The Tampa Bay Buccaneers conducted their last practice of the offseason on Tuesday afternoon, wrapping up a brief but intense mini-camp. After a team-building outing on Wednesday, players and coaches will roll right into a five-week off period before the beginning of training camp.
Those five weeks are meant to be a mental cleansing of sorts, a period of rest and relaxation, of stress reduction and recuperation. Head Coach Raheem Morris said that lengthy down time will serve one other important purpose before the start of training camp, as well.
It is, he says, a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.
"I'm going to relax, there's no doubt about that," said Morris. "I'm going to get away from it. But you step away and it makes you want it more, makes you hungrier and hungrier."
The Buccaneers are a young team, one of the youngest in the NFL and certainly as youthful as they have been in many years. That has added enthusiasm to the offseason program and lent a sense that something was being built from the ground up. Even those young and eager players want some time off, to be sure, but they are also looking forward to getting to training camp and finding out how all their hard work is going to pay off.
"I'm really fired up about the offseason, from OTAs to the offseason workouts to right here in mandatory mini-camp; about the attendance; about the attitude; about the chemistry and about the competition," said Morris. "It's been a different offseason for us. There's been a lot of progression rather than taking steps backward. We've done a lot of good things on the field, we've done a lot of good things off the field as far as community work and we've done a lot of great things as far as getting to know our fan base and really establishing who we want to be."
The only major part of his team's preparation for the season that Morris couldn't fully address during the offseason was the physical style of play he demands from the players. With the NFL's (fully justified) rules against contact in the offseason, that push has to take a backseat to work on timing, precision and mental absorption of the playbook.
When training camp begins, however, the pads will go on and things will get much more physical. Morris wants his players to understand that, too, as they enjoy these five weeks of down time. There are still some things the players can do to get ready for camp, even amid their more relaxing pursuits.
"Right now, you tell these guys that physical conditioning precedes everything on your way to training camp," said Morris. "Go out and being in your best shape possible and come back and be ready to run. Also, enjoy your family and get a chance to be with the people you love and actually get a little R&R, some rest and relaxation. Get ready to go, get ready to run, get ready to be the most physically fit team so we can work on our physical attitude when we get back to training camp."
Counting On the Vets
Morris, Mark Dominik and team management executed a very specific and detailed plan for the 2010 NFL Draft, one that involved more than a year of hoarding picks, with the belief that a good portion of its draft class would have an immediate impact this season.
And there are certainly reasons to believe the team could find significant roles this fall for the likes of Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Myron Lewis and the receiving duo of Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. The Bucs' returning veterans, however, aren't necessarily counting on any of the newcomers to carry them.
"Obviously when you have the number-three pick in the draft you're counting on him to be a good player," said Barrett Ruud, the Bucs' veteran starter at middle linebacker. "But after that, you can't necessarily count on a guy to just step in and be great as a rookie. It's a hard thing to do. We may have to rely on a lot of guys who have been here before. I think whoever decides to be one of the 11 guys on the field at one time needs to step up and play well."
Obviously, Ruud is counting on improvement from himself and some of the young and emerging players on defense, such as his running mates, Quincy Black and Geno Hayes. Those players have been absorbing Morris' hybrid scheme since last December, well before April's draft, and they have been raising the overall level of competitiveness on the practice field. As the offseason program draws to a close, Ruud believes the defense around him is ready to prove itself under the harsher conditions of training camp.
"You don't actually win games in the offseason," said Ruud. "You just prepare yourself to go into training camp and improve every day. I think we're where we need to be, but all teams probably believe they have good offseasons. It's just part of the job and you just take the next step in training camp."
That #3 pick to which Ruud refers is, obviously, McCoy, the former Oklahoma star. While not wanting to put too much weight on the shoulders of the team's incoming rookies, Ruud does acknowledge that McCoy is in position to make a difference right away.
"I don't think we necessarily played that badly on the defensive line last year, but when you get to add a guy like Gerald McCoy you get excited because he can do a lot for the entire defense," said Ruud. "When an interior guy gets pressure it makes everybody's job a lot easier. I watched him at Oklahoma a lot and I like what he's done out here so far."
Right Around the Corner
The Buccaneers have not yet revealed the starting date for their 2010 training camp nor the specific daily schedule. That announcement could come as soon as next week. However, the NFL has listed tentative starting dates for training camps around the league, and the Browns are expected to kick things off on Friday, July 23.
NFL teams are not allowed to open training camp for veterans more than 15 days before their first preseason games, so it's never a big mystery which teams will be first to get back to work in the summer. This year, the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys will play the Hall of Fame game on August 8, one weekend before the rest of the NFL kicks off its games. Dallas will be the first team to bring its veterans to camp, on Saturday, July 24. Cincinnati will begin on the 28th.
The majority of NFL teams bring all of their players, rookies and veterans, into camp on the same date. It is possible to stagger the two beginnings and bring the rookies in earlier if the team has saved its mandatory rookie mini-camp days. The Buccaneers held their rookie camp on the weekend after the draft.
Indianapolis and Denver are both expected to open camp on Sunday, August 1. By that date, all 32 teams in the NFL will officially be underway.
The Buccaneers announced earlier in the year that they would once again hold training camp at their state-of-the-art One Buccaneer Place facility. The team brought camp back to its home headquarters for the first time last year, after seven years at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex and many more summers at the University of Tampa, and found it to be a great success.