RB Charlie Garner is cutting off his left knee better than he has in almost a year
Once or twice during last week's mini-camp – a three-day affair that was for the most part very encouraging, offensively – running back Charlie Garner went one way and quarterback Brad Johnson ran the play in the other direction. The miscommunication sent Garner off like a loosed electron, breaking down the atomic structure of the play.
Garner doesn't expect to see such laboratory mishaps very often when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reconvene for training camp at the end of July. This is a team, he says, that is majoring in chemistry.
"Oh yes, absolutely, and it's very important," said the 11th-year veteran, who has seen his share of locker room fusions. "And that stems from all the guys being here through the OTAs. We've had a lot of guys be here for the OTA's. As well as trying to learn the positions, they're just trying to learn the city as well as just being around this team."
Before the team's only full-team mandatory mini-camp last week, the Bucs brought much of their reworked roster together, on a voluntary basis, through a string of organized team activity (OTA) days, as well as the offseason training program. Garner, like roughly 20 of the team's key players, was not a Buccaneer before March, so he needed the offseason to absorb the playbook and connect with his new teammates.
Of course, Garner did have a bit of a head start, having combined with Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen for several successful seasons in Oakland, when all three held similar positions.
"That weighed heavily on my decision," said Garner of choosing Tampa during free agency. "Everybody wants to play for somebody they've worked for before and have had some success with, along with a working relationship that was good and effective. And that's what I had with these two gentlemen and that's what I plan to continue to have here."
Garner, in fact, was hugely successful as a Raider, and a San Francisco 49er before that, but in a way that led to a lower profile than some of the league's other big-name backs. Though he has had just two 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the last five, Garner has added extremely prolific receiving numbers to the mix and come up with an average of over 100 yards gained per game over that span. Few backs can match his 7,812 combined yards over the last five years.
"Garner is what he is; he's one of the most productive backs in all of football in the last five years, rushing and receiving," said Gruden. "He brings our team attitude and life and playmaking."
Garner, who played in a bit of a running back committee in Oakland and is expecting more of the same in Tampa, fits well into what Gruden wants to do with his offense. According to Garner, the system being run in Tampa remains familiar but has an added emphasis on getting the ball to the backs out of the backfield. Last year, Michael Pittman caught 75 passes for the Bucs, most among NFC running backs.
"He's doing some different things," said Garner of Gruden's offensive leanings in Tampa. "We have different personnel here. We have a lot of backs who can do a lot of things well, like we did in Oakland. But we have lot more guys who can do a lot more things out of the backfield and out of the receiver position which is going to be real intriguing."
The few breakdowns aside, Garner appeared to be in top form during the Bucs' mini-camp, cutting sharply and running routes with precision. He was one of the most encouraging signs of camp, given that earlier in the offseason he had still been limited while he recovered from knee surgery. Garner's numbers dipped in his final Oakland campaign last year; though he still averaged 4.6 yards per carry and still caught 48 passes, those were numbers put up in spite of some frustrating limitations.
That frustration has been lifted and Garner is looking forward to a return to the form that saw him put up nearly 1,000 yards in both the rushing and receiving categories in 2002, when Oakland made it to the Super Bowl.
"This is as strong as my knee has felt since the end of last year because I hurt it in August and I had to play the whole season with it," he said. "So I feel great to be running around out there and making cuts, strong cuts off my left leg because I really wasn't able to do that last year."
Garner wasn't the only back making a strong impression during camp. Another free agent signee, Jamel White, showed off his quickness and looked natural in pass routes. Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott banged away as if he had never had the serious neck injury that cost him most of 2003. And Pittman is still heavily involved, though he'll miss the first three games of 2004 on an NFL suspension.
Garner isn't threatened by that depth, pointing out that he worked fine in a rotation in Oakland. While his numbers over the last five years are impressive, it is usually Gruden or another observer who points them out, not Garner.
"The numbers really don't play a way into my decision in where I go or what I do," he said. "The only thing that matters is the 'W' and I plan on putting some of those up around here with the guys we have."