Letting the players practice in shorts instead of full pads on Thursday morning was one of the team's concessions to the heat
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one practice away from finishing their first week in Lake Buena Vista, and unless Thursday's weather reports are wildly off base they're about to complete that week without a single rainout.
If you're reading this, knock on wood.
Unless you happen to be one of the 89 players on the Bucs' camp roster, you're probably pleased about this streak of meteorological luck. Certainly, Tampa Bay's coaching staff is. An uninterrupted schedule is one of the reason the team has created such a good body of camp work through the first week. Last year, a rash of injuries to the offensive line forced the team to neuter many of its daily practices, and the Bucs' 2004 camp was one of the many things in Florida affected by a procession of enormous hurricanes.
In effect, the Bucs' only enemy in this year's camp is the soggy and oppressive heat, which has obviously come as no surprise. The team actually got a bit of a cloud cover for its first few days of practice, but the sun's reemergence has coincided with the donning of pads to produce a string of typical camp days. The Bucs, however, have not wilted.
"We've had five straight days of pads," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Guys are getting a little bit leg-weary. We've tried to do the best we can with our cool-down tent. We've rested two or three key players just about every day to try to help get their legs back. It's hot in Jacksonville, they tell me, hot in Dallas, hot everywhere. It's just getting hot. That global warming may be something we've got to look into and do something about. It's hot, man. It's hot in South Dakota. It's hot everywhere."
Since first coming to the land of Disney in 2002, Gruden's initial year at the helm, the Bucs have invested much time and energy in combating the heat. On one hand, the difficult conditions are considered something of an advantage – the Bucs expect to be better prepared than their opponents for August, September and October games in Florida. However, player safety must be placed first, and the Bucs have learned how to work at an optimum level without endangering or overworking their men.
Sometimes, in that regard, concessions are made. On Thursday morning, for instance, the Bucs left on their shoulder pads but wore shorts instead of pants and other pads. That's a combination the team will probably use more frequently over the next two weeks of camp. It didn't stop the players from going at each other physically on Thursday or putting together another productive workout. The cancellation of Wednesday's second practice in favor of a movie trip probably didn't hurt, either.
"We had a good practice," said Gruden. "In the two-minute drill, we got the coaches off the field and moved the ball, covered a lot of different situations. I was pleased with the way we came out and practiced after an afternoon off."
In some ways, the schedule has eased up a little bit this week, at least for some players. Though the team started with a trio of two-a-days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Monday pair of workouts included a special teams session in the afternoon. Many veterans are not required to attend those practices. Given that Wednesday's second workout was called off and Thursday's nightcap is another special teams session, there has been only one two-a-day this week for many of the veterans.
At this point, the Bucs' coaching staff knows how to arrange and rearrange its camp schedule to suit the situation. This year, the situation includes a lack of rain and thus a lack of sudden rainouts.
"We've jockeyed our practice schedule every year," said Gruden. "We've got some theories that we want to try to get done, some principles in terms of the schedule that we stick by. But you want to get certain stimuli for certain guys. Davin Joseph and [Jeremy] Trueblood and some of our young players, they need a little bit more of this. Some of our guys might need a little bit more of that. So we have tried to merge and work hard together – Monte Kiffin and I and Rich Bisaccia, Bill Muir, the coordinators – trying to make sure that every football player gets what he needs to truly maximize his abilities."
Getting the Rules Straight
A trio of veteran league officials visited the Bucs' camp on Thursday as part of a league-wide tour of all training sites. These annual visits allow the NFL's officiating arm to keep players, team officials and attendant media up-to-date on the latest rules changes and points of emphasis.
Led by 16-year veteran referee Scott Green, the visiting officials showed a video summarizing the new rules and rule tweaks, most of which have been well-publicized since they were recommended by the NFL Competition Committee and approved by team owners this spring. Celebrations have been curtailed more extensively, for instance, and the replay system will now include "down-by-contact" calls where the whistle is blown.
