Since Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik succeeded Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen as head coach and general manager, respectively, on January 17, the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have felt like more of a concept than a real, live team.
Hiring Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates to coordinate the offense and defense gave both sides of the ball an identity, if it would have to wait seven or eight weeks to be put into action on the field. Releasing a handful of established veterans, including linebacker Derrick Brooks, in late February pushed the team in a more youthful direction. Pursuing proven offensive players like Kellen Winslow and Derrick Ward helped cement the team's plans to build a consistently productive attack. Stressing toughness and physical play, as Morris did throughout February and March, established a theme and a goal for the upcoming season.
But until Tuesday, it was plans and possibilities. Now, with the week ending and the team's first mini-camp in the books, the 2009 Buccaneers have begun to flesh out those concepts.
"These guys right now, they're going through the process, they're doing what they have to do," said Morris. "They're learning the offense, they're learning the defense, they're rolling through this thing.
"Some new guys are starting to develop, and I'm really fired up to see it. I'm looking at the new things developing in Barrett Ruud, the new things in Davin Joseph, some of those players, [Jeremy] Trueblood. It's starting to come together. We're starting to develop some new guys."
The Bucs were allowed to hold one extra mini-camp this offseason due to the change at head coach. They were not allowed to hit each other, and won't be allowed to do so until training camp. Working on the more violent aspects of the game, to use the term that Morris prefers, will have to wait, but the formation of the right attitude began when 64 players took the field together for the first time on Tuesday morning.
"When you talk about the violent football teams, the physical football teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers, you think about downhill running and people smashing," said Morris. "That's just what it is. When you talk about violent football teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, you talk about people smashing you and running the ball downhill. We want to become those guys. We want to become that violent. We want people to look at us in the same way, in that same light. Right now obviously we're just doing timing and precision, but we start talking about it a lot."
As Morris mentioned on the first day of camp, the emphasis in non-contact practices is on timing and precision. Those issues can become a measure of a team's toughness, too, in terms of mental strength and overall conditioning. Morris said the Bucs' attention to detail and ability to finish was stronger on Wednesday than it was on the first day of camp.
"Right now we're working on our endurance; we're working on body fat; how much weight we're really playing with," he explained. "Are guys playing with the right amount of weight? Are we doing our bodies right, are we treating our bodies right in order to finish down the stretch? Some of that's youth; some of that's what we've already done; some of that is just about teaching right now, the lessons we're learning right now, how to finish a practice, a game. [Tuesday] we jumped offsides probably three times in that last period because mental weakness set in. [Wednesday], no offsides in that last period. The guys were locked in. It wasn't perfect by any means, by any stretch of the word, but it was a lot better and that's all you can ask for each day."
There is still work to be done, which is the expected summary of any early-spring mini-camp. Morris said he could see his team begin to wear down a bit at the end of the fifth and final practice on Thursday morning, something that can't happen in July, or especially September, but is unsurprising in April.
"They finished pretty good," he said. "Down the stretch they got a little tired. When you start to get tired, you start to see people on the ground, and once you see people on the ground you know you're not finishing as well. We've got to improve on that, we've got to get better at that aspect, but right now we're doing pretty good."
Tampa Bay's coaching staff took a slow and steady approach to installing the new systems being imported by Jagodzinski and Bates, working on just a handful of base sets and plays. A little bit more was added each day, and there was a lot of repetition. But there was no shortage of plays run, and the majority of them were run well.
"Any time you come out here and execute that many plays three days in a row you've got to feel good about it," said Morris. "There were very little mistakes. There are always going to be mistakes. That always happens. That's a part of growing as a team. But for the most part, when you come out here and execute as many plays as we did today you feel real good about it.
"The guys are finishing, the guys are playing hard, the guys are practicing hard, the guys are competing for the ball, and that's always good to see."
Williams On Track
In 2005, Morris was in his second year as the Bucs' assistant defensive backs coach. During games, he was stationed in the press box, helping defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin with quality control. When the Bucs' offense was on the field, he got to be more of a spectator for a few minutes.
