S Eric Vance, who missed the team's offensive overhaul, likes what he is seeing now that he has returned
Warning…possible S.A.T. flashback if you read on.
(Q) Complete the following series:
Carolina, San Diego, Tampa, Indianapolis, Tampa, San Diego, Tampa, __.
Stumped? Don't worry, it's a trick question. The series is already complete. At least, that's what Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Eric Vance hopes. Vance is back with the Buccaneers for the third time and would like to put his quadrangular U.S. travels, described above, to a rest. The next journey this third-year safety wants to make is one deep into the playoffs as a member of the Buccaneers.
But that's a team goal. Vance's personal goal for the 2000 season is even simpler:
"To finish the season!" said Vance on Thursday before breaking up into laughter along with his interviewers.
A personable and open fellow, Vance has no trouble talking about the curves in his NFL career path. He's at ease back in the Bucs' locker room, where he spent the second half of 1998 after fellow S Damien Robinson broke his arm midway through the season. Vance, who had been in Tampa Bay's training camp that year and had performed quite well in the preseason, was quickly signed from the Indianapolis Colts' practice squad at the beginning of November. In less than two weeks, he was in the starting lineup, as strong safety John Lynch was sidelined with a neck strain.
Last year, Vance started out the season with Tampa Bay and played in six games before suffering a foot sprain in early November. After about a month on the Bucs' practice squad, he was released and eventually ended up back with the San Diego Chargers in February. San Diego first had Vance on its practice squad near the end of his rookie 1997 campaign, which started in the Carolina Panthers' training camp.
Did you get all that? The boiled down version of the story is that Vance showed promise in the Buccaneers' defense early in 1998 and has since been a safety valve, so to speak, when the Bucs have incurred ailments at that position. Don't think that Vance didn't notice, even while still with the Chargers, that the Bucs were encountering another bout of injuries in the defensive backfield.
Starting free safety Damien Robinson went down with a significant hamstring pull during the first practice of training camp on July 24. The Bucs were thrilled, subsequently, when second-year man Dexter Jackson filled in marvelously for Robinson; however, Jackson himself incurred a serious ankle sprain against Miami on August 10. In comes Shevin Smith…down goes Shevin Smith, on August 20 at New England to a painful turf toe injury. Though the Bucs briefly turned to first-year pro Lemar Marshall as Smith's replacement, they pounced on Vance when he became available earlier this week. Vance wasn't exactly shocked, as he was keeping current on the events in Tampa.
"It's just natural to watch the team that you came from to see what's happening," said Vance. "I saw Shevin starting, so I just kind of figured that Damien was hurt. You never want anyone to get hurt, but it did pave the way for me to come back. And I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity. It's just like last year when I was injured. It happens, it's part of football. Everyone wants to take advantage of every opportunity they get."
Vance has no new formula for that process in his third time in Tampa. Rather, he's going to focus on the task at hand at all times.
"Personally, I've just got to take it day-to-day, week-to-week, and every week give my best in practice, have a good game every week," he said. "I'm not looking further than that as far of personal goals. As far as team goals, I want a ring, and I think everyone in here does. I'm looking forward to getting that opportunity."
Though this is his second straight year breaking the preseason with the Buccaneers, Vance has a different perspective than most of the team's veterans. Vance wasn't around for the Bucs' eight-of-nine stretch run last year, or their strong playoff showing, or their free-agent acquisition spree over the spring, or the importing of new Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel. He's seeing the team's changes first-hand for the first time, and he is impressed, especially with the new offense.
"In practice yesterday, I got beat for a touchdown, and I don't think I ever did last year," said Vance, laughing again. "I'm serious. The way they use the tight ends, they use a lot of fronts and formations, they have receivers going in a lot of different ways. It's a little bit less predictable. I've only been with it a day, but coming from the first day, that's what I see."
He also sees a town and a team that is behind the offense's leader, as second-year Buccaneer quarterback Shaun King is in a markedly different situation than that of San Diego's new starter, Ryan Leaf.
"The offense, the defense, the whole team is rallying around Shaun King and pulling for his success," said Vance. "I think once we put a couple points on the board, this whole city will melt. The offense will get some more respect…they just have to do it one or two games."
Some things don't change that fast, thankfully. The Buccaneers defense remains as aggressively effective as before, says the newest cog in that unit.
"This defense is still the same," he said. "The most important part of this defense is being hungry, and I can see the hunger in people's eyes. Everyone's ready to go, ready to hit somebody. Everyone's moving fast. I think our defense will rise to the expectations."