Head Coach Jon Gruden has been pleased by his team's hard work since it first took the field in March
There was a special significance to Tuesday on the NFL's 2008 calendar, as it contained the late-afternoon deadline for the first-round of league-wide roster cuts.
It was a milestone day at One Buccaneer Place for another, reason, too. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, still 80-men strong, walked off the field at approximately 3:00 p.m., it marked the end of the last full-scale practice of the preseason.
The Buccaneers will conduct a very brief walkthrough on Wednesday morning but will spend most of that day traveling to Houston for the preseason finale on Thursday night. After its return to Tampa, the team won't hold another practice until Saturday, after it has cut down to 53 men and turned its attention to the regular season opener in New Orleans.
So, in a sense, the offseason and preseason program that the Buccaneers kicked off five months ago on March 17 reached its conclusion on Tuesday. Was it a success? The results of the next four months will tell, but Head Coach Jon Gruden could find no fault in the players' dedication to the program.
"Like I've said all along here, we've had a great turnout and these guys have really put forth a tremendous amount of effort," said Gruden. "We feel good about the fact we've given the players an opportunity to compete and showcase their skills in the three preseason games that we have had. I'm very appreciative and very impressed with the work ethic that we do have."
While the players were running sprints, lifting weights and cracking open the playbook in March and April, team management was busy reloading the roster for another run at the playoffs. The Bucs are the defending NFC South champions, but they haven't labored under the illusion that their 2007 roster was perfect. One of the main points of emphasis during the '08 offseason was to increase the quality of its depth at every possible position. That led to such signings – to name just a few – as Jimmy Wilkerson, Eugene Wilson and Matt McCoy, valuable additions even if they weren't considered the marquis names on the free agent list that came out in March.
The deeper 80-man roster made for a very productive offseason, though it will also make the two rounds of cuts more difficult than ever.
"It's been competitive," said Gruden. "It's been a little bit strange from the standpoint we've missed some key players for some lengthy periods of camp. It's been exciting. It's been a lot of hard work and we've also seen some legitimate competition. I think it's made guys better."
The Buccaneers were due to announce their five roster-reduction moves on Tuesday afternoon. "We're obviously going to meet here after we get done here [at practice]," said Gruden. "We'll make our final decisions, make sure we're all together on that."
It may not fit a player's definition of what a "bonus" should be, but the Buccaneers will enjoy a pair of "Bonus Days" on the upcoming schedule, thanks to the long break between Thursday's game and the regular-season opener two Sunday's later.
After the Bucs arrive back in Florida very early Friday morning, the players will be given Friday and Saturday off. The team will practice, however, on Sunday and Monday, and since those days are usually not part of a regular-season practice week, those are considered a bonus by the coaching staff. Often, they are used to once again focus on fundamentals, leaving much of the game-plan installation to Wednesday and Thursday, as usual.
The second and deeper round of roster cuts will occur on Saturday, due to the NFL offices by 4:00 p.m. ET. The Bucs can then begin establishing its practice squads on Sunday, often drawing on players who have cleared waivers from their own cuts and those of other teams.
On the evening of Friday, September 5, the Buccaneers will throw their annual and very popular Kickoff Party at Channelside in downtown Tampa. The event is open to all fans who wish to attend and will include Q&A sessions with coaches and fans, autograph opportunities, live music, giveaways and more.
The Buccaneers' regular season begins at New Orleans on Sunday, September 7. The Bucs and Saints kick off in the Superdome at 1:00 p.m. ET.
More from Coach Gruden
Veteran wide receiver Joey Galloway participated fully in practice on Tuesday for a second straight afternoon, then spent a long time on the field speaking with Gruden after the session was over. Later Gruden provided an update on Galloway, who has missed about a month of action due to a groin strain.
"He looks better," said Gruden. "He's working himself back into it. He's not been resting, he's been injured. We're happy to have him back. He ran some good routes today and we're excited about that, that's for sure."
The Bucs' coach touched on several other subjects after practice on both Monday and Tuesday.
On if one or two players in particular have surprised or impressed him during the offseason and the preseason: "No, I'm not going to get into names. People have our film, they can evaluate it for themselves. The obvious are the obvious – the people that have been to the first three preseason games have seen a couple guys step up and do well. There are a couple guys that might not show up on the stat sheet that have done quite well also. We'll have some tough calls and we'll have to make them."
On the quarterback rotation for Thursday: "We're going to announce all of that when we get to Houston. It's been a very short week. We used part of these two days, obviously, to get Jeff Garcia a lot of work. He needs it. We'll make that determination when we get to Houston."
On if he has looked ahead to the Saints game yet: "Not quite yet. We do spend a little time here and there checking out their preseason games. They've got some new players at key positions and they're really rolling right now. They got after Cincinnati defensively and they've been rolling up some yardage with Drew Brees and company on offense. Throw in [Jonathan] Vilma, Sedrick Ellis and Jeremy Shockey, the supporting cast they have and the return of Deuce McAllister and they're going to be a handful."
On if one advantage of the strict 80-man roster limit is fewer cuts this week: "I'm okay with any of the rules, really. I just think the offseason is a great time to evaluate players and give people an opportunity. We've got to make some tough decisions like everybody else, and that's just the way it's always been and always will be."
On how Jeremy Zuttah looked against Jacksonville: "He looked good, he looked good. He had some really good snaps in there. Obviously John Henderson and the Jaguars' interior line is as good as there is in football, so he was tested and I thought he made some good plays in there. He's not perfect, but it was a good start for us."
On if particularly deep positions will be targeted during cuts: "Well, we've got some players injured, too. We need to have enough players to play in this game. We'll take just about everything into account – guys that we want to see one more time, we'll do that. As you know, once the season starts, it goes weeks after weeks after weeks before some guys get an opportunity to get a snap, a live snap. We'll take everything into account."
On if position coaches fight to keep players in their group: "Yeah, there's some of that. Rich Bisaccia, he's obviously fighting to keep guys that can help him cover and return kicks. There's a lot of that going on, there's no question about it. Bruce Allen and the scouting department have their say, obviously. So everybody's got a say in this matter and at the end of the day we'll do what we deem is right for the team."
On if he has seen what he wants from the kickoff return game yet: "No, heck no. I realize we haven't schemed anything, we haven't put in any strategic returns. [It's been] a lot of man-blocking returns, trying to see who has a knack for getting their head on a swivel and athletically breaking down in space and sustaining a block. Some guys have done well, some guys have not done well. That will be an area, once we isolate who the players are on the team, we can put in a strategic return and get good at it, and that's what we always do."
On Dexter Jackson learning the kickoff return job: "He's learning everything really. These guys are coming from all angles, a little bit faster than they did at Appalachian – no disrespect to anybody. Yeah, he's doing a good job of securing the ball and making good decisions. He's caught the ball well here on the field so we feel good about that."