LB Ian Gold impressed his new teammates with an acrobatic interception Saturday morning
Monte Kiffin made it only 10 minutes into practice Saturday morning before deciding it was time to personally fire up the fans sitting in a nearby stand of bleachers.
A few minutes later, Kiffin's trusted cohort, Rod Marinelli stood at the goal line of the far field and bellowed at the defensive players on the field to continue their post-interception sprints all the way to the goal line. When one player pulled up a yard early, the whole unit had to run it again.
On the near field, at the same time, Jon Gruden had his holler in midseason form. He called specific players by name, challenging them to raise the level of their performances.
Yes, training camp is back, in all of its excesses. Good excesses: Spirit, intensity, camaraderie and, most importantly, competition.
Gruden, Kiffin and Marinelli, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach, defensive coordinator and assistant head coach/defensive line coach, respectively, set the tone for a coaching staff that is demanding but professional, honest but always willing to put in the extra work to help a player succeed. Training camp is their territory. They've got the players to themselves for 19 days and 29 practices and they want to make the most of that time.
So on Saturday, they came out firing, challenging the players to remember what they had learned over the offseason and begin putting it to use in the fight for playing time. The results from the first practice of Camp '04 were promising.
"We're throwing a lot at them the first three days of training camp to see who's been studying, who's ahead of who, mentally," said Gruden. "I'm very impressed with the way a lot of these guys have come back. We've got a number of new players who put a lot of time in in the offseason. We ran a lot of different kinds of plays from different sets and different looks and, on both sides of the ball, I was very pleased with the retention and the detail that they showed."
The one concession to the month of vacation most of the players just finished is the decision to practice in shorts over the weekend before putting on the pads and dialing up the contact on Monday. Gruden follows that same schedule every year.
"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "They've been off for three-and-a-half to four weeks. We always start camp with a couple days of shorts just to get the timing and the rhythm back. We'll go pads first thing Monday morning."
Gruden has a veteran-heavy roster, one that is a strong mix of holdovers from the Super Bowl-winning squad of 2002 and proven newcomers expected to inject new life into the team after a 7-9 follow-up in 2003. The coaches have seen their new players in practice dozens of times already, but Saturday was the first opportunity for Buccaneer fans to get a close up look at such players as wide receiver Joey Galloway and running back Charlie Garner. Galloway thrilled the crowd when he broke free down the sideline closest to the stands and caught a perfectly-thrown bomb from new Buc quarterback Brian Griese. Minutes later another new face, linebacker Ian Gold, made a leaping interception of another long pass, again drawing a roar from the stands.
Gold impressed quarterback Brad Johnson, too.
"Ian Gold made an unbelievable interception today," said the veteran passer. "He probably would have intercepted all of us, with his catch-up speed. He made an unbelievable play."
Johnson also spoke of his excitement to get into the huddle with the team's new mix of players. That has to be music to Gruden's ears.
"We've got a lot of guys who have played a lot of great football here as Buccaneers," said Gruden. "We're hoping that the G-Men can come in here and give us a lift, because we need one. At the same time, we expect [offensive tackles] Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese to deliver. And Mario Edwards is a great upgrade for us in an area that we desperately needed one, at the corner position. We're excited about that."
Will all of those new contributors give the Bucs what they're expecting? One practice cannot provide that answer, of course. But it was certainly a good start. And Gruden seems to enjoy the beginning of camp as much for the question marks as the known commodities.
"We've got some issues that are unsolved mysteries, but so does everybody else," he said. "I'll look forward to the day when we can get them solved and strengthen our football team, hopefully, as this camp unfolds."
A Good Day for the Quarterbacks
One matter that may get its resolution during camp is the quarterback depth chart. Judging from Saturday's first practice, the Bucs may have the enviable problem of too much talent.
All three of the primary combatants got off to good starts on Saturday. Brad Johnson, whom Gruden calls 'The Bull,' enters camp as the starter for the fourth straight year and is expected to maintain that job. Brian Griese, an experienced veteran, and Chris Simms, the young but talented 2003 draftee, are ostensibly fighting for the number-two job, though both will attack the competition as if they are trying to be the starter.
"It's a battle, and it's going to be a battle that's well-earned by someone," said Gruden. "And they're not just battling for the number-two job their whole lives, either. They're going to compete to someday become a starter and they've got to perform at an unbelievably high rate to ever win that job because The Bull was looking sharp and very impressive today."
Griese has the advantage of several years of starting for the Broncos, for whom he earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2000 after leading the AFC in passing. Simms' edge may come from his extra year in the system and the early work he put in at the beginning of the 2004 offseason. Both are sons of former Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, Bob Griese with the Dolphins and Phil Simms with the Giants.
Griese's deep ball to Galloway was one of several impressive throws he made on Saturday morning.
"He's still a young guy and he's completed a lot of balls and been part of a winning organization," said Gruden. "There are some real good redeeming qualities there, and I like his genes. His dad's a guy who quarterbacked a perfect team, so he's got some good things going for him."
Simms looked sharp, too, and his confidence is sky high after an ultra-productive offseason.
"I definitely feel like I'm ready [to start]," he said. "Towards the end of last year, I felt like I was ready as far as if they needed me to do something I could step in and handle the offense. But I had a great offseason and I'm definitely excited for the new year.
"I came back early in the offseason and really started grinding away with the coaches. I watched as much film as possible and tried to take that extra step from being a third-string rookie quarterback to being up there with the big boys."
The Bucs were without two players Saturday morning due to illness, tackle Kenyatta Walker and defensive end Simeon Rice.
Walker had been placed on the active-non-football illness list on Friday due to a stomach ailment, but it is hoped that he'll be back in practice by Monday. Rice, who is the feeling the effects of a different virus, may return even sooner. Gruden said he hoped to have his Pro Bowl defensive end back on the field by Sunday.
Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius spent most of practice in the trainers' tent between the two fields, receiving treatment on his lower back. Though Jurevicius was placed on the reserve-non-football injury list on Friday, his progress on Saturday has made Gruden optimistic of a quick return.
"Joe Jurevicius, it all sounds like, will make an attempt to go on Monday," said Gruden.
The only other players not at practice Saturday morning were Dwight Smith, who has been excused for personal reasons, and Keenan McCardell, who has not reported to camp.
The Buccaneers labeled Saturday 'Alumni Day' and invited any interested former Tampa Bay players to attend practice and meet the current team. Nearly two dozen Buc alumni made the trek to Orlando, including Mark Cotney, Ricky Reynolds, Rob Taylor, Dave Green and Council Rudolph.
Gruden, who has led the team's new emphasis on honoring the players of the past and reconnecting with the franchise's history, was delighted to see some of his childhood heroes on hand.
"It's great," said Gruden. "We're proud of them. We've gone a long way to try and heighten the value of our alumni here. We're going to continue to build upon a lot of the great Buccaneer players who have laid the foundation for where we are now."