LB Jamie Winborn consistently made plays in practice during training camp, then took that production into the games
Players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster, which ran 75 deep when the sun came up on Saturday, were given two basic instructions for that afternoon: Stay away from team headquarters and stay close to a phone.
Members of the Bucs' player personnel staff had to make 22 difficult phone calls on Saturday, leading to 22 players coming by the team facility to drop off their playbooks. Those who didn't get a call reported to work on Sunday morning ready to begin preparing for the Baltimore Ravens on opening day.
David Boston, the one-time Pro Bowl receiver coming off two lost seasons in Miami, was one of those players who came to work on Sunday morning. It was a pleasure for Head Coach Jon Gruden to welcome Boston to the team, but that nice moment didn't erase the difficulties of Saturday.
"It's hard to say goodbye to some guys who also worked very hard but just didn't make this team," said Gruden. "There are some ups and downs this time of year for every coach and every staff and every player."
Sunday morning, during which the team conducted a light walk-through as the beginning of Ravens week, was a time to focus on some of those ups, such as Boston. The veteran receiver is trying to re-establish the dominant form he showed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2000 and 2001 while fighting his way back from the knee injury that held him back in Miami. Gruden has seen Boston work as diligently as he promised he would when the Buccaneers signed him in late May.
"David Boston was a man of his words in terms of what he set out to do," said Gruden. "He's still not, in my opinion, all the way back but he's on his way."
Boston finished the preseason on a high note. Given extensive playing time in Houston, he turned in 77 yards on six catches and looked as if he could productively work the middle of the field in the Bucs' scheme. Given the obvious depth the Bucs had at receiver – they kept seven wideouts and had a hard time saying goodbye to several others – one couldn't be blamed for wondering if Boston's spot was secure right up until the final cuts were announced.
That wasn't a problem for Boston, though.
"I had high expectations for myself," he said. "Any time my body's feeling good I really have high expectations. I want to go out there and show everybody. So I kind of expected to make the team, but this is a competitive situation and everybody's competing against each other at different positions. That makes it harder."
Hard work and production was what the Buccaneers asked of all their roster hopefuls. The receivers answered the call, as did a comparably deep group of linebackers. Veteran linebacker Jamie Winborn was in a similar situation as Boston as a former high draft pick who had several strong seasons with his original team (San Francisco) before encountering injuries and movement from team to team.
"Jamie Winborn deserves credit too," said Gruden. "He's had some injuries and some setbacks recently in his career, but he stepped up and made a lot of plays for us and hopefully ends up helping our team."
Antoine Cash, a first-year linebacker who entered the league as an undrafted free agent with Atlanta in 2005, was in a wholly different situation. He spent most of 2005 on the Bucs' practice squad and went into this year's training camp without any proven NFL experience to back him up. But he too succeeded by working hard and producing each day.
"He just got better through the OTA days and the mini-camps," said Linebackers Coach Joe Barry. "The true test is what you do in training camp and what you do in the preseason games. It's all about productivity. He made plays every game, made plays every practice and was rewarded with a roster spot. Well deserved."
Cash may have excelled because he took an important lesson for young players to heart: Special teams are your key to the NFL door. Rather than treat the kicking game as his secondary assignment after playing linebacker, Cash put that duty front and center.
"I knew my job was to play special teams, so I went out there each day with the objective on my mind that special teams had to be my goal," he said. "That had to be my focus, and that's what I did in the preseason. I mean, defense…to me, I honestly didn't feel like that mattered. I made plays on defense also but special teams was my goal because I knew that was going to be my job."
The Bucs found jobs for 53 players on Saturday; letting the other 22 go was the hard part. Now it's time for the focus to shift to the Ravens.
Injury and Lineup Notes
Even though the Bucs sat 17 of 22 starters and played the other five only sparingly Thursday night in Houston, they still didn't escape completely unscathed on the injury front. While the Bucs are thrilled to have made it through training camp and the preseason without any significant long-term damage, they did see starting left guard Dan Buenning suffer an ankle injury against the Texans.
Buenning's status for Sunday's opener won't be addressed until the Bucs release their first official injury report on Wednesday but Gruden didn't seem overly concerned.
"He's doing alright," said Gruden. "I think he's still hobbling around a little bit. He's a tough guy. We'll update the injury report on Wednesday. We expect Buenning to be back soon."
Gruden also declined to pinpoint the possible replacement for Buenning in the starting lineup, preferring to wait and see if one is actually necessary. The exact nature of the depth chart behind starting quarterback Chris Simms is also still a fluid situation.
"I think that will be something we decide on a weekly basis," said Gruden. "We'll base that on performance. But we do like our young quarterback [Bruce Gradkowski], obviously, and we think Tim Rattay's experience in the regular season can help our team, too. So we'll make that decision later in the week."