RB Cadillac Williams and the Bucs' offense have battled the team's defense more evenly than in some past years
Perhaps this goes without saying, but there are many advantages to having one of the NFL's best defenses for a solid decade. The Lombardi Trophy in a safe at One Buccaneer Place? Yeah, that's one of them.
A nearly impenetrable "D" can even help at training camp; what better way for an offensive to prepare than to go up against the best two times a day? However, that situation is not necessarily great for the psyches on the other side of the ball, especially if the daily competition is particularly one-sided.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been there. The Bucs' now-legendary defense began to jell in 1996 and was pretty much the same swarming weapon it is now by the summer of 1997. The Bucs offense took a bit longer to come together and, in fact, has never quite caught up; the only season in which the offense closed within five spots of the defense on the league rankings was 2003, when the former finished 10th and the latter finished fifth.
Things could finally be changing, however, and not because the 2006 defense has lost any of its talent or aggressiveness. The Bucs believe their youthful offense could emerge this fall, and it is certainly fueling that optimism by holding its own in training camp.
"In previous years, I've felt it was a bit lopsided to say the least in the defense's favor," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I do see the offense doing some things, big plays here and there, some very good execution, some good physical running and some solid playmaking. For that, I like the way we're headed, but I'm very respectful of how far we need to go. We've got some new guys, key guys who could play key positions."
The offense hasn't been flawless, and it hasn't won every drill, or perhaps even half of them. There have been some dropped passes and fumbled snaps, but that's a part of any camp, particularly one routinely conducted in triple-digit temperatures. What seems more important one week into the Bucs' camp is that most of the question marks one would apply to the team's offense are getting affirmative answers.
Will Michael Clayton rebound from his 2005 struggles to his 2004 form? Will Chris Simms build on his 2005 surge and look sharp as the starter? Will David Boston bring anything to the table? Will the competition up front lead to better offensive line play? Will rookie Bruce Gradkowski show the promise that would earn him a roster spot? Will the team avoid any significant injuries to that unit as a whole?
Early returns have the Bucs optimistic about each and every one of those pre-camp concerns. Boston, for instance, has repeatedly flashed the talent that made him one of the league's best receivers a few years ago, and the Bucs have kept him fresh with a reduced camp schedule, a la Joey Galloway.
"He's obviously got a lot of talent," said Gruden. "It's undisputed if you've watched him play in the past. He's getting himself healthy again. That's the number-one agenda, let's get you healthy, and secondly let's teach you our offense. He's putting them both together right now and making big plays for us. But we've got a long way to go to truly get him back to where he was and where he can go."
Gruden has addressed Boston, Clayton, Galloway, Simms and the offensive line after several practices. He hasn't had to wax long on the Bucs' running back corps because few observers perceive any weaknesses there. Still, when the subject did come up, Gruden made it clear that the team is happy with that element of the offense in camp, too.
"I think we have a very good backfield; it's deep," he said. "I'm impressed with number 24, Cadillac Williams, he's making some tremendous things happen here. [Michael] Pittman is still a very good player. Earnest has had a great camp – Graham, "Dodge Ram" Graham. Derek Watson has had his moments. And our fullback position is very competitive now with Jerald Sowell, and Rick Razzano having a healthy, injury-free camp. It will be a tough cut for us. It will be a tough situation that we have to solve here in a couple weeks."
The Bucs started to see some of this new competitiveness in last year's camp, but the offense's gains were in spurts, and were eventually slowed down by a horrible rash of injuries to the offensive line. The Bucs are only about a third of the way through with this camp, so anything could happen. And it's not as if the proud Tampa Bay defense is going to willingly cede any ground. But even the players on that side of the ball will be thrilled if the Bucs' offense is truly improved this year, and the early signs are encouraging.
Wednesday's early session might have been the hottest morning the team has experienced during the first week of camp. By mid-afternoon, it should be about 92 degrees in Lake Buena Vista, with 50% humidity and a perceived temperature of 97.
Say the Bucs: "Bring it on."
