DE Simeon Rice has attacked his 2004 preparations with the same intensity and enjoyment as ever
Simeon Rice had 15 sacks last year, more than all but two players in the NFL. Rice had 15.5 sacks in 2002, second in all the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneer defensive end is the only man with at least 15 sacks in each of the last two years.
At age 30 and clearly still in his prime, Rice is in as good a shape as any player in the NFL. So what is he capable of in 2004, this man with the most sacks in the league since December of 2001? A new Buccaneer single-season record, which would take 17 sacks? The magic 20-sack mark? A run at Michael Strahan's three-year-old record of 22.5?
You likely won't hear any predictions that specific from Rice, who leans more towards introspection than statistics in his discussions of the game. Still, Rice isn't lacking in confidence – he says, matter-of-factly, "I still feel like I'm the greatest player in this league" – and he reveals his attitude towards such milestones in his philosophy on football…and life, for that matter.
"Nothing is impossible," Rice recently said. "Everything is possible."
Obviously, he can wax semi-poetic on almost any topic, so when someone compared the Bucs' current situation to that of the New England Patriots, league champs in 2001 and 2003 despite a down year in 2002, Rice's opinion was immediately sought.
But he wasn't going to bite on that one. To Rice, New England's return to glory was just more evidence that anything can happen – that just about everything has happened already. The Patriots' success may be inspiring, but it won't really help the Bucs when their own challenges arise this year. Rice says the Bucs have to work hard in order to be prepared to meet those challenges, to meet them better than they did in 2003.
"Everything is a testimony," said Rice. "Somebody else has done it. We'll be faced with the certain situations we were faced with last year. We'll react to it and respond. If we plan to be successful as we say we are and if we work as hard as we say we are doing, I think we'll obtain the things that we truly want."
What quickens Rice's step (if that's possible) is not spiritual pick-me-ups from New England or even the remaining glow of the Bucs' championship season in between the Patriots' two. It's the evidence he sees around him on the practice field, the talent the Bucs will bring with them to this year's camp in a few short weeks.
"What sustains us is our ability, our effort, what we do on the field and that will take us back to the next level, not the fact that somebody has done it before," Rice said.
"I still think our best players are on defense. So obviously I'd imagine we are going to have a little bit more of an edge on the defensive side of the ball. We have a lot of stabilizers on defense that are still around. We still have perennial All-Pros on defense. So we are going to be okay. And offensively we are just getting better. If we are playing at the top of the heap offensively and defensively that's going to be something special."
Rice may be more of a focal point than ever on the Bucs' defense this year, given the changes taking place on the front line. Rice will remain a force off the right end, of course, and starting left end Greg Spires returns. But Warren Sapp's departure moves Anthony McFarland into the under tackle spot – where many believe he will break out – and puts a new starter in at nose tackle. In addition, second-year man Dewayne White will be pushing for more playing time, and the Bucs will use camp to sift through such veteran depth as Lamar King, Darrell Russell and Reinard Wilson.
Rice, who has made a point of providing after-practice help to such young linemen as White and Ellis Wyms, believes that line is primed for some big things.
"I feel real good, I feel really good," he said. "We're getting better. There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of energy. Us playing on the field with the efforts and energy that we have is going to take us to the next level."
Rice clearly lives in the here and now, which means he'll soon be fully focused on honing his game in the stifling Orlando heat. Still, even he concedes that the memory of the Bucs' 2003 season lingers, and that it must be overcome.
"It was a shared experience that we can all take from," he said. "We learn from it, we build on it and we move forward. And we wash our hands of it. We know that we were there, and understand that, and move this thing where we're trying to go to the next level
"This is another year to build on it, it's another rite of passage. So whatever we get in the end, we earn."