Keyshawn Johnson (left) runs a pattern during extensive third-down drills on Tuesday
The Florida West Coast temperature rose a few degrees on Tuesday, and if the 80 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in town for voluntary workouts needed an excuse to back off a bit on the fifth day of practice, they had it. Head Coach Tony Dungy was absent, attending the NFL Spring Meeting in Baltimore along with Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel.
Thing is, nobody was looking for an excuse, or a letdown. The Bucs eagerly continued on at full steam under the watchful eyes of Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, putting the fifth of 14 summer practices in the books. The team continued to practice at the extremely crisp pace it had established under Dungy and Steckel with the famously vigorous Kiffin taking a more active role in moving things along.
After the 90-minute session, Kiffin animatedly assessed the practice. "They're looking good," he said. "It's nice and hot and they're out there working hard. It was a tremendous effort.
"This is not mandatory…keep that in mind. It's not mandatory, but we have 100 percent participation, which we've pretty much had since we got here (in 1996). These players are not just putting in time; they want to be here. We were close last year, and don't think that isn't in our minds when we're out there in the heat."
Kiffin's enthusiasm, while typical of the 18-year NFL coach, was further stoked by the team's good work in what the coordinator considers a crucial area: third down plays. The Buccaneers spent extra time working on third downs, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint, and Kiffin was pleased by both the effort and the results.
"It was a big third-down day today," he said. "We always have a day in practice that we focus on third downs, and Coach Dungy usually keeps track of who wins the most plays. Well, since Tony wasn't here, I kept track today and I can report to you that the defense won, 51-0."
Okay, Kiffin immediately admitted a slight misrepresentation of the numbers, but it's not too big of a stretch to imagine the Bucs' defense dominating such a drill. During the 1999 regular season, the Bucs finished seventh in the NFL and second in the NFC in opponent third-down percentage, allowing a conversion rate of just 32.3%. They ranked third in that category in 1998 with a team-record 31.7% success rate allowed. From four yards or farther away, Buc opponents were successful on just 24.3% of their third-down tries last year. That kind of third-down success surely played a large factor in the Bucs' franchise-best 11-5 record.
"The most important play in football is third down," said Kiffin, "and it's not hard to see why. When we make a stop on third down on defense, we get the ball back for our defense. When the offense converts on third down, they keep our defense off the field and maintain a chance to score."
In the third-down battle with the offense on Tuesday, Kiffin did not have at his disposal one of his main warriors, DT Warren Sapp. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was at One Buc Place for the workout but watched from the sideline thanks to a minor case of Plantar Fasciitis. That overwrought training-room phrase basically means Sapp has a sore right foot, as the Plantar Fascia is a long ligament-like structure that runs from the heel bone to the toes. He could return to the field as soon as Wednesday.
On the other hand, Kiffin regained another player in DE John McLaughlin, who participated in his first workout Tuesday after sitting out the previous week with a sore lower back. The second-year player was a special-teams standout for the Bucs in 1999 but is hoping to increase his role on defense and has been working on improving his pass rush.
Kiffin, of course, could have been working with a Pop Warner squad and probably would have been happy to be out in the heat. "I just like being out here," he said. "I don't care if I'm the waterboy. What better thing could I be doing than coaching football? And it's fun when you win. We're coming off a good season and you can feel the excitement around here."