This section of the NFL calendar, with its OTAs and mini-camps and conditioning programs, is all about discovery for the players. They're learning the playbook, absorbing terminology and figuring out how best to complement their teammates.
It's an obvious progression of learning for the players, starting at square one (or wherever they were at the end of the previous season) and installing, installing, installing under the coaches' watchful eyes until it's time to play the games.
There are lessons flowing in the other direction, too, though in a less scheduled manner. As the players learn their assignments, the coaches learn more and more about their players. Perhaps an unexpected deep threat arises among the receiver candidates, or a better-than-expected blitzer comes out of the linebacker group. In turn, the coaches' plans are modified, here and there, by new concepts of how to utilize the talent on hand.
And that is one of the great advantages of these "organized team activity days."
On Thursday, the Buccaneers finished up their third week of OTAs. The team will hold its final four such voluntary practices next week and then conduct a mandatory three-day mini-camp the subsequent week before going into a brief pre-training camp hibernation. After Thursday's session on a surprising pleasant late June morning, Head Coach Raheem Morris talked about the discovery process when working with such waiting-to-be-maximized talents as third-year cornerback Aqib Talib.
"That's what OTAs are about, gaining that understanding," said Morris. "'Hey, when I'm calling this Aqib, that's when I need you to stand up for me.' Those are the things we're doing in OTA days, really across the board. We try to bring out the best qualities in people. We went into a little more Under fronts at the end of last year because of a guy like Quincy Black. I don't know if we really had a linebacker with Quincy Black's physique and rush ability [before], how big he is and how strong he is and how physical he is and also fast. We were able to take advantage of some of his strengths. It's just kind of across the board as far as those things. We take advantage of Barrett Ruud all the time. We make him two-gap on eight-man fronts sometimes because he has the ability to and he's so instinctive and visual and makes great plays. It's no different when you're talking about a big 6-1 corner out there with great long arms, that's great at the line of scrimmage, that can play off, that has really good ball skills. You want to take advantage of those things as well."
Players force these adjustments by their coaches when they make standout plays while working within the framework of their assignments - maybe a tight throw through traffic or a leaping interception in the end zone. On the more dramatic of these movements, a light bulb may go off in a coach's head: This is how we can best take advantage of this player's skills.
A light bulb might have blazed to life during the full-team red-zone session on Thursday, when rookie wide receiver Mike Williams made a spectacular one-handed catch in the end zone. At the very least, the catch set off a loud celebration and a round of flying hip bumps.
"As a coach, your job is to put people in position to make plays, and once the guys get in position to make plays then they make dynamic plays," said Morris. "Those are the things that you love about the Aqibs; the Mike Williams; the Ronde Barbers when you talk about pressure; the Quincy Blacks when you talk about size, weight, speed; the Geno Hayes, how slippery he is on the blitz. You try to put those guys in position where they're going to be most successful. You try to do that across the board until your guys develop into knowing their roles."
There are no completely unique offensive or defensive playbooks in the NFL. Every team borrows concepts from others, and coaches draw from their past experiences in other locations to devise their own plans.
Obviously, though, some of the more influential systems on both sides of the ball have gained a sort of universal name recognition among coaches, players and fans. The West Coast Offense. The Tampa Two Defense. The 46. The Wildcat.
As Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson enumerated earlier in the week, the Buccaneers' offense in 2010 will include concepts from the West Coast offense as well as a vertical dimension influenced from his time with the St. Louis Rams. What the team would like, however, is for its offense to be successful enough that it gains a bit of notoriety of its own.
The Buccaneers believe that is possible largely because of one man: Josh Freeman. If Freeman succeeds in becoming the sort of long-term franchise quarterback that has meant so much in places such as Indianapolis, New England and Green Bay, the Buccaneers' offense will eventually gain an identity of its own.
"We have a lot of similar things as far as West Coast offense, some things that Coach Olson did at the Rams with the vertical stretch," said Morris. "The running game, we've got some Patriot mix to it along with some Coach Olson offense from the Rams with big Steven Jackson. And now it's becoming just Tampa's offense, and that's the beauty of it. Everybody's going to know us - 'Hey, this is Tampa Bay's offense.' We haven't been known for that before, until you get a quarterback like Josh Freeman and you get your coordinator in place for the next couple of years, and let those guys go out there and compete."
The Bucs also expect to benefit in 2010 from an entire offseason of focused work on the offensive scheme. Last year, Olson inherited his current post just before the season.
"There's going to be a more unified approach just because of the time [the coaches and players] had to spend together," said Morris. "Last year, they went out there and were thrown under the gun and they were putting it in during the season and adjusting to Greg during the season. Now, during the offseason we had a chance for all the coaches to sit down as one staff and for Coach Olson to really say what he wants and do what he wants, and also come talk to me to see what we want to do, how we want to do it and how effective we want to be. Now you're able to present it to your players and go out there and execute."
Two of the Bucs' top three 2010 draft picks left practice early on Thursday, but Morris expressed little concern when he met with the press approximately 30 minutes after the end of the workout. By then, Morris had found both defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and wide receiver Arrelious Benn and had been encouraged by what he saw.
Morris described both injuries as "tweaks."
"[McCoy] had some sort of a mid-body tweak, or a strain, whatever you want to call it. But I saw him in the hall and he appears to be walking around chipper, smiling, the normal Gerald McCoy. He just didn't finish practice.
The same with Arrelious; he had some type of lower-leg injury, some type of strain, but I saw him in the lunch room walking around, smiling, feeling pretty good. They've got a couple days of rest here so we feel good about those guys and what they'll be able to do. We've been very fortunate with injury, we've been very fortunate with competition, we've been very fortunate with participation around here, so hopefully that will continue."