Six NFL teams began the 2011 season with a different head coach than the one who was at the helm at the end of 2010. Two of them – San Francisco and Denver – went from losing records in 2010 right back to the playoffs this past year.
Of the remaining four teams on the list, two won more games (Tennessee and Carolina), one stayed the same (Oakland) and one got worse (Cleveland).
This month, another half-dozen teams will be starting fresh and hitting the field under brand new leadership (not including Kansas City under interim-turned-full-time Head Coach Romeo Crennel). One of those six is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are just now embarking on the Greg Schiano era. At this moment – Day One of the Buccaneers 2012 offseason conditioning program – no one knows whether the Buccaneers' 2012 results will be more like those of the 49ers or Browns, not even Schiano himself. He has plenty of confidence, yes, but not a crystal ball.
There will be hints and clues and developments along the way, of course, signs that will suggest a pending step forward or the possibility of more struggles. Schiano saw the first such sign today, and it was a reassuring one.
"I think every situation is different," he said, shortly after his team finished its first official day of work at One Buccaneer Place. "I don't think you can say, 'They did it in San Francisco so they can do it in Tampa.' I sure would like to be able to do what they did in San Francisco; that's the goal right? Go a little bit further than they did really is the goal. We'll see, we'll see how fast our guys grasp it, see how well we can teach it. I'm encouraged by the way I think the guys are going to teach it and by the looks of those eyes looking back at me today, I'm encouraged by the attentiveness. We've got a chance."
The vast majority of the Buccaneers' offseason roster attended the opening of the voluntary offseason program on Monday, and those who didn't had already alerted the team that they wouldn't be able to make it. The players bringing noise and activity back to the halls of One Buc Place could get in up to four hours of work but were limited by the new collective bargaining agreement as to just what they could do. There is no on-field player-coach interaction allowed at this point on the calendar; the only field work the team can do is conditioning exercises with the strength coaches. That sort of work is limited to 90 minutes of the allotted four hours; the other two-and-a-half hours can be split up as desired between weight room and meeting room sessions. Again, every bit of it is voluntary.
So Schiano couldn't run his players through routes or blocking schemes on the field Monday, and won't be able to for several weeks. But he could sit them down for the first time and talk about "The Buccaneer Way," and start to crack open the pages of the still-developing playbooks. He could start to lay a base for what is to come. And he could make some valuable progress, potentially, if the players were tuned in and ready to work. Schiano practically flew out of bed Monday morning, he said with a chuckle, thinking about the possibility.
And that's exactly the atmosphere he stepped into in the meeting room to start the day.
"We're trying to put together the beginning stages of who we're going to be, and to finally be able to talk to the team as a group and to talk about football," said Schiano. "We were able to talk about what we are going to do as a football team and as an organization. It's great; we had a really good turnout. We had some guys that had contacted me before and informed me that they had some things that they had scheduled previously. This is not mandatory; certainly this voluntary activity. I was very impressed with the commitment level of our guys being here, being on time, ready to go."
Schiano referred to this week and next as "Phase One" of the Buccaneers' offseason program. After two weeks under the current regulations, the team will be able to hold a voluntary veteran mini-camp in the middle of the month. The majority of the organized on-field work that is allowed by the new CBA will fall after the 2012 NFL Draft, including voluntary OTA days and a mandatory mini-camp.
Schiano believes that one of the reasons for the positive response he and his staff have received from the players is that the new regime has successfully created an atmosphere that feels like a new beginning for everyone involved.
"Everybody has got an opportunity," he said. "So if I'm a player I like that. If I'm good and I've been good, then I am going to be good again. If for whatever reason I've had some issues, then here is a fresh start. I have a chance with this guy. They'll figure it out very quickly. I've shared with them there is a right way and a wrong way as far as I'm concerned and we are going to do it the right way."
Here in the first few days of April, the "right way" includes CBA-regulated limits on what sort of work teams can engage in. At some point this spring, Schiano will get to call a play and watch Josh Freeman wing the ball downfield to Vincent Jackson. He'll get a chance to figure out the best way to utilize Mason Foster and Gerald McCoy and Da'Quan Bowers. He'll get to actually coach, out between the white lines, and he'll have another reason to spring out of bed in the morning.
At the moment, however, it's time to lay a base for what is to come, to make sure that the next step is a successful one, to give the Bucs a chance to duplicate or even surpass what the 49ers did in 2011.
"We're right into it," said Schiano. "Today it's philosophy and then we'll start to get into the implementation. We'll do it and then we'll repeat what we're going to do again on the field. Then we'll do it again in training camp. You'd like to see that you can implement the whole scheme at least two times. The beauty of building a program and doing it over and over again is, all of us, we get better when we do things with repetition. The next time they hear it they will pick something up that maybe they missed. Then when they actually get to go do it physically, and we get them on video and we coach them that is what we do. That is how we get better."