TE Alex Smith has displayed the stamina and work ethic to remain a force throughout his rookie season
Jon Gruden saw something he liked in Alex Smith during the rookie's first NFL training camp, and it wasn't Smith's soft hands, deceptive speed or game instincts. (Okay, Gruden probably enjoyed seeing those things, as well.)
What impressed Gruden about Smith was the tight end's stamina. Day after grueling day at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Smith ground his way through blazing-hot two-a-days, remaining effective and mentally focused deep into the afternoon. It was the kind of performance that told Gruden he had a special young player on his hands.
Of course, two touchdowns in Smith's regular-season debut said the same thing, only a bit louder. The third-round pick out of Stanford might have been one of the hottest rookies on the NFL circuit this week if not for the performance of his own teammate, first-round running back Cadillac Williams. Williams, who has also shown great stamina, carried the ball 27 times for 148 yards against the Minnesota Vikings and sealed the game with a 71-yard touchdown run.
Williams is on pace for a 2,400-yard rushing season, and Smith is on pace for 32 touchdowns, which tells you all you need to know about the meaning of "on pace" notes when the season is only 6.3% complete. Smith isn't going to find the end zone twice in every game this season, but he's a very good bet to add to his touchdown total at some point during the next 15 games. Given that Buccaneer tight ends accounted for only four TDs all of last year, that's a great addition to the Tampa Bay offense.
It is all those strong performances on the practice field this summer that makes the Bucs confident that Smith's first NFL outing was no fluke.
"I was really happy for him," said quarterback Brian Griese, who didn't hesitate to look for the rookie in the red zone. "It's much like Cadillac – I think he has an opportunity to be a special player. He gives himself a chance every week because he's prepared mentally in the meeting room. He's that type of guy who if you say something to him you know he's going to implement it and remember it and work on those things. I'm looking forward to working with him."
Smith isn't particularly outspoken or cocky, but he's confident that he can join the NFL's new legion of ultra-productive tight ends, the Tony Gonzalez types who give their team's a pass-catching threat as serious as another wideout. He has known from his first day in the league, though, that he had to supplement his innate talents with a lot of effort during the week.
"It's been a lot of hard work; just being here for OTA's and training camp that was a big help," said Smith. "Just getting that extra work and studying the playbook as much as possible."
Against the Vikings, Smith scored his first touchdown when Griese saw him lined up one-on-one with a linebacker in the left slot and simply lobbed a ball over the defender's head after Smith had beaten him off the line. On the second score, Griese scrambled to buy time as Smith found an open spot in the back of the end zone, wanting to go to the rookie tight end the whole time.
The Buffalo Bills, of course, will have watched both of those plays on tape. Perhaps the memory of Griese looking for Smith will cause them to pay more attention to the rookie, which can only help talented wideouts Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway.
"It helps a lot," said Clayton, in fact. "You get matchups on tight ends that you really look forward to, safety matchups, sometimes linebacker matchups on tight ends. A guy like Alex Smith has a lot of speed. He's able to make some plays, able to open the defense up. You definitely utilize a guy like that."
The Bucs wasted no time in utilizing him. No, Smith is not going to catch 32 touchdown passes this year – that would be some kind of record. But he's going to remain a big factor in the passing game, and that's all the Bucs could ask for.
"I don't want to put too much into that one game," said Smith. "It's a 16-game season so we just want to continue to progress from there and hopefully we continue to do that."
Smith's debut was only one topic the Buccaneers were discussing leading up Sunday's home opener against Buffalo. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
DE Simeon Rice on what he learned this week about the team: "What our fiber is made of, what our fabric's made of, early in terms of what we are trying to get accomplished, in terms of our grit. It's about so much. You can find out about yourself and adversity, and it's about what we found out about ourselves and adversity, which allows us to flourish in the game, in terms of the up and coming weeks. We understand we're willing to go to hell and back."
S Jermaine Phillips on what the team learned from the first game: "When you get away with a victory and you did make some mistakes and can play better, it's always good. You can come in here and kind of relax, but not relax too much. You have to get back on the details and the finer things that are going to make us a good defense and a good team."
RB Carnell Williams on what he learned from his first game: "The speed of the game, I mean the tempo, the grinding of the game, you see the difference of the game."
WR Michael Clayton on whether winning takes away some of the frustration from last year: "It does. At the end of the day, that's the only thing that matters. You hope for the best for your team and hope you can make the playoffs, because to be out of the playoffs, it's something you don't want to go through as a football player. It's hard dealing with that, watching those games while you're sitting at home. But, definitely, I would give back my success last year to trade it in for some wins, playoff opportunities. I would definitely do that."
CB Brian Kelly on the offense bouncing back with big plays in Minnesota: "It showed a lot. It showed a lot of perseverance for those guys. And you could see that when they came back into the locker room. It's just a good confidence to have, get off on a good start for us as a team."
