Veterans like Tyoka Jackson (97) felt an added dose of excitement at the prospect of regular-season play
It would be a stretch to call the preseason a formality. Many important decisions are made in that time period, jobs won and lost, systems developed, injuries suffered.
But for many of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' veterans, it's just not quite the real thing. The short playing time and the constantly rotating lineups make it hard to get into the groove.
That time is over. The regular season has arrived, and though the Bucs won't play their opener until Sunday, they began a normal week of preparation on Monday. There was a palpable difference in the atmosphere on Monday morning as the team worked out from 10:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.
"The intensity picks up, the attention to detail has to pick up," said Head Coach Tony Dungy of the switch to a normal routine. "You know the stakes are higher. It's a different type of practice altogether."
Since they had just enjoyed a long weekend, the Bucs actually practiced a little more rigorously this Monday than they will during most regular season weeks. There was an emphasis on individual drills, but still enough time worked in for seven-on-seven and team periods. Dungy could feel the excitement building and says it will be even higher on Wednesday, when they start actively preparing for the Patriots.
"Starting Wednesday's practice, guys really get geared up," said Dungy. "They know it counts, they know the stakes go up, they know we've got the group that we're going to go to battle with. Wednesday's practice is the first true excitement of the year in their minds."
The players will have Tuesday off, as usual, then return for a two-hour afternoon practice, and a full schedule of meetings on Wednesday.
Tampa Bay used this final restful weekend to evaluate some key players' injury status. At practice Monday morning, TE Patrick Hape watched from the sideline and S Damien Robinson participated but was given periods off. Both are in good health, according to Dungy.
Hape was not held out because of any returning pain in his foot. "Not really," said Dungy. "We just felt since we played on Friday, if we give him four straight days off, maybe we can get over it completely. That was the theory behind it…it was more precautionary than anything."
Robinson played in his first preseason contest last Friday after spending most of August recovering from a hamstring injury. He made it through the game without incident and appears to be fine for the opener.
"He seems to be (okay)," said Dungy. "He had some light running today and really three days off between the last game and now. His conditioning will be the factor. We probably still won't plan on him playing the entire game. But we think he's going to be fine."
Dungy indicated that rookie safety David Gibson, the team's sixth-round draft choice in April, would be the player to come in at free safety and spell Robinson in New England.
Gibson's early work is necessary because Robinson's anticipated backup, second-year player Dexter Jackson, is still recovering from a severe ankle sprain suffered at Miami on August 10. However, Dungy said on Monday that Jackson is actually healing quicker than expected.
"Dexter's walking better," said Dungy. "The doctors are encouraged. We're trying to possibly get him out in practice next week. Realistically, it's probably the (Detroit) game, but there's a chance he could play the Chicago game. We originally thought it could be four or five regular season games, but he's a little bit ahead (of schedule)."
First-year RB Aaron Stecker practiced just as hard on Monday as he had throughout the preseason, but he probably felt about 10 pounds lighter. Stecker's quest to make an NFL roster was realized on Sunday when he made the final cutdown to 53 players. He showed up on Monday morning with the feeling that he had cleared his final hurdle.
"It's a dream come true," said Stecker. "I always had aspirations of making it in the NFL, but I've always had roadblocks set in front of me. When I left (the University of) Wisconsin, I really didn't know if I'd have an opportunity. But I did well at Western Illinois, then last year on the practice squad, then I got sent over to Europe. It always seemed like there was another thing I had to overcome to get here. I always said that once I got here it would be sweeter because it was something I worked so hard for. When you finally do it, it's a feeling that's unbelievable and nobody can take it away from you."
Stecker transferred out of the Badgers program when it became clear that Ron Dayne was going to get all the carries in Wisconsin, and ended up starring for the Leathernecks at Western Illinois. He joined Chicago as an undrafted free agent last spring but didn't make the Bears active roster. Later in the fall, he was signed to the Bucs' practice squad, where he finished off the season before heading overseas to play in the NFL Europe League. He took that league by storm, winning Offensive MVP honors with the Scottish Claymores.
This August, he followed up on the good buzz that experience gave him by excelling as a kickoff returner (29.2-yard average) and goal-line runner (three touchdowns). Both marks led the Buccaneers during the preseason. That string of strong performances left him fairly confident on Sunday when the cuts were coming down.
"I felt good about what I did," he said. "I felt I could have played better in the games, but I felt that I did well enough in Europe and I think did well enough here. And I really thought that if it didn't work out here, I was going to play somewhere. But I wanted to be here. When I woke up in the morning, I wasn't really nervous about anything. I had a positive attitude, and I didn't get a phone call, so I knew it was a go from there. I was ecstatic from that point on."