Gerald McCoy has reason to look back fondly on his rookie NFL season, save for one moment of bad timing.
The third overall pick in the 2010 draft, McCoy looked like a long-term difference-maker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, particularly in the season's second half as he became more comfortable in the defensive scheme. Furthermore, his team defied expectations with a 10-6 season and, with the youngest roster in the NFL, looks to be on the rise. McCoy is definitely in the right place at the right time.
Time and place weren't quite as serendipitous for McCoy on the afternoon of December 12. The Buccaneers were visiting FedExField, preparing to play the Washington Redskins to kick off their playoff stretch drive. McCoy decided the game would be a turning point for him, too.
Over the previous four weeks he had recorded his first three NFL sacks, along with 17 tackles, three passes defensed and a forced fumble. The Buccaneers had been happy with the pressure was putting on opposing quarterbacks throughout the season, but it was certainly gratifying to see his efforts pay off in the stat table.
In pregame warmups, McCoy decided the final month of the season would be even better. He felt as if he had spent the first three-quarters of the season worrying too much about proving he was worthy of his draft position. He told his fellow linemen that he really hadn't had fun during his rookie season, and it was time for that to change.
"I said, 'I have four more games as a rookie, so I need to enjoy this and have fun with it,'" McCoy recalls saying. "Then, that first quarter happened and I was done. That right there shows that you can't take this for granted and you have to enjoy it while you have it."
Just a few minutes into his 13th NFL game, McCoy suffered a torn biceps in his right arm, putting him on the sideline for the rest of the afternoon and ending his rookie season prematurely. That wasn't exactly what he meant by "having fun," but he wasn't bitter about it. The bit of misfortune simply reinforced the lesson that the best times can be fleeting if you don't do your best to hold onto them. That was a lesson Head Coach Raheem Morris tried to impart to his players before they dispersed following a season-ending win in New Orleans and, unfortunately, a playoff tiebreaker that didn't go their way."
"It's not easy to get 10 wins," said McCoy. "We're going to enjoy it for a little bit, then move on to next season. He told us to remember what that felt like. To be able to get to 10 wins was amazing. I missed the last three, and somewhat the last four, but still…"
The Buccaneers enjoyed many outstanding performances by rookies in 2010. Mike Williams broke the franchise record with 11 receiving touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in, essentially, 11 games. Cody Grimm gave the Bucs an incredible return on a seventh-round pick, stepping in as the starting free safety in Week Three and playing like a veteran. Ted Larsen was a revelation at left guard. Dezmon Briscoe positioned himself as a very intriguing figure heading into next year's training camp.
In the long run, though, there may not have been a more important addition to the team in 2010 than McCoy. Tampa Bay's defense was one of the best the modern NFL has seen in the late 1990s, up through the Super Bowl season of 2002. Since then, it has frequently been quite good but rarely as thoroughly dominant as that memorable crew. One major difference between the two eras has been the intensity of the pass rush from the interior line. McCoy may be the key to restoring that intensity.
First things first, McCoy is looking forward to the opportunity to settle in during his second season, after a debut campaign that saw its peak moments followed by its biggest disappointment that Sunday in Washington.
"So many different things happened," he said. "We had so many ups and downs. It's an emotional roller coaster, this game, highs and lows this year, emotionally. Physically, people getting hurt and you started to see people come around. A lot of different things happened this season but there's a lot to look forward to next season."
McCoy's entry into the professional ranks was certainly a whirlwind. Less than 12 hours after the emotional moment in which he was tabbed by the Buccaneers in the round's opening draft, he was on a plane from New York to Tampa. By the time the Bucs were a few weeks into their OTA practices, he was the clear starter at under tackle. And less than a month into the 2010 season it was becoming clear that his team was going to be much more of a factor in the playoff race than most had expected.
There wasn't much time for rookie to feel or behave like a rookie, and until his conscious decision in Washington, he hadn't made much room for simply enjoying his craft. But McCoy kept an open mind throughout the process and as his first season progressed he felt as if he were growing into a pro.
"Being a rookie actually kind of helps, because you're so naïve about everything," he said. "Whenever a coach tells you something it's like, 'Okay, I'm going to try that.' When Coach Morris said, 'Let's get 10 wins,' it was like, 'Okay.' But you mature over time and you finally start to see what you really need to believe in. Then you really start to buy into it."
How much progress can a promising and highly-touted player make from his rookie season, with all its attendant ups and downs, to his second NFL campaign. Two words: Josh Freeman. McCoy and Freeman may play two very dissimilar positions, but they have a like mind for the game, a willingness to work as hard as it takes and to examine their own successes and failures.
Freeman was promising but raw as a rookie in 2009; he made the leap in 2010. Now it's McCoy's turn. This should be fun.