From his bird's-eye view, Morris saw the same thing Bucs fans did during the first month of that campaign – running back Cadillac Williams was the real deal. Williams opened his career with an NFL-record 434 yards through the Bucs' first three games and eventually set the team's new rookie record with 1,178 yards. Morris said he would often find himself saying, 'Get the ball to Lac,' when Tampa Bay had the ball.
On Thursday, Morris said he hoped to be dusting off that sentence at some point in 2009. This time, he'd be on the sideline, and he'd have a more direct connection with the man calling the plays, Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.
Morris may get his chance. When asked about Williams' progress following the surgery he had to repair a knee injury suffered in the 2008 season finale, the Bucs' coach had an optimistic response. Williams didn't run any plays with the offense during this week's mini-camp, but he was on site, often working with Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli.
"Cadillac's been with our trainers," said Morris. "He can do some individual things. He didn't in this camp. He's been working with Todd. He's doing great. Todd feels really good about him. He's got a projected date, maybe training camp, we'll see. Who knows? Everybody keep their fingers crossed. I know the town wants to see him. This town is a big supporter of Cadillac, and I'm a big supporter of Cadillac."
The possible return of Williams in 2009 could give the Bucs an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. Ward, the former Giant who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2008 despite starting only three games, was signed in March to add to incumbent Earnest Graham. Both are considered capable of crossing the 1,000-yard mark, and Williams has already proven he can do the same when healthy.
Additional Thoughts from Coach Morris
Morris addressed the media at the end of each day of the mini-camp. Here are a few other topics he touched on during the week:
On when the team needs a third quarterback: "We actually need a fourth quarterback. We have [Brian] Griese on staff, obviously. We're going to add a fourth quarterback to our offseason program here. We plan to do that at some point. More than likely that will happen in our next set of events, which is our OTA days. So we'll probably have a guy in place then and he'll be ready to compete."
On Elbert Mack's opportunity: "Right now we've got five hungry corners fighting, jockeying for position, and they come to work every day. Elbert Mack's one of those guys, and he's fired up to play, he's fired up to come to practice. He presents himself well. He's detailed. But he's one of those young guys that's got to grow into his shell a little bit. He's got to grow into that. He's got to become that guy, kind of like we mentioned yesterday. Trying to see if he can be that guy. He's got talent, no doubt about it. We've seen flashes of him when I put him in last year. No doubt about. We just want to see him become that guy, come into his own a little bit."
On a few players scuffling with each other during Thursday's practice: "We had a lot of energy, man. Any time you invite the media to a practice you get a fight. That's always fun, you get a little extra juices. You guys become the crowd, you become the fans. Nobody wants to look bad on TV. I always tell them, 'Whatever you finish like at the end of this practice is what they're going to write about until training camp.' Nobody wants to look bad at training camp."
On how much patience he has right now: "It's not about that. You're not trying to figure out when you need not to have patience. Your team needs to figure that out. Your team needs to come out and play well. Your team needs to grow into that. My coaches right now don't have patience. Those are the guys that are ready to get them going. I don't know if you saw Coach [Jim] Bates out here – he was jumping around and getting pretty excited, which is a lot of fun to watch. I've got a bunch of live wires, man. They're great teachers, they're live wires, they're running around with their guys. I've got them all in the training room right after practice as well, so I feel good about that."
On if he found himself around the defensive backs more often: "I was actually trying to be conscientious to not go over there. I went over there once in awhile without getting nosy, but I was trying to stay away from those guys. I wanted to go hang out with my O-Line. I wanted to go see my new tight end move around a little bit. I wanted to go see my old tight ends move around a little bit. I wanted to see our two young quarterbacks out there throw the football. I was just fired up to go everywhere. That D-Line looked pretty good today. They came out and they worked hard. They did everything you ask. They bounced around, they moved well. So I was excited about seeing the team. I've been doing there a long time seeing those guys work."
On WR Dexter Jackson rebounding from a tough rookie season: "Dexter started off the season not so well, got his helmet taken away from him. He came back and all I do is see him work. He's been out here working every day, on his own, in the weight room, running by himself, doing everything he can. He made a big play today in practice. I'm excited for Dexter and I'm excited about what he can do."