Bucs General Manager Bruce Allen touched on such topics as the salary cap, the team's coaching staff and current rookie negotiations during the Verizon Wireless event
Eighteen hours on the road gives a man a lot of time to think.
On Tuesday, Amit Patel and his friend Barry Patel got in a car in central New Jersey and set off for Tampa, Florida. The two drove through the night and arrived early on Wednesday, giving them most of the day to catch up on sleep before their featured engagement in the evening.
Sometime during his night of driving, perhaps on the dark roads of Maryland or Georgia, Amit changed his mind. He was traveling 1,150 miles to ask one man one question, and he decided to change the question.
The destination for Amit and Barry was Raymond James Stadium, where their favorite team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was staging a special event on Wednesday night. That event: "Get Connected with Bruce Allen," presented by Verizon Wireless.
The concept behind Wednesday's gathering was simple, yet rare in the world of professional sports. Allen, the Buccaneers' general manager, was going to stand on a small stage and, for almost two hours, speak directly to his team's fans. No intermediaries. No censors. No filters. Just fans' questions and Allen's insider information.
"You get such great energy talking to the fans," said Allen. "There's nothing that replaces one-on-one contact. To put a face with the people is special. It gave us an opportunity to tell them some inside secrets about the Buccaneers."
Amit and Barry were two of the 200 or so guests at the Verizon Wireless event. Like virtually everyone in the audience, they had a question at the ready for Allen. Early in the 45-minute Q&A session that wrapped up the night, Amit grabbed the microphone. According to the question that had won him entry to the gathering, he was going to ask for Allen's advice on breaking into the sports management field. Instead, he decided to go more current, grilling the Bucs' G.M. on the status of contract negotiations with first-round draft pick Davin Joseph.
"You know, I thought, 'I'm talking to this man straight here. I should find about something that's going on right now,'" said Patel. "And they've got to have [Joseph] done by next week. I just decided that was more important."
Allen answered Patel straight, as was the point of the evening. He told Patel and the rest of the crowd that the team planned to meet with Joseph's agent on Tuesday and that they were confident a deal could be done by Thursday. According to Allen, that two-day period gave the two sides a chance to posture about their displeasure with the initial terms on Tuesday before coming back to the negotiating table.
A few minutes later, another fan broached the subject of Joseph, though this time the question centered around the Bucs' decision to draft an offensive guard in the first round. The questioner clearly felt a speed receiver like Chad Jackson or Santonio Holmes would have been a better choice.
"He was the best player," said Allen of Joseph. "Our division is built around defensive lines. We're built around our line. The Carolina Panthers are built around their defensive line. The Atlanta Falcons added John Abraham and the New Orleans Saints have five first-rounders on their defensive line. We decided that the only way to keep Chris Simms upright was to neutralize some of the whippings we've been taking against those teams. Let's protect our guy, we though. Let's get some big, tough guys on our side of the line."
That kind of give-and-take was the purpose of Sunday's event. It was Allen's own brainchild, something he likened to a game day experience.
"It's something I love to do," said Allen. "My favorite part of before a game or after a game is going through a parking lot and just feeling the energy that you get from the fans. You can feel right now, it's football season.:
As he took the stage at 7:00 p.m., after a cocktail hour that allowed the invited guests to mingle and check out the scenery in the stadium's West Club Lounge, Allen thanked Verizon Wireless for making the night possible. That was a good point, as the Bucs' Pewter Partner put into motion an event Allen had wished to do for years, but it was Allen himself who made the event work. His personable, straight-shooting style made it clear that the face-to-face encounter with the fans was more than just a publicity stunt.
That became even more obvious when Allen spent the next 50 minutes sharing trade secrets and breaking down the more complicated aspects of following the NFL. Speaking extemporaneously without notes, but with an impressive array of supporting slides, Allen shed light on such topics as pro and college scouting, the duties and responsibilities of the coaching staff, the structure of the Bucs' organization and – in great detail – the salary cap.
That last topic required a series of charts and tables and included some rather concrete information. The Buccaneers, for instance, are currently $8 million below the 2006 cap of $119.8 million, and they have to spend approximately $4.5 million on their 10 draft-pick contracts.
