Rookie CB Justin Phinisee is working hard to get a shot at a return job this summer
It's May, which means the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more than 90 men on the practice field and no official depth chart.
That leads to some rapid rotations during a typical two-hour workout, such as the "organized team activity" (OTA) exercise the Bucs conducted on Tuesday morning. Everybody gets a look this time of the year, which also means that nobody gets too long of a look.
Rookie cornerback Justin Phinisee found a way to get a few extra reps on Tuesday, though. After the last official period on the practice sheet, Phinisee stayed on the field with Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia and went through a rapid-fire drill of catching punts from various points on the field. A Jugs gun served as the punter, and Bisaccia was the choreographer, shifting the rookie around the field and testing him on long and short "kicks."
Phinisee took this extra time to work on one of the skills that caught the eyes of Buccaneer scouts last fall, one of the attributes that prompted the team to draft the Oregon defensive back in the seventh round. It is the obvious and proper approach for any young player taken late on draft weekend: Try to excel in as many roles as possible, particularly on special teams.
"We like him," said Bisaccia. "He was a good college player, he was tough, the special teams player of the year for his team. He made tackles on kickoff, he's covered punts, he's returned punts. He's got a chance to show us what he can do."
There's a good chance that Phinisee will be one of the players the Bucs will use to return punts and perhaps kickoffs during their four-game preseason slate in August. However, he will have to overcome a crowded field to get return time during the regular season. Mark Jones, who handled all 51 of the Bucs' punt returns (and 18 fair catches) last year, is back and he has the team's confidence after averaging 9.6 yards per runback last year. In addition, starting receiver Joey Galloway is always itching to get another shot in that role; Bisaccia said Galloway is "mad at him all the time" for keeping him under wraps since late in 2004.
The team is even thicker in kickoff return options, which is a good problem to have. The Bucs have been trying for several years to get more of an impact out of that facet of the game; perhaps the closest they came was late last year when running back Michael Pittman got a late-season cameo and averaged almost 26 yards per return on seven tries. Torrie Cox, Edell Shepherd, Earnest Graham and Derek Watson also figure to get looks in that role, among others.
All the competition, however, could lead the Bucs right back to where they finished last year.
"If we played a game today, Mark Jones would return punts, Michael Pittman would return kickoffs and we'd be pretty fired up about both of them," said Bisaccia.
Jones, of course, was drafted in 2004 and, a year later, re-signed specifically to return punts. Like Phinisee, Jones was a seventh-round pick, though he spent his rookie season returning punts for the New York Giants. Pittman, on the other hand, had last returned a kick in 2001, while with the Arizona Cardinals, before lobbying for another shot last year.
Had the Bucs' season unfolded differently, Pittman might have been even more active on special teams throughout the fall. He started the year on at least three kicking units, including kickoff coverage, and was the second deep man on kickoff return with Cox in the first month. However, Cadillac Williams' foot injury put Pittman back into a starting role at running back in October and he came off most of his special teams assignments in order to stay fresh for his primary job. Later in the year, with Williams once again at full strength and getting most of the handoffs, Pittman looked for another way to contribute.
"Mike has just been a guy who's always wanted to do anything he possibly could to help us win," said Bisaccia. "We had a conversation, Mike actually came to me, and he thought he could help us win back there. He's done it before, and it's more want-to than anything for Mike. He wants to do it and he's got great talent. He's a great worker and he's a team guy, and I think he thinks he can do some great things this year."
Back from Europe
Here's a new cure for jet lag, as tested by Jacque Lewis on Tuesday morning: Sweat.
Lewis, the Buccaneer running back who spent the last three months overseas playing in the NFL Europe League, arrived back in Tampa late on Monday. He and five fellow NFLEL-allocated Bucs took the same half-day flight in from Germany. The very next morning, Lewis was on the practice field with the rest of the Buccaneers.
As jet lag remedies go, however, NFL practices are no substitute for extended sack time.
"Running around a little bit, it took a little bit of it away, but I'm still kind of tired," Lewis admitted. "I'll try to get some rest tonight so I'll be ready to play tomorrow."
After 10 weeks of very valuable and long-coveted live game action, Lewis is back with the parent club trying to prove that his strong season in Europe was no fluke. Last year, Lewis got an invitation to a rookie tryout camp with the Bucs in late April and showed enough to earn a roster spot and an invite to training camp. He didn't make the regular-season roster but was re-signed in January and sent over the pond to play with the Rhein Fire.
Lewis bumped on and off the roster a few times during last year's camp and didn't get a chance to play during the preseason. Thus, the assignment overseas marked his first playing time since he served as a change-of-pace back at North Carolina in the fall of 2004. As many NFLEL allocates find, it was helpful to get back into the flow of a live game.
"I enjoyed it," said Lewis. "It was a good experience. Getting in there and getting the speed and the tempo of the game. It's not too much different from this league. It's basically the same, so I got to adapt to the speed. I adjusted well and it turned out being pretty good for me."
The Fire operated with a two-man backfield all season, alternating between Lewis and Fredrick Jackson of the Buffalo Bills. The two would literally replace each other on every other play, and the number of carries each one got in a given game was often a matter of chance depending on when the running plays were called.
What that plan lacked in continuity for Lewis it made up for in variety. He wasn't an edge-running specialist for the Fire; rather, Lewis had the whole playbook at his disposal. He carried the ball 98 times for 378 yards and scored five of the team's seven rushing touchdowns, most of them on hard runs between the tackles.
"I ran every play out there," said Lewis. "Most of plays were up the middle, in fact. I guess it allowed me to show that I can do more than just be a third-down back, even though I know that's what I'll be here. It shows me toughness and that I can take licks and I'll be able to take the pounding."
Lewis also enjoyed his first chance to return kickoffs since his college days. That's another area in which he believes he could make his mark now that he's back with the Buccaneers.
"I actually enjoyed that a lot because it's been a couple years since I've been able to get on kickoff returns," said Lewis. "Hopefully, I'll get a chance to get some here, being that I produced pretty well over there."
That Game Day Feeling
In what has become something of an offseason ritual, the Buccaneers will head to Raymond James Stadium on Thursday to conduct their third OTA workout of the week.
The Bucs, of course, hold almost all of their practices at team headquarters. Obviously, being able to walk directly off the field into the locker room and the showers is a worthwhile convenience. However, once or twice an offseason, Head Coach Jon Gruden sees the benefit of working out in an atmosphere that approximates that of a regular-season Sunday. In these instances, the Bucs always complete the feel by piping in music, firing the cannons from the ship in Buccaneers Cove during red zone drills and running graphics on the BucVision videoboards.
The Bucs will bus over to Raymond James Stadium on Thursday morning for the two-hour session. Like all offseason practices, this one will be closed to the public. It will fall, however, just nine days before the team's most popular offseason fan event at the stadium, FanFest.
FanFest will be held on Saturday, June 3, beginning at 9:30 a.m. Admission to the stadium is free and among the attractions are multiple autograph stations, interactive games on the field, a lengthy Q&A session with the team's coaches and a rousing performance by the team's new cheerleading squad.
For more information on FanFest, please click here.