The heat won't get to the Buccaneers on Wednesday afternoon because they'll be enjoying the cool, dark surroundings of a nearby cinema. Though the original camp schedule called for another two-a-day on Wednesday, the team has cancelled its second workout of the day and will instead attend an advance screening of the new movie, "Invincible."
It's a football flick, of course, starring Mark Wahlberg as an Eagles fan who attends an open tryout and fulfills his dream by making the team. It is based on a true story. And, in the minds of the Buccaneer players, it's a great deal better than hitting a sled for two hours.
The impromptu day off has become something of a ritual during Buc training camps in Orlando. The coaching staff sets a rigorous tempo on the field and likes to rewards its players when they respond with all-out effort.
The Bucs have certainly worked hard this past week, so the day off is a no-brainer, right? Well, it hasn't always gone down exactly as planned.
"I remember a couple years ago we cancelled an afternoon practice and, rightfully so, a lot of people wrote letters who were very mad," said Gruden. "They drove down to watch us practice and we weren't there. Last year, I think I took them to the movie and they didn't like the movie.
The Bucs made their intentions to cancel Wednesday's practice clear on Tuesday this year. They also lined up a movie that should go over well with the squad.
"We did our very best to get a real good showing for them," said Gruden. "They've earned this. There have been peaks and valleys for the defense, there have been peaks and valleys for the offense, but to a man these guys are working extremely hard in some tough heat. I want to get their legs back and I want to come out here tomorrow morning and have a good one."
More from Coach Gruden
The Buccaneers' head coach touched on some additional topics after Wednesday's lone workout.
On if he'll need to see David Boston in game action to know what he can do, or if he can tell in practice: "No, I've always been able to get a pretty good idea of where a player is on the practice field. That's why we do this, you know what I mean? At the same time, the Jets are going to play us differently than the Buccaneers are, so we're going to have to adjust to different looks and different people. I won't make any predictions as to what's going to happen, [but] if we can get him healthy again and in a groove like he was in before, we could help our football team."
On if he has noticed any drop-off in the play of Shelton Quarles: "Everybody's waiting for the shoe to fall off on some of these guys. I get tired of answering the questions, I really do. Quarles is as good of a middle linebacker as I've ever had a chance to be on the same team with. He's very fast, he's very instinctive and he's a great tackler. I love Barrett Ruud, I think he's got a great future, but Shelton Quarles is a hell of a football player. I don't know how old he is but he looks young to me. He's rocking people out here. I love Quarles."
On Derrick Brooks working so hard to make the team, as if he was a rookie: "That's one of the secrets to his success. None of the previous years or the glory have gone to his head. He's back to the basic fundamentals as soon as the offseason program starts. He's a year-around businessman in terms of football. But I think the exciting thing for Tampa Bay is not only Derrick Brooks and [Ronde] Barber and [Mike] Alstott, some of the key leaders we have, is the emergence of some others. They've learned how to lead. They've learned how to button their lip when things get tough and they've learned how to be at their best when it's hot, when things aren't going their way or maybe we're behind. He's been a great teacher for all of us, especially us involved inside every day with the Bucs, in terms of being a leader and his approach to the game."
On Josh Bidwell's impact on the game: "It's big. He had a tremendous season; he was rewarded with the Pro Bowl. He was a great punter before he got here. When he punted in warm-weather sites and in domed stadiums, he was awesome for the Packers. Not a lot of guys become Pro Bowl punters in Lambeau Field. No disrespect to Green Bay, but that's not easy, man, going out there and kicking the ball. He's a great holder. He made some clutch putdowns for us last year, and he also is a heck of a punter. He's a key to this football team in terms of field position and he's been consistently solid."
On Xavier Beitia: "It's a credit to him. He's come in here and made field goals. I don't think he's missed yet. That's an area that we've really worked hard at improving. We struggled, obviously, a couple of years ago. [Matt] Bryant has upgraded us and we've tried to add competition for him, too, because he proved he thrived under that last year with Todd France."