The former rule will never be much more than a matter of opinion, as some people enjoy intricate celebrations while others feel they detract from the game. Green said the league was approached by many teams that felt the various types of touchdown celebrations were getting out of hand – think Steve Smith changing the football's diaper – and that they were affecting the length of the game and the league's image. Still, it's worth noting that the video compilation of these celebrations drew repeated laughter from the assembled crowd, and even some smiles from the visiting officials.
There are many specific types of celebrations that are allowed and disallowed. The basic rule, said Green: "Do it by yourself and stay off the ground. And no props."
The Bucs might have enjoyed the new "down by contact" replay option last January in its playoff game against Washington, when LB LaVar Arrington may have fumbled after intercepting a pass inside the Bucs' 10, with G Dan Buenning clearly recovering. There was nothing the Bucs could do about that at the time because the whistle blew when the official ruled that Arrington was down, so any subsequent action is ruled void. Under the new rule, if Buenning's recovery was clearly immediate and clean, the Bucs might have gotten the ball back.
"Now, the slight distinction – or fairly significant distinction, I guess it could be – is, if in fact it's challenged, there are two parts to it," said Green. "The first part is, yes, it's definitely a fumble; he was not down by contact. And then, two, we can clearly determine who recovered the ball. In all those [video] examples, a guy immediately covered the ball. What they don't want is, the ball is loose and then there's a pileup and then somebody comes out with the ball. That will just go back to the dead-ball spot."
Some rules are merely tweaked to make them more effective, like the newly-wider "horse-collar" rule that prohibits a defender from pulling a ballcarrier down from behind by his shoulder pads or – now – his jersey.
And some rules are not changed at all but are simply called out as points of emphasis. A few years ago, the league emphasized the no-contact-after-five-yards rule on defenders against receivers, and the results were obvious, with more illegal contact flags and more passing offense. This year, the officials will be emphasizing holding calls on the offensive line, with the conditions for such a flag spelled out much more specifically. This may lead to fewer but more defensible holding penalties over the course of the season. The key condition for a holding call now is whether the blocker "materially restricts his opponent or alters his path of pursuit."
Officials will also be playing close attention to centers, making sure they aren't trying to stretch the rules in order to simulate a snap and draw defensive linemen offside. Certain actions like wiggling fingers or moving the ball up before the snap will now draw flags.
Among the well-publicized rule changes were a few minor ones that could still have sizable impacts. Among them is a new restriction against overloading one side of the line on an onside kickoff attempt. Under the new rule, there must be at least four players on each side of the kicker, which means the maximum number of players who can line up across from the side where the ball is being kicked is six. Also, a defender may no longer line up directly across from the long-snapper on a punt or kick attempt if that defender is within a yard of the line of scrimmage.
More from Coach Gruden
The Bucs' coach touched on a few additional topics after Thursday's morning session.
On the movie the team watched on Wednesday instead of practicing: "I didn't see the movie. I didn't get to stick around, but I didn't have anybody beating me up last night. They seemed to like it, so congratulations to the producers of "Invincible." It got good reviews from our guys."
On if there is more pressure for him to win this year: "You can look at pressure any way you want. I've tried to say it before: you either feel it or you apply it. It would be pretty easy to walk around as a basket case if you were a head coach. You know, I think 16 out of the 32 of us have been fired in the last two years. I try not to worry about it. We're practicing well and at the end of the day I've always felt good about that. If we're doing the best we can, I'm proud of it. We've got a good team and we'll be there every Sunday. I'm confident in the group of guys we've assembled."
On if this is the best team he's had since 2002: "I don't know, man. We haven't played a game yet. We have some issues that we have to address. We have some young players we have to bring along. You never stay the same, you either get better or worse. And that's a daily situation, so it doesn't matter what we just did today. It matters what we do this afternoon and tomorrow. But we're getting better and the guys are working extremely hard. Our fans would respect that."
