When training camp begins, Buccaneer players will finally be allowed to hit each other at full speed
They won't be the first ones back to work. The Broncos, Falcons, Bears, Eagles and Cardinals – the industrious, zoological set – will lead the way, three days earlier on July 27.
And they won't be the last. The Seahawks, waiting until August 2, will bring up the rear.
Right in the middle, on Friday, July 30, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will report to training camp, officially lighting the wick on the 2004 season. It will be the team's third camp under Head Coach Jon Gruden, and probably its most intriguing, given the several dozen new veterans on the roster and the wildly divergent expectations by the analysts.
Thirteen other NFL teams will report to camp on that same date, including the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers, one of the Bucs' NFC South competitors. Upstate, the Jacksonville Jaguars will convene that Friday at ALLTEL Stadium, and in Kentucky, the Cincinnati Bengals will do the same at Georgetown College. Cincinnati will be Tampa Bay's opening preseason opponent, on August 14.
Most of this information is irrelevant to the Buccaneers, however. There may be no time of the year in which the team is focused less on what its opponents are doing and thinking. Training camp is an opportunity to draw inward, to perfect one's own systems, determine starting lineups and, hopefully, begin to develop a useful team chemistry.
"You can come together within a camp," said tackle Derrick Deese, one of those new vets and a key to an improved offensive line. "Guys just have to spend time together and develop a closeness, and basically hang out. It's one of those things like the more you hang out with the guy you're playing next to, the easier it's going to be for you to know what he's thinking when he's playing, and he knows what you're thinking.
"The fact that we're all veterans makes it a little bit easier because we know what it takes. And you know everybody is out here practicing and we're getting better, learning the small things that each of us need to know. You're learning the weaknesses of each guy and you're learning the strengths of each guy."
Camp will also give some very anxious players a chance to fulfill their aggressions by banging shoulder pads. Contact is still somewhat limited during training camp – no sense injuring your own players – but it is more prevalent than what one finds during the spring and early summer. Then, hitting is off limits and most contact is accidental.
In training camp, Deese will get a better feeling for where he stands. Simeon Rice will be coming at him full steam and that will help both players.
"It's one of those things where all he's going to do is make me better," said Deese. "I know what kind of player he is and he knows what kind of player I am. So we are strongly looking to forward to camp starting and getting pads and really going at it."
The Bucs are starting camp 12 calendar days later than a year ago, just missing an August opening date for the first time. That's all a function of the NFL schedule, however. Last year, the Bucs were involved in an early, fifth preseason game, due to meet the Jets in Tokyo's American Bowl on August 2. This year, they have a normal, four-game slate ahead, and the late start to the regular season means they won't meet the Bengals until mid-August. Teams are not allowed to bring their veterans to training camp any earlier than 15 days before their first games.
The Bucs are in the middle of the NFL pack when it comes to a reporting date. (Teams may bring their rookies and veterans back at separate times, but most of the 32 squads, including the Buccaneers, require all of their men to report on the same day.) However, the team is somewhat out of the ordinary in its choice of destinations.
Of the 32 teams, 29 will train either at a host university or at their own stadium or facilities. The Buccaneers will make their third straight trek to the marvelously-outfitted Disney's Wide World of Sports complex. Other teams with unique camp headquarters include the Tennessee Titans (Baptist Sports Park in Nashville) and the Dallas Cowboys (Marriott Residence Inn in Oxnard, California).
A trend in the early 1990s saw a lot of teams looking for training sites in cooler weather, such as the various small colleges in Wisconsin. Now, however, most of the warm-weather teams stay close to home and learn to deal with the heat and humidity. The Houston Texans don't try to escape the oppressiveness of their Texas summer, nor do the New Orleans Saints flee to Eau Claire, Wisconsin anymore.
And the Bucs embrace their own Florida environment, just as they always have. In fact, they turn it up a notch by moving up I-4 to Orlando, where the humidity seems to close in even more.
"You've got to get yourself acclimated to the heat down here, but mentally, I think these guys are ready to go," said Gruden. "They're ready to come down here and compete."
And anyone who isn't ready has until July 30 to change that.
As always, Buccaneers.com will provide extensive daily reports from the team's training camp site, complete with practice-by-practice updates, injury information, feature articles, video interviews, practice photos and more.
But if you want a real insider's look at what's happening at the Wide World of Sports, follow rookie safety Will Allen.
Allen, a fourth-round draft choice out of Ohio State, has agreed to provide Buccaneers.com with a Training Camp Diary throughout the nearly three weeks the team is away from home. In his own words, Allen will share with Buc fans whatever is on his mind as he experiences his first NFL training camp.
Buccaneers.com will be posting a player's diary for the fourth straight training camp. Previous rookies who have shared their thoughts with the site include John Howell, Travis Stephens and Austin King.