Rice on what sets the tone for this team: "You know what sets the tone is, I think the preparation coming into the season, you go out there and build great confidence - that sets the tone in terms of the mindset we have. In terms of the things we try to get accomplished, in terms of the things that we're doing that's working well for us, scoring touchdowns, getting interceptions, getting sacks, causing turnovers, maintaining and managing the game, those are the things that are the tone setters. And we follow up with a strong mindset with a belief in what we're doing."
Phillips on not getting too complacent after a big win: "You just have to take everything one step at a time and treat every game like it's your first game. Have that same excitement and enthusiasm we had against Minnesota, just bring it in here."
C John Wade on how difficult it will be to play Buffalo's defense: "Well, it's the most difficult to date. They are a good team, they are good on defense. They got veteran leadership, they finish well and they played well last week. So, it's going be the toughest challenge, they're a very good defense."
Williams on Buffalo's linebackers: "Those guys are fast, I mean like LB London Fletcher, you know they're like lightning on the field. (They are) fast, quick guys, so it's going to be a challenge for our offensive line, you know blocking and picking guys up."
Wade on whether Buffalo shows a lot of different fronts: "Yes, I've seen them do a variety of things, and they do things well. They seem to know their scheme. They feel comfortable with their scheme, and it shows on film. They're comfortable, so if something didn't exactly go right for them, they can kind of replace it. They're a tough group."
QB Brian Griese on what having a feature back like Cadillac Williams does for a quarterback: "Each week, hopefully, he continues to get more and more comfortable, not just with the running game but with the passing game as well. He didn't catch any balls in that first game, but I'm looking forward to the point where he feels comfortable coming out of the backfield catching the ball and adds that dimension to his game. I'm excited about the possibilities with him and, really, he can be as good as he wants to be. But it's a great start for him."
Williams on Brian Griese helping him: "No doubt. Whenever there are any problems he's always pulling me in the right direction, [saying] 'You've go to do this, you've got to do that.' Just him controlling the offense, his grasp on the offense, really helps me."
LB Derrick Brooks on whether he's going to call Carnell Williams "Cadillac" yet: "It's one game, but he came in last week, made a name for himself, obviously. He established a rhythm, some hard tough runs early, I was really impressed with that. And obviously, the third-and-one at the end of the game to seal the win for us. But it's water under the bridge now, you know it is a different challenge this week."
Griese on if Williams' success will lead to defenses crowding the line more: "Well, yeah, I hope so. You talk on and on every year about balance. If we're able to establish a running game that will help us with our balance. Last year we weren't very balanced; we threw the ball entirely too much, I think. It's going to help us from that standpoint, yes."
Clayton on the weapons the team has now: "It's a matter of putting it together. We had a great performance last Sunday but it wasn't our best performance. We're definitely confident in our guys that are here to make plays. We get on that payout I think week after week. We're going to get better and better and better. I just look forward to that."
Williams on looking forward to catching more passes: "I'm definitely looking forward to that. Throughout my career in college and coming into the league, that's something that I wasn't used in and it's something I'm definitely good at. For me to be more involved in the passing game, getting the ball out there more in space, I'm looking forward to it."
Griese on comparing his current group of weapons with his best teams in Denver: "We have some great talent. We have some young guys, and one game is one game. We talk a lot in this building about consistency and setting a standard for going out there and playing at a high level. I've played with some guys who have done that over an extended period of time. I played with Rod Smith and Eddie McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis on the same offense. That was a pretty good offense, now. I think as these guys continue to be consistent week-in and week-out, then you really start to look at them as top-flight players."
Kelly on the offense sticking with the running game and keeping the defense off the field: "It felt good. It was good to see the time of possession, that they were able to control the ball, able to close the game out like that, put the dagger in them. With "Cadillac" running that touchdown back, it was a good feeling for us."
Phillips on facing RB Willis McGahee and rookie quarterback J.P. Losman: "I'm just looking forward to it. I just want to hit, that's really all I want to do. If I can get McGahee, if I can get Losman, I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity."
Phillips on if he saw all the pressure from the front four on the game tape: "Definitely. That's where it starts, in the front four. In the back end we cover, but if the quarterback doesn't have time to throw the ball it makes our job a lot easier."
DT Anthony McFarland on getting two wins in a row out of the way: "I don't know about trying to 'get things out of the way.' Obviously, it's our home opener. The key to our success this year is going to be defending our home turf. It's good to go out and get a win on the road, but we've got to be able to depend on what we've got at home. Because of that [road win], it gives us an opportunity to go 2-0 and win two games in a row, and we have to be able to do that."
TE Alex Smith on his blocking: "That's something I'm going to continue to work on with the coaches. We spend extra time just trying to perfect technique more than anything and once I get that down I'll be pretty solid."