On if Brian Kelly's practice absence was by design: "Yes. Greg Spires and Brian Kelly were given the morning practice off, and Kenyatta Walker, also. There are two or three guys we'll rest. I believe yesterday it was [Simeon] Rice and [Ronde] Barber and Alstott, and today it was the three guys I just mentioned."
On Jay Fiedler's progress: "Well, it's progressing. He's out there right now throwing and we film every one of his throws and the maneuvers that he makes. It's just a matter of can you drop back to pass, move sharply to your left, reset and throw the ball to your right. There are certain things that we haven't taken out of the test tube yet, but we're in the process of doing that. We don't want to put him at any risk. He's doing a great job with his rehab, he's making a lot of throws, he just hasn't made all of them yet. That's going to be on the horizon shortly."
On if Fiedler is where Gruden thought he would be at this point in camp: "Yeah, he's in the meetings, he's a very smart guy and I'm anxious to get him out here. I think he's anxious. But we're going to make sure medically that we do the right thing. This guy has worked extremely hard, he had a serious injury and it's a credit to him, Todd Toriscelli and our staff for the program that he's on. Rehabbing this guys is the number-one thing on our agenda [with Fiedler] right now, and after that we'll take it as it comes."
On Jay Gruden being on his coaching staff: "Jay's my best friend, okay? He's a great coach in his own right. He's good with our players. He assists in a lot of drills, he's good behind the scenes in terms of coming up with ideas. He's great in the press box for me, giving me vital information, and he's a guy who's loyal to me. To have people around you that you can trust, you can never have enough good soldiers like that. I'm proud to have him with us."
On DT Anthony Bryant: "I'm really happy with him. Last year he wasn't able to go wire-to-wire in practices. He typically pulled himself out. He had a hard time with hydration, wasn't acclimated to the speed of practice and his endurance and stamina wasn't what it needed to be. He has very much talent. He's a load in there. He can move the pocket and he's a very good pass-rusher right now."
On where the pop-culture references in the audibles come from: "Chris Simms. No, Ronde Barber, really. If you line up and use the same audible every day against these guys, you've got to be whistling Dixie if you think you're going to get them twice. As soon as you get them maybe one time on an audible, as soon as they've heard it, it's in a file forever. So we've got to change names."
On the certain audible names: "It's just Simms. Chris is really doing a great job keeping guys interested. Sometimes using audibles maybe the guys can relate with from his perspective work a little bit better than ones from my perspective. But I don't want to get too technical out here. We're just doing everything we can to get through our periods, and to have any success against a defense like this, you're going to have to make some changes on a day-by-day, play-by-play basis. These guys are really good."
On how much he appreciates the job done by the video staff: "You can't say enough about the support staff that we have. The people here at Disney who have set up training camp have done a great job. Paul Kelly and Tom Szubka, those guys have done a great job. Those [video] guys, they earn their money up there. I call them 'Chicken' sometimes because they get out there when they see a little lightning coming, and I don't blame them. They've got a tough job. A big part of our football here is studying the tape. I know I drive them all crazy, but I'm really proud of Dave Levy. He's assembled a really good staff and they do a heck of a job."
On Chris Simms' maturation: "It's a little bit different when you enter training camp as a starting quarterback in terms of how you approach everything. I think Danielle, his wife, is really responsible for the [maturation]. His feet are on the ground. He's had some highs and lows and I think he realizes now that this is his time. He's responded tremendously. He's doing a great job for us. Like I said earlier, he's going to be an emerging quarterback in football if I don't screw it up."
(on the progress of J.R. Russell) "Our receivers, if you watch them all from top to bottom, they're good players. Chas was already talked about; J.R. Russell makes a one-handed catch today; Paris Warren's had a good camp. J.R. has really gotten himself in great shape. He's a much more versatile and complete wideout now. I like his size, I like his playmaking ability and he is a tough guy. So he's in the mix right now."