There was a time in the National Football League when training camp was five, six weeks long, when players came back from an offseason away from football needing, first and foremost, to work their way back into shape. There was a time, not too long ago, when the league-wide trend was to ship players off to a far-off locale in the summer, to isolate them as much as possible, removing such "distractions" as friends and family. There was a time when "training camp" was synonymous with "two-a-days," day after day.
Like every sport, NFL football constantly evolves, and training camp is no exceptions. These days, camps last approximately three weeks, two-a-days are no more and a majority of teams train right at their own state-of-the-art complexes. Players are expected to report to camp already in tip-top shape, ready to hit the ground running, as the first preseason game lies just two weeks ahead.
But for football coaches, training camp still means the same thing, no matter how many practices are allowed and how isolated a team is. Camp is where football, once and for all, becomes the center of the universe for every player and coach. It's the signal for teams to focus inward, to become cohesive units, to agree on one common goal.
For the Buccaneers, that began on Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m.
Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay's first-year head coach, instructed his players to report for the start of Training Camp 2012 between that time and 7:45 a.m., when the first full-team meeting would be held. Every player on the Bucs' roster was seated in the team auditorium at 7:45 sharp when Schiano began his first speech of camp. Later, after a series of housekeeping items from weigh-ins to physicals, Schiano discussed what his goal for the Buccaneers would be over the next three weeks.
"The number-one thing that we need to do is we need to grow together as a team now," he said. "We had very good attendance [in the offseason], but still it's not like every guy, every day. Now we're in it. There are no other distractions, nothing else. We are here for one purpose and it's to get ready, to get our football team ready. As we do that and we pay the price together – because it's not easy; it's not easy for coaches, it's not easy for players and for anybody involved it's hard work – that's when you start to grow closer and get that chemistry. When you pay the price for something it makes it a lot harder to relinquish it, and that's what we've got to do. We've got to pay the price together here."
The Buccaneers, coming off a 4-12 season that precipitated Schiano's arrival and a subsequent sea change in the environment at One Buccaneer Place, look like a team ready to pay that price. Even without two-a-days, camp can be a grueling, Groundhog Day-like experience – and a particularly hot one in Tampa – but veteran guard Davin Joseph has no doubt his teammates will give it everything they have.
"You see a lot of guys really focused on this camp," said Joseph. "There are a lot of positive vibes going on in the building. Guys really committed in the offseason, especially coming off last year, looking to improve. We're looking to compete in our own division, and we need a physical camp. We need a camp that we feel like we really put in some good work."
The Bucs can finally get physical after an offseason devoid of pads or any real contact on the practice field. The pads will go on Sunday, for the team's third practice, but the intensity is sure to pick up on Day One, when the team takes the field for the first time on Friday morning. Cornerback Ronde Barber, who is heading into his 16th Buccaneer camp, says there is no time to waste, especially for any player who has his sights set on a starting job.
"We've got these 19 days, 19 practices I guess, to find that, to just be football and just focus on getting better," he said. "I think we'll do that.
"This is a new team under new guidance, and we're going to approach it that way. The changes are just changes. We're not going to look back to '11 or '10 or even '09 or before the last regime. This is Coach Schiano's team under a whole new direction, and you get in where you fit in, man. We'll try to put the best 22 guys, 11 starters on each side of the ball, every single snap and we'll go from there."
Fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman is almost sure to be one of those 22 starters. He is, in fact, likely to be the key performer in how the Buccaneers' fortunes turn out in 2012. His own commitment to this season began even before the new coaching staff was in place, when he personally decided to reshape his physique. He came into camp on Thursday at 237 pounds, down 20 from where he started camp a year ago, and he says he feels great. Moreover, he has been thrilled with the last five months of interaction with the new coaching staff. Freeman thinks the Buccaneers are in perfect position to begin a very fruitful camp.
"I feel like everything's starting to come together," he said. "It's just the beginning of training camp but Coach always says that training camp is the time when it's all football, no distractions. It's just you, growing together with your family, with your teammates and coaches, and finding a way to get better as football players and get closer as a family.
"This team's going to come out and work hard. It's about fundamentals – trust, belief, accountability – and doing things the right way, the Buccaneer way, and moving forward. That's what we're going to do."
Schiano called reporting day a "good start" for his first Buccaneers team, in part because every player reported on time and ready to work. Of course, there is still a lot to prove on the field, and Schiano is going to find out on a daily basis over the next three weeks how well his message has gotten through.
"It's just getting started," Schiano acknowledged. "The message is the same message that we talked about in the springtime: Who we are, what we're going to be and how we're going to get there. But you've just got to keep reinforcing it and you've got to do it. Talking's one thing, doing it is another."