Allen broke the numbers down in some interesting manners. Before Wednesday's meeting, how many of the attending fans knew that the Buccaneers were the only team in the league whose top seven paid players were all defenders? Or that Tampa Bay would spend $1 billion on player salaries over the next six-and-a-half years?
Allen's unsolicited observations weren't limited to the salary cap. Some of his other assertions included:
- An NFL team is centered around its coaching staff, and the Bucs are thrilled with theirs. Allen called the trade for the rights to Head Coach Jon Gruden – a deal for which he was on the other side at the time – one of the most dramatic trades in sports history, and he described how Monte Kiffin's passion seeps into the rest of the team. Most NFL coaches, Allen explained, have already worked a 40-hour week by Wednesday morning during the season. * Each year for the scouting department begins with 700 names of college players provided by a national service to which the team subscribes. Buc scouts narrow that field to about 500 young men during training camp meetings then, after a few months of field work, further reduce it to 350. The amount of information that is gathered on those 350 players, through interviews and scouting visits, is staggering. * Readily-available database information lets every team's management know exactly where every other team in the league is in relation to the salary cap every day. Allen can easily look up the details on every contract ever signed by every player in the league. * Keyshawn Johnson never could have been traded during the second half of the 2003 season, when the Bucs chose to deactivate him. Salary-cap issues made that impossible, and even the subsequent trade engineered by Allen was unworkable until Joey Galloway agreed to restructure his contract. The Bucs couldn't simultaneously handle the $7.5 million cap hit they absorbed from trading Johnson and the $6.3 million base salary they would have had to pay Galloway for the 2004 season under his existing contract. Galloway was willing to do that deal because he was eager to work with Gruden.
Galloway was also the star figure in the most enthralling portion of Allen's presentation, a collection of game and practice film the general manager used to describe the importance of practice and game preparation. Allen described how a successful play in practice could be translated into a touchdown on Sunday, and even how unsuccessful practice-field moments could turn into game-day gold. It seemed like every illustration ended with Galloway galloping into the end zone.
Then again, Allen also pointed out that Galloway's team record-setting 10-TD reception season could have been much more. Breaking down a string of plays that were almost scores, or scores called back by penalties, Allen demonstrated that Galloway could have easily scored an amazing 17 TDs.
Allen clearly has a strong appreciation for Galloway's talents. He feels strongly about young starting quarterback Chris Simms, too. Allen made a point of explaining why Buc fans should be rooting for Simms, and how he hoped to be in difficult negotiating sessions with a budding NFL star sometime in the future.
But, thanks to the structure of Wednesday's event, that led to a rather pointed question from one of the fan's in attendance. Paraphrasing, the fan asked Allen why, if he was so enamored of Simms, the team only signed the young signal-caller to a one-year deal in February.
Allen explained that Simms had originally signed a three-year deal after being drafted in the third round in 2003. Thus, he was due to become a restricted free agent in March, and the Bucs only real course of action was to extend a one-year tender offer in order to maintain their right-of-first-refusal.
"Chris signed that tender offer early rather than go into free agency," said Allen. "He wanted to be here. He's a good, young, healthy, bright-eyed quarterback but he's not really worried about that [money issue.] He knows that we're going to be there for him.
"What Chris is going to earn, we're going to figure out this year."
Other probing questions from the crowd centered around the search for a new NFL commissioner, the 2004 departure of Warren Sapp, the Bucs' new facility, various contract negotiations and the crucial final hours before last spring's CBA extension.
Allen gained steam as the questions picked up, clearly energized by the passion of the crowd for Buccaneer football. He went nearly an hour past the original end time for the event, taking additional questions even after the emcee had called the night to a close. At times, he turned back to his projector to share another slide he had brought along on guaranteed contracts or cap ramifications.
Amit Patel almost missed it. When the Bucs called to tell him he had chosen to attend the event due to his (original!) question, Patel brushed it off. After his friends prodded him to make the trip, however, Patel changed his mind and set off down the East Coast.
"It was definitely worth it," he said. "Hearing some of the things he talked about within the organization was great. He talked about all the things that go behind the scenes from a business aspect, how everything is run. You don't get to see that stuff on a daily basis. You don't read it in the newspapers or on the web sites."
That's the idea.