun but also to win."
QB Chris Simms on the start of the regular season: "I think just as a team right now we're extremely excited. We've got four preseason games done with and it's time to start it up for real. I've always been excited for the first game whether I was playing or not since I was a little kid. It's a great time of the year. Football season is always great."
DT Anthony McFarland on his thoughts about opening the season at home: "Any time you get a chance to have an opener, it's big, and a home opener takes it to a different level. Last year we opened up on the road against Minnesota, and this year we get to open up in our own house, open up a new facility. We've got to make sure we do our part as a team, and we've been prepared so far, and I think the work we do through today and tomorrow will continue to help us do that."
Phillips on how important it is to play the first game at home: "It's going to be good to play in front of the home crowd. We always say that nobody comes into our house, or our home, and takes over. This is our turf, our territory and we're going to protect that at all costs."
DE Greg Spires on if Jamal Lewis has recaptured his form and looks good on film: "I really think he does. If he doesn't – if he's injured or tweaked – they've got backups who can go out there and do the same thing. Just because we see a backup out there, that doesn't mean we should let our guard downs because those guys are pretty good, too."
LB Derrick Brooks on Jamal Lewis: "We're going to have to gang-tackle him and play gap-control defense. I'll probably be a broken record every week, but that's one of the keys to win, stopping the run. They've got a young back, number 32 [Musa Smith] – he's a load. He's given them some explosive plays this preseason. Their running game obviously sets up Steve and the things that he can do as far as the passing game goes. So stopping the run is a very big key for us."
Spires on the Ravens' rushing attack: "They've got really good backs – Jamal Lewis, and the backups are pretty good, too. I've been watching them on film, and they're big backs. They love big backs, and they've got big offensive linemen. They're going to run downhill, and it's up to us to stop them."
Phillips on the Ravens' offense: "You know Baltimore, they haven't changed much since 2000. They're still a team that wants to run between the tackles. They've got Jamal Lewis, they've acquired Mike Anderson from Denver and they've got Musa Smith. They've got some quality running backs and they've added McNair to the mix to throw a couple of loopholes into the game. He and [Derrick] Mason hooked up a lot in Tennessee, so it's going to be good. They're still the same Baltimore team but with a little more flair this year."
Brooks on Steve McNair: "He's led a team to a Super Bowl with his ability to play quarterback. Steve's respect in this league, there's no doubt it's very high, especially with me. And I'm quite sure a lot of other players feel the same way."
Phillips on Todd Heap: "Todd Heap, he's a great receiver. He's a good-receiving tight end. He's probably one of the best in the AFC besides [Tony] Gonzalez as far as receptions go. This will be a good challenge for us. We're looking forward to it. We think we're the number-one defense and we look forward to that and we like that challenge. We want to face the best offense out there."
Spires on if the Bucs and Ravens are the NFL's two best defenses: "Yeah, and we're going to see Sunday who has the best defense. The Ravens, they always have a good defense that's in the top five or whatever, but I think it's going to come down to the offenses, who can put points on the board."
G Jeb Terry on if the Bucs' defense is hungry to prove it's better than Baltimore's: "All I know is that our defense is hungry every day. Every game they come out and they play hard, every practice they come out and play hard. They're out there trying to win the game and they're playing just as tough as they can."
Simms on the Bucs' and Ravens' defenses: "They're both very disciplined. The differences are not many. They're just an extremely active defense. They come at you from a whole lot of different angles, where I think maybe our defense, they try to confuse you from time to time but our defense is more on the plan, 'We know what we do, we're going to do it really good.' The Ravens, they've got multiple blitzes, multiple coverages and of course they have a lot of talent back there."
Terry on playing against tough defenses every week, including the opener against Baltimore: "Right. It's going to be a great opening game for us, going against one of the top talents in the league. So it's going to be a good test."
Spires on if the Ravens are a good early test for the Buccaneers: "Absolutely. They've got a good defense, and that's going to be a test for us, offensively, and our special teams and what McNair brings to the table. We've got our work cut out for us."
Terry on if playing Baltimore's defense will give the team a good gauge of where it is: "I think so. To succeed against a defense like this you've got to be good, so we'll know more once we get the game going."
Simms on how long it will take the Bucs' offense to click this year: "We should click pretty quick. If you look at our unit as a whole, we got pretty much everybody back from last year. There's nobody new playing in our offense this year. We're extremely confident in what we're doing mentally. I think it's just a matter of us going out there physically and getting it done."
WR Michael Clayton on Chris Simms knowing that he was going to be the starter for most of the offseason: "It makes a lot of difference. His demeanor is different. His demeanor is that of a leader on this team. A guy voted captain of this team, he has a lot of respect from the players. And he takes it all seriously and does it real well. His composure in the huddle says a lot about the guy. Where he's been, where he is today, and we can respect that and follow him. And hopefully bring home a world title."
