The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tied for the NFL lead with 143 penalties in 2015, an outcome that first-year Head Coach Dirk Koetter is determined to keep from repeating.
Even with cleaner play a major emphasis throughout the offseason, this is obviously not an issue that can be resolved with a snap of the fingers, or it never would have progressed to the level it did last year. It's a process, which is why a rough day at training camp – or maybe even just one particularly rough practice period – isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The Buccaneers had one of those days on Saturday, or at least they did during the first part of a practice that was split in half by a lighting delay. The first full-team drill of the day was riddled with plays interrupted by what Koetter considered actions that would have drawn penalty flags in a game. The team did not have refs on hand for the practice, but Koetter had little problem spotting the ragged play.
And while he certainly did not enjoy what he was seeing, Koetter knew it was a useful opportunity to emphasize the penalty issue once again.
"I hate it when I have to be the ref," he said. "We're working on the penalties. I've got to do a great job on that. I've got to keep pushing the envelope. I know our coaches are doing it. But we've got to do better than we did today, at least to start. Now, I thought those last three team periods we did were much better."
The Bucs put on shoulder pads for the first time on Saturday and tomorrow will go to full pads. Those "shells" allowed the team to take a small step from the first two no-contact days of camp to an environment in which players are allowed to "thud" each other, up to a point. That may have contributed to the early flurry of flags before the players made the necessary adjustments.
"What I liked was, obviously, these guys like to hit," said Koetter. "That energy was good. What I didn't like was that first team period was ugly, ugly, ugly from a penalty standpoint. We can't play that way. We're not going to play that way. And they'll hear about it."
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Koetter didn't mince words when asked about one play in particular, in which seventh-year safety Major Wright delivered a hard hit on second-year tight end Brandon Myers. There are certain types of penalties that bother coaches more than others, and Wright's hit definitely fell into the former category.
"Yeah, that was a cheap shot," said Koetter. "That was a cheap shot. He would have been ejected, he would have been fined and it was a 15-yard penalty. We don't need those kinds of hits. Those kinds of hits don't do us any good because they won't be good on Sunday."
Rookie linebacker Cassanova McKinzy had two notable shoulder pad thuds of his own on opposing ballcarriers. They were considered within acceptable bounds and he did not appear to be chastised for either of them, but it's clear that Koetter and his staff want the players to err on the side of caution when working against each other. Some coaches refer to this as 'practice etiquette.'
"Now, there are some other hits out here, some banging, that are legal," said Koetter. "I always talk to these guys: 'We've got to take care of each other on the field. There's hitting in live contact and there's hitting against our teammates.' Sometimes the rookies have a hard time learning that. Like everything out here, it's a work in progress."
Some players, of course, have been eagerly looking forward to the addition of pads after a long offseason of no-contact practices. That is especially true of some rookies, as Koetter clearly realizes, who are looking for another way to stand out. Undrafted rookies like McKinzy, in particular, want to make an impression as quickly as they can.
"I'm just trying to bring physicality to the team and to the defense, and trying to show the type of player that I am," said the former Auburn standout. "There's nothing soft about me. I like the physical part of the game."
- The Bucs still have a pleasantly healthy camp roster, even while they continue to wait for the return of wide receiver Louis Murphy and guard J.R. Sweezy. The only addition to the list of players on the sideline on Day Three of camp was veteran tackle Gosder Cherilus, who was merely given a scheduled day off as a nod to his ninth-year status.
As is usually the case with a stuffed 90-man roster, one veteran's absence doubled as a very good opportunity to take a longer look at a younger, less proven hopeful. In this case, some of the extra snaps went to rookie Caleb Benenoch, a fifth-round draft pick who primarily played tackle at UCLA but has been working largely at guard since arriving in Tampa. Benenoch came to training camp with a bit less background instruction than his fellow rookies because the UCLA class schedule caused him to miss all of the OTA practices.
"Since Gos had a little vet day today, Benenoch is going to work at both right guard and right tackle," said Koetter. "We're going to keep him on the right side. When we drafted him, we thought he was a player that had guard and tackle flexibility. Missing OTAs is hurting him mentally right now, he's making some mental [mistakes], he's jumping offsides. We like the potential of him but we've got to get some more than potential."
- The Bucs conducted a quick field goal period on Saturday, giving rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo six shots from various yard-lines. Aguayo made five of six; the other one hit an upright and bounced away.
Aguayo's dominant collegiate career at Florida State and the Bucs' aggressive move to get him on draft day have put him under something of a microscope, but Aguayo isn't feeling any added pressure.
"Since I've grown up kicking in my backyard or practicing by myself, there's always been that same pressure on myself," he said. "I put it on me to get better and be great. When there are people around or people watching, I don't really think about it too much because I already put that on myself when I was a young child. I mean I guess it's just something added to the whole picture, but it doesn't really phase me. I just got out there and I know what I've got to do and I play to my expectations."
He also never expected to be completely perfect throughout training camp. The Bucs would obviously like something close to perfection once the regular season starts, but very few kickers have ever attained that. Only four kickers have ever finished an NFL season with a 100% field goal percentage, only two of which included 20 or more attempts. Aguayo will try to match that, but an occasional miss on the practice field only helps him concentrate on perfecting his technique.
"I just closed it a little bit," said Aguayo. "I shut the face a little bit, as you would say in golf. It happens. A lot of people see me on TV and watch the games and see that I haven't missed, but there's a couple times at practice where you miss – but that's what practice is for. You just go back out. I went back out there and fixed the problem and I'm good to go, I'm ready for the next kick."