WR Joey Galloway on if he has noticed a difference with Chris Simms being at the helm for the whole year: "I always say that we have a job to do regardless of who the quarterback is. I think in this situation it has given us a chance to work with him longer. He came in in the middle of the season last year and was a totally different guy than [Brian] Griese was. So that's a little bit of an adjustment. This time around, we've been with him all year long. We know it's his show. He has stepped up and worked extremely hard. He's ready, so it's our job to be ready also."
Simms on the biggest difference from the end of last season to now: "I don't know if there's a whole lot different. Maybe I'm just a little more calm about the situation. Last year I think in a lot of ways things were still new even though I started seven, eight, nine games, whatever it was. This year I've got a little experience under my belt and I just feel ready to go. I'm more excited than anything. There are no questions in my head or nervous feelings in my stomach."
Stovall on the strength of the offense: "We have strength in all areas of our offense. We're very young, but we have a lot of older veterans at our skill positions. Everyone has a lot of playing experience, and we just have a lot of great guys on our team working collectively to win."
Galloway on how much Michael Clayton's rebound helps him: "With him being hopefully back to where he was, that just adds onto our offense. I don't know that it adds anything to me, but it adds to the offense. And as long as you can do things in the offense from a lot of different spots – we can strike from different spots – that makes us tough to stop."
Simms on if Galloway can match his 2005 production: "I don't think there's any doubt. Just the kind of guy he is – he wants the ball, he knows the offense. I'm sure he's got a little confidence because of last year. Everything is definitely on the up and up for him right now and I don't see why he can't improve on it."
Simms on if he can attribute Joey Galloway's longevity to one particular thing: "Not one, but I could say two things. He lives right. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't do anything bad for his body. And he works extremely hard. He's always in shape all year round. So he never has to fight that battle where he takes two months off and then has to go back and get into shape. I think that's what hurts a lot of players some times, especially at the age of 33, 34 in this league. And then, you know, he's truly…you've heard the term 'freak.' He's a freak of a nature in his own right. Just because he's not 6-5 and 230 and runs like that, he's still the fastest guy in the NFL. At his age, after two knee surgeries, there's a lot to be said about that."
Galloway on if he noticed teams paying him more attention as the 2005 season went on: "Yes. With that, though, I think that Coach Gruden did a tremendous job of moving me around. I attribute a lot of what I did to him. He put me in some situations, some matchups, where I was able to be successful. I think the more the defenses go at me, than the better he is. It really challenges him and I think he looks at it that way. Then it's fun for me."
Williams on it being harder for him this year since defenses will be keying on him: "The number one thing for a defense is to stop the run. Especially if you have a high quality running back. It just all goes down to how [the offensive line] plays up front. Last year those guys did a great job for me."
Williams on the offensive line: "It just all goes down to how those guys play up front. Last year, those guys did a great job for me, so if they continue to get after guys with Coach Gruden's schemes, it's going to be hard on teams."
Williams on his goals for this season: "I come in with the same goals – do anything possible, bring a championship to this team, help this team in any way possible and just continue to get better. I feel like if I do that it's going to just build on my individual success."
Williams on the difference from this year to last: "I think the difference in last year is that I know what to expect. Last year I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Now, I actually know what to expect. I've got a little experience under my belt."
Galloway on how he maintains his speed: "I work hard. I don't get out of shape. I start working out in January, and that has worked for me so far. Once you get into the summer months, it's [hard-core]. I've seen a lot of guys fall out, a lot of good athletes."
Galloway on if his playing time in the third preseason game was enough to prepare him for the regular season: "We'll find out. It was fun to finally get out there and compete a little bit, be with the guys in the huddle. We are looking forward to Sunday. Finally everybody gets to really go to work and see what we've been working for."
G Davin Joseph on if he thought he would be a starter so quickly: "No, I didn't think so. I really didn't know what to expect. I just went out there and played hard and gave it my all every day, trying to learn, trying to progress everyday. It ended up coming relatively soon, given the situation. It's still tough. It's just going out there and working hard, playing hard, and I guess it just kind of happened that way."
Joseph on making it to the NFL: "It's been a long journey to get here. I take it from January when I was living in Phoenix. Now I'm living in Tampa, going through the combines and all the interviews. It seems like it's been a long journey to get where I'm at right now, but it feels good to be here and with a group of guys who love football. I love football, and it's a great situation for me."
TE Dave Moore on the Buccaneers' new facility: "It's special. They certainly didn't cut any corners. The weight room, it's a treat to go in there and lift weights. A little air-conditioning, some music, and non-rusting weights. It's really nice to be able to sit down at lunch and sit at a table with a bunch of guys rather than eating at your locker. All of it is going to help us win. All plusses give you an opportunity to do your job a little bit better. So, hopefully it will pay off for us."